Romney’s Jewish Connector
How Dan Senor became the GOP candidate’s key emissary to Israel’s intelligentsia and the Washington policy scene
There is Dermer, whom Senor emails with and speaks to regularly. Senor’s sister Wendy, a former Democratic congressional staffer who heads the Jerusalem office of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, has the ear, and the direct phone number, of just about everyone in the Israeli government. Saul Singer, Wendy’s husband, is a former Republican congressional staffer and a longtime columnist for the Jerusalem Post who is now a fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute. (Singer is also the older brother of Alex Singer, whose death in IDF service has been memorialized by their parents, Max and Suzanne, in the book Building a Life.) They are, in turn, friendly with Michael Oren, the American-born historian who now serves as Netanyahu’s ambassador to Washington. “This is a group that speaks American and, to a large extent, understands Israeli,” said Yossi Klein Halevi, a writer and fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute.
Ironically, Senor has had more success than any of them at translating Israel’s own image of itself for an international audience. “There’s really been a Pygmalion effect,” said Tal Keinan, a business-school classmate of Senor’s who now runs an asset-management firm in Tel Aviv. It’s also changed how outsiders reflect their enthusiasm for the country: Just last month, Google chairman Eric Schmidt used the “start-up nation” phrase in a meeting with Netanyahu. Romney has, unsurprisingly, been equally receptive. “Anything related to the economy is a way to capture his energy,” Senor told me. He described taking Romney, on a previous trip, to meet Israeli entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. “He could have stayed all night, to the point where the next day he told me if he’d still been at Bain which ones he’d have soft-circled.”
Senor has a remarkable talent for cultivating mentors. Beginning with Kristol, who is almost two decades his elder, Senor has flourished under the watch of a succession of father figures, including former Republican Sen. Spencer Abraham of Michigan, a founder of the conservative Federalist Society, and David Rubenstein, the head of the Carlyle Group (and a Democrat). And, now, Mitt Romney. “I’ve never met anyone who successful, older men want to mentor or sponsor more,” Chris Heinz told me.
Senor’s own father, Jim, died of a heart attack the Tuesday before his son’s bar mitzvah. He was 62. “The rabbis said we could pick another date, you know, no pressure,” Senor said. “But he’d practiced with me—he knew it better than I did—and it weirdly felt therapeutic to do it. I felt like he’d be there with me, and if I picked another portion that he didn’t know, he wouldn’t.” Senor paused. “Just to know that’s the portion I delivered, even though he wasn’t there, was important,” he added.
His three older sisters were already grown—Wendy, the next youngest, is eight years his senior—leaving him and his mother, Helen, a Holocaust survivor from Kosice, now part of Slovakia, alone in Toronto, where Jim Senor had moved the family from upstate New York in the early 1970s, to take a job with the Canadian branch of Israel Bonds. They considered moving to Cleveland, where Jim had grown up, but ultimately decided to stay put. “My mother felt like she’d been on the run her entire life, and she really had been,” said Senor. As a girl, his mother and grandmother went into hiding after the Nazis rounded up the city’s Jews, including Senor’s grandfather, who was deported to his death at Auschwitz. After the war, they fled west from the Soviets, arriving first in Paris and then in New York before making their way to join family members living in Montreal.
Senor told the terrible story of his mother’s lost youth vividly, miming his grandmother hiding under a sheet to light Shabbat candles. The experience, he said, made her leery of public Jewish displays like a United Jewish Appeal-sponsored fundraising walk-a-thon through Toronto’s downtown neighborhoods. “They shouldn’t do that, they’re drawing too much attention,” Senor remembered his mother worrying. “So, that’s her world,” he went on, “the Holocaust experience, which was very heavy for us growing up.”
After his father’s death, magic—an archetypal province of smart, lonely boys—gave him an outlet. As a teenager, he’d stop on his way home from school at a store called Browser’s Den of Magic, where he pestered the staff to teach him tricks. Eventually, with another friend named Dan, Senor started a business, “Dan and Dan the Magic Duo,” and paid his way through high school and college, at the University of Western Ontario, playing bar mitzvahs and weddings. He kept it up and eventually used it to endear himself as a young staffer on Abraham’s 1994 Senate campaign and then in his Washington office. (Senor, on Kristol’s advice, chose to work for Abraham over another young up-and-coming Senate candidate, Rick Santorum.) “Among the many requirements over the years in terms of his relationship with the Abrahams was that when each of my kids turned 6, he did a full dress appearance at our house,” said Abraham, who went on to become energy secretary in George W. Bush’s first term. “He had the full black cape, the whole outfit.”
By the time Senor met Abraham, he’d made the shift from the reflexive Democratic stance he was raised with to full-blown conservatism. His first job in Washington, as a high-school student, was with Rep. Ed Feighan, a Democrat from Ohio who was on the Foreign Affairs Committee, who had him write letters about funding for the Contras. “On these foreign-policy issues, having to research these things and write these arguments I totally disagreed with, I started to be drawn to the Reagan peace-through-strength idea,” Senor told me over dinner. The next summer, with help from his brother-in-law Singer, Senor got a job working for Sen. Connie Mack, the Florida Republican, and the summer after that, he interned at AIPAC.
After graduating from Western Ontario with a degree in history, Senor decided to go study at Hebrew University. He was in Jerusalem during the 1993 Likud primary and volunteered as a student intern not for Netanyahu, who won the race, but for Benny Begin, son of Menachem Begin. “I still have my Benny Begin for Prime Minister T-shirt,” Senor said. After Begin’s loss, he began doing research for Tom Hundley, a Chicago Tribune reporter who met Senor when he accompanied a group of Hebrew University students to Poland on a March of the Living tour. The tour had caused controversy on campus after administrators tried to block students from going in the midst of a national political debate about how to teach younger Israelis about the Holocaust; Senor joined a group of students agitating to miss classes in order to go. “If it takes sending 1,200 kids to look at graves in Poland to make us Zionists,” Senor was quoted in a story Hundley wrote about the trip, “it means they are doing something wrong in Israel.”
There is an argument to be made that, had things gone differently in Iraq, Senor would never have been as successful as he is today. He had no plans to join the Bush Administration after graduating in the spring of 2001 from Harvard, where he was chosen as a commencement speaker. He had missed the 2000 campaign and had accepted an offer from the Carlyle Group, where he was set to start work in October. But after the Sept. 11 attacks, Senor watched his Washington friends gearing up for the Iraq war and in March 2003 signed up for a posting in Qatar, where the Pentagon was establishing a media center ahead of the American-led ground invasion.
On my list of worries this Tisha B’Av: Iran, Egypt—and the ugly ways we Jews talk to one another