(August 16, 2019 / JNS) The decision by Israel to bar Reps. Rashid Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) due to their support for the anti-Israel BDS movement has generated international headlines while at the same time sparking further partisan divide and debate. The controversy over the congresswomen, however, comes shortly after of a visit to Israel by 72 fellow members of the U.S. House of Representatives that seemed to highlight rare public goodwill between Democrats and Republicans, as well as the broad bipartisan support that Israel still enjoys among lawmakers.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said “all members should visit Israel if they come with open minds, open eyes and open ears—ready to hear all sides.”
He told JNS that “coming to Israel and seeing it for themselves transforms every member from simply believing that the United States should support Israel to feeling the strong bond the United States has with Israel.”
McCarthy led the Republican contingent of a visit to Israel that wrapped up this week, sponsored by the American Israeli Education Foundation (AIEF), a division of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
Both Omar and Tlaib rejected the AIEF-sponsored tour.
Despite their known hostility towards the Jewish state, Israel initially permitted Omar and Tlaib to visit the country “out of respect for Congress.” However, after it emerged that the two congresswomen’s visit would be one-sided and include only meeting with BDS groups, some with ties to terrorist organizations, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reverse course.
“[T]he itinerary of the two Congresswomen reveals that the sole purpose of their visit is to harm Israel and increase incitement against it,” he said in a statement.
The pronouncement did come shortly after a tweet by U.S. President Donald Trump to deny entry to what he says is a radical element within Democrats.
‘Merely a distraction’
Members of the Republican delegation said the focus should be on the large majority of moderate Democrats and Republicans who support the Jewish state.
Rep. Ron Estes (R-Kan.), there for the first time, said the bipartisan visit was more than symbolic, relating that “Democrats and Republicans had a few days to spend time together in Israel, during which we talked with one another about the issues and developed working relationships.”
The more radical side of the Democratic Party is “merely a distraction,” said Estes, adding that “social media allows them to try to build themselves up with outlandish statements.”
Estes also came away impressed with the “entrepreneurial spirit and startup business capabilities,” which he has seen in Israel. Israel’s water technology “can be used to solve water problems in his home state of Kansas,” he said, “and to solve water problems throughout the world. Israel is the world leader when it comes to this issue.”
He also noted that he was moved by touring and seeing “the phenomenal history of all faiths.”
As to the fringe element of the Democratic Party, Rep. William Timmons (R-S.C.) went further and told JNS that “they are just 2½ percent of Congress, and they are simply attention-grabbers. The less time we spend on the loudest voices, the better. The edges will always be unhappy.”
McCarthy explained to JNS that since becoming a House Republican leader in 2014, he believes that nothing cements support for Israel like bringing members of Congress to visit Israel’s borders with Syria, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, as well as meeting with decision-makers in the region.
‘A testament to the people of Israel’
Several members of the Republican delegation to Israel explained how the trip offered new insight into the country and the region.
Rep. Denver Riggleman (R-Va.), on his third trip to Israel, told JNS that visiting for the first time as an elected official exposed how the U.S.-Israel relationship is “all about shared values of freedom.”
Riggleman, who served in U.S. Air Force intelligence, said he was “blown away by Israel’s technology in air defense,” going as far to say that “there is no country in the world better than Israel when it comes to air defense, both technologically and operationally. There is expertise in Israel that cannot be found anywhere else in the world.”
Rep. Clay Higgins (R-La.), as a first-timer, told JNS that “as a man of faith, the visit has been moving, uplifting and sobering.” He said he expected Israelis to live under a constant sense of threat, with nervousness permeating the society as a result. “But the people in Israel are so joyous,” he observed. “It’s easy to forget that this is the Middle East. They go about their daily lives with a sense of confidence and security, and are thriving.”
He stated that “this is a testament to the people of Israel, and the power of the cornerstone of Jewish strength, enduring faith and beautiful spirit.”
Rep. Bryan Steil (R-Wisc.) had been to Israel before on business, though told JNS that “coming to Israel as an elected official, I saw shown Israel’s unique security situation.”
After touring the borders and receiving briefings from political and military officials, the visit, he said, has “reaffirmed the need for the U.S. commitment to Israel’s security.”
Timmons, who had not been in Israel for 11 years, told JNS that two things struck him all this time later: “When I was here in 2008, the climate felt much more intense; there was a sense that people were focused on their survival. The environment feels more moderate now because of the relative peace.”
Confronting anti-Semitism on the left and the right
Despite the goodwill, the Republican House members did say that extremism on both sides of the aisle need to be tackled.
Steil said “our partners across the aisle need to address some of their issues,” with Higgins calling for stronger condemnation of their anti-Israel element.
“There must be public condemnation and consequences for such statements,” he said. “They must be censured. How are they still sitting on their committees?”
Riggleman spoke with emotion to JNS as he as he recalled the two-year anniversary of the white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., which is in in his district, noting that anti-Semitism on the right must also be confronted.
He said based on his background in counter-terrorism and intelligence, he knows that people are being radicalized online. “We have the laws to after them, and we must go after them,” he said.
Moving forward, McCarthy assured that the goodwill developed in Israel will remain and bipartisan support of Israel will continue.
“As leader of the Republican Party in the House, I will continue to work with the Democratic leadership to combat BDS, fight against anti-Semitism and to make sure that the loud anti-Israel voices remain a minority in Congress.”
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