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Friends in High Places: An Interview with Congressmen Barney Frank and Gary Ackerman

The news cycle in Israel is short — very short. Just two weeks ago, when I interviewed Congressman Barney Frank and Gary Ackerman after a convention of the International Council of Jewish Parliamentarians, it seemed like Israel was undergoing an … Read More

By / February 1, 2006

The news cycle in Israel is short — very short. Just two weeks ago, when I interviewed Congressman Barney Frank and Gary Ackerman after a convention of the International Council of Jewish Parliamentarians, it seemed like Israel was undergoing an unprecedented political crisis, as it came to terms with the incapacitation of its larger-than-life prime minister. But now, after the Hamas election, all that seems like old news. Now we wonder not whether the “security fence” ought to have been built, but whether it’s been built high enough. No more questioning that a large percentage of the Palestinian public would like to see Israel destroyed — they just voted for it. And now, we wonder what once-in-a-lifetime event will happen next.

Of course, the election of Hamas was as much about disgust with the corrupt and venal Fatah movement as about anything having to do with Israel. After all, how many regimes can steal $1 billion from a people of only three million, and expect to get reelected? But it is also, in a sense, the defeat of a certain unspoken neo-conservative assumption: that, if people are free and democracy operates smoothly, then generally reasonable, pro-peace governments will be elected.

Democracy was already a central topic when I spoke with the two congressman — both Jewish, both Democratic, and both from America’s Blue-State Northeast (Ackerman is from New York, Frank from Massachusetts) — a few weeks ago. They each praised Israel’s resilient democracy, which was weathering the unprecedented storm of having its leader in a coma, from which he now seems unlikely to ever wake up. They talked about why progressives tend to be so critical of Israel, and why perhaps they oughtn’t be. And they both talked about the dual loyalties many diaspora Jews feel, both for the country of their birth and for the country of their people.

So, you’d planned to come to Israel for a conference of Jewish parliamentarians, but it seems like you’ve gotten more than you bargained for.

Ackerman: You know, I’ve been coming here several times a year since 1983, and every time somebody says “you’ve come at an interesting time.” I think what’s been striking for me is that, with the pall of the Prime Minister’s situation hanging over everything, still democracy is surging forward without a glitch.

Frank: It is remarkable that Israel is now in this very tense situation, hit with this awful situation with the prime minister, and yet, while people are very sad about it, there’s no instability. I think America was more in turmoil when Reagan was shot. And I didn’t hear any equivalent of Al Haig saying “I’m in charge here” in the Knesset.

How did you feel about the meeting the group of Jewish parliamentarians had with the Director General of Hadassah Hospital?

Ackerman: I did my own vigil the night before the conference – I was the only one from the group there, and went trying to be anonymous, just to stand there. That was awesome and overwhelming. [As far as the group meeting,] I had mixed feelings — a lot of us had concerns with us going as a group, with the buses and everything, that it would look like a media circus. But as it turned out, the media was its own circus.

Frank: I didn’t go. I’m not big on public praying. Besides, if God will hear our prayers at the hospital, then He’ll hear them at the David Citadel too. You know, obviously Prime Minister Sharon has been very important, but I think some of this is almost idolatrous. I don’t want to be getting publicity over somebody’s grave illness

Ackerman: One of the things that struck me, the director gave us a tour, and I was amazed that the hospital had a bomb-proof operating proof. I mean, I knew they took pains to protect the Chagall windows – but a gas-proof and bomp-proof operating room, that was a new one.

In the progressive community, there’s a tremendous amount of anti-Israel sentiment; you rarely find anyone defending Israel’s actions in the territories. And yet at the same time, almost all the Jewish members of the U.S. Congress are Democrats, and Jews still tend to vote more liberal than conservative. What do you think explains the anti-Israel feeling on the left, and this curious coincidence?

Frank: You know, in every value that motivates those of us on the Left politically, Israel towers above the other countries in the region. It’s a double standard for people who profess support for democracy to demonize Israel. This doesn’t say you can’t say that the fence shouldn’t follow the route it’s following, or that the Israelis should withdraw sooner. But there are many groups on the Left that don’t understand the history. A lot of the young people have walked in toward the end of the movie, so to speak, and what they see is a powerful nation occupying non-white people- they don’t know about 1948, they don’t know that [the Six Day War in] 1967 was a war forced on Israel.

I think Israel should be trying hard to withdrawal from the West Bank, because of the importance of democracy: you can’t have a Jewish democratic state with several million people under your rule. Really, though, it’s gotten easier for those of us on the Left — at the moment, all the movement is in the correct direction. One of the disappointing things is what’s going on with the Palestinians. We have this frustrating situation where Arafat could have made piece, but didn’t want to, and now Abu Mazen wants to make peace but may not be able to.

But I don’t think you leave out of accounting the domestic situation in Israel. Internationally, if you look at spectrum of liberal values, Israel as a country is on the Left. For example, I think the plan for World Pride in 2006 — at the same time as the United Arab Emirates are forcing hormones on gay people — is really one of the best selling points about Israel. How can you be 100% on the side of those who persecute gay people, rather than the side of those who gives asylum to those who are persecuted?

Having said that, I was struck by the growing polarity between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv — it’s like the red states and blue states of America reproduced. In terms of cultural and intellectual differences – Jerusalem and Tel Aviv have moved further apart.

