At 5 a.m. last Wednesday morning, the parking lot at Keter Torah in Teaneck filled up with groggy people on a mission. NORPAC (www.norpac.net), a metro-region political action committee that supports Israel, had organized the largest Jewish lobbying group in its history: 530 people in 1′ buses. By 6 a.m. they were on their way to Washington, D.C., to meet with 400 legislators.
Norpac sent some 500 Jewish delegates to Washington to meet with some 400 members of Congress, among them Sen. Sam Menendez, opposite page.
Each group of five or six people, with a leader who acted as spokesman, was assigned to see four members of Congress. Nothing was left to chance. Participants were told to be polite, to thank the people in Washington for their time, and to stick to the talking points. Everyone, including students and children who accompanied their parents, was given a folder with all the information they needed in order to make a cogent case for Israel. What happened during those meetings is not for publication but, other than that, it was classic democracy in action although only a tiny turnout compared to the ‘,000 Realtors who descended on the Hill that same day to promote their own agenda. (Other groups who come to Washington to press their cases are even larger than that.)
The NORPAC group, which was 51 percent larger than last year’s, consisted mostly of North Jerseyites. After a four-hour trip that included a training film, a shmooze, reminders (one passenger quipped it was like a camp tour missing the guitar player) and a boxed breakfast, the group was greeted at the Washington Court Hotel by NORPAC leaders and congressional representatives, who led them in singing Hatikvah and the Star Spangled Banner, fed them more boxed food, pumped them up, and sent them on their mission.
What Dr. Ben Chouake, NORPAC president, didn’t tell participants was that they needed long legs and a fast walk if they were going to get from one office to another on time unless they were lucky enough to have their appointments in the same building. What many folks don’t realize is that the Senate and House office buildings are a 15-minute hike apart if you can speedwalk now that the nation’s government infrastructure is surrounded by anti-terror barriers. The buildings themselves are massive, larger than a New York City avenue block on each side, and the halls are packed with people seeking to influence their political representatives on a wide range of issues. It’s almost as if they are bringing America inside the Beltway bubble, where politicians would otherwise be out of touch. The pace is incredibly fast, and as you pass by the different offices, you see aides scrambling to get appointments sorted out as constituents crowd in.
The NORPAC group, distinguishable by NORPAC kippot, were visible among the massive numbers of others who were jockeying for congressional attention. Whatever issues the others were pressing, NORPAC was there to convince Congress solely to support Israel this time with five key bills. The "asks" were the annual fiscal year ‘007 foreign aid bill that includes $’.46 billion for Israel, the Iran Freedom Support Act, the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act, the Saudi Arabia Accountability Act, and the U.S.-Israel Energy Cooperation Act.
I was embedded in a group led by Englewood resident Harry Reidler, an articulate attorney. They were supposed to meet with three congressmen and one senator. One congressman, a senior member of the Foreign Relations Committee, greeted them and handed them over to his chief staffer on Middle-East policy who told them that China and Russia were the main obstacles to dealing with Middle East issues because of their dependence on oil. The senator on the list and another congressman sent legislative aides who knew their business to listen and speak with the group. One congressman, who met with the group for more than a half hour with his chief of staff, disagreed on some points, but heartily agreed with others. He said he voted against the Iran Freedom Support Act because it put the United States and Iran on the "slippery slope to nuclear war." He suggested verbal engagement would make sense before everyone was blown to smithereens and then tried to "engage." All the people the group met with were attentive and polite.
The participants came from varied backgrounds, although many seemed to be modern Orthodox, fierce Zionists, and children and descendants of Holocaust survivors. All but one person in the group I followed were Second Generation (as is Chouake), and that seemed to inform the core of their commitment to Zionism, especially in light of the threats from Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
In discussing the "one-issue PAC," some dismissed domestic issues as being irrelevant, others seemed to be torn but said the mission was about support for Israel nothing else. One man was blunt as long as business was good and he could take care of his family he really didn’t care what the government did, as long as Israel’s security and existence were guaranteed.
Everyone agreed that Israel’s security was paramount, and felt they had done the best they could to convince Congress to stand by Israel. The sense I got was that they felt they had been heard. Next year they will do it again, and will invite as many people as possible to join them in exercising their democratic rights.
This year they met with 400 out of 535 members of both houses of Congress. That means if they want to cover everyone on the Hill, they need at least 810 new people to join next year’s mission. It’s an empowering experience, and people seemed exhausted yet exuberant when they returned to the the buses, where boxed dinners waited for them. We had a movie to watch on the way home: "One Day in September," Arthur Cohn’s movie about Munich. It was a very long day.