(January 16, 2019 / JNS) Editor’s Note: A number of new members of Congress, including those in the Democratic House majority, bring new faces to the Jewish and pro-Israel community. JNS will introduce some of these legislators as part of its “Meet the Newbie” series.
Democrat Elaine Luria, 43, defeated incumbent Republican Rep. Scott Taylor in Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District in the 2018 midterm elections.
The U.S. Navy veteran, who is Jewish, was recently part of a bipartisan delegation of incoming members of Congress visiting Israel for almost a week.
JNS talked with Luria by phone. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: You were in Israel recently. What was your trip like, and what is your overall stance on the U.S.-Israel relationship?
A: It was really a great opportunity to travel to Israel as a bipartisan group. It was great to spend that time with my colleagues, and have an opportunity to visit many different places in Israel and get a much greater understanding for the security situation on the ground there, having seen it with my own eyes.
We looked out at the border with Lebanon, out at the border with Syria. We did an aerial tour of the south of Israel and the Gaza Strip, the Hamas tunnels in the south. We went to Ramallah and met with the P.A. lead negotiator Saeb Erekat. We also visited the settlement of Efrat. And met with the prime minister [Benjamin Netanyahu].
We had a lot of very informative discussions about the important of the U.S.-Israel relationship. My stance is that Israel is our strongest ally in the Middle East; that relationship help maintains the relative stability of the region, and we have established a longstanding relationship in support of Israel. It’s very important that we find every opportunity to continue strengthening that relationship.
Q: What was the most powerful part of the trip?
A: There were a lot … the different places we went where you could really sense the imminent danger and the effect on people’s lives of living under the circumstances that they live. The fear of rocket attacks. We were at the Lebanese border, and you could look out across the border and know that there are 150,000 rockets from Hezbollah aimed right at the community across the border.
Likewise, touring the tunnels that Hamas built in the south and knowing that there’s always a fear that people have of terror attacks. It’s not an existential threat. It’s real, and those attacks happen on a regular basis.
Q: Do you mind elaborating on your meetings with Israeli and Palestinian officials?
A: Officially, all the discussions were open discussions and off the record. I’m not going to directly quote anything we had during our conversations. Prime Minister Netanyahu emphasized the importance of the U.S.-Israeli relationship, the importance of our continued support, maintaining that qualitative military edge, our support for ballistic missile-defense programs and how important it is to Israel to have the U.S. as a partner.
Something that came across to me is the mere existence of Israel, where it’s physically located geographically. The fact that it has a strong defense, and has established a balance within the region that ensures a balance of power in the Middle East. We need to maintain our allegiance with Israel to help maintain stability in the area.
Meeting with the Palestinians, what was said was not unexpected, but there’s very different viewpoints of different things. They were reluctant to take any responsibility for payments for people who carry out terrorist attacks and just different things that are well-known about their involvement in the situation.
Q: As someone who served in the Navy, what are your thoughts on the pushback towards Israel from the U.S. Navy over Israel allowing a Chinese government-connected firm to run an Israeli port in Haifa? In response, Israel said it will “review the agreement.”
A: That discussion did come up when we did the aerial flight of the port facility in the area. Our discussions with Israeli officials and U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman was that at the time when the agreement was made in the past, I don’t think it was viewed as a security so much as a positive economic issue for the port. What came across from the Israeli side is there is no indication whatsoever that the firm that’s developing and managing the port facility is nothing other than an economic partner at this point.
Q: What is your stance on the Iran deal and overall Iranian threat?
A: The Iran deal was a bad deal. It would have allowed Iran to achieve a nuclear capability. It’s something that we need to avoid. We need to take a strong stance against Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.
Q: What is your reaction to U.S. President Donald Trump announcing that the United States will withdraw troops from Syria?
A: I don’t know a lot about the details at this point.
Q: What is your reaction to fellow incoming Democrats such as Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, who all have made anti-Israel statements?
