In 2022, AIPAC opposed Shri Thanedar. This month he went to Israel with the group.

The first-term congressman, who once supported legislation calling for the end of aid to Israel, said he sees Israel as a ‘vibrant liberal democracy’ and an ‘important ally’

Rep. Shri Thanedar (D-MI) — then a state representative aiming to make the leap to Congress — was a top target for AIPAC’s super PAC in 2022, which spent millions opposing him in the Democratic primary. Earlier this month, as a first-term lawmaker, Thanedar traveled to Israel with the AIPAC-affiliated American Israel Education Foundation, and says that he’s worked to educate himself about Israel, putting any tensions with Michigan’s pro-Israel community in the past.

Last year’s opposition to Thanedar was driven in part by his co-sponsorship of a resolution in the Michigan House urging Congress to halt aid to Israel, referring to it as an “apartheid state” and accusing the country of violating human rights. By the time he launched his congressional bid, Thanedar had distanced himself from that resolution and touted a more pro-Israel line.

Thanedar told Jewish Insider in an interview last week following his trip to Israel that he has gone through a “big learning experience,” as a candidate and since coming to Congress, he said he’s spent more time studying the issues, researching legislation involving Israel, meeting with members of the Jewish and pro-Israel communities and now visiting the Jewish state.

“When I worked in the state house, we hardly focused on foreign policy,” he explained.

“[Israel] certainly is a vibrant, liberal democracy. No doubt about that,” Thanedar continued. “And they are an important ally of the United States. It’s a dangerous region. Israel is really the only democracy surrounded by some hostile elements.”

Thanedar said he was particularly struck by conversations during his recent trip to Israel with people who had been impacted by terrorist rocket attacks and by seeing the strategic threats to Israel firsthand, as well as gaining a new understanding of the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program. 

“It highlighted why protecting or helping Israel defend herself, by herself, is very essential and critical to our national security and our national interest,” the Michigan congressman said. “It’s a relationship that is mutually beneficial.”

Thanedar meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Courtesy)

Thanedar said he concluded from the trip that a two-state solution is not imminent, and questioned whether the Palestinian Authority “actually has the authority to deliver a peace, even if a peace agreement is reached.” But, he added, the U.S. is the only international power in the position to broker peace and has a “moral authority” to do so.

“We should continue to engage and stay involved and not give up on the possibility of a peaceful Middle East,” Thanedar continued. “There is no one else that can provide that leadership. The United States is in a unique position.”

Thanedar said he also intends to continue studying the region and the issues it faces.

The Michigan congressman, who was an entrepreneur before getting into politics, said he had taken a particular interest in Israel’s economy, asking the trip organizers to set up meetings with innovators and reading Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle prior to his trip.

Thanedar, who was born in India and said he sometimes had to collect drinking water from a river for his family, said he saw personal connections to the work being done by the Innovation: Africa nonprofit. The Israeli NGO has provided solar-powered water pumping technology across the continent.

He said he also spoke to an agricultural entrepreneur during the visit about potential opportunities to work together in Detroit’s community gardens and urban farms, which support nutrition needs in his district.

With Israeli entrepreneurs, Thanedar “talked a ton about how the entrepreneurial culture has grown into Israel, and [I] couldn’t help myself thinking that in Detroit, with systemic racism that has robbed people of opportunities — I wondered how I can learn from the Israeli experiment in innovation and startup culture and how I can bring more of that,” he said.

He said he had invited some entrepreneurs to Detroit to work with his district, which he envisions as a “win-win collaboration.”

Thanedar said there’s no lingering bad blood between himself and AIPAC, despite its past opposition to him. He noted that he had conversations with AIPAC leadership during the trip, and that they “didn’t really focus on the last election. We focused more on the threat that Israel faces on a daily basis.”

“I’m not a person that holds grudges. I move on,” he added.

Thanedar said he decided to join the AIEF trip after conversations with pro-Israel leaders in his district, including former AIPAC President David Victor. Victor invited Thanedar to a local presentation by Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD), the former Democratic leader who led AIEF freshman trips for decades, and Thanedar said that this presentation ultimately shaped his decision. Hoyer also helped lead this past month’s trip.

“[Hoyer] talked a lot about what happens on this [trip]… I was really impressed because he talked about meeting citizens, meeting people, talking to different politicians, opposition leaders, all the things that happen in this trip,” Thanedar explained. “I was fascinated, and I thought, ‘I want to learn more about Israel.’ It was Steny’s speech and talk that motivated me to go.”

He also brushed off the notion that his posture is an attempt to head off an AIPAC-backed primary challenge in 2024. 

“The primary seems so far away,” he said. “I just got elected, and I’m just finishing the first six months of my work in Congress. My job is to help my constituents… they have put a lot of trust in me, they put this honor for me to represent [them], and I just want to do a good job for my constituents.”

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