BOSTON, July 25 — The Boston Globe calls Alan Solomont “the $4 million man” for his fund-raising prowess on behalf of Sen. John Kerry. Sen. John Kerry calls him “a good friend of the community.”
Some, upset by his outspoken support of the “Geneva Accord,” an alternative peace plan negotiated by a group of Israeli doves and Palestinian moderates, called upon him to resign as chair of the board of directors of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies.
Solomont, 55, a philanthropist and venture capitalist — he sold his elder care company in 1996 for a reported $100 million — was the runner-up in the recent high-profile job search for the position of president of the University of Massachusetts.
Now, as a chief fund-raiser in Massachusetts for Sen. John Kerry and his presidential campaign, he’s poised to move in a different direction. If Kerry were to win the presidency, Solomont says he may very well consider serving in the new administration.
In an i! nterview with The Jewish Advocate at the Newton offices of Solomont Bailis Ventures, Solomont shared his reflections on the political journey he has traveled.
Admitting that he was not a “master of the short answer,” he spoke at length about his politics, his beliefs, and his commitment as a Jew to making the world a better place to live.
“Growing up, that was my role as a Jew, to seek justice and pursue righteousness,” Solomont said. “That’s what my dad taught me. I’m a middle-class Jewish kid from Brookline, who has a deep love and attachment to politics.”
The Boston Jewish Advocate recently conducted an interview with Solomont:
The Advocate: The Democratic National Convention is a wonderful opportunity to showcase the vibrancy of Boston’s Jewish community. How would you describe what makes Boston’s Jewish community so special?
Solomont: When I think about the things that are special, I think first about our incredibly rich group of educational ! institutions that take Jewish learning quite seriously.
My father w as a huge believer in Jewish day school education: He was follower of Rabbi Soloveitchik, and my three brothers all went to Maimonides (a Jewish day school in Brookline, Mass.). In fact, the reason I didn’t go to day school was because at that time, there were no day schools in the suburbs — I grew up in Brookline, and Maimonides was still in the city.
I went to Prozdor — HTC as we called it in those days, Hebrew Teachers College — and to be perfectly honest, I got a pretty awful education, although I was a pretty awful student.
Now, we have 14 day schools that speak to every tradition of Judaism. It’s really quite impressive, really wonderful to see what this community has created over the last few decades.
And, the transformation of Hebrew College, frankly, from a less-than-excellent teacher of the reluctant to a real center of enthusiastic Jewish education.
A second part is this wonderful array of institutions that serve the Jewish community that are wo! rld-class. The Hebrew Rehabilitation Center is probably the premier geriatric research institution in the country, with its incredible array of services to seniors.
You have Jewish Community Housing for the Elderly, which is the largest non-profit sponsor of affordable housing for seniors in the City of Boston.
These institutions are the collective expression of our caring, both for one another and for others.
The third piece is the embodiment of the Federation’s commitment to social justice — and the leaders who have been produced by the Jewish community.
There was Lenny Zakim at ADL, there’s Nancy Kaufman at JCRC, Ronnie Friedman at Temple Israel, and, of course, Barry Shrage at CJP. I don’t know of any other Jewish community in America that has an expansive vision of the role of community in 21st century American life as ours.
Our Boston community does a good job of educating ourselves, caring for ourselves, and then looking outward to play the role ! we seek to play in the world.
The Advocate: And in the politica l world?
Solomont: We have produced more than our share of political activists and leaders, even though we’ve never elected a constitutional officer, if I’m not mistaken. We have one Jewish congressman. But we play a very significant role in the political life not just of Massachusetts, but of the country.
I would point to Steve Grossman’s role as president of AIPAC, as the past chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and as one of the founders of the National Jewish Democratic Council. I would point to Geoff Lewis’s leadership in the Israel Policy Forum, and Camera has its origins here.
This is an unusually fertile soil for Jewish expression and Jewish activism. ADL in New England is known throughout the country as one of the most important chapters. Facing History, which is now a national organization, had its origins here. We have a very strong group of AIPAC supporters here in Boston, and we have a strong group of supports both of Brit Tzedek and P! eace Now. We have folks on whom the progressive politics in this country relies pretty heavily.
The Advocate: What do you think a Kerry presidency will bring?
Solomont: An end to the Bush presidency. I had the great privilege to have a front-row seat on the American presidency for the eight years during which Bill Clinton was president. The astounding impression that I have is the awesome influence and power of the American presidency.
The president does nothing less than lead our country in a particular direction. It is the single most important institution in America, it has the profound impact on American life.
I know there are a lot of people who have been turned off by politics, who don’t have the same kind of confidence in our government. There’s nothing that compares to the executive branch of the federal government, led by one person, the president of the United States, that has a bigger impact on our way of life. Nothing comes close.
Not! to mention the capacity for influencing millions upon millions of liv es both here and abroad for the better. And, quite honestly, also for the worst.
I believe this country is headed in the wrong direction in both its domestic policy and its foreign policy.
I think by making a huge tax cut the centerpiece of his domestic policy, that President Bush has squeezed out of the federal government room for the things that the federal government needs to do to make the lives of American citizens better. It’s bad policy, it’s bad for the future, it’s bad for the economy.
What John Kerry is going to do is to reorder our priorities. The theme of his campaign is to make America strong at home and respected abroad.
