THE ISRAEL LOBBY AND AMERICAN POLICY
A Conversation with Retired Congressmen Jim Moran and Nick Rahall
Grant Smith: Everybody, we need to start. So please take your seats. While you do, we’re going to roll a very short clip of an interesting panel that took place. Everyone has been talking about J Street. Well, this is a J Street panel. We’re just going to roll a very short clip about a former fundraiser speaking on J Street, Stephanie Schriock [now president of Emily’s List], and her experience in obtaining startup capital for political campaigns. Can you cue [“Beholden to Israel and AIPAC Even before Running for Office”], Nart [Shekim]?
[Start of video]
Janet McMahon: Hi. For those of you who may be just joining us on our livestream video, I’m Janet McMahon, managing editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. One of our main focuses is keeping track of members of Congress and the pro-Israel PAC contributions so many of them receive. I think Grant Smith made it clear this morning that these pro-Israel members of Congress increasingly do not reflect the views of the majority of Americans.
Today I’m very happy to introduce two Democratic former members of Congress who do reflect those views. Fortunately, I don’t have to introduce them to each other, since they have been colleagues and friends for nearly a quarter of a century. We thought it would be fascinating and informative to hear a conversation between them about their experiences as congressmen and how they continued to win re-election for decades despite the opposition of the Israel lobby.
Jim Moran, on my far right, represented Virginia’s 8th congressional district, just across the river from here, from 1991 until he retired in 2015. He was the mayor of Alexandria, VA from 1985 to 1990, when he defeated incumbent Stanford Parris. As a congressman, Jim was a staunch critic of moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem—anissue which never seems to die—and of the major role the Israel lobby played in pushing for the disastrous U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Of Irish decent, Jim is the son of professional football player James Moran, Sr. and the brother of Brian Moran, the former chairman of the Democratic Party of Virginia. He is currently a professor of practice at Virginia Tech’s School of Public and International Affairs.
Nick Rahall, to my immediate right, is the grandson of Lebanese immigrants and the longest serving ever member of Congress from West Virginia, whose 3rd and 4th districts he represented from 1977 to 2015. He was one of only eight House members to vote against the authorization for use of military force against Iraq in 2002 that preceded the U.S. invasion. He has repeatedly expressed concern about America’s relationship with Israel stating, “Israel can’t continue to occupy, humiliate, and destroy the dreams and spirits of the Palestinian people and continue to call itself a democratic state.”
When Nick spoke at our conference two years ago, he regaled us with his story about going on an AIPAC-sponsored trip to Israel in 1995, and taking with him to Gaza several AIPAC board members who wanted to meet Yasser Arafat. “They were just stumbling over themselves to get their pictures taken with him,” he recalled.
Seriously though, I think this is proof that Nick is willing to talk to anyone in order to advance the cause of peace and justice. Unfortunately today Congress seems to have few members who follow that lead. So please join me in welcoming Jim Moran and Nick Rahall today.
Let’s get the conversation going by starting at the beginning, how the two of you got elected in the first place. In the short video that you just saw, we heard a political strategist and campaign fund-raiser explain that, in her experience, funding from three groups was essential—labor, pro-choice, and the Jewish community. But before approaching the Jewish community, Stephanie Schriock said a potential candidate had to meet with the lead AIPAC person in his or her state who would make it clear that the candidate needed to draw up a paper on Israel even before hiring a campaign manager or policy director. “That’s how we raise money,” she said. So to raise money from the Jewish community, a major contributor to Democratic candidates, one needs the AIPAC seal of approval.
Jim, you defeated a five-term incumbent who criticized your opposition to the first Gulf War by saying, “the only three people I know who support Saddam Hussain’s position are Muammar Gaddafi, Yasser Arafat, and Jim Moran.”
Jim Moran: He left out Nick.
Janet McMahon: He didn’t know him. Nick, you’re an Arab American who got elected at the age of 27 to become the youngest member of Congress. You went on to be re-elected 17 times. How did you each do it?
Jim Moran: Go ahead, buddy.
Nick Rahall: Well, in my case, unlike my dear friend Jim Moran, I had never held political office before my first run for Congress in 1976. I was unheard of except in my local hometown where I had been active in local issues, civic clubs, chamber of commerce, etc., etc.
