Out in the open

Barney Frank (D-MA) is as candid about being a Jew who supports Israel as he is about being gay.

barney frank 88 (photo credit: )
barney frank 88
(photo credit: )
Barney Frank's last name is more than an accident of birth. A proud Jew and the first openly gay member of the United States Congress, Frank speaks his mind. In fact, he's so free with what he says, it can be hard keeping up with his fast-flowing tongue. The mind of the Harvard undergrad and law school alum moves so fast, he often finds it difficult to wait until a question is asked before providing his answer. And though he's staked a claim to being a bleeding-heart liberal, he's no knee-jerk one. Particularly when it comes to the Jewish state. He turns conventional Left wisdom on its head by saying attitudes towards America are part of Israel's problem. "Some people say, 'Oh, America's getting hurt because of its [support] for Israel.' I think it's also the other way around. A lot of people in the world are anti-American." Yet on Israel, he goes so far as to take stands alongside the Bush administration, which he otherwise finds fault with for everything from the Iraq war to taxation to values. The Massachusetts representative, who would consider running for failed presidential candidate John Kerry's senate seat should it become available, has watched anti-Semitism and homophobia recede in his 65 years on earth and 25 years in congress. He's worked his way up to being the ranking Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee and could become the chairman if the Democrats retake congress. His decision to reveal his sexual orientation wasn't greeted with universal kudos back in 1987, but he said that attitudes have improved as "people regularly get defeated by the reality" of having friends and family who are gay. But he's always found support in the Jewish community, of which he was Massachusetts's highest elected official when he won a seat in congress in 1980. "It was conceivable that some Jews would say, 'Oy, we have one, and he has to be a feigele,' and that there would be some distress. But on the whole, there has not been." Frank grew up in a strongly Jewish, if "not terribly religious" family, though it was traditional enough to hold his bar mitzva in an Orthodox temple - "so Orthodox that we called it a shul and not a synagogue." He began to visit Israel in 1977. He has since made some two dozen trips, the most recent one this month to participate in an International Council of Jewish Parliamentarians conference. He says he's never once hid his Jewish identity, though he's sometimes suffered for it. "My response to situations like that is always to try to think of ways to make the other people uncomfortable. I would rather transmit discomfort than absorb it." In other words, he'd rather be frank than timid. You often see a lot of criticism of Israel coming from the Left. How do you explain that? There is a strong tendency on the Left to sympathize with the underdog and to be skeptical of the powerful and the use of power. In fact, what a lot of people see - particularly people who don't [know] a lot of history - is a strong, militarily forceful, white country governing non-white people, with the strong support of the United States. They see an occupation, [and] occupiers never look good. It's not easy to occupy people against their will. What is lacking, of course, is the understanding of how this came about: the war of '48, the war of '67, which I think was a war of self-defense. I point out to people that if the Arab states weren't intent on destroying Israel, they could have created a Palestinian state in 1948 and 1967 with east Jerusalem as its capital. If they had set that up in the 50s, Israel could have done nothing about it ... They came into the middle of the movie, or towards the end of the movie. What can be done to counter criticism on the Left? There are two parts to the answer. One is to explain the history. Two is to say, you can be critical of Israel's position on the fence, you can say you think that they should withdraw from more [of the West Bank], but when you're talking about this country, how can you as a person on the Left ignore that here is democracy? I say in speeches, "If you're an Arab and you live in the Middle East and you want to get up and say publicly that your government stinks and it ought to be replaced, you got to live in Israel. Because if you say that in Syria, in Saudi Arabia, even in Jordan, you're going to get in trouble." The rights of women are very important. I spend a lot of time making the point on gay rights. Israel gives asylum to gay Palestinians who flee the territories for fear of their lives ... Every argument that people give to justify an absence of democracy and human rights in other countries is refuted by the experience of Israel. Israel was born in trouble, born under attack, etc. etc, and it has a flourishing democracy. [But] If Israel were not prepared to withdraw from almost all of the territories, particularly the populated areas, then it would be hard to make the argument. That's why I think [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon and now [Acting Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert were so right, and, of course, the argument that they make is that to be Jewish and democratic, you can't be occupying people. But as far as America is concerned - and as far as the Left is concerned - it should not be the case that Israel is obligated to make peace and create a Palestinian state, because that may not be possible. What is important is that it be clear that Israel is willing to make every effort to do that. During your time in Congress have you seen a change in the Left's attitude toward Israel? The only time that I have seen support for Israel in Congress falter reinforces my point. It was when Yitzhak Shamir stood in the West Bank and said, "This land will remain Jewish for as far as the eye can see." I said to people at the time, "Well, that's not that big a deal. He's very short and he's very old; he can't see that far." You'll note that that was the only time Israel was rebuffed in Congress. They couldn't get the loan guarantees. As I said, the problem has to do with the occupation ... As long as it had appeared that Israel was determined to hold on to the territories forever, the way Pat Robertson wants them to, then you have a problem. [Support] might have ebbed a little bit, but now it's back in full force because of the withdrawal policy. Have you seen any general change in attitudes towards Jews? Yes. There's diminishing anti-Semitism in America. I'm struck by the difference. That's why I say that anti-Americanism is part of Israel's problem. There isn't that much anti-Americanism in America. It's gotten better and better in America. The barriers to Jews in terms of economic and social and political advancement and activity have continued to diminish. My European colleagues in Belgium, France and even some in England do see an increase in anti-Semitism. We see a continuation of its decline in America. To what do you attribute this decline? The sophistication in America, and the fact that frankly I think the Jewish community made a smart move after World War II. It said, "We're not going to sit back. We're going to confront this," through the Anti-Defamation League and other things. The fact that people fought back helped, [as