WASHINGTON — As Congress considers the Obama administration’s request to use military force against Syria, many Jewish lawmakers have nestled in the comfort of the “undecided” column, waiting until the last minute before taking a stand on an issue that offers little political gain.
But for two Jewish members of Congress, the fierce debate over how to respond to the use of banned chemical weapons in Syria has been an opportunity to take the lead on a matter they feel passionately about — albeit from opposing sides.
New York Democrat Eliot Engel, a hawkish lawmaker who has been known to take positions critical of the administration on issues relating to Israel, was one of the first congressmen to back a strike on Syria and has spent much of his time since the August 21 chemical attack rounding up votes in favor of military intervention.
Alan Grayson, a Democrat from Florida who won back his congressional seat last year, has become a household name since the Syria crisis began, shuttling between TV studios and making the progressive case against an American attack overseas.
Interestingly, both Engel and Grayson have been historically close to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the mainstream Israel lobby, which strongly supports the president’s push to bomb Syria. And both find Jewish roots and reasons to support their opposing positions.
“My Jewish values guide my way,” Grayson said in an interview, stressing that a military strike on Syria would “not make America safer and will not make Israel safer.”
Engel, on the other hand, cited his background as one of the reasons for backing the use of force against Assad. “Maybe I’m more sensitized because I’m Jewish and I feel the need to act when I see children being gassed and being killed,” he said.
Engel credits himself with being among the first to speak out on the need to punish Syria. A day after the August 21 chemical attack that left 1,400 dead, Engel wrote to President Obama calling for the launch of airstrikes against Assad because he had crossed the red line set by the administration regarding the use of these weapons. The call came early on, before the White House even began discussing publicly a military option, and before the president began to make the case for a punitive strike.
“I didn’t want to play games,” Engel said in a September 10 interview. “I know that there are those who don’t want to come out before they know where the wind is blowing, but for me it was a very easy choice.”
Engel serves as the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, a position he won after an internal political battle with California’s Brad Sherman following the 2012 elections. TV viewers might recognize Engel as the congressman who is always in the front row of greeters, shaking hands with the president as he enters Congress for his annual State of the Union speech. It is a tradition Engel has upheld since he was first elected, in 1989.
Climbing to the top Democratic spot in the House Committee on Foreign Affairs has put Engel in the spotlight as one of his party’s most prominent foreign policy voices. But while his predecessor in that position, former congressman Howard Berman, was known for his mainstream foreign policy views and for leaving hardly any daylight between himself and the Obama administration, Engel tends to be critical of the White House when it comes to the Middle East.
On issues relating to Israel, Engel is markedly to the right of most Democrats. He is a co-founder of the Congressional Israel Allies Caucus, a group whose leader, Israel’s former Knesset member Benny Elon, explicitly opposes a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Engel has been a vocal critic of the Palestinian Authority and has praised former president George W. Bush for his support for Israel and for standing up to the Palestinians. During Obama’s first term in office, Engel was among his toughest critics, speaking out against the president’s call for a settlement freeze and against what he viewed as pressuring Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
These views, while uncommon for a Democratic politician, have been welcomed by Engel’s constituents, in a congressional district that includes parts of the Bronx and Westchester County, both of which have a substantial Jewish Orthodox population.
But on the issue of Syria, Engel has tried to distance his support for military action from his strong views on Israel. “My calculation is not that it is going to be good for Israel, but that it is something that is good for the United States and that the United States needs to do,” he said.