My predecessor had served for 18 years. Much to everybody’s surprise, at literally the last second of the filing period that year, [he] dropped out of the congressional race to run for governor. I had previously filed for the congressional race, again, as an unknown, with several other unknowns, the main political figures in the district not believing that the incumbent was going to drop out to run for governor. Well, when he dropped out I decided and I was fortunate enough to be able to borrow money at that time on my own, and used those borrowings to run for Congress. At that time it cost me I think $150,000 ‑ a drop in the bucket these days.
There was another well-funded Democrat running as well. Four of us really were running for a seat, and nobody knew anything about either of us. I proceeded to run a very aggressive campaign. I had the backing of our senior senator at that time, although not publicly, in a primary. But I used his name quite a bit, Sen. Robert Byrd. I had worked for him previously, which was my only experience in the political arena. With an aggressive media campaign, I was able to secure the nomination.
My predecessor lost his race for governor. He came back against me, trying to lead the people to believe he was the incumbent in the general election on a write-in campaign. The press caught on to it very quickly and reminded the people he’s not the incumbent. He gave up the seat. We have a nice young guy running by my name, Nick Rahall. I had pretty good press endorsements. Much to my surprise, I had Democratic establishment support, and I had my own money.
So AIPAC was not a factor. There are very few synagogues in my district, in southern West Virginia—a very rural area of our country where coal is the main industry. So running an aggressive campaign, I got elected that first term basically without any outside groups. I did not even have labor endorsement. They were for another candidate that was an official of the United Mine Workers union in my primary campaign. So I had no major group endorsements—not labor, not NRA, not anybody.
Then becoming the incumbent, my predecessor was still running against me in my full first term, again trying to mislead the public into believing he was the current congressman. Re-elect your congressman. Ken Hechler was his name. He came at me one-on-one in the primary two years later in ’78. Again, I had to borrow some additional money. I had no major endorsements, and I ran. Actually, I’m sorry, on my first re-election I did finally get labor endorsement. That was a big boost in defeating my predecessor, actually a second time. He then came out against me a third time 10 years later, but I was well-entrenched then and defeated him a third time.
But really AIPAC never was a factor in my early elections. I was a homegrown boy, so to speak, and had gotten the committees I wanted in the Congress. Then-Speaker Tip O’Neill, my first Speaker, was very kind to me, knowing I was a newcomer. In those days, a newcomer [wouldn’t] sit on the back of the bench and keep quiet until you’ve been here 30 years. Tip O’Neill was very good about giving newcomers their committee of preference, and I used that to my advantage to continue to be reelected year after year.
Jim Moran: So when that comment was made by Stan Parris, a Washington Post reporter called me in an unguarded moment. (Of course no staffer or anything [was] around and not having the erudition, not to mention the intellect of Professor Mearsheimer…) So they asked me, you know, he says, “how do you feel? Mr. Parris said in connection to Muammar Qaddafi and Saddam Hussain.” I said, “Oh, Christ, I’d like to punch that fatuous jerk on the nose, is how I feel,” which the Post printed in its entirety. That probably set me back a little, because the district in Northern Virginia is one of the best educated and most politically engaged in the country. But it didn’t cause any kind of mortal political wound.
Basically in the first election I just worked, because I wasn’t going to let myself lose. So I’d get up at 4:00 in the morning and I’d go down to Prince William County. Down at Prince William County in ’95, if any of you is familiar with the area because of the traffic, they have buses that can use the HOV lanes. But in order to get a parking space, let alone a place on the bus, you have to get there by 5:00 a.m.
So I’d go down there and I’d knock on the car doors. I have to… (Well, I’m not supposed to say “car.” I’m supposed to say “automobile” doors, because it betrays my Massachusetts accent, but I don’t care now that I’m not running.) So I knock on the car doors and they’d roll [down] the window. I didn’t wake them up, obviously, because they have to get there at 5:00 in order for them to get on the bus that left at 6:00. So I’d wake them up. They turn and they give me a digital salute invariably for the first couple of weeks. But after I kept doing it, eventually they reached for the handout. It was the same. I’d stand at a corner holding the sign, and the same initial reaction. But after a while they realized, gosh, this guy means it. If he’s willing to work this hard, then maybe he’ll work this hard for me. So eventually that worked, but it was just through sheer determination plus something else.
