Longtime communal leader Theodore "Ted" Mann laughed with his mouth full when asked if he really believes that voting Republican is inconsistent with Jewish values — as he suggests in his new book.
"I think so," replied the 84-year-old, who for decades played a leading role in national Jewish organizational life. "To the extent that Republicans seem to care so little for the poor and the needy, and so much for those of us who don't need governmental help — I think that's anti-Jewish."
Mann may be retired from his law practice, but he certainly hasn't retired from making controversial statements. And there are plenty of them contained in his newly self-published book If I am Only For Myself … The American Jewish Community's Pursuit of Social Justice, which is available at www.amazon.com.
The work is part memoir, part history and part blueprint for how organized American Jewry should approach domestic issues as well as Israel. In the opening pages, Mann attempts to explain American Jewish voting patterns by weaving together strands of Jewish history and consciousness, citing references as diverse as the Bible and Western European Emancipation.
The book, which he says he saw as a way to record his experiences as a witness to history, also contains his assessments and impressions of numerous Israeli prime ministers and American presidents with whom he met throughout his life as a representative of American Jewry.
Mann's lay leadership roles included heading the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, the precursor to today's Jewish Council for Public Affairs, (1976-1980), the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations (1978-1980), the National Conference on Soviet Jewry (1981-1983), the American Jewish Congress (1984-1988), MAZON, a Jewish Response to Hunger (1985-1990) and the Israel Policy Forum (1997-2000.)
Mann is the son of an Orthodox cantor who drifted away from strict observance in adulthood, but still served as a High Holiday cantor for many years.
In a lengthy interview at a Fairmount Avenue restaurant last week, Mann explained that even as he grew less observant, he was drawn to Jewish communal life out of his Zionist ideals, a sense of obligation to his people and a desire to pursue racial and economic equality at home.
A widower and father of three, Mann wrote in the book how it was sometimes difficult to balance his Jewish communal obligations with his professional and family obligations.
Today, though he's no longer a major player on the national stage, he sits on the church/state committee of the Jewish Social Policy Action Network, a local liberal group that focuses much of its work in the legal arena.
If political liberalism is an authentic outgrowth of Jewish tradition, as he argues in the book, why are more and more Orthodox Jews choosing to vote Republican?
"I guess the answer must be that the Orthodox have a very different view of what the Torah requires of us than I do," replied Mann.
In his book, Mann spent many pages recounting his conversations with Jimmy Carter and Menachem Begin in the period leading up to the Egyptian-Israel peace accords in 1979. Like so many others, he's plenty nervous about the future of the treaty and the state of Israeli-Egyptian relations in the post-Mubarak era. Mann gives Carter much of the credit for getting the agreement signed when it looked in doubt.
"He did it. It was the most important thing in his life and it worked. Whether it will continue to work after 33 years remains to be seen," he said.
In recent years, Carter has become an increasingly virulent critic of Israel. His 2006 book Palestine: Peace, Not Apartheid was condemned by much of the American Jewish establishment. The selection of Carter to be a prime time speaker at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., next month drew criticism from many Jewish Democrats.
"What do I think of him now?" Mann asked, answering his own question by noting that he'd written Carter a "nasty" letter after the publication of Peace, Not Apartheid. "We haven't talked since."
Though he offered little praise for Republican Ronald Reagan, he offered a brighter opinion of President George H.W. Bush, who was involved in a tense standoff with Israel's Yitzhak Shamir, who died in June. In 1991, Bush conditioned Israel's request to guarantee $10 billion in loans to resettle Jews from the Soviet Union on Israel curtailing settlement building.
Bush angered many when, during a pro-Israel lobbying mission, the then-president quipped that he was one "lonely guy" going up against "some powerful political forces." A compromise was reached in 1992.
Mann, a longtime opponent of Jewish settlements on the West Bank, wrote that he actually sided with Bush, in contrast to virtually every major Jewish organization, most of whom backed Shamir. (Mann makes clear in the book he wasn't a big fan of Shamir's.)
"I thought it was a disgrace" that Jewish organizations didn't have the courage to side against an Israeli prime minister and with a president that many groups "clearly agreed with," he asserted.
In the interview, he described President Barack Obama as the "best American president the Israelis have ever had," citing the record levels of American military aid to the Jewish state.
He fears that Israel's settlement policies and approach to the Palestinians will continue to deeply divide American Jews for years to come. And he's downbeat about the chance for Israeli-Palestinian peace, blaming both sides for the impasse.
Mann said he doesn't spend much time worrying about the future of the American Jewish community, to which he's dedicated so much of his life. He said he doesn't see American Jewry as under serious threat from assimilation, largely because of the strength of American Jewish pride, as opposed to the health of synagogues or other Jewish organizations.
Noting that he won't be around forever, Mann said that he'd "like to come back in 50 years to see how wrong I am or how right I am."
He added: "I see a bright future for American Jews and not a lot of people do."