Interview'We're in a unique position in America'

Rahm Emanuel to US Jews: ‘This is our moment’ to defend the values that aided us

Mayor’s grandfather arrived in Chicago from Eastern Europe in 1917. A century later, with immigrants being targeted, he says American Jews must speak out

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (Scott Olson/Getty Images/AFP)
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (Scott Olson/Getty Images/AFP)

Rahm Emanuel’s grandfather arrived in Chicago exactly 100 years ago. He was 13, and spoke not a word of English. He had been sent to safety by his parents in Eastern Europe, who put him on a boat to get him away from the pogroms. He came to meet “a third cousin he didn’t know,” says Emanuel, in a city whose name “he could not pronounce.” A century later, his grandson is that city’s mayor.

Emanuel marvels at that “amazing journey.” Marvels that his grandfather managed to build a life — working initially as a meat packer and a truck driver and a steel worker. Marvels at the America that took him in and made that life possible. Marvels at the spectacular realization of the American dream that, just two generations on, enabled Rahm (Hebrew for “high” and “lofty”) to rise to play major roles serving two American presidents and now to run the third-largest city in the country, while his two brothers have forged stellar careers in medicine and in Hollywood.

That welcome for a Jewish immigrant a century ago, that opportunity offered by America, Emanuel firmly believes, brings with it an obligation — an obligation that now extends across American Jewry.

In an interview this week in Tel Aviv, the not usually understated mayor — known as an extremely tough and tough-talking political operator — was generous when discussing Israel. He was careful and circumspect when talking about relations between Israel’s governments and the administrations in which he served.

He spoke with fierce passion, however, when it came to American Jews’ responsibilities to “speak out” and use their influence in today’s America, to ensure that the policies that embraced his grandfather, and the values underpinning those policies, are not destroyed.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel in Tel Aviv, September 12, 2017 (ToI staff)

The mayor, who last week declared his city a “Trump-free zone,” argued that the Jewish community of America today is unprecedentedly powerful and influential. It needs to use that strength, on behalf of immigrants and others less fortunate, precisely as, in previous generations, others spoke out and acted on behalf of the Jews. “In our history,” he says, “we were better off because there were those who were righteous.” Today, “we have the responsibility… to use our position of power for those who are powerless… To use our position of security to provide safety and security.”

He acknowledges that Jews are also being targeted. “Trust me, I know” there’s anti-Semitism, he says. But the Jewish community is more capable and influential than others who are facing hatred, he argues.

Anti-Semitism has “always been present, as has bigotry and racism before,” he says. “It’s just less on the periphery, and more in the center, and more visible for those of us who may not have seen it in all its ugliness before.

“But that fact is,” he elaborates, “American Jews, in our history, as a people, we’re in a unique position in America. You’re looking at the mayor of Chicago. The mayor of Chicago is an American Jew. The mayor of Los Angeles is an American Jew.”

Emanuel, 57, was here leading a business and academic delegation that signed numerous cooperation agreements with Israeli counterparts, notably regarding water. We spoke in a small room at the hotel where an evening of events was being held for the group, including a panel discussion at which military, intelligence, cyber and technology experts set out some of the challenges Israel faces, and the innovative ways in which we are meeting them. His son Zack and a handful of aides sat in on our conversation, silently.

Emanuel, unsurprisingly, is a savvy interviewee, careful, as he says, laughing, not to provide me with a “banner headline.” He worked for two presidents, Bill Clinton (as a special adviser for almost six years from 1993-98) and Barack Obama (as chief of staff for two years from 2009-10), whose relations with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were far from smooth, but is diplomacy personified when discussing the Palestinian peace process and the Iranian nuclear deal. He is full of compliments for Israel (his middle name), where his father was born, and where he is a frequent visitor. It’s today’s America, as this (lightly edited) transcript of our interview makes plain, that has him profoundly riled up:

The Times of Israel: You come here often, and you have a strong Israel connection, a strong family history here. How do you think Israel is doing?

