Everybody’s on the bus

Everybody’s on the bus

Bergen, other local counties send 1,500 to lobby for Israel on Capitol Hill

From left, Shira Rachlin, Dr. Eli Rachlin, Sharon Kintslinger, Diane Fogel, Rep. Tom MacArthur, Nancy Friedman, Renee Brown, Ellen Gertler, Milton Markovitz, and Dr. Howard Kaufman. The visitors were among the 1,500 delegates Norpac sent to Washington last week.

The relationship between Israel and the United States might be somewhat strained right now, so at least 1,500 concerned Jews from around the area traveled to Washington, D.C., last week to plead Israel’s case.

Many of the members of that Norpac delegation are from Bergen County.

“It was very gratifying,” said Norpac’s president, Dr. Ben Chouake of Englewood. Norpac brought 33 buses to the nation’s capital on May 13.

“We cut off registration on May 4, the deadline date,” he said, noting that while the organization has been known to extend the deadline, this year, as the number of would-be attendees steadily grew, that was not possible.

“The turnout was really impressive,” said Dr. Chouake, adding that the large number of legislators who cleared time in their calendar to meet with members of his group was impressive as well.

In fact, Dr. Chouake said, the group arranged for some 470 meetings.

Describing itself as a bipartisan, multi-candidate political action committee working to strengthen the United States-Israel relationship, Norpac brings about 1,000 people to Washington each year to advocate toward that end. Generally, participants attend a brief plenary session, where they hear from members of the Congressional leadership. Next, they meet in small groups with members of Congress and their staffs to discuss the year’s talking points.

Arranging meetings is no easy job, said Dr. Chouake, who noted that he had spent the last couple of weeks getting the appointments. He attributes his success to the fact that Norpac is well known to legislators, prepares its members well, and sends the printed resources to members of Congress before the meetings.

“Unlike most groups, the training of our members who go down to Washington is substantially better,” Dr. Chouake said. “We send out talking points ahead of time, and we show a video on the way down.” The Norpac delegation is “knowledgeable, practiced, and prepared, and well trained on the issues.”

Often, congressional meetings are secured by members “who have a connection,” he said. “If they have a connection, we use it; the better the connections, the better the meetings.” Sometimes, members of Congress ask to meet only with their own constituents, “but the vast majority are considerate enough to give time to members even though they’re not constituents.”

Norpac was founded in Bergen County “and grew concentrically from here outward,” Dr. Chouake said. The group now includes people from central Jersey, Highland Park, Rockland County, Westchester, and New York City. “We’re also getting people from Deal,” he said.

On May 13, “We met with everyone, leaders of the House and Senate,” Dr. Chouake said. If a senator or representative was in a meeting, Norpac delegates met with his or her staff. “I was supposed to meet with [John] McCain,” he said, “but he ended up chairing a closed session of the armed services committee.” That meeting also precluded a visit with ranking member Jack Reed, “who couldn’t come but called me on the phone.”

“Most of the members know us,” he said. “We go down every year and they’re familiar with us.” Still, “there are a lot of new members, a lot of turnover. That makes it more of a challenge, but by and large what works is our consistency.”

Not only do Norpac members visit Washington each year, but “we hold meetings [with members of Congress] each year in our homes. We have about 35 fundraising events for Congress every year, so about 15 percent of Congress is in one of our homes every two years. That’s a lot.”

Dr. Chouake said that Norpac targets legislators “based on the importance of the member on a specific issue or on a key committee, like armed services or foreign affairs.” In the House, he said, decision-making is a pyramid. While leaders are clearly at the top, “the committee chairs are like cardinals, and the majority party has huge amounts of authority compared to the minority party.”

In the Senate, however, “Every senator is a priority – a power center. Every senator can jam the works” – for example, by engaging in a filibuster.

Each year, Norpac selects different issues related to specific pieces of legislation to present to members of Congress.

“Foreign aid is always on agenda,” Dr. Chouake said, pointing out that the armed services committee has asked for millions of additional dollars for the Iron Dome missile defense system, most of it targeted toward the anti-ballistic missile system called David’s Sling.

Norpac’s goal is to convince legislators to vote for both authorization and funding.

“I met with [Sen.] Barbara Mikulski,” ranking member of the appropriations committee, Dr. Chouake said. “It was very positive. This is a priority for her. She is a leader on the issue, and “the first one to introduce supplemental appropriations for Iron Dome,” he added. “I also spoke with [Sen.] Patty Murray, who said that funding is tight,” he said. Still, “she agreed that this was a priority, especially in the current environment. We shouldn’t be hostages to small countries that develop these weapons.”

