Last week, Jewish community members in Middlesex and Monmouth counties were invited by the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey to a community discussion with their congressman, Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ Sixth District) for the following Sunday. Despite the drizzly weather and the short notice, dozens of concerned community members went to Congregation Brothers of Israel in Long Branch on December 3 for an open and candid conversation with their elected representative.
Pallone started the event with a quick review of the different actions he’s taken recently in Congress in support of Israel in its war with Hamas and in response to pressing Jewish communal priorities. He voted in support of resolutions reaffirming Israel’s right to exist (HR 888) and calling on Hamas to immediately release all hostages taken on October 7 (HR 793). He has supported President Biden’s U.S. National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism (released in May) and is working to help pass the president’s $100 million Supplemental Spending Bill, which includes $14 million for Israel and another $14 million for Ukraine.
Pallone has supported increases in funding for the Nonprofit Security Grant Program, which funds facility upgrades for security purposes at houses of worship and religious-based nonprofits. Last month he also launched an initiative to push the heads of Meta, X (formerly Twitter), TikTok and other social media to remove disinformation on their sites, as it violates their terms of service.
He ended his formal remarks by stating: “Israel had no choice but to renew the war with Hamas” after the cease-fire broke down, because “they need to bring home all the hostages and they need to defeat Hamas.” He added: “It’s not just [the] right [thing to do], but Israel must continue the war” until the country meets those goals.
The floor was then opened to questions from the audience. The most frequent topic was the troubling level of antisemitic rhetoric on college campuses in New Jersey, with four people asking questions on this topic. Pallone suggested that to control the climate on their campuses, universities need better security and stronger policies that “clamp down on speakers and groups that support Hamas.”
One questioner pointed out that in the following week, Rutgers’ Center for Security, Race and Rights was slated to host a talk by Joseph Massad, a tenured professor at Columbia University who wrote online about the “astonishing,” “astounding,” “awesome” and “incredible” nature of the terror attacks on Israelis, calling them “the stunning victory of the Palestinian resistance” against “cruel colonizers.”
The congressman told the crowd that he intended to call Rutgers University President Jonathan Holloway and urge that the event be canceled. At the same time, he noted the challenge of balancing the need to call out extreme voices with the imperative to respect the right to free speech. He also pointed out that there is a prevalent view in academic circles that war is never justified, so it may be difficult to identify common ground in campus debates.
Other audience questions touched on how to prevent members of Congress from attaching unwelcome conditions on the supplemental spending bill (Pallone is working towards that goal), unwelcome statements by Vice President Kamala Harris on the conflict, and how the war between Israel and Hamas has produced an information war in the United States.
One of the last questioners asked the Congressman why he did not support the resolution (HR 845) to censure Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (D-MI 12th District) for her remarks on Israel, Hamas, and the October 7 attacks; this resolution was passed by Congress on November 7. Pallone said that while he disagreed with her remarks, he did not think they rose to the level that warranted a censure. He said, “We must be very careful with who we censure because we could spend each day censuring people in Congress.”
The Jewish Federation was pleased with the dialogue that this forum provided to community members.
“The Federation’s intense work in the advocacy arena helps us facilitate countless opportunities for the Jewish community to engage in open dialogue with elected officials,” said Susan Antman, Executive Director of JFHNJ, after the event. “Our steadfast belief in the power of collective action and commitment to civic engagement ensures that voices, interests and needs of our Jewish community are heard by those in positions of power.”
Harry Glazer is the Middlesex County editor of The Jewish Link. He can be reached at [email protected]