Saturday, January 28, 2023

Early voting is currently underway prior to New York’s Congressional Primary Election Day on Tuesday, August 23.

The American Jewish Committee Westchester/Fairfield region hosted virtual sessions with candidates running in NY-16, which is now primarily Lower Westchester. Redistricting has altered the makeup of many congressional districts. Three active candidates are in this race.

AJC, a global Jewish advocacy organization, is nonpartisan and does not rate or endorse candidates, but finds common ground on matters of concern to its members. AJC hosted Democrat candidates Vedat Gashi and Catherine Parker. Rep. Jamaal Bowman did not respond to AJC’s invitation.

In his opening statement, Gashi explained: “I’m running for Congress to bring real results and real progress. I’ll always put families first, not rhetoric or partisan politics. I am the first Albanian-American and first Muslim ever elected to the Westchester County Legislature. At 4 years old, I fled Kosovo with my family. My parents only had a middle-school education, but with hard work, we achieved our American Dream.

“Our country is at a critical juncture. Mass shootings have taken countless innocent lives and families are struggling to make ends meet, while we also have international instability.”

Regarding Israel, Gashi said: “[Palestinians’] designating the founding of Israel as a catastrophe or disaster [Nakba] or whatever the translation, is terrible. It’s repugnant not only to the Jewish community, but to all communities. Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East and one of America’s strongest partners. We have to call it what it is, recognize it and disavow rather than ignore it.

“I think the U.S. relationship with Israel is and should be rock solid. It’s obviously a special relationship of mutual benefit. Technological and economic developments of the Israeli state are fantastic. I visited Israel with my wife and kids before I got involved in politics. I think we should foster relationships like the Abraham Accords, between Israel and its neighbors to the extent that we can. I was disappointed when my opponent [Bowman] pulled his support from the Abraham Accords, voting against the Israel Relations Normalization Act. Someone pointed out that calling it ‘normalization of relations’ was a mistake. It’s an establishment of relations for the first time. I think human rights concerns are taken but we can’t get to that if we can’t acknowledge the very existence of this state.

“Can we agree that the State of Israel should exist? I said that Iran should recognize the right of Israel to exist as a precondition to discussion. I was told that that was a nonstarter. I come from Kosovo, a place where ethnic Albanians like myself were killed or driven from their homes. The fault of the ethnic Albanians was their existence. To the extent the United States can play a mediating role to help foster diplomacy, I think we should.

“I always worried about Iran. They sponsor regional terrorism and repeatedly call for the demise of not only Israel, but the United States. That’s what they’re telling us. We have to take them at their word, that it’s a real threat. Iran as a regional neighbor of Israel poses an existential threat to Israel. If it were to finally attain this nuclear capacity—and they’re well on their way—any plan going forward has to include Iran renouncing regional terrorism and their calls for the extinction of Israel.

Gashi added: “My opponent is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America and in line with the Squad. He’s more comfortable attacking the Democratic Party than working with them to achieve that progress that we all agree is so important and necessary.”

The moderator commented on the many professional colleagues on the Westchester Board of Legislators and former officials, like Congressmembers Nita Lowey and Eliot Engel endorsing Gashi.

Parker began by thanking the AJC Community for paying attention to the new congressional 16th district race. “I have grown up in Westchester. I’m a wife, mother, daughter, small business owner and legislator; My days are spent like many of you—multitasking to make sure I get everything done. We’ve seen over the last 18 months that the person sent to Congress to represent us hasn’t been really following the values and beliefs of the district and doing what we would hope to see happen in Washington. When I vote, I will not be answering to a squad. I’m going to be answering to the voters of the new Congressional District.

“A very important relationship we have, a core value of being an American, is to support the democratic State of Israel,” Parker continued. “It’s a beneficial relationship. We need to stand strong. I believe that we have to help with the Iron Dome. They literally are under attack as we saw last week, but I think that there are other ways that we have to work on a relationship and stay strong together. What Israel has done in cybersecurity and technology has been amazing. This is where our partnership is really crucial. Regarding our position as Americans with negotiations between the State of Israel and Palestinians, America can support a decision by the Palestinian Authority and the State of Israel to come together.”

Parker supports the vision of a “two-state solution,” where both entities are doing this willingly. “And I hope I see it one day,” she said.

“The Abraham Accords was the best thing coming out of the Trump administration,” Parker acknowledged. “The enemy in the region is Iran. I think what President Biden did recently, visiting Israel and Saudi Arabia, sends another signal that maybe there should be future expansion, normalizing this relationship and more countries should be added, which is great for the region. Stability is crucial, and economic opportunities for all the countries that signed on…”

On the JCPOA (Iran deal), Parker said: “Hindsight is 20/20. It was an imperfect agreement. But the withdrawal has empowered Iran to continue to enrich uranium at a significant rate, I think they’re at 60% enrichment and 90% soon. I know that there’s been such hope that the talks in Vienna were going to actually culminate in a new agreement that would be, as they say, longer, stronger, broader. That’s not happening. We know, at this point, that was for naught. It’s a dangerous situation, and it’s certainly for Israel.

“That’s part of the reason why I’m in this race to begin with,” she continued. “I think Congressman Bowman has earned his primary by having signed on to the Nakba resolution, by working with the Squad. I do question the Squad members and their actions. Some of them, like Rashida Tlaib, have been antisemitic. There have been calls for her to be censured on the floor. I don’t disagree with that.

“I’ve looked at people like Nita and Steve Lowey and many people involved with your organization as friends; Nita as a mentor. I’ve known Nita since I was a teenager. I really feel that I learned a lot about the importance of a good, strong U.S.-Israel relationship, through my relationship with my friend Nita. Sending people to Congress like Congressman Bowman, without real substantial experience, has not necessarily worked well for us.”

For more information on the candidates, please email at [email protected].

By Judy Berger

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