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Behind the Headlines: Jewish Community Mourns Sudden Loss of Ronald Brown

When Commerce Secretary Ronald Brown died last week in Croatia, the Jewish community lost one of its staunchest allies and best friends in the Washington political hierarchy.

Revered as one of America’s best and brightest, Brown, 54, forged solid relations with organized American Jewry as early as the 1970s. Although this relationship was tested during Brown’s time working on the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign staff in 1988, a strong alliance had emerged in recent years.

“Ron had a gut-level bond between the United States and the people of Israel,” said Steven Grossman, former president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

“Of all the members of the president’s administration, Ron Brown stands among the top ranks,” said Grossman, who serves on the U.S.-Israel Science and Technology Commission, which Brown chaired until his death.

A U.S. military plane carrying Brown and 34 other government and business officials crashed April 3 in Croatia, taking the lives of all aboard.

Among those who died was Lawrence Payne, 41, a Commerce Department staffer, who took the fateful trip in hopes of making a connecting flight to return to his family in Newton, Mass., in time for the Passover seder.

Since the crash, activists across the Jewish political spectrum have emerged to praise Brown as a man who deeply cared about improving black-Jewish relations, ending the Arab boycott of Israel and securing the Jewish state’s role in a peaceful Middle East.

Using his post as chairman of the technology commission and his office as commerce secretary, Brown sought to bring economic development to Israel and the Palestinian territories “to do his part to show the people of Israel that the road to peace in the Middle East is through economic development,” said Sara Ehrman, a senior political adviser at the Democratic National Committee who worked with Brown when he headed the DNC.

Early in his career, Brown forged relations with the American Jewish world. As counsel to the Urban League, Brown joined forces with the American Jewish Committee to form the National Alliance for Safer Cities in the early 1970s. Brown served as the national chairman of the organization while an American Jewish Committee official worked as its executive director.

But strains in Brown’s relationship with the Jews developed when Brown moved on to land a prominent role in Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign.

Jackson, who failed in his bid for the Democratic nomination, continued to play an important role in the Democratic Party leading up to the 1988 national convention in Atlanta.

It was then that Brown and American Jews “started out at a point of significant adversity,” Grossman said, recalling that prior to the 1988 Democratic convention, eight state Democratic Party platforms included anti-Israel language. Also to the dismay of Jewish groups, that year’s national convention included a debate on the floor over whether to support a Palestinian state.

Despite the strains, many Jewish Democrats decided to back Brown in his quest for the DNC post following the convention.

“This began a love affair between Ron Brown and the American Jewish community,” said Grossman, one of the first Jewish activists to back Brown’s candidacy.

According to many who knew Brown, this support paid off tenfold.

When the National Jewish Democratic Council was founded by Jewish Democrats who backed 1988 presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, Brown was always there to help, said Monte Friedkin, NJDC’s national chairman.

“Ron was one of the godfathers to the NJDC in the political world,” Friedkin said. “He came to meetings, spoke at luncheons, did everything he could to help us.”

Friedkin was the primary sponsor of a trip that took Brown, his wife and daughter, and many of the Democratic state party chairs to Israel in 1990.

It was there that Brown had one of his first encounters with Ethiopian Jews.

“A little Ethiopian girl came up to Ron and put her arm out next to his to show that they had the same skin color,” recalled Ehrman, whose main role at the DNC has been outreach to the Jews.

“Tears were rolling down Brown’s cheeks,” she said. “He always admired Israel for rescuing the Jews of Ethiopia.”

As Washington continued to mourn Brown’s loss, American Jews who worked with him continued to recall his impact.

“Ron Brown’s relationship with the Jewish community enriched his life and our community,” Grossman said. “It’s not enough to say that he will be missed.”

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