did] the negative example of Hitler. How has your Jewish background played a role in your public life? I have never said consciously that I'm Jewish and therefore I should believe this or that - because I don't agree with that in public policy. I think there are universal values everyone ought to have. On the other hand, I think it's fairly clear that growing up with Jewish education - Jewish values - the experience of being Jewish moves you in a more liberal direction. I think that's the explanation in part for what we have in Israel. Even though there's a Right and a Left in Israel, on the world-wide spectrum, Israel's on the Left, in the sense of being a democracy, and the rights of women, and gays in the military. Very few other countries in the history of the world that have found themselves in Israel's circumstances would be as committed to liberal values, and I think that is clearly a consequence of its Jewishness. There is clearly something in the Jewish experience over time that has led people to be more respectful of human rights and tikkun olam [making the world a better place]. Even if people don't know what it is, it's had an impact. How have Jews treated gay issues? Jews in Massachusetts have been by far the most supportive group outside of gay people themselves for same-sex marriage. I believe that the experience of having been unfairly treated based on some characteristic or your persona makes you sympathetic when that happens to other people. And that's why I think that Jews in America have historically been in the forefront of the civil rights movement from the early 20th century on, and why they are disproportionately supportive of fair treatment for gays and lesbians in America. What's your sense of treatment of gays in Israel? That it's good - clearly better than in any of the surrounding countries. As I said, Israel gives asylum to gay Palestinians, and according to the Israeli government, that's a conscious policy. I want America to benefit from the lack of barriers to gays and lesbians serving openly in the military in Israel. The gay people I talk to in Israel feel much freer than they do in many other parts of the world. The attitude towards gay and lesbian people in Israel is more like that in the US and Europe than it is in any of the Arab or African countries. So by worldwide standards, it's pretty good. Obviously there are the ultra-Orthodox who don't like it, but then again, the gay people aren't that crazy about them either. What's your take on the upcoming Palestinian Authority elections? One thing you come away with is how disappointed people are with [PA Chairman Mahmoud] Abbas. Not in his willingness, but in his ability. Arafat probably had the ability to make peace, but he didn't want to. Abbas wants to, but he might not have the ability. Things really seem to be deteriorating under Abbas. Arafat had control but he [didn't] want peace, and I think that's somewhat discouraging. If in the end there is no treaty or agreement, I don't think you'll be able to blame Israel, because it will have tried. I think they are being very careful to make clear that they are trying. And then if it turns out that there's a lack of coherence on the part of the Palestinians so that there's no real agreement, then they will go back to doing what they can do unilaterally. What should American policy be if Hamas enters the government? Should there be contact? I don't think the Israelis would stop all contact with them. No, in terms of what you think US policy should be. I understand that, but what do you think? That the US should have a very different position from that of Israel? There's a correct position and everybody ought to have it. Is there a separate position for the US and a separate position for Israel? The answer is no. The position ought to be, look, people will talk, but if Hamas is a significant factor, then there will almost certainly be no agreement, because Hamas isn't interested in an agreement ... It means that Israel probably does some further unilateral withdrawal. Why are you critical of the Iraq war, if you favor the spread of democracy? As much as I want to promote democracy, I don't think invading and overthrowing undemocratic regimes is the way to do that. If it is, why do you stop at Saddam Hussein? Why didn't we go to Zimbabwe? What about Myanmar? I thought the sanctions in Iraq were a good idea. They were working. They were weakening Iraq. But I do not think that you invade to promote democracy. Would you like to see sanctions applied against Iran? Yes, but sanctions will only work - and they could work - if they are voted by the [UN] Security Council and widely supported. The problem there is that can't happen without China and the Russians. I have to say that on this one I give credit to the French and the Germans. They made a very real effort. And I think it was worthwhile. [But] now we have to give a very high priority to getting Russia and China to back a move in the Security Council, to have it referred by the International Atomic Energy Agency and then have the Security Council vote for sanctions. Sadly, that probably means that we have to back off on some of the things we'd like to get from Russia and China. It might mean less pressure on Putin to stop being so anti-human rights, or less pressure on China even over their currency. But I do think the highest priority now in American-Chinese and American-Russian relations is getting them not to veto a resolution. And if they do, then I don't know what we can do. We can be angry, but after that I am very frustrated as I try to think of how we can be helpful. And here again I think my position is very much in line with the administration's. What about rumblings in Israel that a military attack is being considered. I don't get the sense that that's a possibility. I think - particularly now with the security issues - that would be very difficult to do. Would it be a bad idea for Israel to take military action? I would have to know more about the military situation. I do think Iran today is not Iraq of 25 years ago. It is a stronger country, bigger. And while Israel is trying to maintain support for its position vis- -vis the Palestinians, that would complicate that greatly. How do you feel about the UN's attitude towards the US and Israel? It's gotten better. I think it can be very useful. The most important part of the UN these days, I believe, is the World Health Organization. Politically, I don't think the UN does any harm, and it can sometimes do good. For example, the Iranian situation. If we did not have a UN and we did not have a Security Council, it would be a lot harder to [take action] against Iran. But if we can get Russia and China to go along, and we can then impose sanctions through the Security Council, that gives us more leverage than you have in the UN's absence. Is there a problem of Israeli concessions without Palestinian reciprocity? I don't think the withdrawal from Gaza was a favor to the Palestinians. I think it is important for Israel to be a Jewish, democratic state. It will be hard to be a Jewish, democratic state if it is ruling over voteless millions of people. That might be unavoidable, but for your own soul, you try as hard as you can to avoid that. Sharon is not doing this as a favor to the Palestinians. He's doing it to vindicate the concept of an Israel that meets our historic aspirations.