Daniel Hernandez wants to be the next pro-Israel progressive in Congress

The 31-year-old lawmaker, who rose to prominence in the wake of the 2011 shooting targeting former Rep. Gabby Giffords, is making a name for himself as he launches a bid for Congress

As a vocal supporter of Israel in Arizona’s House of Representatives, Daniel Hernandez, a 31-year-old Tucson lawmaker now running for Congress, says he has increasingly found himself at odds with Democratic colleagues over Middle East foreign policy. “I’ve been taken to task by folks who disagree with me,” Hernandez said in a recent interview with Jewish Insider. “They don’t think that this is an important issue to be working on when you’re a state legislator.”

Hernandez remains uncowed, even as he recognizes that he may be carving out something of a lonely path on the left. During the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas, he issued a proclamation, alongside Republican state Sen. Paul Boyer, recognizing Israel’s right to defend itself while reaffirming Arizona’s support for the Jewish state. “‘Why are you opening up that can of worms?’” Hernandez recalled being asked the following day by several members of his caucus. “‘This is a really big problem, you shouldn’t be talking about this.’” 

He rejects such arguments. “There are people who say you can’t be a progressive and support Israel,” Hernandez scoffed. “I push back on that because I’ve been doing it for a decade.”

In his bid to represent Arizona’s 2nd Congressional District, Hernandez is hoping that he can bring those values to the federal level after nearly five years as a state legislator. “This is a district that’s important personally,” Hernandez said. “But this is just an important seat for Democrats to hold on to in the next election, and I think I’m the best candidate to do that.”

Hernandez brings a compelling personal story that is likely to resonate with voters in the blue-leaning district, which was represented by former Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-AZ) a decade ago. As a college-age intern in the congresswoman’s local legislative office, Hernandez was credited with saving Giffords’s life when she was shot in the head by a gunman at a meet-and-greet outside Tucson in 2011. Hernandez provided critical assistance in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, propping up Giffords’s head and holding his hand over the wound in an effort to stop the bleeding.

While Hernandez insisted that he was no hero, former President Barack Obama begged to differ at a memorial service in Tucson the following day for the shooting’s six casualties, commending the young volunteer for his bravery — a clip Hernandez highlights in his emotionally resonant campaign kickoff video.

Daniel Hernandez, Jr. (C), an intern of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), hugs her husband NASA astronaut Mark Kelly (L) as first lady Michelle Obama looks on during the event “Together We Thrive: Tucson and America” honoring the January 8 shooting victims at McKale Memorial Center on the University of Arizona campus on January 12, 2011 in Tucson, Arizona. (Credit: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

With more than a year remaining until the Democratic primary, experts who spoke with JI say it is too early to assess dynamics in the open-seat race to succeed retiring Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-AZ).

Recent filings from the Federal Election Commission, however, suggest a relatively level playing field as the race slowly heaves into motion. State Rep. Randy Friese, a trauma surgeon who treated Giffords after the shooting a decade ago, leads the pack, with just over $566,000 in campaign contributions. Trailing behind in second place is Kirsten Engel, an Arizona state senator who has pulled in about $335,000. Hernandez, who entered the race later than his opponents, has raised nearly $270,000. 

“I see myself in Daniel: a pro-Israel progressive who has been drawn to public service by the power of his own lived experience,” Torres explained to JI on Monday.

Just two months into his campaign, Hernandez is already emerging as the pro-Israel favorite in the race. Earlier this month, Pro-Israel America, the bipartisan advocacy group, announced its support for Hernandez, naming him as the only non-incumbent candidate in a batch of congressional endorsements including such pro-Israel heavyweights as Reps. Kathy Manning (D-NC), Brad Schneider (D-IL) and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL).

“A self-proclaimed ‘pro-Israel activist,’ Hernandez speaks regularly about the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship and has led initiatives as a state legislator to strengthen the alliance,” Jeff Mendelsohn, executive director of Pro-Israel America, told JI. “He champions the Jewish state’s right to sovereignty and security, condemns efforts to add unnecessary political conditions to U.S. security assistance for our ally in the Middle East, and strongly opposes the anti-Israel BDS movement.”

