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)
National Journal
Sept. 10, 2013, 2 a.m.

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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