There’s unbelievable strengths. I’m here for a water conference. The advancements Israel is making on water, technologically, taking its challenge of scarcity and turning it into an opportunity and economic development….

[I came here first] on, I think, June 7, 1967; we stayed three months. We did that in ’67, ’68, ’69, ’70, ’71 and ’73. Every year for three months, we lived here early June to September, as a family. Today your strength is exactly the same as it was before: an incredible group of people whose love and passion and sense of life is something to be admired.

I’m still upset that you moved Dizengoff Circle, that it’s not there… I can’t find my way around Tel Aviv.

(Emanuel pauses, seeming reluctant to say anything even remotely controversial.)

You’re asking me as an outsider looking in?

But you’re not just an outsider.

When I was growing up, [coming here] obviously two days after the [start of the] Six Day War, [there was] the sense that we were going to explore, and go everywhere, from Beersheba in the Negev to Kiryat Shmona and everything between, and Jews are going to be everywhere. We’re going to go and populate the land of Israel. Today, you have gone from a nation-state to a city-state, where everybody’s coming in to Tel Aviv and Jews are not even a majority in certain parts of Israel or even near a majority. And that’s a different thing, as somebody that watched it in 1967, to where it is in 2017. As we come to the 70th anniversary. That’s just an observation.

How’s your Hebrew, by the way?

It sucks, man. [Though] I can understand it.

Why do you think the Clinton-era peacemaking didn’t work?

Well, you had an agreement under his tenure with Jordan. You’ve had an agreement pre-dating him with Egypt. That worked.  You made a judgement that it didn’t work.

But if the goal was a permanent accord with the Palestinians…

You had some cooperation that you could never have had before. You did not have a signing agreement, but you do have some elements of a bilateral relationship, some elements of peace. So, as an outsider I would say you’re in a better place, but I want to be careful. It’s not for me… I don’t want to weigh in…. But as I always say to my staff, if we’re going to leave the shore to try to swim to the other side, we better make sure we have a plan to get to the other side. Don’t get in the middle of the water and stop.

There are legitimate observations that you haven’t had a partner for the whole thing. There are other things that are Israel’s responsibility, that it could do.

I don’t want to push you, but…

Don’t worry. (Laughs.) I’m not going to go for your banner headline, that I created an international crisis. (Laughs.)

Regarding the Obama administration’s approach on Israel, were there things that were just perfect, unfair, fair? And then looking at this administration…

Yes. (He cackles.) This ain’t my first rodeo, dude.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomes then White House chief-of-staff Rahm Emanuel at the PM’s office in Jerusalem,on May 26 2010. (Ariel Jerozolimski/Flash90)

What I do know intimately: When it comes to Israel’s national security apparatus, the Obama administration was incredible. What Israel needed, so it had the confidence to make peace, was the confidence that its security would be ensured. From particular weapons, to particular cooperation between defense entities. Clinton was a great friend but it’s unparalleled [under Obama]. Even if a member of your branch of the armed forces and your defense establishment wasn’t pro-Obama, they would say the cooperation, partnership, agreements, long-term, that you had: Match it against any other administration. Unbelievable.

They’d argue about the Iran deal, some people.

The Iron Dome missile shield. Where did you get the weapons, the research dollars? Hardware to software, America’s hard power to soft power. And that is what you need for the confidence to go and take a leap of faith. It was unparalleled.

My position on Iran is clear. I’m supportive of the agreement. I think it’s in the United States’ interest. I think it’s also in Israel’s interest, and in fact your own defense entities acknowledged what it’s done for Israel, that it’s a good agreement.

Some of them.

Well, those are the ones I read. (Laughs.) Like everything else, it’s a question of the risk.

The fact is that on the Palestinian issue, the Netanyahu and the Obama administrations disagreed on the level of risk that they thought Israel could afford to take. But that’s a legitimate disagreement.

Yes. It’s an analysis of a set of facts. Then try to figure out what it looks like when you go around the corner. That’s what policy and leadership’s about. That’s legitimate. People of good intentions can have a legitimate disagreement. So I think on that level the Obama administration was an incredible friend. An ally.