Hernandez is also poised to benefit from a like-minded incumbent in the House: Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-NY), the first-term Bronx congressman who describes himself as “the embodiment of a pro-Israel progressive.” Torres told JI that he is backing Hernandez in the primary, a decision he is likely to announce officially later this week.

“I see myself in Daniel: a pro-Israel progressive who has been drawn to public service by the power of his own lived experience,” Torres explained to JI on Monday. “As a survivor of gun violence, he will have a uniquely powerful voice on one of the greatest crises affecting our nation. I couldn’t be prouder to endorse his candidacy for Congress.”

The feeling is mutual. “We have a very similar profile as two openly gay Latinos who are progressive and still care deeply about that U.S.-Israel relationship,” Hernandez said of his sense of connection with Torres. “He’s definitely a model of somebody that I admire and look up to. It’s difficult and it can be tricky, because you’ll have colleagues who say you can’t be this if you support that, and that’s not the reality. Progressives, by nature, are people who care about freedoms, whether it’s LGBTQ freedom, whether it’s women’s rights. These are issues that I care about a lot.”

Hernandez developed an early and abiding appreciation for the Jewish state thanks to an elementary school teacher from Hungary who spoke of her experiences as a Holocaust survivor. “She was trying to talk to us about what had happened to her family during the Holocaust, and really trying to explain to us the power that hatred can have on a society to make people turn against each other,” Hernandez recalled. “It really stuck with me.”

“As I got older, I learned more about the issue, learned about Israel, and I thought it was fascinating that there was a new country,” Hernandez added. “I’m like, ‘Well, how do you start a country?’ Then I started going to the library and reading more about it, and the more I read about it, the more interesting it became.”

Later, as a volunteer on Hillary Clinton’s first presidential campaign in 2008, Hernandez befriended a group of passionate Jewish supporters who called themselves “Yentas for Hillary.” “They taught me all the Yiddish words you’re not supposed to say in polite company,” said Hernandez, who also picked up recipes for kugel and brisket, which he has since tweaked to include jalapeño jelly — in keeping with his Southwestern roots. 

“But they really educated me about the importance of having a strong relationship with Israel,” Hernandez remembered, “and how important it was after having survived the Holocaust, or having family members who survived the Holocaust, having a place that they could call their own.”

In 2012, after winning a seat on his local school board, Hernandez visited Israel for the first time on a Latino leadership mission sponsored by the AIPAC-affiliated American Israel Education Foundation. The trip immediately followed Operation Pillar of Defense. “When we boarded our flight, we were told that there was not a ceasefire signed, and if it hadn’t been signed by the time we landed, we wouldn’t be able to deboard the plane,” he said. “We’d have to turn around and fly right back to New York.” 

Daniel Hernandez (Courtesy)

“I can still smell the shells collected by the police stored at the police station in Sderot,” Hernandez recalls in a lengthy and detailed Israel policy paper he produced for his congressional bid. “When I returned from my trip, I knew I had a responsibility to speak out about Israel.”

Hernandez, who assumed office in 2017, now serves as a board member at A Wider Bridge, the nonprofit organization that connects LGBTQ communities in the U.S. and Israel. He has since returned to the Jewish state three times, most recently with his younger sister, Alma, a Democratic lawmaker in Arizona who has established herself as another outspoken pro-Israel voice in the state legislature. Two years ago, the siblings led a delegation to open an Arizona trade office in Tel Aviv. 

Alma converted to Judaism in 2015 after she discovered that her maternal grandfather was Jewish. While Daniel has yet to take the leap, he is active in Jewish community life, attending synagogue on the High Holidays and preparing meals for family get-togethers on Passover and Hanukkah. He jokingly describes himself as “an honorary member of the tribe,” though he says his sister often encourages him to convert. “I’m too lazy to learn that Hebrew,” he said.

“People, I think, don’t understand why two Latinos who are Democratic state representatives from Tucson would talk about this issue, let alone be champions on it. For us to be told, you know, ‘don’t talk about these things,’ ‘don’t be someone who’s kind of upsetting the boat,’” Hernandez said, “it’s not something that we’re used to, because we’ve always just been very upfront about where we are.”

