By Toby Klein Greenwald
In mid-May, Congressmen Andrew P. Harris, M.D., and Ron DeSantis, Republicans from Maryland and Florida, respectively, were in Israel as part of a weeklong visit organized by the Yes Israel missions in conjunction with the YESHA Council, which represents the Israeli residents of Judea and Samaria, and sponsored by the organization Proclaiming Justice to the Nations. They were accompanied by their wives, Sylvia “Cookie” Harris, who works with a pro-life organization, and Casey Black DeSantis, an Emmy-winning television host of the magazine-style talk show out of Jacksonville, First Coast Living.
Both congressmen were strong supporters of Israel before, but their recent visit reinforced that attitude.
Among the places they visited were Gush Etzion, Hebron, Tel Aviv, an Iron Dome base, and S’derot. They spent a day in the Shomron (Samaria) and saw Arab and Jewish workers in a factory in the Jordan Valley. They took a helicopter ride to the Golan Heights where they could see, close-up, the borders, Syria, and high-security army bases.
In Jerusalem, the congressmen visited the City of David, the Old City, the Mount of Olives, and the Temple Mount. They were shown the site to which the American Consulate is supposed to move, in the Talpiot neighborhood of Jerusalem.
After their visit to the Temple Mount, Harris said in a video interview, “It has religious significance to Christians like [me], Jews, and Muslims. It’s an honor to be here but I’m surprised that access is so limited and especially the discrimination against Jews above any other religion. It surprises me as an American believing in religious freedom that that would exist.”
In a town meeting held at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center on May 13 in Jerusalem, moderated by Yisrael Medad, and in a pre-meeting interview, the congressmen shared their views on Israel and the ongoing conflict with the Arab world.
DeSantis said that it was different from his previous trip to Israel, and that now he had seen more “historical sites, thousands of years of history, at a whole different level.”
Harris said, “We met with people [in the settlements] who just want to live their lives, coexisting with their neighbors, and leave politics out of it . . . People want a peaceful life. I was impressed by the fact that Jewish people were living in such close proximity to Arabs.” He said that regarding the Arab population as well, “When you drill down to the grassroots, hundreds of thousands want peace.”
But what about the fact that Hamas won the elections in Gaza? “I’m not going to comment on those elections . . . They don’t have a free press . . . I can’t judge people for making that decision.”
And what will they share when they go back? “We came here to learn because you can’t have all 435 representatives make the trip. That’s the message we will bring back; that it always pays to come and understand something in its historical cultural context.” He said that Americans had trouble understanding something in the context of thousands of years.
“We saw the Iron Dome and they explained to us about the first time it was used, after a tourism bus was attacked in Eilat.” They visited Sderot and met with people who had suffered there from the Gaza rocket attacks, whose family members had been killed.
“I served in the military, my parents both escaped from Eastern Europe after WWII, my father, originally from Hungary, spent a year-and-a-half in the Gulag in Russia for protesting Communism, so they knew what it meant to be oppressed,” said Harris. He is a member of the Committee on Appropriations. “[America] has a trillion-dollar deficit, but there is never any aid to Israel that is cut out.” He said that this was agreed on by both Republicans and Democrats. “People understand the importance of the two flags flying together.”
DeSantis said, “We send all that money to the Palestinian Authority and there is no need to do that until it exhibits different behavior,” which he said should include recognizing Israel as a Jewish State, not collaborating with Hamas, and stopping all violence. “I can’t justify to American taxpayers that we are willing to give money to anyone who associates with Hamas.” He said that Israel disengaged from the Gaza Strip but the violence continues. “The people of Israel are the most pro-American people in the world.”
The congressmen were asked, “Don’t the Americans understand the gap between saying that we want Iran to not have the capability to have a nuclear bomb and to not have one?”
Harris: “What ended the hostage crisis in Iran [from November 4, 1979 to January 20, 1981] was U.S. strength. They knew it would end badly for them . . . Vice President Cheney spoke recently, for the first time, of the danger of Iran having a nuclear weapon because this is a direct threat to the U.S. I think the administration is being naïve, and this is the most generous thing I can say.”
