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Outgoing Rep. Nita Lowey: Worry over Dems’ waning support for Israel ‘overblown’

Episode #13: A veteran Jewish congresswoman talks about Israel and anti-Semitism * AJC campus director and Hillel Ontario head discuss Judaism on North American college campuses

Yaakov Schwartz is The Times of Israel's deputy Jewish World editor.

On this week’s episode of “People of the Pod,” Democratic pro-Israel stalwart Nita Lowey discusses her recent snap decision to step down as congresswoman of New York’s 17th District, as well as some of the experiences she’s had during her career in Washington.

Lowey has championed women’s causes since early in her career. She discusses just what that entailed in conversation with co-host Manya Brachear Pashman.

“People of the Pod,” produced in partnership between the American Jewish Committee and The Times of Israel, analyzes global affairs through a Jewish lens.

“When I served as an intern in 1958, women — quite literally — had no place in Washington. I couldn’t even find a ladies’ room. And in 1989, I was sworn into the United States Congress as one of 31 women serving in the Senate and House of Representatives – 31 out of 535. So, I’m happy they added more ladies’ rooms because today we have 126 women serving in the Congress – 25 in the Senate, and 101 in the house. That is more than four times as when I arrived 31 years ago,” Lowey says.

In addition, as the first woman and the first Jewish member of Congress to chair the House Appropriations Committee, Lowey says she’s been “very proud to champion funding for programs of critical importance to the Jewish community such as support to maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge, [and] nonprofit security grant funding.”

“Funding to Israel isn’t a gift, it isn’t charity – a significant portion of the funding we provide comes back to the US in purchases of American military equipment,” she says. “The US and Israel partnered to develop state of the art missile capabilities that have helped both of our countries’ national security… and with tensions flaring in almost all parts of the Middle East, our relationship with Israel is more important than ever. When our allies like Israel are more secure, the United States benefits.”

While some have raised the alarm that in pursuit of the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, certain candidates have spoken about conditioning economic aid to Israel on a settlement freeze, Lowey is confident that her party’s ties with the Jewish state are as strong as ever.

From left to right: Rep. Nita Lowey, D-NY, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer and Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., marking Black History Month in the US Capitol building, Feb. 24, 2016. (Ron Kampeas via JTA)

“Bipartisan support for Israel is key to maintaining the vitally important US-Israel relationship, and I think concerns over decreasing Democratic support are overblown,” she says. “This July, Congress passed a resolution condemning BDS and supporting a two-state solution, with 398 members — including 209 Democrats — voting in support.”

In 2015 Lowey co-founded the House’s Bipartisan Task Force for Combating Anti-Semitism, and says that the body’s job is as important today as when it was first formed to combat racial hatred both at home and abroad.

“Rates of domestic anti-Semitism have exploded since we were formed in 2015, and the FBI continues to show that the vast majority of religious-based hate crimes are committed against Jewish [people] and Jewish institutions,” Lowey says. “More important than comforting and assuring, is educating. And frankly, what I’ve been focused on – not necessarily only in my district – I’ve visited college campuses where they are educating students and helping them to understand what is happening.”

Co-host Seffi Kogen continues on the issue of North American college campuses in his conversation with director of advocacy for Canada’s Hillel Ontario, Ilan Orzy, and AJC director of campus affairs Zev Hurwitz.

Last week at York University in Toronto, pro-Palestinian students violently protested against an event at which Israeli army reservists made an appearance. Orzy says that while this may seem discouraging, the strategy taken by Jewish groups and leadership on campus over the last years has largely paid off.

“Our approach over the last decade… has been to build bridges with other clubs… and we have had great strides in that area. In fact, the last time that there was such a violent incident that involved the Jewish community at York, in my recollection, would be about a decade ago,” Orzy says.

He quotes a study by the Center for Israel and Jewish Affairs, which he describes as the advocacy wing of the Canadian Jewish community, which finds that “BDS has been very much on the decline in terms of its success rate.”

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“There have been a number of opportunities in the last few years, including outside of this province, where there have been BDS resolutions or attempts — even off campus — to promote BDS, and that has fallen very much on deaf ears or has been stopped at whatever opportunity,” Orzy says, adding that the leaders of all three of Canada’s major political parties have taken stances against BDS.

According to Hurwitz, “BDS is not successful at actually getting universities to divest. Some student governments have given advisories, but not a single university administration has changed how the school invests with Israeli companies.”

“The only other thing it’s been able to do successfully is divide campus, and wherever a BDS campaign is coming up, we see time and time again that the campus climate takes a severe hit because of this resolution – it really turns the campus into pro divestment, against divestment, and at its extreme, can be violent or close to it,” he says.

Palestinian and left-wing Jewish groups stage a rally walking from Times Square to United Nations Building in New York Thursday, Sept. 15, 2011. The marchers are calling to end all US aid to Israel, end the Occupation and support Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) against Israel (AP Photo/David Karp)

More concerning than the traditional BDS, says Hurwitz, is a “culture of anti-Israel activists completely not willing to engage in any sort of meaningful dialogue or pluralistic conversation.”

“A lot of this is due to anti-normalization, the idea that students that are supportive of Zionism or of the Jewish right to self-determination, that holding on to that identity or belief is enough to disqualify a lot of anti-Israel activists from even holding a conversation… or even just coexist in the same spaces,” he says.

“We’re seeing this retreat from meaningful dialogue in a couple of forms. One is the ‘hecklers’ veto’: the idea that students who don’t approve of every single thing, or anything, that a guest speaker or lecturer or professor on campus is going to be talking about, coming in and making noise, disrupting, in some instances blocking the door so that the event can’t proceed at all. And the goal here is to shut down speech that anti-Israel activists disagree with by not allowing that speech to take place, which is a direct violation of free speech,” Hurwitz says.

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