“I always considered Daniel more of an atheist than anything,” Alma countered teasingly in an interview with JI. The siblings, who serve together in the statehouse, are also roommates. “I’m the one who does the cooking because Alma is a terrible cook, and I don’t think she’d be upset with me admitting it to you,” Hernandez declared. “She does the dishes and helps set up the table.”

“He always says that — ‘you’re a terrible cook,’” Alma shot back. “He watches all these cooking shows and thinks he’s the best cook ever, but in reality he just thinks he knows.”

Both siblings often field more serious insults on account of their pro-Israel advocacy. “One of the tensions that we both have, obviously, is being Democrats who are outspoken about our support for Israel,” Daniel emphasized. “She gets a lot of very weird and kind of rude messages from folks, and a lot of times they use antisemitic attacks.” Hernandez added that he has also been on the receiving end of such invective, despite not being Jewish. “People, I think, don’t understand why two Latinos who are Democratic state representatives from Tucson would talk about this issue, let alone be champions on it.”

“For us to be told, you know, ‘don’t talk about these things,’ ‘don’t be someone who’s kind of upsetting the boat,’” Hernandez said, “it’s not something that we’re used to, because we’ve always just been very upfront about where we are.”

Even as he has faced some criticism for his foreign policy views, Hernandez has developed a reputation as something of a bipartisan workhorse in the state legislature. He was instrumental, for instance, in helping his sister introduce her recently passed Holocaust education bill to the GOP-controlled state legislature, according to Michael Beller, a co-founder of Arizona Teaching the Holocaust, which supported the bill. “He was an asset to our organization,” Beller told JI. “He’s very politically astute.”

Though Beller is a Republican, he says he has often found common ground with Hernandez. “He’s passionate about his causes, he’s committed to them, and I respect that,” Beller told JI. “There’s something important in individuals who are willing to come to the table and have open discussions and dialogue.”

Paul Rockower, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Phoenix, expressed a similar view of Hernandez. “He’s a real pragmatic leader and does a lot to bridge the bipartisan divide,” Rockower said.

Hernandez opposed the Iran nuclear deal in 2015 out of concern that it did not go far enough in forestalling nuclear proliferation, among other things. But he also took issue with the Trump administration’s hasty withdrawal from the agreement three years later. Now, he is optimistic that the Biden administration will forge “a new deal that will permanently halt Iran’s nuclear ambitions,” as he puts it in his Israel position paper

Daniel Hernandez

Still, while Hernandez supports the administration’s “efforts to obtain a ‘longer and stronger’ deal,” he objects to any “easing of sanctions before the Iranians take tangible action to curtail their nuclear program.”

In conversation with JI, the congressional hopeful seemed eager to bring his knowledge of Israel and the Middle East — as well as a host of other policy matters including healthcare, education and LGBTQ issues — to the House. 

Hernandez, who believes that the Jewish state is often held to an “impossible standard,” is well aware that the debate over Israel has intensified following the conflict with Hamas. “The biggest change is now I’m seeing that the effort to kind of try and delegitimize Israel and really try and attack anybody who supports Israel has gotten worse,” he said. “I think it’s been a concerted effort over the last couple of years to really make this an issue that doesn’t have the bipartisan support that it’s had in the past.”

“We don’t have to defend every single action that the government has taken,” Hernandez conceded. “There are times where we can disagree with the actions of the government and still support the people, and I think that’s one of the distinctions that many of my colleagues don’t understand.”

But ultimately, Hernandez wants to move past such disagreements. 

“We have a tendency to fixate on the people who are opposed. I will still always kind of seethe over that one email or that one message from somebody who was unhappy,” he said. “I think it’s just human nature to kind of dwell on the negative comments instead of supporting and lifting up and saying, ‘Oh, my God, we have all these people who really agree with us, and we have these great people like Congressman Torres who are just great champions, so let’s support them and focus on that as opposed to all the people who don’t agree with us on this issue.’”

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