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Son’s request for Star of David necklace a ‘changing moment’ for Mazi Pilip

The Israeli-American has a strong showing in the polls in a congressional special election for the seat formerly held by George Santos.

Mazi Pilip, her husband, Adalbert Pilip, and their seven children. Credit: Official website of Mazi Melesa Pilip for Congress.
Mazi Pilip, her husband, Adalbert Pilip, and their seven children. Credit: Official website of Mazi Melesa Pilip for Congress.

An Ethiopian-born, Israeli-American relative newcomer to politics appears to be within striking distance of the seat in the U.S. Congress previously held by the disgraced George Santos.

An Emerson College poll released on Thursday suggests that Mazi Pilip, a Republican Nassau County legislator, is within the margin of error of her Democratic opponent, Tom Suozzi, in the Feb. 13 special election to fill New York’s 13th Congressional District seat. Santos vacated the seat in December, following allegations of fraud and of pretending to be Jewish, among other apparent lies.

“It’s looking good. People are very motivated, very much engaged and I’m getting a lot of the support from the community from the 3rd Congressional District,” Pilip told JNS.

“People texting me, emailing me, messaging me on Instagram,” added Pilip, whom the Republican Jewish Coalition endorsed in December. “Everybody would like to be involved, even people outside of my own district.”

Fewer voters tend to turn out for special elections, compared to regular ones, but party apparatuses and lobbies are pouring money into the race, which is seen as an early bellwether of November’s general election. The campaign could also ultimately determine control of the U.S. House of Representatives, which Republicans seized in 2022 with the help of flipped New York seats.

The latest poll shows Pilip trailing Suozzi, a three-term U.S. congressman and recent New York gubernatorial candidate, 45% to 42%, with 9% of voters still undecided in a district that includes Nassau County and the far reaches of Queens.

One of Pilip’s biggest challenges is name recognition. She is spending the accelerated campaign on the ground meeting constituents, interviewing with the press, generating advertisements and social-media content in an effort to rapidly introduce herself to the wealthiest congressional district in New York, and one of the top five nationally.

‘Operation Solomon’

Born in a remote Ethiopian village in 1979, Pilip was whisked away—with her family along with some 14,000 Jews—to Israel 12 years later during Ethiopia’s civil war. The covert military mission was called “Operation Solomon.”

“I came to Israel for a better future. A beautiful country,” Pilip told JNS.

After finishing school, she wanted to serve in the Israel Defense Forces.

“During the 1990s, when the war between Iraq and Saddam Hussein and Israel took place, I was a little girl, and we were getting a lot of help from the Israeli Embassy in Addis Ababa,” the Ethiopian capital, she said. “We were hearing about the war and were very concerned and afraid about what’s going to happen to Israel.”

With Israeli citizens forced to wear gas masks and shelter for their protection, Pilip’s friends in Ethiopia told her she wasn’t sufficiently strong to make it in the Jewish state, she told JNS.

“When we arrived in Israel, it was the first time in my life I saw a female soldier, and I was so proud,” she said. “I wanted to be just that soldier.”

Her father was concerned that his skinny teenage daughter wanted to serve in the IDF.

“I made it clear for him. There is no way I’m not serving,” Pilip said. “I gave back to the country that really gave me the opportunity for a better life.”

Mazi Pilip
Mazi Pilip. Credit: Courtesy.

She served for 21 months as a gunsmith in the IDF’s Paratroopers Brigade, before earning a bachelor’s degree in occupational therapy at the University of Haifa and a master’s degree in diplomacy and security at Tel Aviv University.

She married Ukrainian-born cardiologist Adalbert Pilip, from a family of Holocaust survivors, who was then a medical student who came from the United States to study at the TechnionTechnion–Israel Institute of Technology.

‘Can’t complain from the outside’

The two dated for nearly three years, and along the way, Pilip visited the United States “to see what America is about.” Some 17 years later, the two have seven children “and are very happy,” she said. “America has been a great country for me. Being a mother, you think differently. It is no longer about me or my husband; it’s about the future of my children.”