I believe that John Kerry will restore respect to the United States, which is crucial to our ability to lead the world in the fight against terrorism and fundamentalism, and in solving the great world crises of poverty, hunger and disease.
The Advocate: In an election predicted to be very close, the Jewish vote may be cr! itical to the success of a candidate. What does John Kerry have to do to bring out his closeness to the Jewish community and his support for Israel?
Solomont: He has to penetrate the distortions about his support for Israel that have been created by a Republican Party that covets the Jewish vote.
He doesn’t have to change his position, he doesn’t have to win any arguments. He simply has to get through this smoke screen that’s been created.
Let’s stipulate to the belief or the position that President Bush has been a very strong friend to Israel. I won’t argue that.
John Kerry has a record of 20 years of supporting Israel and Israel’s security. He has a perfect record, he hasn’t missed a vote or resolution in support of Israel. He has been to Israel four or five times. He understands the security issues, the military issues, the economic issues as well as anybody.
People ask: Who does he listen to on foreign policy? He listens to himself, because he’s ! one of the smartest people in this area of anybody that’s ever run for president.
As in all things, Kerry simply has to introduce himself and make himself better known to the American people and the Jewish community, because his record and his positions are unambiguous. He could not be any more supportive of the State of Israel, its security, and its perpetuation as a Jewish state and as a democratic state in the Middle East.
The Jewish community, still to this day, supports John Kerry.
The Jewish community has been supportive of Democratic candidates. The only time (in recent memory) that the Jewish community voted less than 80 percent in favor of the Democratic candidate was in 1980, when 65 percent voted for Jimmy Carter.
There’s no question that the Republican Party is trying to get another 10 percent, (to move from) from 19 percent (in 2000) to 29 percent (in 2004). If they can do that in the battle ground states, that would help them.
I was with John when he met with Jewish organizations in New York, with (JCRC of New! York Executive Vice President) Michael Miller and (ADL National Director) Abe Foxman. People left their discussion with him, no matter how else they may see the race, completely confident that John Kerry is as good a friend to Israel as one could wish for.
The Advocate: If Kerry were elected, would you see yourself being involved in his administration.
Solomont: In some sense, I’m a middle-class Jewish kid from Brookline, who has a deep love and attachment to politics. And, by being willing to devote my energy and time and resources, I’ve been able to play out a role in national politics.
There are a couple of things that guide me.
First of all, I believe that this is a convergence of my Jewish commitment, my tikkun olam, and my role and responsibilities as an American citizen.
Harry Truman said that the highest office in the land is that of citizen. If you go to the Kennedy Library, there’s an inscription on the wall: ‘This library is dedicate! d to the memory of John F. Kennedy and to all those who through the ar t of politics seek a new and better world.’
At the very heart of all this is being able to use this enterprise — the political process, the political business — to do good things, to make America a better country, to make the world a better place. To me, that’s simply what my dad taught me.
For me, politics is a way to do that. Because this isn’t just about winning elections, it’s about using the levers of government to affect people’s lives for the better.
My career (in politics) has been helping people get elected. But when Mike Dukakis was the governor of Massachusetts, I was deeply involved in helping create a long-term care system, which I think at the time was second to none.
When Bill Clinton was president, I was very much involved in support of the peace process.
My primary role has been to get people elected, but then to work as a citizen with them to help them and support the good things that they did, which is why I helped them in their elect! ions.
I never really had a job in the public sector; the only job I ever had in the public sector was as a junior in college, I worked for the Model Cities program in Lowell.
But this is probably the first time in my life that I’ve even entertained the idea. I will literally cross it when I get there. But if there’s a way for me to help John Kerry reorder America’s priorities, or bring peace to the Middle East, or support Israel’s security or improve the health care of America, I want to be a part of that, whether it’s inside the government or outside the government.
The Advocate: You’ve been in the community as a leader at the CJP. You’ve taken some controversial stands — in particular promoting an alternative vision for peace in Israel. What do you see as the role of Boston’s Jewish community in the future of Israel?
Solomont: I was raised in a household that taught me that Judaism stands for something. It has real meaning, and it guides people to do ! the right thing.
You can have different views about what the right thing is; people can differ over that, but it’s important to have those discussions. It’s important that Judaism is a vehicle for figuring out the right thing. That’s what our Talmud is about.
And so, quite honestly, the controversy that I may have stirred occasionally as CJP board chair, which I did knowingly, not purposely, but knowingly, was because I believed that we ought to struggle over that question: What is the right thing? What is the just thing? What do our traditions and our values teach us to do?
One of the things that I’ve learned about the Jewish community is that it is much more diverse than we often realize. And that’s a wonderful thing. But to get the full value of that diversity, we need to hear from all voices. I’ve never shied away from good, hearty debate, having different views and ideas on the table, even when they were provocative.
It would be a tragedy if our community ever stopped having those arguments — if Hillel and Shamai stopped ! having that debate over whether to light the candles from the first one or the eighth one — then we’ve lost something really important about our traditions.
Obviously, what all of us are concerned about is how to ensure Israel’s survival and security as a Jewish state, as the light unto the nations that we’ve always hoped and expected that it would be.
The wonderful thing about this community is that there are so many people who take that responsibility so seriously, and who work so hard towards those ends, even when they may come at it from a different perspective.
What we need to do is respect those differing views, and be willing to argue over them as a way of figuring out what’s the right course.