Congresswoman Lois Frankel represents Florida’s 21st district, which includes communities along the south-eastern coast of the state. A long-time public servant, she spent 14 years in the Florida State House before becoming the Mayor of West Palm Beach and then elected to Congress in 2013. She is a member of the House Committee on Appropriations and the subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs subcommittee. Yesterday, she spoke with Jewish Insider about her support for and connection to Israel, her Jewish identity, and the danger of highly partisan politics. This interview has been edited for clarity.
Laura Kelly: Can you tell me about your connection to your Jewish identity, how you were raised or how it influences your life?
Rep. Lois Frankel: I was raised in New York, on Long Island, in a town which was probably 95 percent Jewish. My parents are Jewish, my grandparents are Jewish – my grandparents came to this country to get away from the looming Holocaust. I’ve known many people in my life who’ve fled Nazi Germany, some who were in Nazi Germany – unfortunately most of those people have passed on. I have many friends who are my contemporaries, whose parents or grandparents also fled the… Nazis in Europe.
…We belonged to a Conservative Temple. It was sort of a typical Jewish family, I’m going to say, we weren’t overly religious, we attended Temple [on] holidays, events — we had the long Passover dinners, we lit candles, I was married by a rabbi… I grew up in a time where very few girls were bat mitzvah’d, so I was not bat mitzvah’d, I’m sort of resentful. But I grew up in a very Jewish community and… Judaism is part of my identity. More the culture, the Tzedakah [charity or justice], the values of the Jewish religion, is really what’s been most part of me. Not the davening [praying[, it is more the values that I learned growing up.
LK: Have you traveled to Israel?
LF: I’ve traveled with the Jewish Federation [of South Florida] a number of times and also as a member of Congress.
LK: With such a large freshman Democratic class, how important is it do you think members take a trip to Israel to understand the U.S.-Israel relationship?
LF: I think it’s very important and I think every one of them should do it. I would also say that travel is — not only to Israel, but to countries all over the world — it’s very important for members of Congress to really have an understanding of our place in the world. I think travel is very important, to Israel and to other countries, without a question.
LK: How do you feel connected to Israel through your Jewish identity, or does Israel strengthen your Jewish connection? What is your view on that?
LF: When I went with my congressional classmates, there were 50 of us in my class, we all went to Israel together with our families. I can tell you that — and most were not Jewish and many were going to Israel for the first time. It was incredibly spiritual and [a] bonding experience to be there and yes, I would say probably for any Jew, including myself — it does enhance your identity. I don’t consider myself — I am not a “religious” person, you’re not going to find me in Temple every Saturday morning, but I definitely identify myself as a Jew and I understand the struggle of the Jewish people.
This month, Republicans sought to stall a Yemen War Powers resolution by introducing a last-minute amendment condemning the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. Democrats voted down the measure but Republicans seized on perceived anti-Israel sentiment within the party. This builds on tension from comments by Democratic members like Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) who have questioned U.S. support for Israel.
LK: What are some of the discussions in the Democratic caucus to respond to these Republican efforts or to fight back over perceived divisions over Israel?
LF: I’m sorry to say this… I feel like the Republicans are using Israel and the Jews as a political football. I feel very strongly that the security of Israel, is not only the right thing for Israel, it’s the right thing for our country… When I first got to Congress, still the acrimony was pretty bad on most issues, but the one thing I would say, ‘Wow, at least when it comes to Israel, most of us are on the same page.’
I still feel that way. I feel that most of us are still on the same page, there’s overwhelming support for Israel, for the security of Israel, by the majority of members. I’m not going to say every member because, listen, there’s always going to be some people who disagree, there are some who disagree with everything…
You never want to get to a situation where, let’s say, where we are with — the acrimony, I should say, the disagreements about our relationship with Saudi Arabia. You never want that situation, ever, to happen. In my opinion, the president of the United States is using Israel as a political football — not that I necessarily disagree with some of his positions, but when he states a position and then says the Democrats are against Israel, that is a really bad thing for Israel, for him to make that kind of statement. Because number one, it’s not true and number two, why foster that perception? Why would you want the resentment that so many people in this country have for this president… why would you want him to foster resentment towards Israel? Or towards Jews?
LK: We’re in a different era where a member’s popularity on social media [influences conversations], Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has millions of followers on Twitter, so when she says something on a Yahoo news radio program about the possibility of cutting military aid to Israel, that gets a lot more focus than what would probably be the majority view in the Democratic caucus. How is the Democratic caucus dealing with those kinds of conversations?
LF: My understanding, and this is just from reading, is I think she said something to the effect that ‘those conversations are on the table.’ I don’t think she said it with much conviction or knowledge. If you really want to know, she’s a very exciting new member, so I’m not trying to be disrespectful to her in any way: I have not heard or seen anything from her that would lead me to believe that she is leading any kind of effort to not fund Israel. This is speculation, because I don’t know exactly where she’s gotten her information, but she probably talked to some members who don’t agree with the support we give Israel and so she’s probably reporting that some people are discussing it. I’m on the foreign operations committee of the Appropriations committee, and I can tell you, there’s no discussion in that regard. None, zero, zippo, and there will not be… not in the House and I would guess there’s no discussion in the Senate either.
Last month, Rep. Frankel and Rep. Randy Weber (R-TX) introduced legislation that provides extra funding to joint U.S.-Israel development projects in under-developed nations.
LK: Why was it important for you to put that extra money into this development cooperation with Israel?
LF: For me, given the recent conversations in Congress and the rise of antisemitism in the world and in the United States, I’ve thought that we should highlight something really good that’s happening, not only between our country and Israel — I think it’s unfortunate that so much of the discussion of Israel, unfortunately, has to be about a bomb coming into one of the cities, or the indictment of [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu. It gets so much negative news, just like in this country. The news is always negative, and yet Israel is doing so many good things, there’s so much innovation, especially in the area of energy and water. Israel is a generous country and it takes its knowledge and shares its knowledge and this is just really a way to highlight work that Israel is already doing and really to memorialize their work with USAID in [developing] countries… [working with public and private companies] to help countries become more economically successful and resources more sustainable.
The bill was included in Rep. Ted Deutch’s legislation broadening U.S.-Israel security cooperation, that was introduced around the same time. Also included in Rep. Deutch’s bill, is a provision of a proposed fix for the 2018 Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act, which – when it went into effect in February – had the consequence of ending all U.S. aid accepted by the Palestinian Authority. Rep. Frankel said she is interested in a solution to this “glitch,” where funding for humanitarian projects and security cooperation can be restored while preserving the rights of victims of terror that the law is meant to protect.
LK: To your position on the appropriations committee and the state foreign operations: With the expectation of a peace plan to be unveiled, do you feel there’s very little role for Congress to play since the Palestinian’s have rejected all U.S. aid?
LF: Well, I do think we have to fix — there’s a glitch, I would say a glitch — yes, we have to change that act [the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act]… We know that the president has cut off aid anyway right now, and… I have no idea what the peace plan is going to look like… Congress needs to take some action that would actually put the Palestinians in a position of being able to accept aid, should that be part of [Trump’s] proposal. I don’t know what it will be.
LK: What’s the significance of having Congress involved in any peace proposal or any peace negotiation?
LF: Candidly I have no idea what Trump, what they’re doing or what they’re proposing… I guess if it was a treaty, I think the Senate would have to approve that… I don’t know whether we would be involved. But if it involves any kind of funding, yes, Congress would be involved… But if there was any kind of funding, the administration would have to depend on Congress to appropriate money.
Laura Kelly is the Capitol Hill reporter for Jewish Insider. Follow her @HelloLauraKelly