I think Nick and I have in common—I know actually what we have in common. We like people and we enjoy running. We go into a big room, “Oh, this is fun. Let’s go and meet so and so.” Even people that didn’t agree with us, you know, we’d say, “How are you doing?” and so on. That’s [like] the Kennedy clan, and there’s a lot of folks who certainly—Tip was like that. Politics should be about liking people and enjoying doing something meaningful for them when you get the opportunity. Unfortunately, it’s more about money now, frankly. But before the process was so corrupted, it really was just about who wants to work the hardest and who enjoys meeting people the most. So I think that’s how I got elected the first time.
Janet McMahon: Then both of you kept getting re-elected. Then you did have some opposition from the lobby as the years went by, I gather. So how did you keep getting re-elected?
Jim Moran: Well, I can speak for myself. I did engage in some herculean efforts to make some of my races challenging. [LAUGHTER] I don’t need to go into all of those things that I said and did but, yeah, we had some close races. One of them in particular was at the time of the Iraq War. I was asked at a forum, actually by a Jewish woman who asked, “Why aren’t more Jews involved in opposing the war?” I said, well, it’s similar to my criticism of Catholics. War is wrong and, yet, all we seem to hear from the Pope is how wrong abortion is. Somehow they overlooked some of the other wrongs that are taking place. If the Catholic Church came out in opposition to the war (at that time 80 percent of the American people were in favor of going into Iraq, I think it would make a difference.
And I said similarly, if the leaders of the Jewish community—particularly the pro-Israeli community—had a different attitude and were willing to get more engaged against the war, I don’t think we’d have a war. So that was reported in a way that was the most critical you can imagine. The conservative rabbi in my district took it and ran with it and put it on the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and made a big name for himself. The headline in the Post was “Moran Blames Jews for the War in Iraq.” But of course, as Professor Mearsheimer mentioned in his terrific address, the Israeli lobby had an instrumental role. It wasn’t the only reason by any means that we went into Iraq, but it was a contributing factor.
I might as well get into some of the policy issues. It was interesting, in Tony Blair’s book, he mentioned going down—before England chose to side with the Bush administration in the Iraq War—that he went down to the Crawford ranch to meet with Bush, and it was Netanyahu who met him. The executive director of AIPAC in 2003, in an interview with a New York newspaper, took credit that his greatest accomplishment was getting the authorization for the use of military force in Iraq. So the Israeli lobby did have a contributing influence to us going to war.
There are other reasons or things I can cite too to support that, but my suggesting that particularly upset the Washington Post. I’m sure I could have been far more articulate in explaining my position. But it stung because I think many people did realize this is something that Israel wanted us to do, and certainly Netanyahu did.
Sharon understood what George H.W. Bush understood, that this may not in the long run be beneficial to Israel given the Shia-Sunni conflict and the ramifications that it caused. Sharon felt that Iran should have been where the focus was, but Bibi was pretty adamant that he wanted us to go into a war in Iraq. Anyway, that’s a digression from the original question. But I’m just trying to get into a little of the policy here instead of the personal reflection on our political career. But the point is that we had some tough races.
I never lost a race, and Nick never should have lost a race until the Koch brothers went after him in the last race and finally beat him with the help of the Israeli lobby, frankly, who always gave him a hard time. Nick is one of the people who I’ve always looked up to because it’s hard not to admire people who show courage and conviction. Nick always has, and was one of my heroes in the Congress frankly.
Nick Rahall: Thank you, Jim. You’re very kind with your words. As I mentioned earlier, Tip O’Neill was my first Speaker. You may recall his famous saying was, all politics is local. I really took that to heart during my entire time in the U.S. Congress. I always felt my duties were first to the constituents that honored me and humbled me by sending me to Washington. I always was back home every weekend and every congressional break. Working the grassroots continued from my first days of standing outside the coal mine gates and meeting every coal miner as he or she went to work at 4:00 a.m. or 5:00 a.m. and when they’d get off the shift at 3:00 p.m or 4:00 p.m.; at factory gates when we had large numbers of people working in both of those operations, which is not true today, but in those days we did.
I always was close to the ground back home. I got to be known as the personal representative of my district. I took to heart the fact that we in the House are the closest elected federal officials for our people. Nobody’s ever appointed to the House of Representatives. We have to always be elected regardless of any vacancy where we served. Unlike senators, who can be appointed. So I really worked the grassroots throughout my career.
