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NORPAC Storms the Hill for Israel

On May 21, a beautiful, sunny spring day, 1,100 people from New Jersey and New York, teens to seniors, spent the day in Washington, D.C., on the annual NORPAC mission to advocate for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship. The day began with speeches by Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Representative Lee Zeldin (R-NY-1), Representative Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ-5) and Representative Mark Meadows (R-NC-11) who emphasized the United States’ commitment to “the unbreakable bond” between the two countries. But a few storm clouds hovered overhead as each legislator acknowledged a rise in anti-Semitism, including in the halls of Congress.

Rep. Zeldin, a co-author of H.R. 246 to oppose BDS efforts to delegitimize Israel, applauded NORPAC’s efforts to “storm the hill” on behalf of the U.S.-Israel relationship. He called out Representative Ilhan Omar’s still-assigned seat on the Foreign Affairs Committee (due to her comments about Israel) and exhorted Republicans and Democrats to condemn anti-Semitism and not excuse comments made by legislators who are new and uninformed. “They must be identified, confronted and crushed. There must be no double standard and no moral equivalency. Anti-Israel hate has no business in our country.”

Rep. Gottheimer, introduced by NORPAC mission co-chair Dr. Laurie Baumel, who called him one of our best friends on the Hill, has introduced H.R. 1850 to sanction “foreign persons, agencies and governments that assist Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad or their affiliates.” Gottheimer said the U.S-Israel relationship must remain unbreakable but we can’t take it for granted. “Fringe voices are getting louder,” he said. “We must all speak up and speak out against anti-Semitism.”

Dr. Ben Chouake, or Dr. Ben as he is widely known, president of NORPAC, said the mission, which included about 450 meetings with over 90% of the Senate and 80% of the House, went very well, although most of the meetings were with staffers as the principals were in a briefing about Iran that took place at the same time. “We were received well by most, who were receptive to hearing about our issues,” he said. “We come not as lobbyists, who are paid, but as citizen advocates. Our job is to make people aware of the benefits of supporting Israel as a correct path for our country. We talked to 1,000 people on the Hill, between members and their staff. That’s 1,000 people who have a better understanding of what’s going on, that we thanked or explained to them why the security of Israel is a benefit to America.”

Baumel added that there is a big freshmen class this year that NORPAC wanted to reach. “With 100 new members of Congress, it was especially important to bring our pro-Israel message to those who may not have focused on the Middle East situation or may have been subject to anti-Israel media.”

Rabbi Menachem Genack, NORPAC’s founding chairman, said the staffers his group met with were supportive of Israel and the legislation for which NORPAC was asking their endorsement. The group met with an assistant to Representative Jerry Nadler (D-NY-10) and an assistant to Representative Robin Kelly (D-IL-2), a relative newcomer who replaced Jesse Jackson Jr. in Chicago. They also met with the chief of staff for Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) who said he is going to sign on and may sponsor H.R. 1850 to sanction supporters of Hamas.

Rabbi Genack emphasized that despite voting for the Iran deal, Senator Booker was very much still supportive of Israel. “We have to be profoundly concerned about the progressive wing of the Democratic Party and not write off anyone who has historically been our friend, even if they voted the wrong way on an issue.”

Irene Gottesman, a veteran NORPAC group leader, said that she came back from the mission reassured that the work NORPAC does brings results. “We didn’t have to focus on Iran; everyone understands how dangerous it is,” she said. “BDS is a household word now, and for the most part the legislators or staffers we met think it is wrong. That’s an evolution.” She added that a legislator one group met with said he lost a big donor due to his position favoring anti-BDS legislation.

Gottesman heard one caveat from an assistant to Tim Ryan (D-OH-13) who advised her group not to “throw out the baby with the bathwater.” She told Gottesman that a Jewish group had come to advocate for a charity that funds Palestinian women “so peace can come from within,” and that some of these bills cut off money that is used in productive ways.

Many participants brought their teenage children on the NORPAC mission to let them see the government in action and learn how to speak about an issue in front of a group. “I make sure to take my children when they hit an appropriate age,” said Michael Cohen, who as a city councilman for Englewood’s Second Ward has become a legislator himself. “It teaches and inspires the next generation and shows them the priority of what we are trying to accomplish.”

His group met with Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY-8), the fourth highest ranking Democrat in the House, whom Cohen has known personally for 20 years. “He wasn’t just supportive, he was incredibly knowledgeable and has the ability to articulate issues in a well-thought-out manner,” Cohen said. “It gives you confidence that the issues we care about are being discussed in the halls of Congress and dealt with in a meaningful way.” Cohen’s group also met with a staffer from Bernie Sanders’ office—which was just the second time the Senator’s office agreed to a meeting. “It shows that the continual pressure NORPAC puts on the hill has an effect, that Sanders felt we should meet with and build a relationship with his staff.”

Dr. Ben said that NORPAC was started in 1992 as a reaction to a comment made by James Baker, George H.W. Bush’s secretary of state. He said, in a more graphic way, that Jews won’t vote Republican so there was no need to appeal to them. “A bunch of citizens got together and said ‘this is really bad.’ This is not our concept of what America should be or what a person of that stature should say and we’re going to do something about it,” Dr. Ben recalled. “In 27 years, we turned from a few people meeting in the basement to an organization that brings over 1,000 people to Washington every year and has between 40 and 50 fundraisers for members of Congress and personal relationships with virtually hundreds of members of Congress. And that is what the citizen advocate can do.”

Gottesman said that throughout her meetings the legislators and their staff emphasized that communication with them is important. “I was told repeatedly that ‘you don’t know how much of a difference it makes that you come here in person.’ They said to keep emailing—but you may have to write 10 times before it gets read. And every phone call is registered. So visit, write and call. Showing up is huge.”

By Bracha Schwartz

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