Committee goals

Pat Ryan takes aim at antisemitism, Iran from the Armed Services Committee

The West Point grad and father of Jewish children said that fighting antisemitism is ‘personal’

Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

Rep. Pat Ryan (D-NY) visits the Purple Heart Museum during a campaign event on November 2, 2022 in New Windsor, New York.

Fresh off being reappointed to the House Armed Services Committee last month for a full two-year term, Rep. Pat Ryan (D-NY) told Jewish Insider last week that he’s aiming to use his seat on the powerful panel — as well as his unique relationship with a colleague across the aisle — to combat antisemitism, counter Iranian malign activities and support the U.S.-Israel relationship.

For Ryan, antisemitism is “personal” and “from literally day one has been a major focus of mine.” His wife and children are Jewish and his upper Hudson Valley district includes a sizable Jewish community.

“I just could have never imagined that almost a century after the horrors of Nazism… that I would have to worry about my kids going to the playground and seeing a swastika on a slide,” Ryan said — referencing a vandalism incident he encountered with his children. “It’s scary from [the perspective of] the safety of my young kids and my wife… It  makes me sad on many levels and it makes me outraged that we allow the spread of this hate, and that we aren’t doing more to really directly confront those that are propagating it and hold them accountable.”

A West Point graduate who served two terms in Iraq as an intelligence officer and as a defense contractor in Afghanistan, Ryan told JI that he sees his position on Armed Services as key to his efforts to combat antisemitism.

He described the National Defense Authorization Act — the annual defense and national security policy bill crafted in Armed Services — as “an opportunity to make sure that we’re advancing this mission of combating antisemitism.”

Despite the efforts of lawmakers and advocates outside of Congress like the Anti-Defamation League, many of the proposed amendments related to fighting antisemitism and extremism more broadly were not included in last year’s NDAA. Some of the related programs could also face opposition this year in light of Republican’s critiques of counter-extremism programming.

“I and our staff are already leaning in on this to make sure that we get those measures that didn’t make it through included and any new ones, of course, that are going to come forward,” Ryan said, adding that his office has also been meeting with outside groups working on combating antisemitism “to make sure we’re getting started early on the amendment process.”

Ryan pledged that he “will be pushing even harder, knowing that there has been some reticence by some members of the Republican Party, to really fully confront and grapple with violent extremism,” and said that he will not “allow anything here to be ignored or swept under the rug.”

Ryan said that he had heard the difficulties in last year’s NDAA process were a result of “technical issues with some of the amendments being paired with unrelated provisions that got stripped out,” rather than “substantive” objections to the amendments themselves.

Outside of the NDAA, Ryan said he will be looking for other opportunities to combat antisemitism through a range of measures, including education; he is sponsoring the newly reintroduced HEAL Act, which aims to audit the status of Holocaust education curricula in public schools nationwide.

The New York lawmaker said at a press conference about the bill last month that he and his wife “stay up at night trying to think about how to explain” hate and antisemitism to his child — referencing the vandalism incident at a local playground — saying the situation “is unacceptable, is disgusting, and is sadly representative of… what’s happening in our country and across the world.”

Ryan is uniquely positioned to work across the aisle with the new House majority. At West Point, he was in the same class year as Reps. John James (R-MI) and Wesley Hunt (R-TX), and lived across the hall from James for two years.

He said he and James have “a deep, strong bond that transcends partisanship,” which he hopes can be a model for his colleagues that they are “actually on the same team here” and “have to figure out how to work together” in response to increasing global threats, including China, Russia and Iran.

Ryan’s seat on Armed Services puts him in a key position in ongoing debates over how the U.S. should respond to those threats from Iran.

The former Ulster County executive said that his outlook on Iran is shaped by his service in Afghanistan, which exposed him to “a flood of deadly weapons” provided by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and Iranian-backed militias “coming in and literally killing my fellow soldiers… and of course lots of innocent Iraqis.” Iran’s support for terrorism across the globe, Ryan continued, “has to be stopped,” as do its “blatant threats and aggression toward Israel.”

Ryan said that the U.S. will “have to work more aggressively with allies and partners to address” Iran’s malign activities, adding that he believes that it is “essentially impossible” for the U.S. to reenter the 2015 Iran nuclear deal as a result of “bad faith by the Iranian regime,” including Iran’s support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Israel, the New York lawmaker continued, is an “invaluable security partner” that the U.S. must continue to support. 

Ryan indicated that he does not share the concerns, expressed by some fellow Democrats, that the new Israeli government and its proposed policies could pose a threat to the durability of the U.S.-Israel relationship.

“There’s room for disagreement with allies,” he said, “but I remain, as I try to do with all issues, optimistic that we can work through that in good faith. The nature of the threats to Israel and to the U.S. are such that we have to be able to work through those disagreements.”

Ryan said that he and his wife are planning to travel to Israel this year, and he is “looking forward” to that trip.

He added that he plans to be “very engaged through the Armed Services Committee and any other way I can” to try to further expand the Abraham Accords.

“So many of the old approaches and framing have failed, obviously, and continue to perpetuate the situation that we’re in,” Ryan said. “So we have to be open to try new strategies, new partnerships, new alliances, but throughout that, going back to the unique and special alliance and principal relationship with Israel as the starting point.”

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