My first running amok of the lobby, so to speak, was I guess in 1982. Tip O’Neill came to me first at the height of the Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon. When I saw what was happening there, I said to a local reporter back home—which hit press throughout my district—that Israel was acting as a monster; that they were out of control; that Sharon had gone beyond the initial aim of that Israeli campaign that year in ridding southern Lebanon of the PLO. He was wanting to capture Beirut, and that’s when I really started to have run-ins with the lobby.
But Tip O’Neill came to me, even after I had said those comments. He said, Nick, I want you to lead a congressional delegation to the Middle East and to Beirut, and I’ll give you a plane. You know, I’m only in my third term. I thought about it not very long, of course. But I said, yes, Mr. Speaker, I’ll do it. At that time he had a daughter-in-law who was of Lebanese ancestry and he was quite concerned about what was happening in Lebanon.
So I got six other members of Congress. We went to six countries in the Middle East. We happened to be in Beirut on July 31, 1982, the height of the Israeli bombardment. I had arranged through contacts to meet with Chairman [Yasser] Arafat in the bowels of Beirut at the height of the bombing. It took about four hours of rendezvousing around Beirut, from about midnight to 4:00 a.m. We had to lose our State Department security, because certainly they couldn’t know where we were headed and we had to really be secretive about it. At least I thought that was the way it was going to be, because I’d met with Chairman Arafat two years before in a very private meeting that never hit the press.
But this time we came out of that meeting. The members of Congress with me were Mary Rose Oakar; Pete McCloskey; Mervyn Dymally, the late congressman from California. Elliott Levitas, a Jewish member, was with us on the CODEL but he did not go to the Arafat meeting. He made it clear he could not do that.
So those are basically the four of us that came out of that meeting about 4:00 a.m. and, lo and behold, the worldwide press is there. Arafat had made sure that it was going to get to the press, which was okay, nothing wrong with that. But during that meeting we’d gotten Arafat to sign the paper saying that he recognized Israel’s right to exist, that he renounced violence, and that he recognized all U.N. resolutions relevant to the Palestinian question. Something that—really, we were just a decade early, but that’s something that came to fruition in Oslo. But in 1982 we were way ahead of our time, and everybody in the press said, “You’re just being snookered by Arafat. He didn’t really say or do that,” even though we showed a signed document where he did say that. But of course nobody wanted to believe him at that time.
The next day we had meetings scheduled with the prime minister of Israel and with the defense minister, [Ariel] Sharon, at that time. [Menachem] Begin was the prime minister at the time. Well, they heard about our Arafat meeting, of course. They cancelled the meetings with us. Elliott Levitas, the Jewish member of Congress from Georgia on our CODEL sent word back to Begin and Sharon. “Listen, I’m a Jewish member of this congressional delegation. I did not attend the Arafat meeting. But I’m going to tell you, you’re going to continue your previously scheduled meetings with this CODEL—I don’t care who they met with yesterday—or you’re going to have trouble from this Jewish member of the Congress when I get back to Washington.” Begin and Sharon both rescheduled us. We got in to see them. [APPLAUSE]
Having met with Arafat just the day before, it got into a shouting match. Sharon’s map in his office showed no division and no borderlines between Israel and Jordan or Israel and Lebanon. It was Eretz Israel. The Greater Israel was his version of the land at that time. We questioned about the use of American-made cluster bombs, [which were] supposed to be used only for defensive purposes. [We asked] why are you dropping them in southern Lebanon? Sharon picked up a piece of paper and said, “Here’s what we do with agreements. We don’t care what country it’s with. In times of war, this is what we do with agreements.” He picked up that paper and just ripped it apart. We just looked around at each other, just shuddering at what he was saying.
So it was a very contentious and angry meeting. We went on and we met with other heads of state. We met with the president of Syria on this trip, the president in Egypt, and the king in Jordan. So it was quite a whirlwind trip we had that summer of 1982. But while in Beirut, I might add also, as I said, we met with Arafat at the height of the Israeli bombardment. It was the next day that Ronald Reagan, to his credit, got on the phone to Menachem Begin and said, “call Ariel Sharon off. Enough is enough. He’s going too far into Beirut now.” That’s when the bombing ceased.
That’s what we need more of these days in the president of the United States, is the courage that Ronald Reagan had. [APPLAUSE] I’m not defending every action of Ronald Reagan of course, but during that particular moment he did get on the phone and called to tell the Israelis to stop it.
