After eight terms representing New Jersey’s 12th Congressional District, Rep. Rush Holt will perhaps best be remembered as a trained nuclear physicist who pushed bills to improve education in science, math, and foreign languages.
That agenda fit his reputation as a former Swarthmore College professor who was also a five-time Jeopardy! champion.
But while his announcement on Feb. 18 that he would not seek another term saddened many of his fellow liberal Democrats, it also triggered mixed emotions among some pro-Israel advocates who felt Holt was not always sufficiently supportive of their cause.
Many recalled his decision, in January 2009, to join the Democratic House members who signed the so-called “Gaza 54 Letter” to President Barack Obama, which called for easing Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip.
The next year, NORPAC, the New Jersey-based pro-Israel political action committee, branded Holt “extremely unsympathetic” at a benefit that raised $20,000 for Scott Sipprelle, a Princeton Republican Holt later defeated with 53 percent of the vote.
Despite such opposition, Holt has continued to insist he has been a strong backer of Israel.
“I stand by what I did, and I did not have any problem with anybody else in the Jewish community. I care about Israel. I want to see Israel not just survive, but prosper,” the congressman told NJJN in a Feb. 24 phone interview.
“I feel I have been close to the Jewish community for much of my life, even before I ran for Congress and throughout my time in Congress,” he added.
Even in his last few months as a House member, Holt is taking a position that is controversial in parts of the Jewish community. He opposes a bill introduced by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) that would impose new sanctions against Iran if current talks over its nuclear program fail.
“Right now at this delicate stage in negotiations, when we have the best chance in decades to make Iran less of a threat, we really shouldn’t do anything to torpedo those negotiations,” Holt told NJJN. “The further sanctions might do that, so I don’t think they are wise.”
Following the “Gaza 54” flap, which prompted the Emergency Committee for Israel to finance a 30-second ad attacking Holt’s Israel record, some of his opponents’ passions seemed to have cooled.
In 2012, NORPAC declined to take sides between Holt and his Republican challenger, Eric Beck.
“We are not going after Rush Holt this time,” NORPAC president Ben Chouake, an Englewood physician, said in 2012. “Rush Holt has allied himself much more closely with the pro-Israel community. I don’t know if his sentiments have changed or if he just got a little more practical or he didn’t realize how distressed he made people and has taken our criticism to heart. Everybody deserves a deathbed conversion.”
In a Feb. 23 phone interview, Chouake said he was “surprised, but not too surprised” when he learned that Holt would be leaving the House at the end of his current term.
“He was not a key person for us by any stretch of the imagination. He has been an OK vote, but people come and people go,” Chouake said. “Holt was an average guy. I wish him well. I hope he finds happiness and fulfillment in whatever endeavor he picks. He is certainly a brilliant guy, very capable. I wish him well.”
As one of the few scientists to serve in Congress, Holt was previously assistant director of the Plasma Physics Laboratory at Princeton University.
Although he is not prepared to discuss his future plans, Holt said he intends to press his scientific concerns during his final months in Congress, representing an area that includes portions of Union, Middlesex, Mercer, and Somerset counties.
One of the bumper stickers in his district reads “My Congressman IS a rocket scientist.”
“I think the climate change deniers have become more vocal, more strident, and some of them are in positions of influence,” he said. “That has restrained our progress in dealing with the greatest environmental issue of our time. It is a real problem.”
Holt believes Tea Party members and others who reflexively oppose federal spending are “failing to make the necessary investments in America. We should be putting more investment into infrastructure. We should be doing more science research. We should be investing in America and Americans, and right now we are failing to do that.”
He suggested that such bipartisan achievements as the GI Bill, Social Security, the interstate highway system, the space program, and rural electrification would be voted down in today’s Republican-dominated House.
And yet, the lawmaker said, he remains optimistic about America’s future.
“I am so proud of this country, and I believe we still have such a great future that I shake my head in wonder that people could be so blind to America’s greatness and so pessimistic about the future,” he said.
To date, the 65-year-old Holt is among 14 House Democrats and 21 Republicans who have announced they will not stand for reelection in November. Among them are two other members from New Jersey, Rep. Rob Andrew (D-Dist. 1) and Rep. Jon Runyan (R-Dist. 3).
Among those seeking Holt’s open seat is State Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Dist. 14).