Among pro-Israel lawmakers and lobbyists, they have become a ritual of sorts: congressional letters expressing support for Israel and the activists who help draft the letters.
Usually signed by overwhelming majorities, the letters often promote Israel’s cause in the face of a recent crisis, or send an unmistakable message of disapproval if the White House and Israel are not seeing eye to eye.
And while major Jewish organizations see the letters as a productive way of supporting Israel, some critics say that they are little more than political exercises to test a politician’s commitment to the Jewish and pro-Israel vote.
This week, majorities in both houses of the Congress signed on to letters affirming U.S. support for Israel in the wake of its may 31 raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla.
The letters, promoted by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, are being sent to President Obama.
“We write to affirm our support for our strategic partnership with Israel, and encourage you to continue to do so before international organizations such as the United Nations,” begins the Senate letter, which by June 21 had garnered 83 of a possible 100 signatures. “The United States has traditionally stood with Israel because it is in our national security interest and must continue to do so.”
Both of New Jersey’s senators, Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez, signed the letter. All the state’s representatives — except Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-Dist. 8) and Rep. Donald Payne (D-Dist. 9) —were signatories to the House members’ letter.
Both Republicans and Democrats from New Jersey gave speeches on the House floor supporting Israel’s military action against the flotilla headed for Gaza.
In a speech on the House floor, Rep. Chris Smith (R-Dist. 4) took aim at the Obama administration.
“It’s high time our government sent a much more powerful and unambiguous message: that the United States fully supports Israel’s action to intercept the flotilla,” he said. “The administration should emphasize that Israel’s action was legal, that it was right, and that the U.S. stands with Israel, without any ‘ifs’ or ‘buts’ or ‘so long as’ or any other qualifiers.”
Rep. Rush Holt (D-Dist. 12), in his remarks to fellow House members, said, “Israel has the right and obligation to protect her citizens and borders, in this case by enforcing a legal naval blockade to allow certification of peaceful end use of goods transported into Gaza.”
As of press time, House sponsors were still collecting signatures.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, considers the letters a “very timely” exercise.
The letter was “a very important reaffirmation of the role the House members want to see the United States play,” he told NJJN. “This helps to establish a more balanced approach and the reaffirmation of the special relationship between the U.S. and Israel.”
But M.J. Rosenberg, a former editor of AIPAC’s Near East Report and a frequent critic of the current Israeli government, said such declarations of support are “sponsored by AIPAC as loyalty tests, and they also do it to put the congressmen in their place and let them know who the boss is.”
Although AIPAC is a nonprofit organization that does not endorse candidates for office or contribute to campaigns, it is seen as expressing and shaping a consensus among pro-Israel activists who contribute to actual political action committees.
Ben Chouake, president of the pro-Israel NORPAC, based in Englewood, does not consider congressional letters and resolutions to be loyalty tests.
Letter-writing efforts have been complicated in the past few years by the emergence of J Street, a dovish pro-Israel group that often takes issue with positions taken by AIPAC. J Street has urged members of Congress to seek changes to the letters currently in circulation or to write their own.
“The sign-on letters now circulating in the House and Senate, while expressing strong American support for Israel — a position we endorse — fail to address the impact of the present closure of Gaza on the civilian population, the deep American interest in resolving this conflict diplomatically, or the urgency of moving forward with diplomacy before it is too late,” said the letter sent by J Street last week, before Israel’s announcement June 20 that it would ease the Gaza embargo.
“By ignoring these critical issues in favor of a simplistic statement that supports Israeli policy and actions, Congress is serving neither the best interests of the United States or of Israel,” according to J Street.
The current letters blame the Turkish charity, Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation, known as IHH, for the violence in which Israeli commandos killed nine activists May 31 aboard a Gaza-bound ship. The ship was one of six attempting to breach Israel’s embargo of the Gaza Strip, which is under the control of the Hamas terrorist group.
Both letters allege that IHH is affiliated with Hamas, and the Senate letter urges Obama to put the charity on the U.S. terrorist list “after an examination by the intelligence community, the State Department, and the Treasury Department.” Placement on the list makes it a crime to raise funds for the cited group.
This article includes reporting from JTA.