So back home, getting to your question—I’m sorry for the diversion. But back home, did I take flak? The lobby was enraged. They got a gentleman from New York, Ben Rosenthal, to introduce a resolution in Congress to impeach me for treason and high crimes. I went to Tip almost crying and saying, “Mr. Speaker, I’m sorry. What should I do about this?” He said, “Nick, are you crazy? You don’t have anything to apologize [for]. Don’t worry about this resolution. It’s not going anywhere.” So then he put my mind at ease. He wanted to hear all about the trip, which I relayed to him a lot more than I have here. He was very pleased with the actions of our CODEL.
But back home they were on my side, quite honestly. When I used the argument that, hey, I’ll talk with anybody; I’d rather talk than fight; communication does not mean capitulation of your views—it worked back home. The polls showed that the people agreed with my CODEL. They agreed with what I had said. They agreed that we should be more objective on our policies in the Middle East. They agreed on a homeland for the Palestinians and a homeland for the Israelis, as I said back in those days, before the two-state solution was ever in popular vogue. My votes against foreign aid, for example, it all went so well back home. I think the lobby saw that and they never really came after me until about a decade later, when they thought all of this would subside. It wasn’t major, not like they came against Jim Moran.
Yes, they found a Jewish member of the Reagan White House, I believe it was. He came down to West Virginia, bought a farm and claimed he was a West Virginian, and ran against me with AIPAC money. But again it was not the AIPAC money to the degree that they put up against Jim Moran.
Again, I think it’s because they saw me as a member of Congress of Arab descent, saying, “Ah, he’s just speaking because of his ancestry, let him go.” That may have been something in their thought processes. But then I think the biggest thing was because of the local rapport and the local support—again, all politics is local—that I had back home that allowed me to survive those early challenges of AIPAC.
Janet McMahon: I think I’m going to intersperse questions from the audience as they come up.
Nick Rahall: Sure.
Janet McMahon: So here’s a good one that follows right on what you’re saying. Can both of you describe your interactions with the other side of the aisle, including those Israel-firsters and those you find more agreement with, such as Ron Paul? So was there more bipartisanship? Was there more working together? Or how has that evolved over the years, or deteriorated?
Jim Moran: Well, with Ron Paul, his philosophy is basically that of isolationism. So he has opposed American intervention militarily. But something that I think the public might be interested in is that after votes, members will go to an elevator that is off the floor on the Republican side. It’s only members that are allowed so you can talk freely. I don’t think it’s bugged. There’s no microwave ovens or anything in it. [LAUGHTER] So it’s interesting how often—on two issues. The primary one that we’re referring to is on Israeli-Palestinian-related issues, but it also oftentimes happens in gun issues. Members will say, “Hey, that was a good amendment”; “I’m proud of you for voting the way you did.” Then you look at them because you know that they oftentimes spoke against you and certainly voted against you. I said, “Well, thanks a lot for your support, not.” They’ll say, “Well, I couldn’t be with you obviously. I’d be defeated. But you are right, of course.”
A comment was made earlier that people are not voting with the views of the vast majority of Americans on some issues. Oftentimes they’re not voting consistent with their own views. But there’s a political reality that they see. There are a lot of members who know what the consequences would be and are not willing to face those consequences. That’s why I single out Nick who would be the first one to take to the floor and let it rip, but he was always informed. Dennis Kucinich was another one who spoke from his heart with a lot of courage. There are a few others.
But frankly, when you say the other side of the aisle, this issue is not really — because of certain developments, and I think there’s some credit to the Obama administration certainly Senator [John] Kerry and people like Keith Ellison and so on—that there’s actually a very substantial shift in views toward the Israeli-Palestinian issue between Republicans and Democrats now. But in terms of the voting, the AIPAC has at least as much influence within the Democratic caucus as the Republican caucus.
So when you say on the other side of the aisle, it happens that there’s maybe half a dozen or, well, I guess it’s close to a dozen now, who will speak out. They tend to be Democrats, but it’s not partisan in terms of this issue, generally speaking.
Nick Rahall: Let me just add to what Jim has said. I totally agree with what he had said. There is a great deal more opposition privately in the Congress to U.S. policy in the Middle East than is publicly stated. Members will come up to me, as I’m sure they did to Jim, after many of these one-sided resolutions we’d vote upon that blamed everything on the Palestinians and say in the cloak room—again, like Jim is saying—“Nick, I had to [hold my nose gesture] when I voted,” [They’d] hold their nose and vote the way they did, but they had to vote the way they did. The real truth of why they voted the way they did—it’s easier. It’s an easier path to follow for so many members of Congress.
