|Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, addresses Norpac’s plenary session.|
Politics is all about relationships.
When you think about it, what isn’t?
We would all like to believe that if you can lay out facts, make a case, and show that there is both moral and strategic good on your side, you will win. But in order to do that, you have to have someone in front of whom to lay out the facts. You need someone who will listen when you make your case.
That is as true about winning support for Israel as any other issue.
So if you are passionate about Israel, know your stuff, and want to make a difference, all you have to do is talk to your friend the politician. Master your facts, shape your argument, make it – the way to influence legislators, and therefore to affect legislation.
But this is a very big country. Most of us do not know congressional representatives, and even fewer of us know senators.
Norpac is a single-issue nonpartisan lobbying organization, created in North Jersey and still centered here, that cultivates relationships with politicians, and trains people to advocate for Israel using those relationships.
Each year, it brings together politicians from across the country in people’s homes to meet with small groups of Israel advocates. The meetings culminate in a trip to Washington, where the advocates fan out to meet with senators and members of the House of Representatives.
This year, about 1,000 people descended on Washington on May 1 to lobby for Israel.
Norpac is about 20 years old; it was formed at the end of George H. W. Bush’s administration. It is a grassroots organization and has grown organically; as a result, even its name has shifted its meaning. According to Dr. Ben Chouake of Englewood, its president, the group started out as representing just northern New Jersey (the Nor in Norpac), but then it grew to include Riverdale, other parts of New Jersey, Long Island’s Five Towns, and other places.
The organization is similar to AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee Policy Conference, and its issues, approach, and membership overlap, but there are significant differences. AIPAC is a registered lobby for the government of Israel, so it cannot hold fundraisers for candidates. Norpac is not, and so it can.
AIPAC has a large staff, which runs it. Norpac has a staff of one; it is volunteer-driven.
Norpac is nonpartisan and entirely single-issue. “I get screamed at by people on both sides,” Chouake said.
The politicians it hosts in home meetings come from both sides of the aisle and represent the ideological spectrums of both parties.
“When we started in 1997,” – when Chouake first became a Norpac officer – “we were having about two events a year,” he continued. “Now, we are at a point where the majority of the senators have been in one of our homes.”
Last year, Norpac sponsored 35 meetings.
Chouake, who has been president of Norpac since 2000, has learned a great deal about the country’s elected representatives. “By and large, the members of Congress are very fine people,” he said. “Extraordinary people. They have to sacrifice an immense amount to do their jobs, and their families also sacrifice.
“They make a decent livelihood, but with the hours they work, they don’t get paid that much. They have to live in two places, and they commute constantly.
“By and large, they do it because they have a mission, and that is to make things better, or at least what they think is better. Some people might not agree with this or that approach, but it’s reasonable for everyone to appreciate that they work very hard at what they believe in, and that they have good intentions.”
The trip to Washington capitalizes on the relationships established during this and earlier years.
When Norpac sets up its schedule, “we prioritize the House by committee and the member’s interest,” Chouake said. “In the Senate, we prioritize everyone, because every senator has power. In the House, it’s a pyramid, and the people at the top run the show.
“Each year is different,” he continued. “The issues are different, and the climate is different. This year, there are a couple of issues that are ongoing.” Most involve sanctions against Iran. One, the Iran Sanctions Loophole Elimination Act, was introduced on May 1; Norpac learned about it the day before, and became the first group to advocate for its passage.
Chouake is a Cliffside Park-based physician who specializes in internal and emergency medicine. “I’m pretty much a one-issue guy,” he said. “I have my own opinions on other stuff, but I keep them to myself. You have to do that to take care of our mission. Otherwise, you are totally ineffective.”
Dr. Laurie Baumel of Teaneck was a mission co-chair. Working with the other two co-chairs, Richard Schlussel of Englewood, and David Steinberg of Queens, N.Y., her job is to take care of a formidable mass of logistics. “We start planning many months in advance,” she said.
Twenty-five buses, most of which leave at 6 in the morning, stocked with breakfast, take most of the travelers to Washington. There, they meet for a plenary session; usually the speakers are members of either house of Congress, but this year, because of scheduling changes, they were addressed by Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, and by Esther Kurz, AIPAC’s chief lobbyist. It’s lunchtime, so food is served. Then, broken up into groups of eight, Norpac members head to Capitol Hill, talking points in hand, to meet with either three or four senators, members of Congress, or their staffs.
Among the co-chairs’ responsibilities is breaking the 1,000 people – including some college students and even some teenagers – into those groups of eight, like a nightmare wedding reception on steroids. Anyone who has any personal connection to a lawmaker is assigned to him or her – that’s where the house parties prove so valuable – and a leader is assigned.
“Altogether, we had 470 meetings with congressmen, senators, and staff,” Schlussel said. “There are 535 congressmen and senators. We saw about 90 percent of them.
“We had people with Norpac lapel pins and Norpac kipas,” he added. “It feels like we are all over the halls of Congress.”
“You are back and forth from the House and the Senate side,” Baumel said. “You present specific pieces of legislation and background information.
“It’s about education. When we look at Congress, we don’t realize what turnover there is. More than 40 percent of the Senate has served less than one term, and it’s a similar situation in the House, where about 40 percent has served less than two terms.
“With that much turnover, it’s important to tell them why we’re passionate.”
“It would really be better if there were less turnover,” Chouake sort-of-joked in agreement. “The turnover is killing us.”
At the end of the day – usually between 5 and 6 o’clock – the tired travelers troop back onto their buses for the ride home. Dinner is served.
“When you’re done, you feel like you have made a contribution,” Baumel said.
She stressed that the meetings serve a real purpose. “The members of Congress not only are supportive of our issues, they are genuinely appreciative of everyone who comes down and spends the time telling them about their passion.
“In general, members of Congress mainly see people who come down to ask for something for themselves, or for the sector they serve. We have 1,000 people – and they know that’s the tip of the iceberg – coming down because they are passionate about this country and passionate about Israel. That’s unusual.”
She marveled at the nonpartisanship – Sen. Lindsay Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, and New Jersey’s Sen. Robert Menendez, a Democrat, among many others, met with Norpac.
“We have passionate friends on both sides of the aisle,” she said. “In Washington, there is so little agreement, so much discord, but they agree on Israel. They realize that a strong Israel is important to the United States, and they come together to support that. They agree on that, even if they can’t agree on going out together and having a cup of coffee.”
Allan Friedman of Teaneck, who co-heads J.P. Morgan’s corporate tax department, wrote the talking points. Usually Norpac’s mission advocates for four main items, each broken down into small chunks of information. “I put it into a form that is easily understandable, and usable by 1,000 people who come at it with different levels of understanding and sophistication,” he said.
“This is very important stuff,” he said. “We tell everyone who has gone on a mission that there is nothing that makes a difference and impresses congressmen and their staffs more than the fact that 1,000 people took time off from their lives to get on a bus at 6 in the morning to shlep down to Washington.
“What we do makes a huge difference.”