First Person: Helping pols see the reality behind the rhetoric
The year was 1984 and I was a student at Duke University. During the fall semester I spent time working on Jim Hunt’s senatorial campaign. It was not so much that I was working on behalf of Jim Hunt but rather, I was working to unseat incumbent Jesse Helms, one of the most anti-Israel senators at the time. His record on Israel was, as one article put it, “the most negative of any member of the Senate.” Among other things, Helms was the sole senator to vote against prohibiting American companies from joining the Arab League boycott of Israel. During the 1982 Lebanon War, he called for the United States to break all diplomatic relations with Israel. While Hunt won our district, Helms kept his seat and remained in the Senate.
The next year, I was living and studying at the Rothberg School for Overseas Students at Hebrew University when I received a call asking if I would attend worship in the university’s beit knesset the next morning. The reason? Senator Jesse Helms was coming to Israel and would be attending. I wasn’t interested in meeting Helms but I did attend. Upon returning home an amazing thing happened. Helms, long an opponent of all things Israel, did an about face and became a staunch supporter of the U.S.-Israel relationship. “It was,” according to Morris Amitay, former executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, “a complete switch.” Helms continued to be a supporter of Israel until his retirement from the Senate in 2003.
Upon his retirement some years later, many observers noted that, as one headline put it, “Retiring Sen. Jesse Helms Caved to Pro-Israel Lobby Halfway Through His Career.” As recently as 2007, Ron Paul went so far as to post that “Israel bought Jesse Helms.”
While there may have been some political maneuvering on Helms’ part after a close reelection campaign, I think there was more to the story. After all, Jesse Helms was not a man to cave to anyone, let alone the pro-Israel movement. So what did happen? I believe that when Helms visited Israel, he saw the security issues first-hand. He saw the affinity between Israel and America, the shared values, the shared goals. He saw the reality on the ground and he went from a detractor of the U.S.-Israel alliance to a staunch supporter of it. That’s what happens when you move from discussing Israel in the abstract or drawing conclusions based on the media’s skewed perspective, and actually experience Israel first-hand.
I share this incident because since 2010 fully one-third of both the Senate and the House are new to Congress. The vast majority of them have not been to Israel and, as a result, they do not have a full appreciation for the mutually beneficial connection between America and Israel. Moreover, based on second-, third-, or fourth-hand information, they cannot fully comprehend the threats Israel faces. Neither can we.
I spent time at AIPAC’s first-ever National Rabbinic Symposium in Washington last week. More than 100 rabbis traveled to the capital and 125 more participated via video conference.
Over and over, we heard that, while the sanctions against Iran are having an impact, that country’s nuclear program is nonetheless moving forward ever more quickly. The window within which Israel will be able to act is rapidly closing. As Ambassador Michael Oren put it, a nuclear Iran is an existential threat to the Jewish state. That’s not rhetoric, that’s reality.
The dangers are real, and we are fast approaching a critical point where action of some sort will likely be required. Now more than ever our leaders in Congress need a full understanding of the situation and what is at stake, and that is why a group of them were in Israel last week — to see the reality on the ground. Yet the U.S. media continues to focus on what Israel may or may not do, instead of addressing the real issues: A nuclear Iran is not just a threat to Israel but a threat to the region and the world. It will set off a new arms race and none of us want nukes in the hands of some of the key players in the region.
Add in the fact that in Egypt, the Moslem Brotherhood has consolidated control far more rapidly than anyone expected, removed the three top military leaders who were inclined to work closely with Israel to maintain the peace, and, in so doing, are making it clear that they are not interested in working with Israel to maintain the peace. As one speaker put it last week, “The Camp David treaty is still in place but it is hanging by a thread.”
If the media are going to expend their energy on a skinny-dipping congressman while Iran marches toward nuclear capability, then we will need to be the ones raising the clarion call all the louder and make clear that if Israel ultimately acts unilaterally it did so only because Israel’s leaders saw no alternative. If that day does arrive, the Jewish state is going to need our vocal support more than it has in quite some time.