They’re not hearing from their constituency on the issue. It’s not a big issue back home. It is, if not already, a possible good campaign financing vote to help them raise money without having to put up with the anger if they vote the other way, which is much more of a repercussion, severe repercussion, against them of having to answer phone calls, having to answer letters that the lobby may generate from their district, but more than likely it’s going to be from other parts of the country.
So members of Congress are so often as—well, it’s kind of a Pavlovian reflex. When they see something come up in the Middle East, they’re going to jump out there to try to “out-AIPAC AIPAC.” They don’t want to be hassled and have to put up with what AIPAC’s going to direct. They know what’s going to come their way if they don’t do a letter. They don’t want to be accused of doing a letter that AIPAC wrote for them. So they jump out and write their own letter that actually ends up to “out-AIPACing AIPAC” in order to get ahead of the curve and try to beat themselves on the chest and say what they did for Israel, especially during the campaign or in preparation for a campaign— which we’re always doing in the House. That’s a never ending process.
The money is a big factor, there’s no question about it. I think one of the ways that is most effective these days in working around it is—and I think there is progress being made. Witness the 80 votes earlier this year on the U.N. resolution settlement question, most of which were Democratic votes. But you had minority leader [Nancy] Pelosi in that bunch. You had Jan Schakowsky from Illinois in the 80 “no” votes. The resolution, and I think everybody recalls it, it was disapproving our actions in the U.N., Obama’s actions in the U.N. [abstaining] on settlements. There were 80 “no” votes. Yesterday’s vote against David Friedman as ambassador to Israel, 52 to 46, unprecedented. The most number of “no” votes for any ambassador, not just to Israel, I think has ever gotten in the Congress of the United States. So that’s an indication. [APPLAUSE] Yeah.
So what you need to do is look at those 80 votes earlier this year and look at those 46 votes yesterday in the Senate. Thank them. Write them a letter. Email them. Let them know that their vote is appreciated by somebody out there. So look at those two lists and other votes that come up in which you note courageous actions from members. Urge them to go to the Middle East at any opportunity. If you know groups who can help send them there—you have to get Ethics Committee approval these days, of course, but it can be done. Urge your member of Congress to go visit. See the facts on the ground.
There’s one other individual, by the way, going back to my previous description of my trip to the Middle East, one other important individual who was on that CODEL with me, who came back with his eyes opened, was David Bonior from Michigan. He came back and rose in the leadership at the House. He kept saying it’s because of that CODEL to the Middle East in 1982, which I led, that his eyes were opened as to what was happening in the Middle East. So you’ve got to get members of Congress over there. Not just on AIPAC trips. Not one-sided trips. But get them over there to see the reality on the ground in Palestinian territory.
Janet McMahon: So one thing you mentioned was that AIPAC often generates letters and responses from all over the country, not just from one’s own congressional district. How can people talk to the congressperson from their own district and make a difference, from the constituents in one district? Or does it have to be… How can constituents from a given district support their congressman? Is that sufficient, or would it have to be a national effort where people from everywhere are calling and saying thank you? How can we build on that?
Jim Moran: Forget the national effort, really. For the most part, unless you have a lot of money and are willing to contribute to their campaign, people don’t care that much about how somebody feels that they don’t have to answer to within their constituency in the House. It’s the same case in the Senate, but there are different broader constituencies, of course, in the Senate. It’s your own member of Congress. The reality is, and I know that Nick will agree, there is virtually no downside in voting for Israel’s policy, whatever it may be. In this context, we’re talking about the Israeli lobby’s policy which includes more than AIPAC, of course. There’s no downside for voting with them, generally speaking. I mean you may tick off two or three people who you’ll hear from.
But there’s a whole lot of downside if you stand up to them, because they’re well-organized within every congressional district. They’re generous. They’re well-informed. They’re politically engaged. That’s not a bad thing, because this is not a random sample of people off the street that we have in this room. The best way if you oppose AIPAC’s power and influence and even tactics, the best thing is to understand why they are so successful.