A: I think it’s unfortunate that they have made those statements, and that we need to come together as a country and as a Congress, and re-emphasize the relationships we have with countries around the world, where it’s important to have mutual defense agreements. I hope that when legislation on these topics comes up that they’ll look at those openly and consider them fairly in what’s in the best interest for the U.S.
Q: What is your stance on BDS?
A: I think that we need to counter the BDS movement, and now that there’s anti-BDS legislation being considered, I would support that.
Q: Regarding that legislation, the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, what is your reaction to groups, such as the ACLU, that say it would infringe on the First Amendment?
A: I don’t believe that it is infringing on the First Amendment. There’s been a legal precedent for that. It would be in the form of an amendment to the [Export Administration Act of 1979] from the anti-Arab boycott.
Q: What are your thoughts on the current U.S. funding levels for Israel’s military?
A: I think it’s important that we maintain the level of funding necessary for Israel to maintain a qualitative military edge. There’s other areas that Israel needs to develop, such as technology that allows them to detect tunnels. In addition to funding the anti-missile defense programs, we need to make sure that they have the technology they need to defend against the tunnels being built.
Q: What’s your stance on U.S. funding for the Palestinian Authority, including for its security forces and for humanitarian purposes?
A: I can comment on the humanitarian part. We had a discussion with Ambassador Friedman and that the U.S. has decided to withdraw from the U.N. humanitarian aspect. Funding has not gone away; other countries have continued that funding. It’s a delicate balance on the humanitarian issues because we need other countries to value being able to help in places that there are humanitarian crises, and we need to determine what the appropriate levels of assistance would be.
Q: Would you be for U.S. funding to the P.A. for humanitarian purposes?
A: I guess I’m not 100 percent sure where I stand on that because I don’t know what the second- and third-order effects are. If you are asking me if I’m for humanitarian aid in general to people around the world who are suffering, of course. But in a situation like this, I would have to understand a little bit more to speak specifically on that question because I know that the U.S. has withdrawn from the humanitarian-aid aspect for the Palestinians because of the security situation. I think [the U.S. assistance] should be reviewed.
Q: What was your reaction to the United States moving its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem?
A: When it first happened, there as a lot of concern that would impact the security situation on the ground, and it turned out that there was not a significant reaction to that decision. The U.S. has its embassy in the capital of every country with the exception of in Israel. Jerusalem is the political and historical and religious capital of Israel, so I think that moving the embassy there is something that had been decided awhile back, but had been delayed through previous administrations. The U.S. ambassador in Israel [Friedman] said that the feeling on the ground from the State Department is that being in Jerusalem was the appropriate place for their embassy and for them to perform their mission.
Q: Just to clarify, you supported the embassy move despite your initial concerns?
Q: What is your reaction to anti-Semitism in the United States and worldwide?
A: I think it’s very concerning. In Virginia just over a year ago, we had demonstrations in Charlottesville. It’s shocking to see that type of hatred and anti-Semitism and bigotry and racism in our country today, whether it’s anti-Semitism against Jews or hatred against other religious groups. Following the recent shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, it’s incredibly alarming to see this in so many communities around the country.
I am concerned myself. We take our daughter and drop her off at Hebrew school on Sunday mornings, and there’s a security guard in the lobby of our synagogue. It’s just distressing as a parent that even in our own synagogue, we can’t always know that our children will be safe and that when we go to worship, there’s that fear that something could happen, based off of recent events—that something could happen here or in other communities across the country.
Q: How do we combat such sentiment?
A: I wish there were an easy answer to that question. I think it goes to our understanding of people from all different backgrounds and religions. We want to make sure that, in my future capacity in Congress, legislation we pass does treat everyone equally. I think combating hate is a difficult thing. We as a people are so polarized politically that it seems to have emboldened some people who show hatred, and that is unfortunate.
Being a part of the new Congress and being part of the bipartisan trip to Israel, and meeting and getting to know my colleagues, we find that we do have a lot more common ground than people would make out from reading the news. Every colleague I’ve met on either side of the aisle, there are more things we can work together on than things we disagree on. In my upcoming role, I hope to leverage that to create legislation that creates a better environment.