Ackerman: It’s the David and Goliath issue. People who are kind and sympathetic and understanding, and therefore by definition are liberals, have a marked tendency to be sympathetic to the underdog. Israel from its very conception was the underdog: the nations all around it declared a state of war and tried to erase them from the map. At that time, most of the liberal world was sympathetic to a little country striving to survive. They struggled mightily, and were democratic, and the Left was understanding. But then suddenly [late PA Chairman] Yasser Arafat with his maniacal shrewdness was able to get the world’s attention through horrendous, frightening means: murder, assassination, and terror. The pictures that they put out were of little children being chased by big, bad soldiers who had guns, of kids with pebbles against guys with cannons. And suddenly the David and Goliath thing turned around. The camera is very narrow-focused. What it doesn’t see is that many times, the kids are throwing rocks so soldiers would chase them and get shot by people hiding around the corner.

Also, a lot of people who are liberals look at Israeli policies and ask why it has to respond the way it does. Just because somebody blows up a building where people are having pizza, why are you blowing up a whole village or whole town? Well, I think if you’re going to dissuade potential terrorists, you have to cause them to ask themselves: are you willing to lose not just your life, but also the lives of your parents and cousins and everyone who lives in that house? But the left doesn’t see the whole story.

And domestically, Israel is obviously a place for real human rights and freedoms. Regardless of where the Orthodox stand on a particular issue, I don’t think anybody wants to stone anybody to death.

At the same time as the Left seems increasingly anti-Israel, you hear sometimes that George W. Bush has been such a good friend to Israel, so maybe Jews should switch their allegiances.

Frank: You know, Bill Clinton is overwhelmingly popular in Israel. What Sharon has been doing with the disengagement is in Israel’s interest, and Clinton better represented Israel’s genuine interests by trying to move in this direction [of withdrawal]. So I reject the notion that objectively, or in terms of Israeli public opinion, that Bush was better than Clinton. And you can’t separate Bush from his allies, like Pat Robertson [who said that the Sharon's stroke is punishment for the Disengagement.] The Christian Right has a role for Israel in their worldview, and the would deny Israel the right to follow policies if it conflicted with that worldview.

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Some people feel uncomfortable with a group of Jewish legislators coming from various countries to visit Israel. Did you feel at all conflicted? Obviously you represent your districts, but did you get any sense among any of the participants of a divided loyalty, or even just a sentimental attachment that makes one less objective?

Frank: There may be some people like that — they didn’t come. Look, we all deal with this. Certainly for Americans there’s nothing unique about this. There are a large number of people in my district who have a strong allegiance to a foreign country, they are emotionally attached to it, and they want me to be sure that American foreign policy is favorable… to Portugal. I don’t think any of us felt conflicted. I do think all of us who were there feel that having an independent, strong Israel is also in the national interests of our respective countries.

Ackerman: There are absolutely no dual loyalties. One of the problems Jews have faced from the beginning of the diaspora, in almost every country they’ve been in, is when the question arises as to whether Jews are loyal citizens. The answer that I’ve always given is that you can be loyal to two things. You can love your son, and love your other son, and love your daughter, and love your wife — you don’t choose between them. I see no conflict.

Every minority faces this question in every country. John F. Kennedy faced it when he ran for president, and people asked whether he was going to take orders from the pope. Ironically, some of the same people who criticized JFK were, in the last election, critical of John Kerry because he wasn’t taking orders from the pope [on the question of abortion]. You know, as if now he’s not a good Catholic. The fact is — with people who would stoop so low as to use someone’s religion against them, you deal with it.

If you can be a good Jew and a good mechanic, there’s no reason you can’t be a good Jew and a good American. Nothing in the constitution of the us that says you must eat pork, unless there’s a new amendment I’m not aware of. There are people who will always raise that issue, who are racists, no matter where. And I don’t think anyone would raise such a question if there were, say, a conference of Catholic legislators.

Fair enough, but there’s no Catholic state.

Ackerman: There is only one Jewish state, and the Jews are a very tiny religion. We are not a group that legislates, and not a group that expresses loyalty, because we are all loyal to our own countries. But we have a keen interest in the problems of ourselves as a people. You know, Mark Twain ran through all of the great civilizations and empires, and came to the conclusion that only the Jews survived, with positive attributes intact. One of the “secrets” of Jewish survival is being Jewish by family. Being such a numerically small group of people, we look to take care of each other. When there’s a story in the mainstream news about a Jewish community somewhere, Jewish people read that story because it’s a story about their family, even though of course they don’t know those people. The uniqueness of the Jewish community is they look after each other, because it’s a survival problem. This group of legislators understands that, and understands that the Jewish community in the world today is in a situation that I wouldn’t quite call a heightened alert, but I would say there is great concern, because yet again, the sometimes less active and sometimes apparently-dormant virus of antisemitism is raising its ugly head. You see it in the number of resolutions the UN passes condemning one little country, a democracy trying to survive and defend itself; in France, with synagogues burning; even in Britain there is more anxiety. No matter where you go you find this on the increase. These are the kinds of issues that we need to get into. It’s not all Israel, all the time, but the things we have in common include a common homeland. Each of us has two mothers nationally.

You know, none of us has a majority-Jewish constituency anywhere in the world. That means that, here are opinion-makers from all over the world who, despite the handicapping conditions of being Jewish in some places, had friends and neighbors elect them to represent them in the parliament of their government. There many problems facing Jews around the world, and you get a unique perspective by talking with the elected fed legislators from these countries. Besides, in politics, like my mother always said, it’s okay to have friends in high places.

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