I have to share with you, it bugs me no end to go see some of my friends sitting around at a coffee shop drinking good strong coffee and complaining about something that just happened. So many of them will only talk within their comfort zone, only talk with people they agree with. They don’t get involved locally. They don’t even know who their school board member or their county board member are. Sometimes they don’t even know who their member of Congress is. They’ve got lots of opinions, but they’re useless in terms of the political process unless you get engaged, particularly with people who disagree with you.
So the best approach to dealing with the influence of the Israeli lobby is to understand why it is so powerful, to organize, to contribute. It doesn’t have to be a whole lot of money. To know your member of Congress, to get your kid to intern, to reach out to your neighbors. I don’t want to get too cliché’ish, but it’s up to everyone individually and then collectively. People need to be informed. They need to have their eyes opened. That’s what happened with me.
Initially Tom Davis, who was then a supervisor at Fairfax County for the Mason district, and Al Wynn, who was a county attorney in Prince George’s County, and David Clarke, who had just been elected to the [DC] City Council, and I was a vice mayor in Alexandria, we were contacted back in 1982 by the Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington—they were actually based in Montgomery County [MD]—to go to Israel. Oh, that sounds kind of fun. They said, you know, you’ll enjoy meeting the people. How did they know that I would be elected mayor and then to the Congress; Al Wynn would be elected to the Congress; Tom Davis would become chairman of the board of supervisors and be elected to the Congress; and David Clarke became president of the DC City Council? Because they were watching. They were engaged. They understood how this political system works.
We all went. I had come with an open mind. Gosh, I went into Yad Vashem. I was struck and I stayed there. I delayed the whole bus. I couldn’t get it out of my mind and so on, and I became a firm supporter of Israel, not knowing anything else. That was my paradigm. In fact, back in the very beginning when I was first elected, there was a vote on the $10 billion loan [guarantees] that shouldn’t be used for settlements, and I just went along with it. It was a wrong vote. It was a horrible vote. I can’t believe I voted that way. I didn’t know any better.
There was a young Jewish activist who came to me, and he was all upset. He said, “This is so wrong.” I said, “Really? You’re Jewish?” He says, “I’m a humanitarian. This is wrong, let me tell you why…”
I got to thinking. Then I talked to Saba Shami, who we both know, and who made his way into the campaign. I started thinking and reading more and watching the votes and realizing that the people who had the most courage of conscience were invariably voting in the minority on this. But if you asked them why they voted, it wasn’t because of politics or campaign contributions. They would explain exactly why they voted, and it was the most thoughtful response, as I mentioned last night. Those are the people I wanted to identify with because life’s too short to just follow the herd. [APPLAUSE]
Then there was a guy by the name of Danny Abraham. He sold Slim-Fast—owned Slim-Fast. Ironically, he sold it to Tom & Jerry’s ice cream—Ben & Jerry’s, excuse me, go figure. [LAUGHTER] But Danny Abraham is at the Center for Middle East Peace and Economic Cooperation. He had this woman, Sara Ehrman, who had worked for AIPAC, and she was very close to Hillary. In fact, she’s the one who convinced Hillary to go down to Arkansas when Hillary wasn’t sure: Do I want to go with this guy or do I want to follow my Wellesley classmates? Anyway, she convinced her to go down to Arkansas. The rest is history.
But Sara started talking with me. Danny Abraham brought me to the West Bank to talk to Yasser Arafat. I asked Arafat at the time—you have to put this in a historical context, this was right after Rabin had been assassinated—I said, “I heard that you cried; that they couldn’t talk to you, you were so upset when Yitzhak Rabin had been assassinated. Why?” He said, “Yitzhak was the only Jew who ever treated me like I was a man.” That’s fascinating.
So a lot of this is a struggle for dignity and being recognized. Anyways, one thing led to another and eventually you form your views. But it goes back to the need to open people’s eyes. When you open their eyes, sometimes their heart opens up too and they do the right thing. The fact is that the Jewish community in the United States realizes that this is a true democracy. If you get sufficiently engaged, it will serve your purposes.