There was work done to try to get [a deal with the Palestinians]. I know that the president thought that in the long-term interest for Israel, it was better to deal with having a security [agreement]. This is not unique to President Obama. It’s true about what President Bush thought. It’s true about what President Clinton thought. And their State Departments. It’s been the position regardless of the president of the United States, what party or administration. They put different emphases on it. But it has been America’s position that for Israel, it’s better to have an agreement with a partner, with the Palestinian leadership, than not. It’s a simple fact. It’s not tied to an administration or a philosophy.

President Barack Obama right, talks with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel left, after walking off Air Force One while arriving at O’Hare International Airport Friday, Oct. 7, 2016, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Paul Beaty)

I want to ask you about the current administration.

That one I’ll talk about. (Laughs.)

I used to come to America and think, I come from this crazy country with volatile politics and worrying rises of extremism sometimes. And then I went in the last few months, and it’s a different America.

Never has Israeli politics looked better, is what you’re saying?

Where do you think America is headed? How do you explain that election? How troubled are you by it?

I don’t want to acknowledge that it says a lot about America, but you had an election. It has meaning. It has import.

There are people in the past who talked about dark forces and dark currents in American politics. We now are coming face to face. And the good news is, I think, that we will come out as a country, stronger and better, to confront the issues that we didn’t as a country confront, that were close to home. We’re going to deal with certain things.

There is a political element to this. There is a racial element to this. And then there’s an economic argument to this.

I never thought that we would see neo-Nazis. Not just neo-Nazis. Explicit language of hatred toward whether it’s African-Americans, Mexican-Americans or those aspiring to be Americans. I never thought of it. Not in my lifetime

If you brought 50 mayors together from major global cities — I talk to my friends and colleagues in the United States, Canada, Europe, Israel, China — the biggest challenge we have today if you’re a mayor of a global city is creating inclusive growth. (My own take is that there are 100 cities that drive the intellectual, economic and cultural capital of the world. Chicago is one of them. It’s one of the leaders. Metro Chicago’s economy is the 21st largest economy in the world, the second most competitive in North America. And it’s actually, in international ratings, the 7th, 8th or 9th most competitive economy in the world.)

Look out the window. We see a crane [in the distance]. New construction site over here. Nobody can afford to live in this place when you’re done.

We today have a massive amount of wealth being created, but in an exclusionary way, not in an inclusionary way. The challenge for all of us, whether we’re in business, private sector or public sector, is how to create economic growth that brings more people into the winning circle rather than more people into the losing circle.

One of the biggest challenges we have in the United States is that for the first time ever in American history — and I say this with my son in the room — we have a generation that’s growing up where we think that our children’s future is less promising than the future I inherited from my parents.

That’s not limited to America. What’s new to America is that psychology, that perspective. To address that problem of inclusive growth, of having a future that’s stronger, better and more positive than our present, nobody else can solve that but us. Do we train and educate a workforce for tomorrow, or not? China has nothing to do with that. Do we invest in our roads, our schools, our trains, our airports? China has nothing to do with that. We do. Do we invest in our research, in our bio-medical, in our advanced research, or not? China has nothing to do with that.

The solution to everything that will make America great, actually, America can determine. Things we were ignoring, or refusing to face up to, we now have an opportunity to address and be honest about.

Will we have leaders who will do that? That’s a different subject. And will the public reward or punish those leaders for being leaders?

It wasn’t solely economics. What about the politics?

Here’s why I actually wanted to become mayor. People feel that the nation-state we grew up in, me and you, is no longer what it was before. It’s not operable. Mayors, cities, have something that nation-states don’t have. They have legitimacy.

