By Steve Sheffey
Just prior to the 2006 election, some Republicans warned of dire consequences for Israel if the Democrats regained control of Congress. The truth is that there are major differences between the parties, but Israel is not one of them. Our Republican friends were wrong, and AIPAC was right: strong bi-partisan support for Israel exists in both parties. As the year draws to a close, let’s take another look at the Democratic record.
The Congress elected in 2006 contains a record 13 Jews in the Senate, only two of whom are Republicans. Of the 30 Jews in the House of Representatives, 29 are Democrats. This should come as no surprise--Democrats are strong on all of the issues of concern to the Jewish community, including Israel, while Republicans have only Israel with which to appeal to Jewish voters. It is no wonder that 87% of Jews voted Democratic in the last election, and that even those who dispute that figure admit that Democrats won the Jewish vote by a healthy margin.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) is well-known as a strong friend of Israel. Carl Levin (D-MI) chairs the Armed Services committee. The Foreign Relations Committee is no longer chaired by Lincoln Chafee (R-RI), who was no friend of Israel and who was defeated in 2006. The Committee is now chaired by Joseph Biden (D-DE), who is unquestionably far better on Israel than Chafee was.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) stated on March 13, 2007 that “America’s commitment to Israel is unshakable…Let us be very clear: Iran must not be allowed to obtain a nuclear weapon…There are those who contend that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is about Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. In truth, the history of the conflict has never been about the occupation. It is over the fundamental right of Israel to exist…The United States will stand with Israel now and forever.”
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) has a long record of strong pro-Israel activity. Tom Lantos (D-CA), the only Holocaust survivor in Congress, chairs the House International Relations Committee. His deputy, Howard Berman (D-CA), is also Jewish. The House Subcommittee on the Middle East and Southeast Asia is chaired by Gary Ackerman (D-NY), a very pro-Israel Jewish Congressman (he was sworn in on a chumash). The House Subcommittee on Foreign Operations is chaired by another staunch supporter of Israel, Nita Lowey (D-NY), also Jewish. Brad Sherman (D-CA), who is Jewish, chairs the International Terrorism and Nonproliferation subcommittee. Rep. Steve Rothman (D-N.J.), who is Jewish, is the first Jewish American on the Defense subcommittee.
Tom Lantos, Gary Ackerman, Nita Lowey, and Brad Sherman are all Jewish, all strong supporters of Israel, and all chairs of committees that directly affect the U.S.-Israel relationship. If the Democrats lose control of Congress, they will lose control of these committees.
Support for Israel is bi-partisan. Many Republicans stand with the Democrats on Israel, and some have even become minority party co-sponsors of pro-Israel legislation and resolutions (for example, only two months after Democrats raised concerns about the Saudi arms sale, Rep. Mark Kirk (R-IL) co-sponsored a letter that focused on JDAM technology). The truth is that the U.S.-Israel relationship enjoys strong support not only from the leadership of the Democratic party, but from the vast majority of Democrats in Congress.
Imagine the field day our Republican friends would have if 80% of the Democrats had voted against foreign aid to Israel, as the Republicans did in June 2007, or if it were a Democratic presidential candidate instead of George Bush advocating arms sales to Saudi Arabia. In November 2007, the House passed HR 3320, which would help fund a museum of Polish Jewry in Warsaw, by a vote of 407-13. All 13 “no” votes were Republicans. Sixty-three House Republicans supported Rep. Darrell Issa, who has referred to Israel as an apartheid state, for the post of Republican Policy Committee Chairman.The Hall of Shame is here (anyone want to take bets on how long it takes for the Congressmen listed as Issa supporters to demand that Issa take down this link?)
When John Kerry ran for President and talked about appointing James Baker, who once said “f**k the Jews, they didn’t vote for us anyway,” our Republican friends went ballistic (they are right about Baker, wrong about Kerry, whose pro-Israel record in Congress is stellar), but where was their outrage when Bush actually did return Baker to government as leader of the Iraq Study Group? Bush broke his promise to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, he did not let the American ambassador participate in the 40th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem celebrations, he has failed to fully implement the Syrian Accountability Act (Syrian President Assad has done everything except appear in public with an “I’m with Osama t-shirt”), he wants to sell arms to a country—Saudi Arabia—that is a medieval theocracy that supports terrorism and does not allow Jews in the country, and he recently convened the Annapolis conference, which is exactly the type of multinational conference that our friends on the right have repeatedly warned us against. And our Republican friends are concerned about Democrats?
