Baltimore Jewish Times
It's the political conventional wisdom of the day: Congressional Republicans are starting to win the loyalty of Jewish voters because of their strong support for Israel.
Guess again, says Rep. Steny Hoyer, the Democratic whip in the House of Representatives. Mr. Hoyer, once the boy wonder of the Maryland State Senate - he was elected at 27 and became its president nine years later - is now the second-ranking Democratic Party leader in the House.
The 64-year-old Mr. Hoyer, who represents a sprawling district that includes portions of Prince George's County, Anne Arundel County and southern Maryland, is his party's point man in the effort to prevent any serious Jewish slippage to the GOP side. And he is emerging as the most outspoken critic of some of the Republicans who proclaim that they now carry the banner for Israel.
That includes some born-again Christians whose support is based on biblical prophecy, said Mr. Hoyer, himself a Baptist.
Reflecting the party's strategy for cementing the traditional Jewish-Democratic bond, Mr. Hoyer makes the case that while Israel is important to most Jews, it continues to be just one of many issues that shape their votes and their political activism. But his job is getting harder in the face of the mounting GOP effort.
"Congressman Hoyer realizes that the Democrats have a long history of support for Israel and for the U.S.-Israel relationship - but that with the Republicans fighting to make it their issue, the Democrats have to pump it up, too," said Howard Friedman, a Baltimore political activist and fund-raiser who participated in a Hoyer-led mission of 29 Democratic lawmakers to Israel last August.
More than anything, he said, Mr. Hoyer is fighting to ensure that support for Israel remains a strongly bi-partisan matter, and that the Israel agenda is not turned into a political football. That, too, will be increasingly difficult as both parties vie for Jewish votes and campaign contributions - and as factions in Israel's bitter political wars seek allies on Capitol Hill.
Mr. Hoyer, first elected to the House in 1981 to replace the late Gladys Noon Spellman, is not a newcomer to Jewish and pro-Israel causes. In the 1980s, he was a leading congressional advocate for Soviet Jews.
"From the time he was in the Maryland legislature, he was writing letters on behalf of refuseniks, attending rallies and meeting with Soviet officials," said Mark Levin, executive director of NCSJ, a Soviet Jewry group that honored Mr. Hoyer with its "Torch of Liberty" award last year.
"We've worked with Steny over 2 1/2 decades; he was always available to us, he always came through."
Pro-Israel lobbyists tell a similar story; Mr. Hoyer, they say, played an active role in pro-Israel efforts on Capitol Hill even when there was no big political advantage in doing so.
"He's not the flashiest guy on the Hill - he's a workhorse, not a show horse - but he has been reliable and he delivers," said a longtime pro-Israel lobbyist.
"When Steny Hoyer says he's going to do something, it gets done. He has been very broad in his outlook, and has a sensitivity and a reliability that's remarkable in a political career. If Steny says he'll do it, he does it," said Baltimorean Shoshana Cardin, who has worked closely with Mr. Hoyer for decades - initially on women's issues when he was in the Maryland Senate, later on Soviet Jewry and Israel-related matters.
Since rising to the whip position in November 2002 - he lost the Democratic leader position to Baltimore native Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) - Mr. Hoyer has cranked up his visibility as an advocate for U.S.-Israel relations. And not just within Jewish circles.
Jewish activists on Capitol Hill say he has raised the issue frequently during private meetings with party colleagues. That is a key element in a Democratic strategy to prevent any significant erosion of Jewish support as key Republicans promote themselves as Israel's new best friends.
In an interview, Mr. Hoyer said that support for Israel is stronger than ever on Capitol Hill from "both sides of the aisle."
Part of that is the result of the collective effort of Jewish and pro-Israel lobbyists, who have ensured a "focus and understanding" of their special concerns, he said. The pro-Israel consensus has been strengthened by America's post-Sept. 11 status as a terror victim.
Today there is a greater consensus that Israel's survival and success is extraordinarily important, because the visiting of terrorism on the United States and other parts of the world has given people a better sense of what terrorism means," he said. "It has brought home the idea of terrorism to people."
