Washington - In a challenge to one of the most powerful lobbying tactics used by the Jewish community, a county in Maryland decided last week that local legislators could no longer go on sponsored trips to Israel.
Montgomery County’s ethics commission decided last month that council members are prohibited from traveling at the expense of the local Jewish community, even when funding is indirectly provided by a private foundation. A trip planned months in advance was subsequently canceled.
“We were stunned by the commission’s decision,” said Ron Halber, executive director of the Greater Washington Jewish Community Relations Council, which organized the trip.
In an e-mail to a Montgomery County legislator, the ethics commission wrote that “the routing of monies through a lobbyist organization to provide travel services makes the gift unacceptable.”
The decision has such weight because sponsored trips to Israel are widely used by Jewish groups both nationally and locally to build support for Israel among non-Jewish leaders and to cultivate one-to-one relationships between American and Israeli leaders. On a national level, the trips have recently come under scrutiny amid the scandals surrounding Washington lobbyists and their relationships with lawmakers. The Montgomery County decision now brings the dilemma to the local level, as communities face the need to adjust to the changing winds in Washington and growing concerns about the power of lobbyists.
Hadar Susskind, Washington director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, called the Montgomery County decision “mistaken.” Susskind said that his organization has already begun looking into the decision in order to check if it represents a wider trend that could affect other Jewish communities.
“If it will become a widespread phenomenon, that would be misguided and unfortunate,” he said. According to Susskind, the trips to Israel are seen as an important tool for educating local leaders on issues relating to Israel and for building ties between Israeli and American leaders on the local level.
The attention given to lobbying trips to Israel has caused a number of organizations to make a formal separation between their lobbying arm and the branch in charge of sponsoring travel to Israel. Groups such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee have founded subsidiary organizations that deal with taking lawmakers, officials and journalists to Israel. As accompanists for trips to Israel, other organizations now have dedicated staffers who are not registered lobbyists.
The concern about the trips has already seeped down to the local levels where policies tend to depend on state and county ethics rules. Many JCRCs have turned to private foundations to cover the costs, and some have given up funding the trips altogether.
In Boston, the JCRC has asked since 1999 that trip participants pay their own way, covering an estimated $3,200 in travel costs. A Massachusetts ethics commission approved the community’s funding of the trip, but the local JCRC decided to drop the funding anyway, according to executive director Nancy Kaufman.
“Even though we felt we are on solid ground, we decided to err on the side of caution,” Kaufman said.
She added that there was no decline in participation after the funding was stopped. But other officials in Jewish organizations are skeptical about dropping the community funding for travel to Israel, arguing that local council members don’t have the official travel fund available to members of congress.
“It would not be fair to ask elected officials to pay from their own pocket,” an official with a major Jewish group said.
In Montgomery County, a nine-day trip to Israel was scheduled to leave September 2 and was expected to include council members and county officials from the region surrounding the nation’s capital. The JCRC of Greater Washington organized the trip and paid for all travel expenses, though the costs were reimbursed by a private foundation. Participants were requested to pay only $500 to help cover the costs.
The trip, according to the local JCRC, was supposed to expose Maryland lawmakers to different facets of the Israeli society, including immigration, homeland security and other issues specific to each participant’s fields of interest. Organizers make clear that “this is not a junket” and that traveling officials have a long and demanding schedule while in Israel. “They come back exhausted,” Halber said.
For the local Jewish community, the trips help forge stronger ties with the lawmakers and government officials and help to make them aware of the political issues relating to Israel.
In Maryland, each and every member of congress and most of the local officials have taken part in trips to Israel. Many of them later moved on to higher positions on the local and national scene.
Though dozens of local officials have traveled to Israel under the same arrangements for years, this year councilwoman Duchy Trachtenberg contacted the county’s ethics commission asking for an official approval prior to leaving for Israel. A month later, Trachtenberg received a short e-mail from the commission, stating that after “many hours of deliberation, the Ethics Commission has decided that you may not accept the gift of a trip to Israel that has been offered to you.”
The full decision has not yet been released, but in the brief explanation given to Trachtenberg the commission said that the trip was not possible as long as the JCRC played any role in the funding.
“I was surprised by the decision,” Trachtenberg told the Forward, “and so were other council members.”
The councilwoman added that after receiving a full explanation from the commission, she intends to seek a new formulation that would make the trip possible.
“We view it as no more than a temporary setback,” Halber said. He stressed that the visits to Israel of local lawmakers and officials are purely educational and have nothing to do with the group’s lobbying work, which focuses mainly on support for Jewish institutions dealing with health and human services.
Halber said that if the ethics commission does not change its mind, local leaders are poised to find ways of changing their funding system to make the trips possible.
“One thing is clear,” Halber concluded. “We are not stopping our missions to Israel.”
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, was the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.