(January 22, 2019 / JNS) Editor’s Note: A number of freshman members of Congress, including those in the new Democratic House majority, will 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.
Republican Rep. Dustin “Dusty” Johnson, 42, beat retired judge Tim Bjorkman, a Democrat, in South Dakota’s at-large district in the 2018 midterm elections to replace Kristi Noem, who went on to be elected the state’s first female governor.
JNS talked with Johnson in person. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: What is your overall stance on the U.S.-Israel relationship?
A: I think it’s one of the most special relationships the United States has. I think it’s critically important for the security of the U.S. I think it’s also the right thing to do. Clearly, the Israeli commitment to the rule of law, to liberty, to rights, is very similar to America’s. In that regard, I think that’s a special bond we’re preserving.
Q: As someone who worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, are you familiar with Israel’s agriculture, such as drip irrigation?
A: Sure. From what I understand, Israel has been a leader in the development of technology to aid agriculture, and that’s the way the industry has moved. We need to continue to feed the world, and we’re not going to do that through outdated methods. We need to continue to deploy technology and smart practices. Israel has been a leader in that area.
Q: Did you deal with Israel at the Department of Agriculture?
A: No. When I was at USDA, I was focused on rural development. It was an internal-focused portfolio.
Q: What’s your reaction to some of the recent anti-Israel verbiage from freshmen Democratic Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib?
A: I think we need be better in understanding how language can put a wedge between the U.S. and our allies. The U.S.-Israel relationship is special, and it’s important to preserve it. We have members in Congress who use language that is not helpful.
Q: Do you think they represent the growing trend in the Democratic Party?
A: I don’t have a good sense of that. You can see the spirit of the House pretty clearly in its vote overwhelmingly to condemn some of the inappropriate language used by Congressman Steve King (R-Iowa). I think you’re going to see a broadening conversation. Congressman King is not the only American who has used language that is problematic in recent weeks and months. So I do think you’re going to see broadening scrutiny at least through some in the Democratic caucus.
Q: What is your reaction to the planned U.S. withdrawal of troops from Syria?
A: I want the situation to be as the president describes it, that ISIS is defeated. I don’t know the facts on the ground as well as the president. It’s something I’m looking into. We want to make sure we’re leaving the situation in a position of stability and something that will aim the long-term security of the U.S., Israel and other freedom-loving people. So it’s something I’m continuing to look at.
Q: In addition to ISIS, should America have its troops there to combat the Iranian threat?
A: I think boots on the ground should be deployed when there’s a clear threat to American interests; like many Americans, I’ve been concerned about longstanding multi-decade deployments of men and women in the Middle East. But I’m not in favor of pulling back all those troops either. I think America’s presence is going to be important in different times in different places to be sure that we have a stable world.
Q: And does that apply to protecting our allies such as the Kurds?
A: That’s a very fact-based determination I’m not in a position to make. I’m brand-new in Congress, so I haven’t had the kind of confidential briefings that I would need. Certainly, the Kurds are our allies. There’s been a special bond between the Kurds and the U.S. for many years, and I think we need to honor that relationship. To what extent that will mean … men, women deployed in harm’s way, I don’t have a good sense of.
Q: To combat the Iranian threat, should there be a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force?
A: That’s not an area of my expertise.
Q: What’s your take on the 2015 Iran nuclear deal?
A: I was not a big fan of the deal at the time it was cut. I have grave concerns about Iran’s actions. I don’t think they negotiated or act in good faith on a very regular basis. I think they will continue to be a threat to world security, and so I view that country and those actions with a high degree of skepticism.
Q: Did you support the reimposition of sanctions on Iran?
A: I would continue to view our interactions with Iranians with a high degree of skepticism.
Q: What is your stance on BDS?
A: I don’t believe that’s the right approach.
Q: Why is that?
A: I think Israel is working hard to manage the security threats that they face. I’m concerned that some of my friends on the left are viewing Israeli efforts in a light that is more negative than is needed. I think the boycott efforts are misplaced. I don’t think the best way for us to bring increased stability in the Middle East.
Q: What is your take on U.S. funding for Israel’s military, especially in the aftermath of the latest Israeli conflicts against Hamas and Hezbollah?
A: We’ve had a longstanding military relationship with Israel. Both countries gain a lot from that relationship in terms of technology and intelligence exchange. I think continuing that relationship in the future is clearly beneficial to both countries.
Q: What’s your reaction to Senate Democrats blocking a bill that would further the U.S. relationship with both Israel and Jordan, impose sanctions on Syria and fight the BDS movement at home?
A: I’ve not been familiar with that.
Q: What is your take on U.S. assistance to the Palestinian Authority?
A: I’m not well-versed in what our funding has been in the past and what the funding proposals are from the administration for the future.
Q: What’s your reaction to the United States moving its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem?
A: I was impressed by the move. I think the way that allies interact with one another is that if they tell you this is where their embassy is going to be, I think respectful people honor that request.
Q: What’s your reaction to the rise in anti-Semitism in America and abroad?
A: There’s no room for it, and it’s completely unacceptable. I think we all individually and collectively need to do more to stamp it out.
Q: How do we stamp in out?
A: In part, by leading by example. In the quiet, little moments in our lives when we have someone who says something that is inappropriate, I think we need to call it out in a respectful way. I think there’s a role in foreign diplomacy that countries that take anti-Semitic actions are rebuffed, and it comes down to leadership.
Q: What’s your reaction to the House passing the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism Act?
A: I voted for that legislation. I’m glad to see it brought back forth.
Q: Have you ever been to Israel?
A: No, although I’m in active talks to go this year.
Q: That would be on the AIPAC trip?
A: That’s one of two trips that I’m looking at.
Q: What’s the other?
A: Some Minnesota friends and supporters of Israel are talking about a trip to Israel that would be with a smaller number of members of Congress.