(August 9, 2019 / JNS) Since Democrats were swept into power in the U.S. House of Representatives in November—with some harboring more progressive views than the mainstream—questions have rattled many in the Jewish community over whether or not the party would continue its long-held support for Israel. In particular, “the Squad” of four incoming congresswomen—Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.). Rep Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who coined the term—have rifled the political waters and made significant headlines for their views and actions.
Still, concerns over the demise of bipartisan support for Israel among this new wave of Democrats may be premature. The largest-ever delegation of Democratic freshman members of Congress—32 of 41 in total on the trip—toured Israel this week, led by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).
“It pleases me to see so many House Democrats visiting Israel, “Hoyer told JNS. “This reaffirms our support for a critical U.S. ally. It is important for members to learn about the challenges and opportunities facing Israel and the Middle East.”
The Aug. 5 to Aug. 11 visit by the Democratic congressional delegation, which was sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation (AIEF), an AIPAC-affiliated foundation, included meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz, and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas.
In his address to the delegation, Netanyahu emphasized Israel’s shifting role in the world as a startup nation and technological powerhouse, noting that the Jewish state is gaining partnerships in places once unheard of, including with Arab nations.
“There is an exceptional revolution taking place in Israel’s position in the world,” Netanyahu said to the delegation.
“We’re forging new agreements—300 agreements in three years. Given that we have a lot of holidays here, that’s about one agreement every two days,” he said. “Something very, very big is happening here.”
The delegation also met with Israeli civil-society leaders, young Palestinian entrepreneurs and peace activists. Members also traveled to Israel’s borders with Lebanon and Syria, and saw historical and cultural sites, including the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum and Memorial.
Among their many meetings, the delegation spoke with Oded Revivi, chief foreign envoy of the YESHA Council as well as mayor of Efrat, a settlement in the disputed territories. Revivi told JNS, “Members came with a desire to learn and truly understand the issues. They all asked good questions, and I am happy that a forum was presented where I could answer their questions and explain how we see the conflict and possible resolutions.”
He added, “That’s all we can ask of leaders from around the world.”
‘Where the party really is,’ despite the opposition
Despite the large turnout, the congressional trip was not without its detractors on the far-left.
Anti-Israel groups Code Pink and IfNotNow initially tried to pressure members not to join, including a campaign titled #SkiptheTrip. Code Pink announced on Twitter that “the purpose of the AIPAC-sponsored trips is to whitewash Israel’s human rights violations and continue unchecked U.S. financial and diplomatic support for Israel—all at the expense of Palestinian rights. The fewer Congress members that travel with AIPAC, the better odds for peace in Israel/Palestine and for avoiding a war with Iran.”
IfNotNow called the visit one that presents “a false picture of Israel” and started an online petition against it.
Additionally, the several outspoken critics of Israel—Omar, Tlaib and Ocasio-Cortez—didn’t go. Omar and Tlaib have announced their own delegation to the region, although no plans for such a trip have been confirmed.
“We’re forging new agreements—300 agreements in three years. Given that we have a lot of holidays here, that’s about one agreement every two days. Something very, very big is happening here.”
Hoyer dismissed these criticisms, saying the group specifically met with key Israeli and Palestinian leaders to ensure that they would hear from all sides in the conflict and be able to frame their own opinions.
He also downplayed the impact of the congresswomen in question who refused the invitation, telling JNS that “they are three out of 63 freshmen Democrats and three out of the 239 Democrats in the House. There have always been members on both sides of the aisle who have been critical of Israel, but they have always been a very small minority, and I believe they will always continue to be.”
Similarly, Mark Mellman, CEO of the Democratic Majority for Israel, said that the purported rift within the Democratic Party over Israel is overplayed in the media.
“The overwhelming majority of Democrats supports Israel. That fact has not changed at all. There are a few members from the party who do not, but unfortunately, they are the ones who get 100 times more press coverage than the rest of the party,” he stated.
Mellman pointed to the anti-BDS vote, which passed by 396-17 in the House, as an indication of “where the party really is, as opposed to the media hype over a small group of lawmakers.”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy is leading a mission to Israel of 31 Republican members, who arrived in Israel on Aug. 9 and will stay until Aug. 15. All are scheduled—Democrats and Republicans alike—for a joint press conference in Jerusalem on Sunday, bringing 16 percent of the entire U.S. House of Representative in one room in the Jewish state.
Hoyer doesn’t see this occurrence as a simple get-together, as both sides of the aisle consider issues relating to the Middle East. He told JNS that “it’s important that the people of Israel and supporters of Israel hear that 90 percent of Congress supports Israel.”