Six years ago, Marcia Fudge was the mayor of a small, overwhelmingly African-American town in Northern Ohio when she first came to Israel at the invitation of the AIPAC-affiliated American-Israeli Education Foundation. This week, she returned, as a congresswoman and the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, and as an avowed supporter of the Jewish state.
“I’ve been impressed, obviously, with what Israel has done over the years, as it related to technology, agriculture, research in general,” Fudge, a lifelong Democrat, told The Times of Israel Wednesday evening, right after she and several other caucus members concluded a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem. “I find the country fascinating and certainly want to learn more about it.”
Of course there are good and bad things in every country, said Fudge, 61, but she hadn’t found anything she disliked about Israel yet.
“I know there are some things that need to be addressed, and the leaders that I have talked to all admit that they need to be addressed,” she said, apparently referring to the Palestinian issue and questions regarding civil rights infringements of Israeli Arabs.
“It’s something that is a fact, no different than the change that has come about in the United States over the last 30 or 40 years. Change happens, and I’m just hoping that it will be sooner rather than later.”
In its early days, Fudge’s political career contained very little to indicate that she would one day become a close friend of Israel. A lawyer by training, in 2000 she became the mayor of Cleveland suburb Warrensville Heights, 93 percent of whose population is black.
Eight years later, when she was still the mayor of a town with no Jews or Israelis, the AIEF invited her to come and visit the Holy Land.
On August 19, 2008, the congresswoman of Ohio’s 11th district, Stephanie Tubbs Jones, suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died the next day. Local democratic leaders elected Fudge to be her successor and since then she has won every campaign she’s fought.
“I’m from Cleveland, Ohio, which has one of the largest Jewish populations in a single district in the state of Ohio and almost anyplace else in the United States. I do have a very large Jewish population, so it’s not unusual that I would be interested in being a part of discussions and finding out what’s going on in Israel,” she said. “It makes a lot of sense for me to be here.”
During this week’s trip to Israel, Fudge and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus also met with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, Israeli rabbis, civil society activists, health care officials and others who talked about the complex nature of life in Israel and the Palestinian territories. “I learned an awful lot this time,” she said.
With Netanyahu, Fudge said she spoke mostly about the Iranian nuclear program, and the prime minister apparently resisted the temptation to talk her into using her political power to put more pressure on Iran.
“He did not say that Congress should insist on more sanctions [against Iran]. All we discussed was the fact that this problem is not just an Israeli problem; this problem is a problem for the entire Middle East,” she said. “And a lot of people have a responsibility, other than just Israel and the United States. So we talked about it in a broader framework, what would happen to the entire area if, in fact, Iran were to get nuclear capabilities.”
With Netanyahu and Hamdallah, Fudge also discussed the current peace negotiations. She did not get the impression that the leaders on both sides are dragging their feet because they aren’t ready to make the necessary concessions, she asserted. “I’m going home with a sense of optimism. I know there are some major issues that need to be addressed, but both parties want it to happen. I’m hopeful that they will find a way to make it happen.”
Fudge has chaired the Congressional Black Caucus — which has 43 members, most of them Democrats — since last year, and said she has yet to meet an African-American who isn’t sympathetic toward Israel.
“I can’t speak for the entire black community in the United States. But I would suggest to you that, as with any group of people, you’re going to have those who are supportive and those that are not. I don’t happen to be in contact with those that are not,” she said. “Those of us who are here are supportive. We all see things we wish might be different. But overall, we are very supportive.”
African-Americans and Israel have “a natural and ongoing good relationship,” Fudge said. “There’s always been a natural kind of a bond based upon our histories. So I don’t think that’s going to change any time soon.”