One stop on Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy’s 48-hour trip to Israel has become the source of a dispute with Mark Levenson, a leading backer of his Republican rival, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno.
As part of their whirlwind tour between June 28 and 30, Murphy and his family visited The Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa. Upon his return, the candidate participated in a July 14 conference call during which he spoke of what he viewed as shortcomings of the relationship between New Jersey and Israel in exchanging trade and technology.
“The state of the NJ-Israel relationship in commerce is good,” he said. “Unfortunately, it is not as good as it was and, we believe, not nearly as good as it can be.”
For Murphy, the former U.S. ambassador to Germany, this was his fifth trip to Israel.
Several hours later, in an e-mail to NJJN, Murphy’s communications director, Derek Roseman, expanded on those comments, charging that Guadagno and Gov. Chris Christie “defunded the New Jersey-Israel Commission and hollowed out its leadership.”
According to the NJ Department of State website, the New Jersey-Israel Commission was established in 1989 “to promote the development of trade, culture, and educational exchanges; encourage the development of capital investment and joint business ventures; and foster a spirit of cooperation between the citizens of the State of Israel and the State of New Jersey.”
Even though he noted that the partnership generates $1 billion annually in shared benefits, “we can do much better,” Roseman said, noting that “last year, exports to Israel decreased by 40 percent.” If Murphy is elected, Roseman said, he will work hard to reverse that downward trend.
“As governor, Phil will actively engage to return the Commission to a place of prominence so that it can create the lasting partnerships that will benefit both New Jersey and Israel.”
Responding to these statements, Levenson, chair of the NJ-Israel Commission, called Murphy and Roseman’s criticisms “just folly.”
He added, “It is uninformed. We have the closest of relationships with the Israeli consulate and the foreign ministry.”
Levenson, a partner at the Newark law firm Sills Cummis Gross, said the Democrats’ statements are “not based in any reality,” and he disputed Roseman’s allegation that exports to Israel decreased by 40 percent, calling it “not accurate.”
Roseman based his claim on JewishVirtualLibrary.org, which reported that there was a 46.85 percent drop in the state’s exports to Israel between 2015 and 2016.
Levenson said as a private individual he was “a huge fan and extremely strong supporter of Kim Guadagno.” His enthusiasm for her candidacy, he told NJJN, was, in part, due to her “incredible support of the New Jersey-Israel relationship and the Jewish community’s interests.”
Jews make up approximately 6 percent of the population in New Jersey, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, and both candidates have been trying to appeal to their active voting block. Though Levenson said that Guadagno has no plans to visit Israel before the November election, last month she attended a Breakfast for Israel event at the Teaneck Jewish Center with Dani Dayan, the consul general of Israel in New York.
The Orthodox Lakewood Vaad endorsed Guadagno before the Republican primary in June, though the Vaad hasn’t announced whether it intends to support the lieutenant governor in the general election in November.