Jack (Jacob J.) Lew, 68, the Queens-born former Secretary of the Treasury, is making history again, having been picked by President Joe Biden as the next ambassador to Israel. The appointment comes during a critical moment, as the United States negotiates with Saudi Arabia on its much-anticipated recognition of Israel, ongoing protests in Israel against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the Israeli request to allow for visa-free entry to the United States for its citizens.
Although Lew has no prior experience in foreign policy, his service as President Barack Obama’s Chief of Staff and later as Treasury Secretary involved negotiating the budget with a Republican-led Senate in which he managed to preserve funding for entitlement programs. Prior to this, as President Bill Clinton’s director of the Office of Management and Budget in the last two years of his second term, Lew negotiated a balanced budget with the same Republican leadership that impeached Clinton for the Monica Lewinsky scandal. The result was a budget surplus.
Concerning Saudi Arabia, the kingdom seeks support for developing civilian nuclear energy while containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions with American weapons, and preserving its close ties to the United States as China expands its role in the Middle East.
Saudi Arabia remains supportive of Palestinian political aspirations while taking steps towards normalization of relations with Israel, with permission for Israeli flight across Saudi territory, updating school textbooks to eliminate negative descriptions of Jews, and direct flights to Mecca for Israeli Muslims. The two nations have a mutual concern about Iran and its proxies in Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq.
As a visible observant Jew for three Democratic presidents, Lew stood in front of Jewish audiences to defend the Iran nuclear deal promoted by Obama.
“The idea that somehow the Iran deal was not in Israel’s interest is something I disagree with,” Lew said in 2017 at a conference at Columbia University’s Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies. “I think Israel is safer today than it was before the deal when Iran was genuinely approaching having a nuclear weapon.”
The Zionist Organization of America slammed Lew for “shilling” the deal to the Jewish community. At the same time, other major Jewish organizations spoke positively of his ability to get things done, respond to Jewish concerns on funding sources for terrorism, support for Holocaust survivors, and tax laws concerning charitable giving.
His experience in Washington resulted in teaching positions at New York University, where he also served as chief operating officer, and later at Columbia University where he taught international law. He currently chairs the board of the National Committee on US-China Relations, serves as co-president of the board of the National Library of Israel USA, and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Upon assuming his duties as Ambassador, he would be the fourth Jew in that role, following Tom Nides, David Friedman, and Dan Shapiro.
Like Friedman, he was raised in the Conservative movement and later affiliated with the Orthodox community. Raised in an apartment on Yellowstone Boulevard, he attended the Forest Hills Jewish Center where he found inspiration in Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser’s call for social responsibility and participation in public affairs.
His religious observance was noted by Obama when he picked Lew as his Treasury Secretary in 2013. “Maybe most importantly, as the son of a Polish immigrant, a man of deep and devout faith, Jack knows that every number on a page, every dollar we budget, every decision we make has to be an expression of who we wish to be as a nation, our values,” Obama said.
In 2016, he visited Forest Hills High School, his alma mater, to discuss the legacy of Alexander Hamilton, the nation’s first Treasury Secretary. “The job is stewardship over the American economy, but that has many different aspects to it,” Lew said. “I was surprised at the extent at which the international component takes much of your time.”
In his speeches to Jewish students, Lew shares stories of his Shabbos observance while serving in the White House. There was an incident when President Clinton called Lew and it went to voicemail. Lew waited to hear the message, in case it was urgent. He heard the voice of a White House staffer apologizing as Clinton was calling from a distant time zone and was unaware that Shabbos had begun.
“You can practice your faith openly, but don’t ever take it for granted,” he said in 2019 at a New York forum with former Senator Joe Lieberman. “And keep in mind that accommodations are being made for you.”
By Sergey Kadinsky