Last week, men, women, and teenagers from New York and New Jersey took the day off from school and work to get on a bus for NORPAC’s annual Mission to Washington, DC. This non-partisan organization sends over 1,000 volunteers to meet with 90 percent of Congress every year, but this year felt different. The recent comments by the newcomers to the House of Representatives, and the lack of admonishment from the veterans of that House, provided the volunteers a new sense of drive and purpose.
NORPAC, like many other Israel advocacy organizations, has recently struggled with trying to keep Israel from becoming a partisan issue. “When things are partisan issues, nothing moves through Congress,” says Dr. Ben Chouake, NORPAC’s National President. “We’re hoping and working for Israel to not be a part of the partisanship.” The partisanship that has overcome nearly every other aspect of politics is threatening to swallow Israel as well. The 2012 Democratic National Convention removed from its platform the recognition that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. The leadership took three votes at the convention and finally put it back in the platform. President Trump, a polarizing figure to say the least, is very supportive of Israel. That support comes with a consequence that those who oppose everything President Trump supports oppose Israel itself.
One of those figures is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who did not take a meeting. Ocasio-Cortez, who represents parts of Queens and the Bronx, was directly contacted by her constituents who were going on the NORPAC mission. “I was disappointed that despite the fact that we had people from her district, we did not have a meeting with AOC,” says Dave Steinberg, Mission Chair and President of Brooklyn-Queens NORPAC. “I know people who were her constituents called and asked for a meeting and did not get one.” Steinberg remains hopeful for the future of NORPAC’s relationship with the broader Democratic caucus. “The fact that some disagree with me doesn’t necessarily mean they’re wrong, doesn’t mean they are anti-Semites,” he says about Members of Congress who don’t take meetings or vote with pro-Israel legislation. “Heated rhetoric doesn’t always serve us well.”
There are many Democrats who are working hard with Republicans for bipartisan support of Israel. Democratic Congressman from New Jersey Josh Gottheimer, who represents the Jewish communities of Teaneck, Fair Lawn, and more, spoke at NORPAC. “I’m probably one of the few people who walk in a NORPAC yarmulke in the halls of Congress,” he told a laughing and cheering crowd at the Warner Theater in Washington, DC. Gottheimer, who is a strong advocate of Israel and on the front lines of defending the US-Israel relationship from some of his Democratic colleagues, called out the anti-Semitic comments directly. “There’s no question where your loyalty lies,” he exclaimed, referring to Ilhan Omar’s accusation that American Jews have dual loyalty to Israel. “We will not allow these tropes to be accepted, to become mainstream to either party.”
Gottheimer also addressed the moral equivalency that Democrats Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar gave to the recent rocket attack, when Hamas fired 700 rockets from Gaza into Israel, killing four Israelis. “When an attack occurs,” Gottheimer proclaimed, “there should never be a question whom we stand with. We stand with Israel!”
Mark Meadows, Republican from North Carolina, told the assembled that their advocacy pays dividends for years. He had never heard of NORPAC when he met with volunteers in 2013, when he was a freshman Congressman. He didn’t think that his constituents would care about Israel advocacy, considering the Jewish residents of his state constitute 0.3 percent of the population. To his surprise, however, when he gives a speech in his district, “I can get a standing ovation each and every time I say it is incumbent on us to stand with the nation of Israel.” The first time Meadows entered the Oval Office (which he wasn’t privy to during the Obama administration), was to personally advocate to President Trump to move the United States embassy to Jerusalem. A few weeks later, President Trump fulfilled his promise to do so.
Dave Steinberg recounts some of the early efforts by NORPAC to get the Iron Dome funded. “I’ve always believe that Iron Dome was implemented the way it was because of NORPAC,” he says. Iron Dome has been instrumental in preventing casualties from frequent rocket fire from Hamas in Gaza, but it wasn’t always a proven system. “A decade ago, before anyone had heard about it, we said this is an experimental system [that needs funding].”