The two moved to the United States in 2005, settling in Great Neck, N.Y.

Three years ago, during the last war in Gaza and with antisemitism rising, Pilip’s son, who was preparing for his bar mitzvah, asked his grandparents to gift him a Star of David necklace.

“I was very proud that he was asking for it, but I was very much concerned,” Pilip said. “I didn’t tell him that because I didn’t want to hurt his confidence. But deep in my heart, I asked myself how I’m going to give him that necklace if he’s going to walk on the street and something is going to happen.”

In what she calls a critical moment, Pilip reversed course and decided that she mustn’t worry in the United States about her children walking around safely as proud Jews.

“That was a changing moment for me. I started to get involved, and when the Republican Party was looking for a candidate for the county legislator seat, they approached me. There was a perfect moment,” she said. “You can’t complain from the outside. You have to be in there to put in place new policies that are going to protect your values.”

Atypical politician

Defeating a four-time Democratic incumbent weeks after giving birth to twin daughters, Pilip secured a seat in the Nassau County legislature in 2021—the first Republican from Great Neck to do so. 

She won on a platform of public safety, business recovery following the pandemic and battling antisemitism. When she won a second term in November, she dedicated the victory to Israel.

“I am not a typical politician. I don’t like to talk. I like to deliver,” said Pilip, whose third language is English. “People want politicians who care and are willing to fight.” (She grew up speaking Amharic and also speaks Hebrew.)

She cites her prior work decreasing property taxes, funding police fully, improving roads and supporting small businesses, and on a national level, she would prioritize border security.

“I’m all about immigrants. I want immigrants to have the same opportunity that I got and that my husband received, but it has to be in the right way,” she said. “They are coming here for a better life. We have to have a plan in place to help them.”

Pilip noted her struggles moving to Israel. Her father did not speak Hebrew and struggled to help Pilip with her homework.

“As a child, it’s devastating. You just want to give up. So the support system is so important to build a strong society,” she said. “It’s all about education and helping them to integrate. The Biden administration and the Squad members’ policies, and those of Tom Suozzi, are hurting the American people and the migrants.”

Oct. 7

Israel is a focus of Pilip’s campaign. The district, N.Y.-3, includes a large Jewish population, and Pilip is finding the Jewish state is important for many non-Jews, too.

“The vicious attack on Israel on Oct. 7 should really open our eyes, and we should be concerned because Hamas has supporters here in the United States,” Pilip said.

She cited violent, pro-Hamas rallies in the New York area. 

“People think that it’s OK to support this terrorist organization and disrupt the American people,” she said. “This is happening when we have weak law enforcement, a weak president and weak Congress members that are allowing those kinds of things to take place.”

While the Republican Party plucked Pilip for the race as a relative novice, her opponent, Suozzi, is a known figure in New York politics. Pilip is focusing on her strengths and aims to pick apart Suozzi’s record, she told JNS.

“Suozzi was part of the problem. He created the problem. His time is over,” she said.

Her opponent has a propensity to raise taxes, including when he served as a county executive, she claimed. Still, critics have focused on Pilip’s recent turn as a Republican, and she remains registered as a Democrat, leading some to fear she is a plant who is out to cost Republicans a congressional seat.

Critics from the other side, meanwhile, paint her as a hard-right MAGA (Make America Great Again) acolyte in the making.

Pilip is trying hard to eschew labels and avoid being painted as an extremist, she told JNS.

“I’m a candidate for the people. My policies are not extreme,” she said. “I am a religious person, and I am pro-life. But I will never support a national abortion ban. I’m not going to risk any woman’s right when it comes to their health.”

Pilip wants to bring some normalcy back to her district after last year’s circus involving Santos, who was booted from Washington following a long list of scandals and criminal troubles.

“It is unfortunate, but he’s out,” Pilip said of Santos. “It’s not about Santos, or me or Suozzi. This is about the future of our country. The issue is that extreme policies out there are hurting the American people. The issue is our economy. Those are the issues, and this is what really concerns the residents of the 3rd Congressional District.”

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