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The Freshman Class of the 116th Congress

By Jackson Richman

(JNS) – Even before the new crop of congressmen and senators were sworn into office in early January, several members of the freshman class were making news with their decidedly anti-Israel, if not anti-Jewish, sentiments. But there are also number of freshmen members of Congress, including those in the Democratic House majority, who promise to be strong allies of the Jewish and pro-Israel community.


Meet the Newbies

A brief look at a few of the new, pro-Israel members of Congress

Democrat Haley Stevens, 35, defeated Republican nominee Lena Epstein, who is Jewish, in Michigan’s 11th Congressional District, to replace the retiring Republican Rep. Dave Trott.

On her campaign website, Stevens extensively discusses her pro-Israel platform: “As the only democracy in the Middle East and our strongest ally in the region, Israel and her security are paramount to our interests at home and abroad.”

“In Congress, I look forward to strengthening this partnership and exploring new ways to build upon Israel’s and America’s symbiotic economies. … Israel has created countless technologies that Americans depend upon for agriculture, energy, health care, commerce, transportation and national security, among many others. … With Israeli civilians and members of the IDF subjected to rocket fire and terrorism, Congress must continue to support critical programs that help Israel upgrade its fleets in air, land and sea; enhance the mobility of its ground forces; and continue to strengthen its missile-defense capabilities,” she said. “The landmark Memorandum of Understanding reached under the Obama Administration provided Israel with $38 billion to accomplish these goals, and I look forward to building upon Israel’s capabilities by supporting U.S.-Israel collaborative missile defense programs, including Iron Dome, David’s Sling and the Arrow weapon systems.”


Republican Bryan Steil, 37, is an attorney who defeated Democratic nominee and union ironworker Randy Bryce in Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District to replace outgoing Congressman and House Speaker Paul Ryan, whom Steil worked for as an aide.

Steil, who calls Israel America’s strongest ally in the Middle East, had this to say about the rise in antisemitism in the U.S. and Europe: “When you look at what’s going on in the U.S., in Pittsburgh, it should remind everybody that America needs to be forever vigilant against antisemitic violence. That’s an attack, not just on our Jewish friends and neighbors; it’s an attack on all Americans. We need to stand strong against any form of antisemitic rhetoric and antisemitic violence…. A lot of the tone and rhetoric we see across the board is rather unproductive, so I think that the more we have a dialogue that’s focused on productive conversations and inclusion, and how we grow together, is always a step in the right direction. I hope to be able to bring that tone – that type of conversation – to Washington.”


Democrat Anthony Brindisi, 40, is a New York Democratic assemblyman who unseated incumbent Republican Rep. Claudia Tenney in the state’s 22nd Congressional District. Although not Jewish, Brindisi’s brother-in-law is the director of the Jewish Community Center in Utica, New York. His niece and two nephews are also Jewish. As an assemblyman, Brindisi supported legislation directing New York State entities to divest all public funds supporting the BDS campaign against Israel.

Brindisi says: “I fervently believe that a two-state solution is the best answer for regional democracy and peace. …For me, Israel has been one of, if not, America’s closest allies in the Free World, and has been under attack by almost every other country in the Middle East. Israel is the historic homeland of the Jewish people going back to biblical times. I feel it’s important for the United States to recognize Jerusalem as their capital.” On antisemitism in the United States and worldwide: “In New York state we’ve seen a 90 percent increase in antisemitic activities. I’ll do everything I can as a member of Congress to speak out against antisemitic activities in the U.S. and throughout the world. I did support funding as a member of the State Assembly here in New York that would increase financial support to law enforcement in the state to deal with hate crimes, and specifically, those hate crimes which are antisemitic in nature.”


Democrat Angie Craig, 46, is a health-care executive who unseated incumbent Republican Rep. Jason Lewis to become became the first LGBTQ person elected to Congress from Minnesota. Craig, who is not Jewish, is married to a Jewish woman and her interfaith family belongs to a synagogue (she belongs to a church).

Says Craig: “As the only democracy in the Middle East, I think it’s very important that [Israel and the U.S.] share a strong economic relationship, innovation edge. One of the companies that I worked for over the past decade acquired a business in Israel with cutting-edge technology, so I’m very familiar with the innovation and the importance of making sure that Israel continues to be a democratic safe state in the Middle East. I believe the U.S. must continue to support the development of defense technology for Israel. So, I will continue to be a staunch supporter of the renewal of our 10-year security agreement.”

Craig calls the rise of antisemitic behavior in America “one of the most disgusting things happening in this country right now. We have to get back to a time and a place where we’re willing to call out this kind of antisemitic behavior.” She says she would work to ensure that American colleges and universities are educated on antisemitic behavior and that antisemitism is well-defined on all campuses.


Republican Denver Riggleman, 48, won the race in Virginia’s 5th Congressional District by defeating anti-Israel Democrat Leslie Cockburn, who “galvanized the pro-Israel community to raise around $1 million for the Riggleman campaign,” a source in the pro-Israel community previously told JNS. This is significant because he fundraised a little more than $1.4 million overall, while his opponent raised some $2.7 million.

Cockburn and her husband Andrew’s book, Dangerous Liaisons: The Inside Story of the U.S.-Israeli Covert Relationship, “is largely dedicated to Israel-bashing for its own sake. Its first message is that, win or lose, smart or dumb, right or wrong, suave or boorish, Israelis are a menace. The second is that the Israeli-American connection is somewhere behind just about everything that ails us,” according to a New York Timesreview.