DeSantis added, “Even if the negotiations are concluded successfully, we will not be able to check all the locations. Some of the European countries are gullible . . . When Begin decided to attack the Iraqi nuclear reactor, that was a huge success. Having a bomb in the hands of the Iranians is much more serious, so if Israel makes that decision to defend themselves, I think you’d see strong support from Congress.”
Harris: “I think you would get a thank you and an apology that you had to go it alone.”
On another issue, DeSantis thought it was wrong of Brandeis to cancel speaker Ayaan Hirsi Ali. “They don’t cancel speakers who have an anti-Semitic past. This code of political correctness—you can’t say anything negative about Islam but you can say anything about Christians and Jews. The BDS movement says nothing about the Islamic countries but singles out Israel.”
“Israel’s 1967 borders were not defensible, and you can see it clearly when you stand on a skyscraper in Tel Aviv.” As for apartheid, DeSantis said, “No Israeli can go into the Palestinian areas. What’s down is up and what’s up is down. It’s hard for Americans to understand because America is separated by large oceans from her enemies. So until you come here and stand on that hilltop [in Judea or Samaria] looking down on Ben-Gurion airport . . . If those areas were turned over to the Palestinians they could grind the Israeli economy to a halt in one day. I don’t think Americans understand the distance factor.”
He indicated that some events in Israel were hard for Americans to even conceive of and relate to. “Americans have a hard time understanding how someone can blow up women and children . . . and they don’t understand someone growing up to believe that blowing up children will bring him salvation.”
Harris: “I think we are forgetting the message of 9/11 and there are people who don’t understand the culture and history of the people. I think they are trying to impose a western solution in a situation that is not going to work.” Regarding the State Department, he said there are those “who place Islamic terrorists not in the appropriate place on the continuum of good and evil. I can’t conceive of the acceptance of sending people to blow up children. Some of the people in the State Department can understand it.”
DeSantis: “The State Department has a lot of bureaucrats who have a groupthink that is at best anti-Israel. I think things need to shake up a lot.”
On moving the embassy, he added, “We both support the moving of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. It’s Israel’s capital; it’s in the Bible.” On the Obama administration, he said, “This administration has wielded power in a way that targeted its enemies.” He said that the media did not investigate a lot of issues that would have disqualified Obama as president.
DeSantis said, “Israel has to do what is in its best interests.” Both emphasized that Israel must have defensible borders.
Regarding Jonathan Pollard, both congressmen agreed that there was absolutely no reason not to release him.
This kind of support for Israel is welcome coming from anyone, but it is especially significant in this case, because both congressmen have strong academic backgrounds and extensive knowledge in security matters. Congressman DeSantis serves on the House Judiciary Committee, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. From a blue-collar background, he graduated from Yale University magna cum laude and with honors from Harvard Law School. While at Harvard, he earned a commission in the United States Navy as a JAG officer.
During his active-duty service, he served as a military prosecutor, supported operations at the terrorist detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and deployed to Iraq during the 2007 troop surge as an advisor to a U.S. Navy SEAL commander in support of the SEAL mission in Iraq. His military awards include the Bronze Star Medal (meritorious service) and the Iraq Campaign Medal.
He has also served as a federal prosecutor, prosecuting a wide range of cases involving offenses such as child exploitation, fraud, and interference with military air navigation. He has written on constitutional first principles in various outlets and in his book, Dreams from Our Founding Fathers: First Principles in the Age of Obama. He is currently an officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve.
Congressman Harris, the son of immigrants who fled communist Eastern Europe immediately after World War II, serves on the Committee on Appropriations and on the subcommittees of Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies; Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies; and Legislative Branch.
Born in working-class Brooklyn in 1957, he became a physician of obstetric anesthesiology at Johns Hopkins Hospital, a medical officer in the Naval Reserve, and a state senator before becoming a congressman. During the Reagan Administration, he volunteered to serve in the military as a medical specialist and established and commanded the Johns Hopkins Medical Naval Reserve Unit. In 1990, his unit was called up to active duty in order to assist with Operation Desert Shield (and later Operation Desert Storm). Harris reached the rank of Commander (O-5). His constituents earned him the “Hero of the Taxpayer” award from the Maryland Taxpayers Association in 2008.
Hopefully the impressions they took home with them from their week in Israel will be successfully transmitted to their colleagues in Washington. v