And the terror attacks in Washington and New York brought home the idea that Israel and the United States face some of the same enemies in a world rife with terrorism, he said. But there are threats to the broad pro-Israel congressional consensus, including the argument made by some that it is U.S. support for Israel that has made this country a target of terror leaders such as Osama bin Laden.
"One of the dangers is that our relationship to Israel is perceived as a cause of some of our problems in the Middle East," Mr. Hoyer said.
"I reject that premise; it's our relationship to freedom and our commitment to democracy and to oppose terrorism that is part of our problem in the Middle East. We need to make sure Americans understand that."
The U.S. relationship to Israel, he added, is "critical to our own success."
Now Mr. Hoyer, Capitol Hill analysts say, is using his stature as the party's No. 2 man in the House to convey that message to fellow Democrats - and to Jewish leaders who have been prime targets of GOP political strategists.
Some of those Republicans are hoping to sway Jewish votes by spotlighting the hostility to Israel of some Democratic congressmen such as Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.); the Democrats, they say, may have been prime supporters of the Jewish state in the past, but the GOP is the pro-Israel party of the future.
Mr. Hoyer concedes that some Democrats tend to vote against legislation pushed by the pro-Israel lobby - symbolic resolutions expressing solidarity with Israel, bills punishing the Palestinian Authority - but that it's a tiny minority.
"Even on the most controversial votes, where you may get as many as 20-25 people voting on the other side, there's an overwhelming consensus on the issue of Israel," he said. "As I point out to friends, there are some Democrats, particularly African-American Democrats, who are very concerned about the plight of the Palestinian people."
But there are very few Democrats who challenge the special bond between Washington and Jerusalem. Overall, he said, there is a strong pro-Israel consensus on both sides of the aisle, with a handful of exceptions in both parties.
Behind the scenes, Mr. Hoyer is working effectively to convince the dissenters that their coolness to Israel is bad for the nation - and bad for the Democratic Party. His core message: "I don't want to be ëevenhanded' between democracy and despotism, between terror and self- defense."
(In comments he has now disavowed, Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean last year called for U.S. policy in the Middle East to be more "even-handed.")
Mr. Hoyer forcefully rejects the notion that Republicans who have aligned themselves with right-wing forces in Israel in recent years are more "pro-Israel" than the Democrats. In fact, Mr. Hoyer is seen as the Democratic answer to Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), the fierce conservative who has become the GOP point man in outreach to pro-Israel groups.
"Tom DeLay is attempting to be more pro-Israel than Israel," he said. "He's a hard-liner. He has, frankly, very narrow views on issues." That, Mr. Hoyer said, is not very different from "President Bush's relatively simplistic, non-nuanced view of the world."
Speaking to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee last year, Mr. DeLay, who like Mr. Hoyer is Baptist, said, "I've toured Judea and Samaria, and I've stood on the Golan Heights. I didn't see occupied territory. I saw Israel."
That puts Mr. DeLay to the right of the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Mr. Hoyer said. In contrast, he said, Mr. Sharon "understands that if Israel is to be secure in the long term, there has to be a resolution to this issue. And you're not going to get a resolution without making accommodations on some of these issues with reference to land."
Israel has to decide on the best course to follow to peace, he said, "not the U.S., not outsiders. It is not useful to whip up hysteria." He also expressed reservations about American religious right leaders who have become some of Israel's most passionate supporters as well as some of the most passionate opponents of any peace process.
"The fundamentalists throughout the world have a moral certainty as to their positions, which do not admit of much discussion of objectives and policies," said Mr. Hoyer, who stressed that he was not directly comparing American and Islamic fundamentalists. "If you're the ayatollah and believe something is right, you're not interested in debating it."
Of the religious right's influence on U.S. Mideast policy, he said, "Clearly they are having influence. The president counts himself a member of the religious right, Tom DeLay counts himself as a member of the religious right - not defensively, but proudly."
And he attributed much of the Christian conservative support to the biblical prophecies of the return of the Christian Messiah. "I think there is a great focus on Israel for fundamentalists because of the role Israel as a land plays in the second coming of Christ," he said. "It is more complex than simply support for Israel."