The mayor of London has more legitimacy than the national government does with the British people. The mayor of Paris has more legitimacy than the national French government, and more legitimacy than [the European parliament in] Brussels. Cities, one, have legitimacy, and two, we get things done and make things happen. We need a national government to help us in those efforts, which has not happened, and that’s a different debate… I would like to have a partner like I had when I had Obama — to do the investments for the future in research, in infrastructure, in education…

What Brexit was about, what the [UK] elections were about, was punishing what was going on in Brussels. Our election was about punishing Washington. People felt that the future for their children was not being addressed in Washington. So what the electorates in England and France and the US did, they took a hammer and smashed the political system. It’s not about smashing the economic system. It’s about smashing the political system for not addressing the economic [challenges]… People feel like the political system is not addressing their needs, and is so broken, that the only way to [fix] it is to go outside to find an answer.

Brussels can say whatever they want. You know what the rest of Europe thinks of it. Washington looks like Disneyland on the Potomac. London’s vote on Brexit was about, ‘We want control over our lives. We don’t want this impersonal thing telling us what to do.’

That makes a lot of sense. But I want to push you a little bit more though. Dissatisfaction, the desire to break the system …

I’m giving you my best material…

… unleashed forces that I didn’t expect to see in America.

Nobody expected to see it.

You did not expect to see neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville, right?


Hundreds of white nationalists, neo-Nazis and members of the ‘alt-right’ march down East Market Street toward Lee Park during the ‘Unite the Right’ rally August 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/AFP)

And so…

You’re talking to a person who started his own political awareness opposing neo-Nazis in Skokie and then in Marquette Park in Chicago when I was 16 or 17 years old. I had no concept that that would ever come to America. Nobody did.

I showed my staff an email from a colleague of yours at the Wall Street Journal. I had emailed him in March 2016 and he sent it back to me [recently] to remind me. [I’d written:] What makes you think that Donald Trump is not going to be the nominee, and given all the anger that he won’t be more prominent in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio?

That said, I never thought that we would see neo-Nazis. Not just neo-Nazis. Explicit language of hatred toward whether it’s African-Americans, Mexican-Americans or those aspiring to be Americans. I never thought of it. Not in my lifetime.

You didn’t mention Jewish Americans in that list of targets. Because you don’t want to say it or because it’s more marginal or…

If you look at Jewish history, never has the Jewish community been more influential, more powerful, in the history of the Jewish community in America.

I’m so driven about speaking out, not only on behalf of immigrants, because America, and Chicago specifically, a hundred years ago this year welcomed my grandfather from Moldova as a 13-year-old, an illegal immigrant. And his grandson is the mayor. Which speaks to the power of America and the power of my city, Chicago, my home.

In our history, beyond ourselves, we were better off because there were those who were righteous. Here, as you walk into Yad Vashem, the first people you meet are not Jews. The first people you meet are those who are righteous.

And I believe as a Jewish American — I’m an elected official — we are of more influence economically, politically, culturally, than in any other place in the world in world history, in our own history as a people. And the reason I didn’t include [American Jews] in [my point about] African-American and Mexican-American or aspiring Americans is because we [American Jews] are in a position to be righteous. (He slaps the table.)

We have the responsibility now. Not that where America is today is where Germany was. I’m not making that [assertion]. Don’t ever say I said that. But we, I, the mayor of Chicago, a Jewish American, must use my voice. That if you are going to ask people to give you their name, their number — dreamers — you cannot be the government that turns around and uses that information. You cannot. (Emanuel last week declared Chicago a ‘Trump-free zone’ after the president outlined plans to end a program protecting children brought illegally to America from deportation.)

US President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference with Kuwait leader Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah in the White House in Washington, September 7, 2017. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

I want to be sure I understand you.

We, as American Jews — the reason that I did not put the Jews in America as being victimized — not that there’s not anti-Semitism, that, trust me, I know. That’s not what I’m talking about. But we are in a position of influence, unlike other people [being targeted] and we have a responsibility, given the journey we as Jews have taken, the journey we as American Jews have taken…

And that responsibility is to stand up and…?

… to use our position of power for those who are powerless. To use our position of comfort for those who are uncomfortable. To use our position of security to provide safety and security to those who are not. That is our responsibility.

And what does that mean specifically?

To speak out. And use our influence.

