Fresh off his appointment as executive director of the American Jewish Congress, former State Department official turned Jewish outreach director for the Bernie Sanders campaign Joel Rubin joined our new podcast to share his thoughts on everything from pro-Israel advocacy in a changing Middle East to the future of lobbying.
In a wide-ranging interview, Rubin gave due credit to the Donald Trump administration for helping achieve the “barrier-breaking” recognition of Israel by the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and now Sudan. Still, he predicted, the diplomatic wins are only expected to impact the Jewish vote at the margins in Florida and maybe Pennsylvania, with three-quarters of American Jews telling pollsters they plan to vote for former Vice-President Joe Biden.
Drawing from his personal experience — his parents attended the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg the day before a white supremacist shot 11 people to death in the deadliest attack ever on the US Jewish community — Rubin said the American Jewish Congress like much of the Jewish community remains focused on domestic issues including the rise of anti-Semitism, racial injustice and efforts to delegitimize Israel.
Despite Biden’s support for the nuclear deal with Iran and criticism of Israeli settlements, he said, the Democratic candidate is a well-known quantity with American Jews going back decades to his Senate start in 1973.
“Joe Biden as a candidate can claim pretty credibly that he has an extraordinary pro-Israel record across the board,” Rubin told The Influencers, a new podcast co-hosted by Foreign Lobby Report and Richard Levick of the international communications agency Levick.
“He speaks about [the late Prime Minister] Golda Meir as his original engagement with Israel,” Rubin said. “That’s the kind of depth that American Jews like and gives confidence. And it helps to have confidence because there are politically difficult decisions that he’s going to have to make and that frankly Donald Trump is going to have to make too if he wins.”
A former Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs under President Barack Obama who previously worked for the State Department under President George W. Bush, Rubin also drew on his years of experience wearing several different hats to make the case for foreign influence campaigns as a way to help US policymakers hear from a broader set of actors than they might otherwise.
Lobbying is “part of the way we as a country deal with the world, which is we deal with [foreign nations’] representatives, their diplomats, officials – and then maybe their business communities, and maybe their political parties, and maybe their NGOs and maybe their media outlets,” he said. “I think foreign engagement is just part of American democracy.”
But recent breakdowns in the US political system have fueled rising popular skepticism of foreign influence, he said. With power increasingly concentrated inside the White House, some lobbyists have found novel ways to get the ear of the president’s inner circle — in the process sometimes circumventing the transparency rules that help maintain public confidence in US institutions.
“For the lobbyists and the people in the foreign lobby game, what we’ve witnessed right now is almost like a breakdown in the structure,” he said. “That means that the typical and traditional ways of lobbying Congress and lobbying the White House are not what they used to be. The access points now are much narrower, especially for the executive branch.”
This has little to do with any “broad ethical direction,” he’s quick to add, but rather reflects “the narrowness of the decision-making at the top on foreign policy in the executive branch.”
The result has been increased scrutiny of foreign influence activities coupled with increased public skepticism, as evidenced by Biden’s vow to ban the practice.
“How we do it is really the question of the moment,” Rubin said. “Transparency is not a means to an end. Are we now at a point where people don’t want [any foreign lobbying]? Are policymakers now saying they don’t want that?”