(December 26, 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 Tim Burchett, 54, is a state legislator who defeated Democrat Renee Hoyos in the 2018 midterm elections in Tennessee’s 2nd Congressional District to replace longtime Congressman Jimmy Duncan.
Burchett was part of a recent bipartisan delegation of incoming members of Congress visiting Israel for almost a week.
JNS talked with Burchett by phone. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: You were just in Israel. What is your overall stance on the U.S.-Israel relationship?
A: It’s strong. I’ve always had a love for Israel and just Jewish folks in general. That may not be very politically correct, but my folks here that know me know where my heart is. You really can’t understand it until you’re there. You can look at National Geographic and see the pictures of Israel, Gaza and the border with Syria—all that stuff—but until you really see it and talk to the people around it, you don’t really have an appreciation or an understanding of it. You just have to be immersed in it for years before you can get all the nuances and the different tribes and the different folks and the different people that are battling each other and themselves.
Q: Do you mind elaborating on your trip?
A: It was intensive—very little sleep and a lot of meetings with the Labor Party and with [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu [of the Likud Party]. A great meeting with [U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman]. He had very little time, but he just said, “Forget it,” and he met with us. I was really impressed with him and his knowledge of everything going on—all the mechanisms at work and America’s interest over there.
Q: What was your meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu like?
A: It was pretty intense, an hour long or more. You know who calls the shots over there. He is a bigger-than-life person when you meet him. You can see how he is the leader over there.
Q: What was discussed in that meeting?
A: I’m not really at liberty to give too many details. Of course, we talked about security and the challenges that the Israelis folks face day-to-day, and what he’s up against.
Q: You talk about the trip being intensive. What specifically made it so?
A: Just the meetings we went to; they were just back-to-back. They couldn’t shoehorn in another meeting, I don’t think.
We weren’t just meeting with the prime minister; we also met with [Palestinian diplomat Saeb Erekat] on their turf. We talked about the pensions paid for people who kill Israelis and die in the process. He equated that to American laws, which I’m very much aware of due to my work in the [state] legislature, and labor laws for those who die on the job in the U.S. Their families are paid a pension. I said that no one [in the U.S.] is blowing someone else up.
Q: What is your reaction to some of the anti-Israel verbiage coming from incoming Democrats Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez?
A: They’re dinosaurs. There’s no room in American politics for anti-Semitic remarks. We better wake up as a nation.
Q: What is your stance on the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal, from which America withdrew in May?
A: That was a nightmare. That was a mistake—a big mistake. The American public basically got ripped off, and they trusted Obama. I didn’t trust him. It was a horrible deal, and the national media was in bed with Obama and they should’ve exposed that for what it was. We gave a bunch of terrorists money, billions of dollars, and it was just wrong.
Q: What is your reaction to reports that U.S. President Donald Trump will withdraw U.S. troops from Syria?
A: We need to start getting out of the Middle East. We need to neutralize. If we could devalue their oil, in my opinion, we would turn them all into basically back into a tribal system. I know that’s probably a little idealistic and not a reality right now, but I don’t know enough about all that to really comment.
I don’t think there’s one battle or conflict over there that’s worth an American boy or girl dying for. I would rather fight them over there than fight them at West Town Mall, but I don’t see Americans dying in Syria.
But I think we need to fight and protect Israel. I guess I’m oversimplifying things. Unless our mission is to protect Israel over there, I don’t see any purpose for us being over there. If removal of troops from Syria destabilizes the security of Israel, I cannot support it. I’m for reducing our military presence in the Middle East, but not at the expense of Israel’s safety.
Q: Did you support President Barack Obama withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq?
A: No, I didn’t. Obama capitulated to [the Islamic State]. We turned our back on Israel.
Q: What is your stance on BDS?
A: They totally disgust me. I remain loyal to Israel.
Q: How do they disgust you?
A: Comparing Israel to apartheid is wrong. I asked Benjamin Netanyahu about that very thing.
Q: And what did he say?
A: He really didn’t answer me. It’s kind of interesting. He wanted to make some statements and a lot of what we said was not necessarily. … He’s freaking Benjamin Netanyahu; he sort of says what he wants to and that’s kind of his [modus operandi].
Q: What are your thoughts on funding for Israel’s military, especially in the aftermath of the latest conflicts against Hamas and Hezbollah, as well as the discovery of tunnels from Lebanon into northern Israel?
A: Whoever was providing the money for the tunnels spent $10 million to $20 million for those tunnels, and that was money they could have used for hospitals or schools. They’re just used for terror, they’re used to get behind the lines and ambush Israelis, and they’re not just some tunnels. It’s not just a couple of kids digging a hole across the border. You can go in and see Arabic markings on the sides of the tunnels from the companies that had produced the concrete that went in. They’re well-engineered, and they spent a lot of money on that.
They claim they don’t have enough money to build hospitals or schools, but they’re spending money on tunnels. To me, it’s a bad situation.
But going back to the BDS thing, that’s just a way to undermine Israel, and there’s no way in the world I’d support that.
Q: Speaking of misusing funds, what’s your stance on U.S. assistance to the Palestinian Authority, even for humanitarian purposes?
A: The problem is how do you make sure it’s humanitarian? That’s an accountant’s trick, I’ve learned in small government here in America as a [Knox County] mayor. You give groups or organizations money, and then they claim they’re just using it for this and that, but how do you keep it from going into the other? If we’re going to give [the P.A.] humanitarian aid, then we should give them bandages and medicine and things like that, but then, on the other hand, they use their money for other things. But if they’re not going to going to play ball with us, then we cut them off. They’re going to have to prove that they’re not using the funds for other things.
Q: What about U.S. funding for P.A. security forces?
A: President [Ronald] Reagan used to have a saying, “Trust, but verify.” If they can’t verify what they’re doing, then they need to be cut off completely.
Q: What was your reaction to the U.S. embassy moving from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem?
A: I loved it. I was glad President Trump kept his word. Obama had said that before he was going to do it, and then he got in office and doesn’t do it. I thought it was a great move on [Trump’s] part and showed America’s allegiance to Israel.
Q: Are you worried that were a Democrat to win the White House in 2020 or 2024, he or she would move the embassy back to Tel Aviv?
A: I think that would be a dumb move. I think everybody wanted it done, and Trump had the guts to do it.
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: I talk about that on the college campuses. You have an anti-Semitic, anti-Christian viewpoint. The toughest thing to be on a college campus is a practicing Jew or a practicing Christian. The First Amendment should apply to everyone. Private schools, they can pretty much do what they want, but the public institutions like the University of Tennessee, for instance, I think that [anti-Semitic] and anti-Christian viewpoints are flourishing on these campuses. I think it’s partly due to the fact that we have these so-called radicals allowed to teach. I believe in the First Amendment, but it’s got to go both ways. If you think there’s diversity on a college campus, tell me how many Republicans are teaching on these college campuses. Very few.
Q: Are you aware of the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act?
A: No, I am not.
Q: It’s a bill that 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: I’d be in support of that, I believe. You got to realize where I come from: My dad fought in the Second World War, and my mother lost a brother fighting the Nazis, so my love of Israel and hatred of anti-Semitism run pretty deep.