Wise Voice Leaves Congress

Veteran US Congresswoman Jane Harman, who focused on Israel and intelligence issues, is leaving her seat.

Jane Harman (photo credit: Reuters)
Jane Harman
(photo credit: Reuters)
WITH THE SURPRISE RESIGNATION OF United States Congresswoman Jane Harman (D-California), effective the end of February, the number of Jews in Congress will decline to 13 senators and 26 representatives.
Although Harman’s absence is not expected to upset support for Israel on Capitol Hill, her ability to maintain solid connections with competing pro-Israel advocacy groups will be missed, particularly in an era in which divergent voices in the American Jewish community are finding it difficult to keep the discourse civil.
All the Jews in Congress are considered supporters of Israel; most of them tend to support the policies of the Israeli government.
Some of them have been more willing to question Israeli policies than others or been more adamant about the US role in bringing Israelis and Palestinians together. For instance, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-New York) has told The Report that President Barack Obama “shouldn’t put undo pressure on Israel” about the settlements.
Others, like Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-New York), have been supported by, and supportive of, the pro-Israel, pro-peace advocacy group J Street, which openly encourages the Obama Administration to push both Israelis and Palestinians toward a two-state solution.
But that support has also been fluid, as in the recent reaction to J Street’s urging of the US not to veto the UN resolution calling Israeli settlements illegal. Rep. Ackerman angrily announced that he’d decided that “J Street is not an organization with which I wish to be associated.” Only one of the Jewish Congressmen – Rep. Eric Cantor (D-Virginia) – is a Republican and he is considered a staunch supporter of the current Israeli government.
Governmental affairs staffers at the American Jewish Committee and at J Street tell The Report that Harman’s resignation will have little impact on support for Israel in Congress, although the legislative body is losing an extremely knowledgeable and well-connected Representative in Harman – one that won’t be easily replaced. An election to fill Rep. Harman’s vacancy is expected to be held in June.
A 16-year Congressional veteran, Harman, 65, unexpectedly announced in early February that she was leaving Congress to head the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, part of the Smithsonian Institute and established by Congress in 1968.
Harman has been well-known for her strong alliance with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), yet even Hadar Susskind, J Street Vice President of Policy and Strategy, gives her a positive evaluation. “Most Congress members are pro-Israel, however they define it. But Jane had a strong voice for Israel,” Susskind tells The Report. “She was a smart, nuanced member of Congress. So many on Capital Hill just check off the [Israel] box and vote the way they are told. She knew more and voted the way she thought was right.
She was a thoughtful voice on these issues.”
Noting that Harman also has close ties to the US intelligence community and had served on the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, Susskind adds, “She really understood the inner workings and how it relates to US security and foreign affairs.”
Despite the loss of Harman on the House Intelligence Committee, Jews continue to hold significant positions on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, topped by Rep. Howard Berman (D-California) who chaired the committee under the last Congress. Other Jewish congressmen likewise moved from chair to ranking Democrat on subcommittees, such as Engel on the Latin America subcommittee, Ackerman on the Middle East subcommittee and Brad Sherman (DCalifornia) on the terrorism subcommittee. Reps. Allyson Schwartz (D-Pennsylvania) and Ted Deutch (D-Florida) remain members of the Foreign Affairs Committee, while Rep. David Cicilline (D-Rhode Island) joins that committee in his first term. In addition, Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NewYork) has moved from chair to ranking member on the foreign operations subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee.
While some freshmen Republican Congressmen have called for cutting all US aid to Israel and Cantor raised a trial balloon just after the November election, suggesting Israel’s $3 billion in defense assistance should be separated from the foreign operations package, it’s unlikely either move will be passed in the current Congress.
None of the mainstream American Jewish organizations support these two proposals.
