More than 1,000 activists from the New Jersey-based NORPAC met with 450 members of the House of Representatives and the Senate to advocate on behalf of Israel and urge support of stringent sanctions against Iran.
The pro-Israel PAC’s 18th annual Mission to Washington on May 12 was its largest to date, organizers said. Participants ranged from teens to seniors, with many families represented by two and even three generations. This year saw the first-ever bus from the Deal/West Long Branch area, and record participation from Essex County and the Highland Park/Edison area.
The mission coincided with Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day), which commemorates the 1967 reunification of Jerusalem.
Richard Schlussel of Englewood, mission chair, attributed the increased participation to concern over recent tensions between the United States and Israel over the peace process and the global threat posed by a nuclear Iran. “As proud Americans and proud Jews, [participants] have decided to participate in the democratic process,” he said.
Attorney Barbara Israel Bortniker, Essex County NORPAC chapter president, said the goal of the mission was to discuss proposed legislation and “make friends [with the legislators] and influence people — at the very least convey the importance of a strong U.S.-Israel relationship and a safe and secure Israel, which also safeguards America’s interest in the Middle East.”
Participants received advocacy training on the bus ride to DC. Topping the agenda was the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions Accountability and Divestment Act. The act, passed by both the House and the Senate in somewhat differing versions, imposes tough diplomatic and economic sanctions to try to isolate Iran.
Legislators were also asked to support the foreign aid bill, which includes $3 billion in foreign aid to Israel. As for $550 million dollars in U.S. aid that is proposed for the Palestinians, legislators were asked to require the Palestinian Authority to end anti-Israel incitement and propaganda, and to ensure that the aid would be used solely for economic development and humanitarian purposes.
After arriving in Washington, participants gathered in a packed ballroom in the Washington Convention Center for addresses by dignitaries, including NORPAC president Ben Chouake and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), who received two standing ovations during his remarks.
Keynote speaker Michael Oren, Israel’s U.S. ambassador and a former New Jersey resident, spoke about the historic alliance between the United States and Israel. The multiple threats currently facing Israel, he said, include efforts to deny Israel’s legitimacy through “BDS” (boycotts, divestment legislation, and sanctions) and “the most mortal threat of all: a nuclear Iran.”
He emphasized, to sustained applause, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “iron-clad” and “fundamental” policy that Jerusalem remain Israel’s “eternal, undivided capital” and that a future Palestinian state would be effectively demilitarized and have to recognize Israel as the national home of the Jewish people.
Oren said Israel has joined with the United States and other like-minded governments to promote an effective sanctions regime against Iran that he hopes will be up and running by the summer.
He did, however, allude to the possibility of unilateral action by Israel by stating, “Our policy is the Jewish state will defend itself from nuclear threat.”
The participants then fanned out along Pennsylvania Avenue as they met with members of Congress or their aides on both sides of the political aisle.
Throughout the day, mission-goers suggested that the Obama administration does not appreciate the moral and strategic necessity of a close alliance with Israel.
“I felt it was particularly important this year due to unfair unilateral pressure the administration has been putting on Israel,” said Russell Adler of Edison, whose 14-year-old son, Yair, joined him on the mission.
As participants boarded their buses for the long ride home, they appeared tired and hungry, but also elated as they conveyed the satisfaction that their numbers and message had been heard.
Josh Caplan of Edison said it was encouraging for elected officials “to know that when they stand with Israel, they have our support…. I believe each person can make a difference…and as a large group of individuals, we can have a major impact.”