The Riggleman campaign was one of the largest recipients from the Republican Jewish Committee Board of Directors and Leadership Committee, with Cockburn’s anti-Israel past a major factor, according to RJC spokesperson Neil Strauss.

On his support for Israel, Riggleman says: “I was in Israel during the bus bombings in 1996. I was Air Force-enlisted, at the age of 26. When I saw the strength of the Jewish people there, when I saw what they were going through, it gave me a new appreciation for some of the challenges in that area. When I went into Air Force intelligence, it was sort of immediate that there was that support for Israel based on my background in military technologies and in foreign policy. For me, it’s a natural fit – to support Israel in just about everything. I believe that they’re so important in that region.”

On the rise in antisemitism in the U.S. and worldwide: “For me, it’s about law enforcement. But it’s also about education. For example, the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act would require the Department of Education to adopt the State Department’s definition of antisemitism in evaluating such incidents on college campuses and at other educational institutions. Anything we can do to stomp that out, we need to do. And that goes for all religious groups. It’s something that’s near and dear to my heart. What I’ve fought for here in the U.S. and what I’ve fought for in other countries…. For example, I came out with an op-ed in response to what happened in Charlottesville, Va., last year. The alt-right is not a big fan of me based on my positions. But any type of activity, whether it’s white supremacy or this sort of white nationalist movement is something that we need to keep an eye on. I believe the alt-right is the scum of the earth.”



Conversation with Donna Shalala

A new face on the ‘hill’ brings with her decades of experience working with Israel

(JNS) Newly elected to serve Florida’s 27th congressional district, Donna Shalala is no stranger to politics or the relationship between the United States and Israel. She served as Secretary of Health and Human Services under President Bill Clinton, where she traveled to Israel and helped researchers there obtain grants from the National Institutes of Health, in addition to assisting with other initiatives inside the Jewish state.

She then went into the private sector: serving as University of Miami president for 14 years and president of the Clinton Foundation for two years.

Shalala, who is Arab-American, was endorsed by the Jewish Democratic Council of America. She defeated Maria Elvira Salazar in the midterm elections to replace the retiring Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, known to be staunchly pro-Israel, and became the second-oldest freshman representative ever.

JNS talked with Shalala by phone. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.


Q: What is your overall stance on the U.S.-Israel relationship? I know you were briefly detained at Ben-Gurion Airport in 2010 on your way back to the United States.

A: I issued a statement saying that Israel had a right to protect the security of its people. I didn’t have any problem with that. My Jewish friends had a bigger problem than I did. They thought it was absurd. The prime minister got up in the Knesset and said, “We got to take a look at our security because Donna Shalala is one of our friends.” So it wasn’t a big issue as far as I’m concerned.

I’ve been a friend of Israel for a long time. I’ve been working with the universities within the health-care system for a long time. I first went to Israel to be on Mayor Teddy Kollek’s Jerusalem Committee to help plan the city of Jerusalem when I was a young urbanist, a young academic, teaching at Columbia [University]. And I have honorary degrees from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, the University of Haifa and from Ben-Gurion University [of the Negev].


Q: What experiences did you have with Israel when you were HHS Secretary?

A: I actually worked with Israeli health officials to guarantee the Weizmann Institute [of Science] scientists the opportunity to apply for NIH grants among other things. I worked with women leaders in Israel on health-care issues. I went in and out of Israel four times when I was secretary.


Q: Did the scientists get the NIH grants?

A: Absolutely. And to this day, they can apply for NIH grants.


Q: Do you see any commonalities between the health-care system in the United States and in Israel?

A: We’ve trained a lot of Israeli doctors over the years. They’ve done fellowships here in the U.S., and American physicians have long gone to Israel and worked with their Israeli counterparts. Most recently, the University of Miami has helped develop the cancer centers in Israel. Our faculty worked closely with their counterparts in Israel, particularly on cancer interests.


Q: And do you see any other similarities between the two nations other than in the health arenas? 

A: Certainly in technology. There are lots of relationships in terms of technology. Now those are things I worked on directly myself.


Q: How many times have you been to Israel?

A: Oh, I don’t know. 20? 30? A lot.


Q: What’s your stance on BDS? In 2010, as University of Miami president you said “there will never be a boycott of Israel.”

A: I’m absolutely opposed to a boycott of any kind both in terms of disinvestment, as well as in the attacks on Israeli academics by the British Union. I was one of the first college presidents in the country to denounce that.


Q: What is your reaction to fellow incoming Democrats Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Rashida Tlaib, who have made anti-Israel statements?

A: That’s their position, and I disagree with it. I don’t agree with anyone that makes antisemitic remarks. And my position on Israel is very firm and very clear. There are going to be members of Congress with different positions. That’s their position, not mine.


Q: Do you have any specific plans regarding the U.S.-Israel relationship, particularly when it comes to introducing legislation? 

A: I intend to work with a coalition of members of Congress, many of whom represent South Florida, like [Democratic Reps.] Ted Deutch and Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, to make sure we continue to make sure that Israel survives and thrives.


Q: What is your stance on the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act?

A: I have not looked at specific bills, but I’ll be talking to my colleagues about a list of things I intend to support. Anything that has to do with antisemitism you can be sure I’ll be front and center.


Q: Anything else our readers should know about you?

A: They should know there’s an Arab American with longstanding support of Israel who’s just been elected in South Florida.

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