More than a few letters this past week castigated Congressman Josh Gottheimer because he did not join with GOP members of Congress in a vote to remove Rep. Ilhan Omar from the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC). In these letters, as well as during “conversations” with people who approached me in shul and on the street, Congressman Gottheimer was accused of betrayal, turning his back on Israel, Jews, Judaism and his constituents. It was even more disappointing to see that one of these letters used disrespectful, offensive and aggressive language to make its point and was neither edited nor simply excluded from publication. Use of such language is one of the reasons that the national political discourse has become so toxic. Unfortunately, though sadly not unexpectedly, rather than showing support for Israel, these individuals have demonstrated a lack of understanding and appreciation for the complexities of politics and diplomacy. Ironically, these accusations are examples of an all-too-common approach found within our community, which is damaging to the support of Israel and the fight against antisemitism in the United States.
Congressman Gottheimer is one of, if not the, strongest supporters of Israel in Congress. He is such not because of donations or lobbying but because that is who he is at his core. He is a member of the larger Bergen County Jewish community, with a strong Jewish identity and Zionist upbringing. He votes to support Israel because he believes that is the right thing to do. The notion that he would “turn his back” on Judaism or Israel is not only offensive it is simply preposterous.
There are several factors which likely led to the way in which Congressman Gottheimer decided to vote, each of which is important in supporting Israel and fighting antisemitism.
As only one individual pointed out, though they made light of it, in the days before the vote took place, Congressman Gottheimer was able to convince Rep. Omar to co-sponsor House Resolution 92, “Recognizing Israel as America’s legitimate and democratic ally and condemning antisemitism.” This resolution is not only one of the strongest government statements made in support of the Jewish people and Israel in history, but it also specifically addresses some of the most pernicious tropes and accusations made against our community. It also acknowledges Israel as the Jewish state and affirms it as a democracy. These statements are the exact opposite to some of Rep. Omar’s past statements and much of the basis for claims against her of antisemitism. Convincing her not only to support such a resolution but to be a co-sponsor took many meetings and conversations between Congressman Gottheimer and Rep. Omar. Though we should not be so naïve as to think that her entire way of thinking has changed, this is a tremendous step forward. It would not have been possible without Congressman Gottheimer’s efforts.
This resolution is an important tool in the fight against antisemitism on college campuses and around the country. Rep. Omar has a tremendously large following. She has 3 million followers on Twitter and 1.3 million on Instagram. She is seen as a role model in the African-American community as well as in the Muslim community. That she now publicly denounces some of the most common and dangerous accusations made about Jews and Israel, while publicly affirming that Israel is a Jewish state, created as such because of the persecution of the Jewish people, and that Israel is a democracy rather than an apartheid state, is of great significance. It will hopefully have a much more positive effect on fighting antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiment in the US than one vote in an already determined plan to oust her from the HFAC. After convincing Rep. Omar to co-sponsor the resolution, Congressman Gottheimer casting a vote to remove her from the HFAC would likely have had a deleterious effect on his efforts. If even one college campus is positively affected the choice was worthwhile.
It is worth noting that Rep. Omar has been able to convert her removal from the committee into massive donations and positive publicity among her millions of supporters. This does not make it easier to find someone to challenge her, let alone to defeat her in an election. If the goal is that she should no longer be in Congress, it would be better that she not be given opportunities to shore up support. Removing her from the HFAC, where she was one voice among 51, does not help Israel more than the potential positive impact on those who recognize her involvement in HR-92.
Another important point to keep in mind is that removing Rep. Omar from the HFAC in this way establishes a dangerous precedent. Imagine in the future an election gives a group of ardent antisemites significant influence in choosing a Speaker of the House. Imagine that these individuals demand that in return for their support, no Jews can be on either the Intelligence or Foreign Affairs committees. It has not been widely reported but there are those, from both sides of the aisle, who protested allowing Congressman Gottheimer to sit on the Intelligence Committee because he is “too pro-Israel.” These same people were very happy to see Congressman Adam Schiff removed from this committee. Precedent has now been set for the majority party to remove anyone with whom they simply disagree from a committee. This is dangerous and potentially damaging to support for Israel.
Congressman Gottheimer has and continues to serve with distinction, demonstrating again his unwavering support for Israel, while at the same time showing himself to be a statesman and diplomat. Those who had a knee-jerk response and denounced him for his approach have done so without understanding or appreciation for statesmanship and the complex considerations that go into each and every position and decision. This is truly unfortunate as continuing along such a path only leads to more antisemitism and does not advance the interests of Israel.Rabbi Benjamin G. Kelsen, Esq.