Look, I have a responsibility as mayor, I have a responsibility as a mayor who’s an American Jew, who knows the history of his own family in the journey to Chicago, but also the history of what happened to us. I’ve said this before in public so this doesn’t scare me. This is our moment.

Are you saying that the Jews should be championing an open border policy for all? I’m sure you’re not saying that, so just elaborate.

No, no. What I’m saying is that we have a government — it’s not about open borders, it’s about what your government… I do not believe that government should be targeting …

on the basis of nationality…

or ethnicity or faith.

Mayor Khan from London, who likes to tease me about this, came to Chicago and on the Saturday morning he came to my synagogue. (As my rabbi said, I know why you’re here, Mayor Khan. How did you convince Mayor Emanuel to come? We’re so honored to see him. It’s not the High Holidays.)

We came, a Muslim and a Jew, fathers of children. That is what brings us together: It is our common interests. I respect him as a man of faith, he respects me as a man of faith. I respect him as a colleague, as a mayor of a metropolitan world-class city. He respects me as a mayor of a world-class city. We can learn from each other. And I respect him as a father of two beautiful children, and he respects me as a father of three beautiful children.

And then when I came just two months ago to London, he and I, with my daughter and his daughter and his wife, we went to dinner, not as mayors, but as fathers.

Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, left, points out the city’s architecture to London mayor Sadiq Khan during a boat ride Friday, Sept. 16, 2016, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Tae-Gyun Kim)

You’re trying to get to a policy discussion and I’m getting to a moral argument. I think we have a responsibility.

I’m still scratching this one question, which is, do I think there’s anti-Semitism? I don’t think there’s anti-Semitism, I know there’s anti-Semitism. There’s anti-Semitism in America, always has [been], not just at this moment. There has been in the past.

I am saying we, American Jews, have a responsibility to speak out for those [now being targeted] because it has happened for us. And we are lucky that somebody wanted to be righteous and chose [to act on our behalf]. This is our moment. We must use our comfort to comfort those who are uncomfortable.

Implicit in what you’re saying is also that you don’t think anti-Semitism in America has risen to some shattering and terrifying new level.

No. It’s present. It’s always been present, as has bigotry and racism before. It’s just less on the periphery, and more in the center, and more visible for those of us who may not have seen it in all its ugliness before. But the fact is, American Jews, in our history, as a people, we’re in a unique position in America.

You’re looking at the mayor of Chicago. The mayor of Chicago is an American Jew. The mayor of Los Angeles is an American Jew.

An American Jew whose grandfather…

Grandfather on my mother’s side

100 years ago this year?

1917, leaves his mother and father, [who] put him on a boat to get him away from the pogroms, on his own, 13 years old, not a word of English, to meet a third cousin he didn’t know, to pronounce a city that he could not pronounce, fifth grade education,. He came to Chicago. And his grandson is the mayor.

What did he do when he came?

He was a meat cutter and a truck driver and a steel worker. Now, the other two grandsons haven’t done squat. This grandson he’s proud of. Okay? (Laughs.)

So that’s an amazing journey. And I’ve said this and I’ll repeat it: My family came from Moldova. What is the difference between that journey and the journey from Mexico? That you believe your kids in that place will have a better future. What is the difference between a journey of somebody from Ireland versus somebody from India? It’s different oceans, the same aspiration. The journey from Poland to Chicago, or from Pakistan to Chicago? Different oceans, same aspiration. Same.

President Shimon Peres hosts then White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and his family at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, 2010 (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO/Flash90)

This journey from Mississippi, Mexico or Moldova, may be different waterways but it’s for the same future. Your president, Shimon Peres, always said, The power of America is not a location, it’s its ideas and values. That was what pulled my grandfather to Chicago. And that will always stand.

As long as I’m mayor, Chicago will stand for what it always has, which is a future that tomorrow can be better than today. And if you embrace the values that we all share, that we’ll sacrifice and struggle for, our children will have a better future. That will be the shining example of Chicago. And we’re never going to walk away from it.

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