The NORPAC volunteers are given a list of talking points every year, a handbook that includes all relevant information on the legislation they would like Members of Congress to support or co-sponsor. This year there was an addition to the talking points memo. The volunteers were instructed to remind or educate the Members on the shared values and goals the United States and Israel have. “[The first talking point] came in because we have 100 new freshmen in the House,” Dr. Ben said. “Going over the basis of the relationship was worth going over in the talking points.” This talking point emphasized that Israel has the same values as America regarding freedoms of speech, religion, and gender equality. It reiterated the intelligence given to the US Military and the inventions that drive the US economy. Many Members of Congress are unaware of the benefits to the United States that are provided by Israel. Steinberg elaborates: “Many, many of the freshmen have not yet solidified their positions, and that’s our job,” he says. “You have to assume there are people of goodwill on every side of every issue… If we do a good job, we may not get these people voting for us on aid to Israel, but we’re going to chip away at the gap. Isolate the two or three people on the far leg of the party, and take everybody else.”
Another of the primary topics that the volunteers were discussing was Iran. Reminding Members of Congress of Iran’s actions since the Obama administration signed the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, a.k.a. The “Iran Deal”) is of prime importance, as many other threats to Israel, such as Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, are funded by Iran. The very same day as the NORPAC mission, Trump administration officials were briefing the entire House and Senate in two closed-door meetings about the Iran threat.
Iran, like Israel, has become an increasingly partisan matter. As reported by The Washington Post, Democrats and Republicans disagree about the best course of action towards Iran, and where to lay the blame for Iran’s increased aggressive moves. This rift on what should be a basic issue underscores the importance of NORPAC’s mission to demonstrate how seriously the pro-Israel community takes the Iranian threat. Since the Iran Deal was brokered by the Obama administration and supported by Democrats, it is more difficult for NORPAC to advocate against it. Steinberg reports that this is an exception, rather than a rule. “Other than JCPOA, I would be hard-pressed to find an issue that we’ve advocated for that we haven’t had a great reception.”
On top of the foreign issues that American Jewry is advocating for, there is the ever-present domestic issue of the BDS movement. Once again, partisan rifts are creating inaction about what should be a basic issue. A week prior to NORPAC’s mission, Germany’s Parliament declared that the BDS movement was anti-Semitic. It seemed that Congress was going to lead the way, as the first action that the Senate took when the 116th Congress began in January was a vote on Marco Rubio’s bill, S.1, the “Strengthening America’s Security in the Middle East Act of 2019,” which included the “Combating BDS Act of 2019.” This bill was passed with a majority of 77-23, despite multiple Democratic presidential candidates such as New Jersey Senator Cory Booker and New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand voted ‘nay.’
However, the House counterpart on this bill has not been brought to the floor. Since the Democrats decide what bills can be brought up for a vote, every week the Democrat majority whip Jim Clyburn has a meeting with Republican minority whip Steve Scalise about what legislation they will vote on the next week. According to a Congressional aide, Scalise consistently asks Clyburn to bring the bill for a vote, and every week it is declined. There may be a political reason for the lack of movement on S.1. “The name of the game is politics,” says Steinberg. “S.1 was done to be a partisan bill… It was done that way on purpose; they didn’t bring any Democrats on board day one, they didn’t let Democrats cosponsor.” NORPAC, looking for a legislative win, pushed for House Resolution 246 and Senate Resolution 120, which are Combating BDS resolutions.
Even though Israel has become an increasingly partisan issue, Dr. Ben doesn’t let that deter NORPAC’s agenda. “I’m always cautiously optimistic; that’s why we do this,” he says. “It’s a very important day; our discussions about Iran and BDS were very helpful to the Members [of Congress].” Steinberg shares his optimism. “We’re going to take [HR] 1837 (United States-Israel Cooperation Enhancement and Regional Security Act, one of the primary pieces of legislation the mission advocated for) and try to push that through the House. If you get 400 votes on that in our favor, and it passes the Senate with 98 votes or something like that, then you’ll see that Dave’s not quite as stupid as he seems.” Since the mission, nine more co-sponsors have been added to H.R. 1837 – five Republicans and four Democrats.
Days of advocacy, like this mission, where hundreds of volunteers took time out of their schedules to meet with both parties and discuss issues of vital importance to the United States, will hopefully yield bipartisan results. Then Israel will be a partisan issue no more.
By Moshe Hill