All of the above happened in within the past year. We are not talking about Democrats who haven’t held office for 25 years, but about Republicans in office today. What is happening to the Grand Old Party? Does any of this mean that the Republican party is anti-Israel or that we should automatically oppose Republican candidates for Congress? Of course not. But perhaps pro-Israel Republicans could better use their influence by addressing these failures of leadership on Israel within their own party instead of trying to score political points by distorting the Democratic record on Israel.
Unfortunately, instead of acknowledging the strong record Democrats have established on Israel since re-taking Congress, some Republicans have shifted tactics by pointing to comments made by bloggers associated with liberal and Democratic causes as if they represented the thinking of mainstream Democrats. But those people are not in Congress or running for Congress. They represent no one but themselves. What matters is what happens in Congress, and if you are pro-Israel, what’s happening in the Democratic Congress is very good.
Our Republican friends are entitled to their own opinions, but not to their own facts. There are major differences between the parties, but Israel is not one of them. People who truly care about a strong U.S.-Israel relationship should not try to turn bi-partisan support for Israel into a partisan issue. The surest way to damage the U.S.-Israel relationship would be to assert that support for Israel comes from only one party; say it enough, and the result eventually will be knee-jerk opposition to Israel from some quarters (look at how many people oppose policies simply because—take your pick—George Bush or Hillary Clinton supports those polices). The Democratic Congress has proved just as, if not more, pro-Israel than its Republican predecessor. Israel enjoys strong, deep support from both parties and from the American people. Support for Israel is one of the few issues on which the vast majority of both parties can agree on. We need to ensure that Israel remains a “motherhood and apple-pie issue,” and that means doing everything we can to make sure that Israel is NOT an election issue unless we see candidates from either party who truly do not support a strong U.S.-Israel relationship.
Like most Jews, I vote Democratic because I am pro-Israel and because the Democratic party better represents my values than the Republican party. Israel is at the top of the Jewish agenda, but it’s not the only item on the Jewish agenda. We should never compromise our support for Israel and we should insist on nothing less than complete support for Israel, but in an election between two pro-Israel candidates, we should consider all of our values, and vote accordingly. The reason some Republicans try to turn Israel into a wedge issue is that Israel is the only issue on the Jewish agenda where they can come even close to competing with the Democrats. True pro-Israel advocates celebrate bi-partisan support instead of using Israel to divide our community by drawing minuscule distinctions between pro-Israel candidates, which may be a good (and only) way to win in some Congressional districts, but which is hardly consistent with the principle of bi-partisan support for Israel.
Let’s look at what the Democratic Congress has done for Israel in 2007. The following list focuses exclusively on Democrats not because Republicans do not have a good story to tell about Israel—many Republicans have joined in the efforts below, precisely because support for Israel is bi-partisan. However, given that some of our friends still do not accept the fact that one can be pro-Israel as AIPAC would define “pro-Israel”and vote Democratic, we should be clear on exactly what Democrats have done since regaining control of Congress:
- When President Bush announced that he would ask Congress to transfer $86 million to the Palestinian Authority in 2007, Nita Lowey used her prerogative as chairwoman to block the transfer; she later agreed to $59 million only after the scaled-back Administration proposal was supported by Israel.
- Gary Ackerman, who delivered an impassioned defense of Israel during last summer’s Lebanon war, denounced the Mecca Accords at the hearings his committee held in 2007.
- Alcee Hastings (D-FL), who chairs the United States Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, introduced legislation urging all European nations to allow for open access to the Holocaust archives located in Bad Arolsen, Germany.
- A letter authored in 2007 by the new chair of the House Foreign Affairs Europe Subcommittee, Robert Wexler (D-FL), who is Jewish, along with Gary Ackerman and their Republican counterparts, says the European Union should not give aid or grant recognition to the Palestinian Authority (PA) until it recognizes Israel, renounces violence and accepts previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements.
- Tom Lantos introduced the Iran Counter-Proliferation Act of 2007 (H.R. 1400), which would target foreign companies investing in Iran’s energy sector. As Lantos pointed out, the Bush administration is crippling the Iran Sanctions Act by exercising its authority to ignore key sanctions provisions. Lantos’ legislation would also re-impose import sanctions on Iranian exports to the United States. On September 25, 2007 it passed the House 397-16.
- Rep. Steve Rothman (D-N.J.) said at an April 19, 2007 hearing that Al-Hurrah has violated U.S. policy by airing live interviews with terrorist leaders such as Hezbollah chief Sheik Hasan Nasrallah.
- In 2007, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) initiated a congressional letter that would urge the United Nations to recognize the Jewish National Fund as a non-governmental organization
- Rep. Ackerman’s committee brought attention to the plight of Jews in Arab countries who, said Ackerman, "were compelled to leave their homes because of circumstances that included terror and government edicts." Ackerman stressed at the May 8, 2007 hearing that "Jewish refugees from Arab lands are of great concern to the Committee."
