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Politics

Jewish Lawmakers Under Pressure on Syria

They are more supportive than most, but many Jewish members of Congress are still torn on striking Assad.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., leaves a closed-door briefing on Syria, Sept. 9, 2013, Capitol Hill. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

photo of Beth Reinhard
September 10, 2013

With John Kerry and other supporters of U.S. military action against Syria comparing Damascus to Nazi Germany, the Obama administration is putting extraordinary pressure on members of Congress to approve a strike meant to punish Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons.

But even Jewish members of Congress – for whom such Holocaust references are particularly powerful – are struggling with whether to authorize action. In fact, while Jewish lawmakers are more supportive of military strikes than the House and Senate at large, they remain divided.

Of the 32 Jewish members, 13 support strikes, six oppose or are leaning against them, and 13 are undecided. Those in favor of military action include top party bosses in the House, Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor, while Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson of Florida has emerged as one of the most outspoken opponents.

 

The disunified Jewish caucus reinforces the daunting challenges facing President Obama as he makes his case to Congress and on national television Tuesday night. That his strongest ally in Washington these days is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which has harbored an uneasy relationship with the White House, reflects the odd and unexpected alliances forming on both sides of this foreign policy debate.

For Jewish Democrats in Congress – Cantor is the only Jewish Republican – the crisis pits their liberal resistance to war against their sensitivity to concerns about Israel's security and the lessons of the Holocaust. Ari Fleischer, a Jewish Republican who served as White House press secretary when President George W. Bush began bombing Iraq in 2002, says ideology typically outweighs religion in politics.

"Members of Congress are liberal or conservative before they are Jewish," said Fleischer, who recalled winning support for the war in Iraq from most but not all of the Jewish members. "That's simply the way governing works, and if you're liberal, this is a hard vote to accept."

Fleischer supports military strikes and said he fears that AIPAC's influence may be on the wane at a time when the Republican Party's hawkish consensus for most of the past few decades is cracking. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who is expected to seek the Republican nomination in 2016, is leading this libertarian, non-interventionist movement of conservatives skeptical of foreign entanglements.

"There's this odd juncture of the libertarian right and its fierce distrust of government and the far-out, don't-intervene left," Fleischer said. "This vote will test it. (AIPAC) hasn't really been put to the test since the rise of these groups."

Jewish members aren't the only ones feeling the pressure. So are Republican neoconservatives and members from states with large Jewish populations, like New York, New Jersey, California, and Florida. One notable defector was Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a typically hawkish Republican who visited Israel for the first time just days after his 2010 election.

"Yes, I am disappointed," said Norman Braman, a Republican donor and past president of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation who spent time in Israel with Rubio. "History has shown that when we stand on the sidelines as we did in the 1930s, we pay a price later on."

AIPAC spent $2.8 million on lobbying in 2012, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Its statement in support of military strikes notes that Syria is a close ally of Iran and a conduit for Iranian aid to anti-Israel terrorist groups, such as Hamas and Hezbollah. Hundreds of AIPAC representatives from around the country are descending on Capitol Hill this week in what one staffer described as "pressure as intense as I've ever seen."

"When I looked at pictures of the victims and I saw children, hundreds of them, it tore me apart," said Stanley Tate, a founding member of AIPAC from Miami who is meeting with several members of Congress this week. "Chemical warfare as such cannot be tolerated."

AIPAC and other Jewish community leaders appear to be making the most organized effort in favor of a vote authorizing the president to take military action. Inside Congress, even some of the president's supporters are refraining from arm-twisting. Cantor wrote a column explaining his support for strikes in his hometown newspaper, the Richmond Times-Dispatch, but it was aimed at his constituents, not his colleagues. The most senior Jewish member of Congress, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., organized a call between his Jewish colleagues and White House officials last week. He's undecided.

"The Jewish members rarely vote as a bloc because there are frequently debates about the best way to help Israel and there are always other issues that they are thinking about," said Stephen Zunes, a professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco. "I'd be surprised if their voting pattern on Syria was substantially different from the non-Jewish members."

The crisis in Syria has even united the Republican Jewish Coalition and the National Jewish Democratic Council in support of military strikes, despite their opposing political agendas. The American Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee also are on board.

"The Jewish community has for so long been at the forefront of social justice and human rights issues, and when you have a dictator that killed more than 1,400 people, indiscriminately killing kids and innocent civilians, it matters to the Jewish community whether we respond to that and are prepared to let that happen again," said Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., who is among the 13 Jewish members backing strikes. "Not lost on the Jewish community is that he is gassing his own people, which has a special resonance for us."

Still, some of the Jewish members remain unconvinced that military strikes will reduce the threat to Israel's security. Grayson, a firebrand who calls himself "a congressman with guts," argues that attacking the Syrian government would actually increase the likelihood of a terrorist offensive. He and Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz are the two Jewish members -- so far -- who have declared their opposition to the president's plan.

"Debilitating the command and control structure in Syria dramatically increases the chances that those weapons will fall into the hands of terrorists who will use them against Israel," Grayson said. "An attack would pose enormous dangers for our interests and for Israel's interests."

 

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