By Sean Savage/JNS.org
Amid last year’s battle in Congress over the Iran nuclear deal, Pastor John Hagee’s Christians United for Israel (CUFI) non-profit upped the ante for America’s self-described largest pro-Israel organization by launching a separate 501(c)(4) lobby group, the CUFI Action Fund. In a further expansion, and with the recently implemented Iran deal still in mind, the Action Fund has hired a new legislative director, Jason Stverak, who brings to the table diverse experience on political issues at the federal and state levels.
A native of South Dakota, Stverak—whose hiring is first reported by JNS.org—was the founder and president of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, a libertarian-leaning journalism center and think tank. Over the course of his six years at the Franklin Center, Stverak built the group into the largest organization of its kind, with a staff of 75 spread across the U.S.
Stverak previously served as the head of the North Dakota Republican Party and as the communications director for U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.).
“I think the CUFI Action Fund is tackling one of the most important issues facing our country right now, and we need to stand shoulder to shoulder with the State of Israel,” Stverak told JNS.org.
“Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East that represents core American values,” he said. “From the U.S. being the first nation to recognize Israeli independence after World War II until today, there has been no greater friend, no greater ally and proponent of Israel than us.”
Stverak said supporting Israel is a deeply personal issue for him, explaining that he wants his son to “grow up in a world that backs Israel” and to understand “the value and message of standing by [America’s] allies.” Those comments “might be a little soapboxy,” he admitted, but they are “important to my heart.”
Former U.S. under secretary of education Gary Bauer, who became the Washington director of the CUFI Action Fund upon its establishment last year, praised Stverak’s “solid record” on Israel and believes that his experience inside and outside politics will help the CUFI Action Fund tackle a number pressing issues, including the Iranian nuclear threat and the tenuousness of bipartisan support for Israel.
“Jason has just got a solid record on all issues related to Israel,” Bauer told JNS.org. “Beyond that, he has been effective in his work in the public arena, politics, and the legislation process.”
According to Bauer, one of the top goals of the CUFI Action Fund with Stverak on the team will be to correct the “mistake” of the Iran nuclear deal, which he called “one of the worst diplomatic defeats in modern U.S. history.” Bauer saidhe was appalled by the “pressure that was put on Congress to not even vote” on the deal.
“I am anticipating that Jason, myself, and the CUFI Action Fund will get to work with members of both parties to do everything we can to correct this mistake,” Bauer said.
The nuclear deal was signed last summer between Iran and the P5+1 nations—U.S., U.K., France, Germany, China, and Russia. Despite opposition from a majority of members of both houses of Congress, lawmakers opposing the deal were unable to muster the two-thirds majority that was needed to override President Barack Obama and nix the agreement. In January, the deal was officially implemented with the lifting of about $150 billion in global sanctions against Iran.
Another challenge facing the CUFI Action Fund, and pro-Israel groups in general, is the perceived weakening of bipartisan support for Israel. Bauer described the issue as a “disturbing development” and said the CUFI Action Fund intends to operate “in any and every arena where we can stand in the defense of the U.S.-Israel alliance and in defense of Judeo-Christian civilization.”
“This is a very dangerous period in our history, and we believe that there are millions of people of goodwill who understand that, and we intend to rally them to speak truth,” Bauer said.
On a legislative level, Stverak believes that the best way to combat this trend is to keep Israel at the forefront of all elected officials’ minds.
“To solve that, you need to go to the offices of Democrats and Republicans. You need talk about why the legislation is important, why they need to cosponsor a bill or to vote in favor,” Stverak said.
“You will not win every single person’s vote,” he added, “but if you are there, advocating and speaking to them, that is 50 percent of the fight right there.”
Recently, the CUFI Action Fund supported the bipartisan “Combating BDS Act of 2016,” which would authorize state and local governments to divest from entities that engage in the boycott of Israel.
CUFI Action Fund spokesman Ari Morgenstern said the lobby group hopes to advance other agenda items this year such as arming the Kurdish people in their fight against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, combating Iran’s support for terrorism and its ballistic missile program, and potentially weighing in on the current negotiations between the U.S. and Israel over a new military aid package.
Additionally, Morgenstern said the CUFI Action Fund is monitoring what the Obama administration might do about possible future peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, to ensure that no solutions are “imposed” on Israel.
Drawing on his experience in North Dakota, Stverak said he hopes to not only have an impact in Washington, DC, but also on the state and local levels, where many supporters of the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement are active.
“What I want to bring to the table is to not only be a voice here in DC, but to be a voice across the country—to inspire and empower individual local leaders to stand up and raise their hand to say that they will stand with Israel,” he said.
The CUFI Action Fund is part of a crowded and growing field of legislative-focused pro-Israel groups, including the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee; IANexus, the recently announced 501(c)(4) legislative partner group of the Israeli-American Council; the Orthodox Union’s non-partisan Advocacy Center; the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism; and others. Then there is J Street, a lobby that calls itself “pro-Israel, pro-peace,” but has often come under fire for disproportionate criticism of Israeli government policies.
Stverak, a hockey fan, described the CUFI Action Fund’s efforts within the context of other pro-Israel activity in Washington by using a quote from Herb Brooks, the coach of the “Miracle on Ice” 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, that “what is on the front of your jersey is a heck of a lot more important than what’s on the back.”
“At the end of the day we support Israel, we are not here to promote ourselves,” said Stverak. “We are here to achieve our goals. We will work with other organizations to achieve a safe, secure, and peaceful Middle East that recognizes and strongly supports the state of Israel.”
While Stverak said he is eager to get started, he also hopes that one day there won’t be a need for groups like the CUFI Action Fund.
“My personal hope is to work myself out of a job,” he said. “I want it to be accepted by Congress and the executive branch, and the whole body of politics, that it is a no-brainer to support Israel. This is not something we should fight about.”
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