But I also want to say something, I think, that’s very important. If this issue is going to turn in the direction of justice, and you can’t have peace without justice, but if it is going to turn, the arc of history is going to turn—as Barack Obama would say—toward justice, a lot of it is going to be because young Jewish men and women who are on campuses and who are reading and who understand the importance of this democratic process, and are of the same ilk that disproportionally turned around the civil rights struggle in the South. They were the ones that came down from New England and the northeastern states and so on, and many of them lost their lives. They have to be engaged, too. And they will be engaged as long as sufficient information is out there, as long as people know the facts on the ground and have the courage of their convictions to share that information, and understand that basically most people are good. When they know the reality of a situation, they’re going to do the right thing and then the Congress will follow. [APPLAUSE]
Janet McMahon: You want to add anything to that, Nick? I mean you’ve said that you think the Israel lobby is—there are many lobbies and many special interests.
Nick Rahall: Let me just say one thing to follow up on what Jim has said about the young people and getting them involved. That is so crucial. I’m going to say something here that may be heresy and some are going to boo probably when I mention the name, because I know they’ve been described as AIPAC lite and other descriptions. But a group in town that has been very effective at involving the young people and getting them to see members of Congress and, I think, provide a great deal of cover for members, including these two votes I mentioned earlier, a group in town that I think is worth reaching out to in trying to get across the divide is J Street.
I think they are a growing organization. They’re involving a lot of young active people across this nation. They’re causing a stir in the Democratic Party. You saw, for example, this year—the first time I’ve ever seen in a presidential debate—the issue of Israel and Palestine come up like it did and be debated. They can get into members of Congress’ office, and that’s important.
So whatever coalition building you can do, there might not be a hundred percent agreement on—not a lot—but a few issues. But I think there is a common goal. It’s important to stress upon members of Congress, especially the newer members of Congress, that AIPAC does not speak for the Israeli people. They speak for the right-wing Likud government. A lot of newer members of Congress don’t quite distinguish that; whereas, J Street…
Let me just tell you some of their positions. I’m sure you probably know it. They supported the Iran nuclear deal. They opposed David Friedman as U.S. ambassador [to Israel]. They opposed the Trump anti-immigration policies, including the ban on Muslims, civil liberties, and increased defense spending at the expense of domestic programs. J Street opposed the Israeli settlement expansion and supported the Obama administration’s decision to abstain from U.N. Resolution 2334. That’s that 80-vote I referred to earlier. They opposed a 2015 amendment to the U.S. trade promotion bill that would have protected Israeli settlements from the BDS movement. They have acknowledged the painful side of Israel’s creation, which was a displacement of the Palestinian people.
So I think there is a ground there for a reach out and an approach that says, let’s do this together and let’s go to Congress together. I think members of Congress will respond when they see Jewish- and Arab- [Americans] working together instead of hurling insults each way. We all know the American people are yearning for that to happen in our political environment. We’re not there yet. We’re further back, I think, than when Jim and I were in the Congress. But that’s what, I think, would strike a responsive chord if we want to expand beyond just this group, is what I’m saying, and beyond just Arab groups working on behalf of a two-state solution, for example. J Street supports that, and I think that’s what we’ve got to get back to. So I throw that out. It’s something that I think should be explored to try to enhance our mutual goals. [APPLAUSE]
Janet McMahon: Here’s another question from the audience: I’m the son of an Irish mother and an Arab father. I’m from the Deep South originally, so the two of you are as good as it gets. [APPLAUSE] Would either of you consider moving to my district in Dallas, Texas and running against Sam Johnson? [LAUGHTER]
Jim Moran: What’s the district? We may be interested. What’s the district?
Janet McMahon: I don’t know. Go out there and track this person down. Well, I think I…
Jim Moran: That was a rhetorical question, I assume.
Janet McMahon: I don’t know. I doubt it. So I’d like to thank, again, Nick Rahall and Jim Moran for being with us today. [APPLAUSE]
Nick Rahall: Thank you, Janet. Thank you. Thank you.
Jim Moran: Could I just give a little shout out here? Shai Tamari, come in here. Shai’s in the front row here. He shaved his hair since he last worked for me. Shai was my foreign policy person. Shai used to be a member of the Israel Defense Forces. He informed, in large part, my view, because you need to know where people are coming from whose views differ from yours. That ability to empathize was extraordinarily powerful in terms of my understanding of why this issue was so important and worth taking the tough votes on. It’s people like Shai Tamari who are going to, as I say, bend the arc of history in the right direction. So thank you, Shai, for all you did for me. [Applause]
Janet McMahon: I also wanted to thank Jim and Nick for their service to our country for so many decades, not only for being here today. [APPLAUSE]
Nick Rahall: Thank you.
Jim Moran: It’s our honor.