He said he was pleased to see that Sen. Murray still displays a Norpac award with the likeness of a shofar in her front office.

“Generally speaking, everyone is talking about partisanship,” Dr. Chouake said, noting that there certainly is friction between the two major parties. “But missions like this help that a lot,” he said. “It reinforces the bipartisan nature of the relationship, and leaves people feeling good.”

Norpac delegates also expressed their concern about the Hezbollah sanctions bill, recently introduced in the House and soon to be raised in the Senate.

“Sen. [Richard] Shelby will get it to committee,” Dr. Chouake said. “Last year it passed in the House but didn’t get to committee. This year it will get through. We’re expecting it to be successful, with the chair in support.”

A major issue of discussion was the threat posed by Iran.

“The biggest threat is an Iran armed with nuclear weapons,” Dr. Chouake said. “We put most of the other issues on a secondary tier, because the prospect of nuclear genocide overshadows everything. What we did is explain the dangers of Iran to the members of Congress. Even if they know it, they’ve got a gazillion things on their plate. When you explain it, it gets better attention and focus. When members understand it, they can explain it to constituents.”

Dr. Chouake said a U.S. agreement with Iran “must have the backing of the members and the American people.” This means that these constituencies must understand the nature of the issue. Norpac is looking to help provide that information.

The issue of Iran was put “front and center” in the group’s talking points, supplemented by a “score card for evaluating any agreement that would come before members of the House and Senate based on a statement by the administration and the framework they described,” Dr. Chouake said. A scorecard was sent to legislators before the mission, and many of them indicated that they found it helpful.

“It was extremely well received,” he said. “Easy to read and a fabulous tool. We spent an enormous amount of time doing this,” he added, noting that his organization had consulted three experts in the production of this resource. And while Norpac often works with other organizations, he said, “the materials we put together have yet to see their equal in terms of usability and practicality.

“The nature of the [Washington] meetings was positive,” he concluded. “Members were attentive. They read and appreciated our materials, and on an incredibly busy day they gave us a lot of time. We are very grateful.”

This was the first time May Muskin of Teaneck participated in a Norpac mission.

Why now?

“They’re concerned with a whole bunch of issues close to my heart,” she said. “I couldn’t get off from work [in other years], but I could this year. I was glad to use this time to go on the mission.”

Ms. Muskin said she was somewhat surprised “seeing the sheer number of people” on the mission. “It was quite impressive,” she added, noting that “our presence alone counts for a lot. It’s gratifying to see so many supporters of Israel congregate in one place. The relationship between the U.S. and Israel is especially strained recently. It’s more important than ever.”

She said she found the trip “to be a tremendous learning experience in terms of how the U.S. government works.” While she has been to Washington before, “You have better access with a group like this… and having that type of access was very gratifying. It was an opportunity to learn things I couldn’t learn otherwise.

“There was a range of reactions and ways in which we were welcomed,” Ms. Muskin continued. “Some were very welcoming and well-informed, while others were not so well-informed. We were bringing to their attention things they didn’t know about, like the Hezbollah sanctions law.”

In addition, “It’s important to thank those who have supported us in the past, and those on the fence we can have some positive impact on,” she said, adding that she particularly enjoyed the speech by Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), “who spoke from the heart. He’s taken a bullet for us,” she said. “He spoke about our homeland, our roots, that we were not formed as a consolation prize, a result of the Holocaust.

“It was brilliant, and he was public about it,” she said.

She and eight or nine other participants also spent time with legislators from California and Indiana. The latter, she said, “spent 25 minutes with us and had a good grasp of the issues. It was a high point.”

Ms. Muskin agreed that the Iran scorecard “was excellent. It really crystallizes different issues regarding the framework of dealing with Iran,” she said. She also appreciated the training session Norpac offered before the visit.

“This is the first time I have been this active,” she said. “Maybe it will encourage me to become more actively involved.” In the meantime, “I will actively encourage people to do this. There’s strength in numbers and articulating the arguments we need to make. We cannot take anything for granted or rest on our laurels.

“We need to advocate for Israel, and for a good relationship.”

From left, Sen. Bob Menendez, Dr. Ben Chouake, mission co-chair Dr. Richard Schlussel, and NORPAC board member David Schlussel wait their turns to speak.
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