Bagels and Iran

A Fly on the Wall at a Congressional Breakfast

By J.J. Goldberg

Published January 27, 2012, issue of February 03, 2012.
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Representative Nita Lowey of Westchester is another favorite. The top Democrat on the House foreign-aid subcommittee, she does most of the heavy lifting in preparing America’s $3 billion Israel aid package, as she explains to the crowd. “I am sure that my mother of blessed memory is proud,” she says. This year’s aid bill includes “tough language” to close the PLO’s Washington office if the Palestinians go back to the United Nations for membership. But, she cautions, JCRC is about more than Israel. “You also understand that government has the responsibility to help people ignite the American dream.” That means keeping schools, seniors’ centers and food programs going. “That’s why I’m so proud of our tradition, because in addition to standing up for Israel we understand what tzedaka is all about.” So “when you hear cut, cut, cut,” don’t listen.

The two Republicans in the room seem less at ease. Both freshmen, they’re still learning the language. Bob Turner, who won the special election for Anthony Weiner’s seat, is plainly taking a victory lap this morning. He’s mugging and taking shots at Obama, while the Democrat he defeated, state assemblyman David Weprin, an Orthodox Jew, sits in front of him, glaring. Turner boasts that he’s been to Israel twice, “which I think is two more than — never mind, that would be partisan.” (Obama was there in 2008, but never mind.) He says Congress has “given the president a great deal of authority” to pursue a peaceful resolution with Iran, which “the Iranians may see as an opportunity to buy time.” He gets grave nods, but no applause.

Nan Hayworth, a physician from upstate Mt. Kisco, announces that she’s “proud to be a good Jewish mother,” having “raised two Jewish sons” and shown she can “run a bris” while remaining a Lutheran. It’s not clear how that goes over in this particular crowd. She speaks of her bipartisan spirit, boasting that she’s “actually tied for fourth for voting with President Obama on a number of issues,” which doesn’t rouse the crowd either. She was in Israel recently and heard from Prime Minister Netanyahu about the “madness” of the Iranian regime. “The passion that drives me forward,” she says, “is the love of liberty.” She’s saying the right things, but her tone is off.

In the end, the speeches that grab the crowd are the ones that combine strong defense of social services with detailed warnings about Iran or Hamas. The morning’s most passionate defense of social spending comes from Carolyn McCarthy, a Long Island Democrat best known for gun control (she entered politics in 1993 after a gunman on the Long Island Rail Road killed her husband and crippled her son). “Everybody is always one paycheck away, one illness away from their lives changing forever.”

Concact J.J. Goldberg at goldberg@forward.com


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