- On May 16, 2007, the Iran Sanctions Enabling Act of 2007 was introduced in the Senate by Illinois Democrat Barack Obama and in the House of Representatives by Democratic Reps. Barney Frank and Tom Lantos, who chair the Financial Services and Foreign Affairs committees, respectively. This Act would protect fund managers and state pension programs from shareholder lawsuits if they divest stakes in energy companies that do business with Iran.
- Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT) and Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-PA) chastised the British University and College Union (Britain's largest teacher's union) for its boycott of Israeli academic institutions (June 8, 2007).
- Rep. Steve Rothman (D-NJ) sponsored a resolution that passed 411-2 charging Iran’s President with incitement to genocide (June 2007).
- Rep. Robert Andrews (D-NJ) introduced a bill in 2007 providing that any company that provides Iran with gasoline or helps it import gasoline after the end of the year could lose its access to American customers through sanctions.
- Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) reintroduced the U.S.-Israel Energy Cooperation Act was reintroduced in the House of Representatives as HR 1838 on March 29, 2007. This Act will it help the U.S. achieve independence from imported oil from the Middle East and establish a robust system of U.S./Israel joint research and development on energy alternatives.
- Under the Chairmanship of Tom Lantos, on July 19, 2007, the Congressional Human Rights Caucus (CHRC) held a hearing on the hundreds of thousands of Jews who were forced to flee their homes in Arab countries as a result of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The July 19 hearing, titled “Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries: Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation,” was hosted by the CHRC in conjunction with B’nai Brith International and Justice for Jews from Arab Countries. It was the first time that the US Congress heard testimony on the issue of Jewish refugees from Arab countries.
- On June 22, 2007, Democrats voted 210-14 in favor of the foreign aid bill that included aid to Israel, while Republicans voted 164-31 against. Thus, 80% of Republicans voted against a bill that included $2.4 billion in aid for Israel. Additionally, 161 Republicans also voted to slash the entire foreign aid budget by 1%, which would have cost Israel $24 million.
- House Democrats spearheaded opposition to Bush’s plans to sell arms to Saudi Arabia in the face of silence from their GOP colleagues.
- On August 2, 2007, Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY) sent a bi-partisan letter to President Bush co-signed by 114 members of Congress opposing the sale of sophisticated arms to Saudi Arabia.
- On September 26, 2007 Rep. Chris Carney (D-PA) began circulating a letter calling on President Bush to provide assurances that any plans to sell Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) technology to Saudi Arabia will not harm U.S. forces or undercut Israel's qualitative military edge.
- In a letter dated September 16, 2007, 16 Democrats sent a letter to fellow Democrat Jim Moran criticizing remarks he made in Tikkun that AIPAC lobbied for the Iraq war, stating that “AIPAC as an organization never took a position on the war and none of us were ever lobbied by the organization on the war in Iraq” (the letter’s signatories included both proponents and opponents of the war). The letter also stated that AIPAC’s views represent the views of “the overwhelming opinion of all Americans” and that hostility to AIPAC has no place in the House Democratic Caucus.
- On October 17, 2006, Steven Rothman (D-NJ) and Rob Andrews (D-NJ) introduced a bipartisan resolution (H. 235) calling on the Bank’s Board of Directors to end disbursements to Iran until the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) certifies Iran’s compliance with U.N. Security Council Resolutions and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
- In October 2007, Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-NV) introduced a resolution urging “Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who is also Chairman of his Fatah party, to officially abrogate the 10 articles in the Fatah Constitution that call for Israel's destruction and terrorism against Israel, oppose any political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and label Zionism as racism; and condemns the continuing existence of these articles as part of the Fatah Constitution."
- Nancy Pelosi was among the first to denounce Jimmy Carter’s biased, error-ridden screed “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid,” speaking against the book even before she officially became Speaker. “With all due respect to former President Carter,” she said, “he does not speak for the Democratic Party on Israel.”
- Senator Reid, Howard Dean, Chairman of the Democratic party, Steve Israel (D-NY), Charles Rangel (D-NY), Jerry Nadler (D-NY), and John Conyers (D-MI), the new chair of the House Judiciary Committee, also issued statements criticizing Carter’s book early on.
All of the above happened in 2007, except for some of the criticism of Carter’s book, which was after the November election but before Congress convened. So if you’re pro-Israel and you agree with Republican social and economic policies, then by all means vote Republican. But if Israel is your top priority and you don’t like the direction the Republicans want to take this country, don’t hesitate to vote Democratic. You’re in good company.
Steve Sheffey is an NJDC activist.