(November 27, 2018 / JNS) Editor’s Note: A number of incoming members of Congress, including those in the upcoming Democratic House majority, will bring new faces to the Jewish and pro-Israel community. JNS will introduce some of these elected legislators as part of its “Meet the Newbie” series.
Republican Denver Riggleman, 48, won the race with in Virginia’s 5th congressional district to replace the retiring Republican Tom Garrett on Nov. 6 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 Times review.
The Republican Jewish Coalition played a major role in that alongside the Riggleman campaign being one of the largest recipients from the RJC board of directors and leadership committee, between $500,000 and $600,000 was raised for Riggleman by a “loose functional of pro-Israel donors,” with Cockburn’s anti-Israel past a major factor, according to RJC spokesperson Neil Strauss.
JNS talked with Riggleman by phone. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: You won the race against someone who wrote a book demonizing the relationship between the United States and Israel. Additionally, the pro-Israel community stepped up in a big way for your campaign especially in terms of fundraising. What’s your overall stance on the U.S.-Israel relationship?
A: It’s actually unbelievable the support I had from the pro-Israel, pro-Jewish community. I think a lot of it had to do with my background.
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.
Q: What’s your reaction to some of the anti-Israel verbiage coming from incoming Democrats Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who are decidedly on the far-left spectrum of the Democratic Party?
A: It seems like that’s the movement of the Democratic Party and for progressives at this point. My opponent, based on what she wrote, it just seems ridiculous to have those types of views toward Israel.
Q: What is your stance on BDS?
A: Not a big fan. Completely against that; it’s ridiculous.
Airbnb’s announcement last week it would not allow its listings in Judea and Samaria is just ludicrous. I probably could use a harsher term, but it’s just ludicrous.
Q: What is your position in terms of funding for Israel’s military, especially in the aftermath of last week’s Israel-Hamas conflict, in which more than 450 rockets were launched at southern Israel by Hamas in Gaza?
A: I think just based on the last National Defense Authorization Act, we need to continue to have that relationship with Israel, especially with technology transfer. That has been my expertise on and off for the last 26 years; that also [works in] building quick-reaction capabilities. With me in office, there isn’t going to be any difference in going forward to make sure Israel is funded with what they need to do and to help in any way necessary for Israel.
Q: There have been Democrats, such as Minnesota Rep. Betty McCollum, who have called for defunding U.S. taxpayer dollars towards Israel’s military, and even on the Republican side, such as Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who has called for decreasing assistance to Israel over time. What are your thoughts on these positions?
A: The assistance has to be comparable to what we do with Israel, so it’s something that I support, to continue funding for Israel with at least the current levels.
Q: What is your view on American funding for the Palestinian Authority?
A: The Palestinian Authority has some issues and challenges that we need to address. But as far as funding for them, that’s not something I would support.
Q: What are your sentiments on the 2015 Iran nuclear deal?
A: Not a fan. I’m happy that U.S. President [Donald] Trump withdrew the United States from it.
I’ve dealt with terrorism based on what I’ve done in the counterterrorism field. Knowing that some of those funds that went to Iran could be used for actual activities involving terrorism or activities across the world that are detrimental to the U.S. and Israel, I believe President Trump made the right move.
Q: Do you support the reimposition of sanctions on Iran?
Q: Even with the waivers issued for eight countries, such as Turkey, over importing Iranian oil?
A: If we’re going to have sanctions on Iran, it’s pretty hard to execute with waivers in place. I would say, initially, I would be against any waivers on sanctions specifically.
Q: How would you respond to the argument that these waivers allow for the price of oil to stay relatively low?
A: Relatively low for whom? If we look at energy production across the world, my guess is that we have other allies that can increase production, or we can do other things for supply and demand.
Q: What allies specifically?
A: When you’re looking at, sadly, some of our allies are having issues, like Saudi Arabia. There are other places around the world that we can tap into when you look at production, and even in South America, but also in the United States. If there’s something that happens where we have to look at waivers based on the world economy as it stands, then that’s something I’d have to research because I haven’t looked into that specifically. But right now, initially, you can’t have sanctions with waivers. It defeats the purpose.
Q: Would you be for importing oil from Saudi Arabia even in the aftermath of the Jamal Khashoggi killing?
A: Tough decisions need to be made by the United States, and it’s something I need to look at. I’d like to see what happens first with the Khashoggi affair, to see who’s been identified specifically. I’d like to see more on that. It’s a tough decision we’d have to discuss and make.
Q: And would you say that it’s tough decision if the United States can rely on Saudi Arabia to combat Iran?
A: It is. You look at the activities going on in Yemen. Based on what I know, if Saudi Arabia was complicit all the way to the top in the Khashoggi affair, we’d have to look at not only sanctions, but also stopping weapons sales to Saudi Arabia. We have to come to a point where there’s a moral compass for the country. It’s an interesting question. I’d have to look more into this as we go forward.
Q: What’s your reaction to America moving its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, along with recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital?
A: I support that completely. Some of these questions are easy; some aren’t. I would reject moving it back out of Jerusalem.
Q: What is your reaction to national and international anti-Semitism, especially in the United Kingdom with the rise of Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn?
A: We need to identify who those actors are, and we need to stop them as soon as possible.
Q: How do we stop those actors?
A: For me, it’s about law enforcement. But it’s also about education. You look at some of these activities … I was at this religious freedom conference [last week]. If someone does something like that, I think the punishment needs to fit the crime. We need to ensure, based on our investigative technologies, that we identify who is doing this type of behavior and squash it before it comes to a head. And a lot has to do with identifying these bad actors, perhaps through domestic-terrorism entities, which is something I’ve done throughout my career.
Q: Do you have any specific plans in Congress regarding the U.S.-Israel relationship? For example, the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act would require the Department of Education to adopt the State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism in evaluating such incidents on college campuses and at other educational institutions.
A: If we need to change those definitions to ensure that people understand what anti-Semitism is, I’m all for it. I just find it amazing that kind of behavior is in the U.S., and 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 based on what I’ve done in my military career. What I’ve fought for here in the U.S. and what I’ve fought for in other countries, I think we need to have that same type of tolerance for everyone.
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. It’s something we need to stomp out. 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.
Q: What else should readers know about you?
A: I own a distillery in Virginia, and I am also just leaving being a senior consultant at the Pentagon for electronic warfare and counter-measures, so I have a lot of experience in not only building businesses, but also in supporting the military. Hopefully, I can use my background in what I’ve done with my life and living the American dream to be a great congressman for the fifth district, and to thank the Jewish community and the pro-Israel community for all the assistance because I would not be here without them. And that is the truth.