SUSSKIND PRAISES WHAT HE REFERS TO AS Harman’s “open door policy,” which enabled her to maintain positive working relationships with both J Street and AIPAC, despite the rival groups’ differences. “I agreed with her on the core fundamentals of the American-Israel relationship,” says Susskind. “But I definitely disagreed with her sometimes. She’s been less willing to push the agenda than I’d like.” J Street’s agenda is to encourage Congressmen to support more forceful Obama Administration efforts to realize a final, two-state settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“She’s been an advocate and realist about what Israel faces,” says Jason Isaacson, director of government and international affairs for the American Jewish Committee.
“She has been a leader and we hate to lose a leader. I’m hoping her successor in the 36th [district] and her colleagues will fill in that void. But it will take years to have someone with the stature and impact of Jane Harman.”
Harman has represented the more conservative wing of the Democratic Party, but her conservative tendencies were evident more in her foreign and fiscal policy. For instance, she voted in favor of the Iraq War. She’s also been a leading anti-terrorism voice in Congress. On the other hand, she has received strong support from the National Council of Jewish women for her more liberal votes on social issues such as women’s rights, abortion and gay rights. Harman was also a strong advocate for Obama’s healthcare reform package, although she has stated that the US needs universal healthcare.
David A. Harris, president of the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC), tells The Report that he hopes to keep Harman’s California seat on the Democratic side of the aisle in Congress. Her Los Angeles-area 36th district includes some 45,000 Jews, or about eight percent. Harris says this is significant, considering Jews comprise less than two percent of the broader American population. Both in her last primary battle, in 2010 – which she won handily – and in her 2008 primary, her opponent was Marcy Winograd, a Jewish activist who advocates for a single Israeli-Palestinian state.
While the NJDC doesn’t promote one Democratic candidate against another in primaries, Harris says his group helped educate Jewish constituents in the district about “Winograd’s perspective,” which, he says, is not accepted in the Jewish progressive community.
“We will play the same role if another Democrat runs against Marcy,” as is expected, he adds. It’s still unclear exactly who will run in the primary, but other candidates are testing the waters.
AIPAC representatives did not respond to The Report’s requests for comments on Harman’s resignation. However, in a statement to JTA, AIPAC director Howard Kohr is quoted as saying, “As a strong advocate for joint US-Israeli Homeland Security cooperation, both nations are now better equipped to keep their citizens and borders secure. Her expertise in intelligence, national security and foreign policy enabled her to make a significant and meaningful contribution toward ensuring that America stands with Israel in its quest for peace and security.”
HARMAN BECAME ENTANGLED IN A CONTROVERSY relating to AIPAC when intelligence officials leaked to the media a taped 2005 conversation between Harman and what they described as an “Israeli agent.” The “agent” asked Harman to intervene in the case of two former AIPAC staffers who had been charged with sharing classified information, in exchange for their advocating to keep Harman as the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee. There was never any evidence of a quid pro quo agreement, and Justice Department officials emphasized that Harman was not under scrutiny.
In addition to her membership on the House Intelligence Committee, Harman was a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, where she sat on the Communications and Technology and the Energy and Power Subcommittees. Her legislative efforts earned her 100 percent scores from advocacy groups like the California League of Conservation Voters, pro-choice group NARAL and the Human Rights Campaign.
Harman attempted to dispel rumors that her departure from Congress was due to the overwhelming Republican win in the last elections, although her letter to her constituents indicates some frustration. “I have always believed that the best solutions to tough problems require a bipartisan approach and bipartisanship is the [Woodrow Wilson] Center’s ‘brand,’” she writes.
It appears that the US and Israel may be heading towards another rough period in the bilateral relationship, especially following the American veto at the UN in mid-February.
When asked about the timing of Harman’s resignation, NJDC’s Harris tells The Report: “It’s never a good time to lose someone like Jane. It’s hard to lose someone with that much seniority. She’s been a treasure for the national Jewish community. Not only about Israel, but she’s wise on counterterrorism and she’s a strong environmentalist, which many Jews care about. She will be missed for a wide range of issues.”
In her letter of resignation to her constituents, Rep. Harman wrote that heading the Woodrow Wilson International Center “provides unique opportunities to involve the House and Senate, top experts, and world leaders in ‘great debates’ about the most pressing foreign and domestic policy matters.”