Some critics charge that some evangelical leaders, who believe genuine peace cannot be reached until the great battles of the apocalypse, are endangering Israel by using their newfound political influence to oppose new U.S. peace efforts in the region.
Despite his assertion that Israel must make its own decisions about peace and security, Mr. DeLay expressed support for longstanding U.S. demands on settlements - demands made by both Democratic and Republican presidents.
"Settlements should not be extended and, in fact, settlements are not useful to accomplishing the peace process," he said. But he also said that Washington should not be involved in the debate over which settlements should be moved. And he said that Israel's controversial security fence, which critics charge is a way of imposing borders to keep many settlements in the middle of Palestinian territory, "is not a settlements issue."
Above all, Mr. Hoyer emphasizes that "Israel has to make its own decisions, with the assistance of its friends - of which the United States is the primary one."
Sticking to that principle, rather than supporting any single faction in Israel, is essential to maintaining the strong bi-partisan consensus in Congress that has become a bulwark of strength for Israel in recent years, he said.
As his longtime House colleague Rep. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) put it, "Steny bristles when someone says that one party or the other is ëbetter' for the Jewish community and for Israel. He says that when it comes to Israel, we have to make it very clear that our strong support isn't because of party affiliation or politics, but because it's good for the United States."
Mr. Hoyer also is attacking the GOP outreach effort on domestic grounds - again starting with his controversial partisan adversary, Mr. DeLay.
"Tom DeLay has essentially put forward the proposition that this is a Christian nation," Mr. Hoyer said. "I reject that; this is a nation that has many, many Christians, including me, who feel strongly about their faith - but it a nation of all faiths, and has been that way since its inception."
The Jewish connection to the Democrats goes far beyond Israel, he said, which is why the Republicans continue to be frustrated by their inability to dislodge significant numbers of Jewish Democratic voters.
"The reason Jews are for Democrats, predominantly, is because the Democratic Party has reflected the values that I think the Jewish community holds very dear," he said.
Those values encompass a wide range of domestic matters, including church-state separation, concern for the nation's most vulnerable citizens and civil and human rights - that have traditionally bound the Jews to the Democratic Party, he said.
The Republicans are seeking to appeal to Jewish voters based almost entirely on the single issue of Israel, said a top political scientist: Mr. Hoyer represents the political antidote.
"Hoyer is saying he believes the Jewish community to be short-sighted in looking at just the single issue of Israel," said Gilbert Kahn, a professor at Kean University. "And he argues - correctly I believe - that on these broader issues, the Democratic Party still represents the primary concerns of the Jewish community."
The fact that Mr. Hoyer has reached the top rungs of the Democratic leadership, and that he is not seen as an ethnic politician, magnifies his effectiveness, Dr. Kahn said.
Not surprisingly Republicans discount the Hoyer effort as a desperate attempt to prevent the inevitable.
"The big success they are claiming for Hoyer is that he's convincing some Democrats not to be so anti-Israel," said a Republican staffer on Capitol Hill involved in Jewish political outreach. "I just don't see how you can sell this to Jewish voters as a big plus for the Democratic Party."
Mr. Hoyer's real job, this observer said, is to keep Democratic losses from snowballing in the face of the expanding GOP outreach to Jews.
Mr. Hoyer also has used his congressional platform to speak out against anti-Semitism and to have the United States use its influence to combat the rising tide of global anti-Semitism. Along with Mr. Cardin, he has been a major player in the congressional Helsinki Commission, the group set up to monitor human rights in Europe.
The "change in demographics" in countries like France - including the surge in the Muslim population - has aggravated the problem of European anti-Semitism, a problem those nations are just starting to deal with - with strong nudging from Washington, Mr. Hoyer said.
Ultimately, Mr. Cardin agreed, it is Mr. Hoyer's status as a top Democratic leader, his ability to work across party lines and his credibility on both sides of the aisle that has made him critical to Jewish activists on multiple fronts.
"Steny is a diplomat who is passionate about the issues that are critical to our community," he said. "He has done it for years - and he has literally changed policy."