Israel’s ‘heathen’ friend

New York City councilman Dan Halloran, the leader of a small polytheist congregation in Queens, explains why Israel is so important.

Halloran521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem /The Jerusalem Post)
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem /The Jerusalem Post)
New York City Councilman from Queens Dan Halloran, a Republican who is running for Congress in the November elections, spent three days in Israel this week. On his first tour of the country, Halloran got a real taste of the Holy Land and, in the process, hoped to boost his support among the many Jewish voters in New York’s 19th district.
Described by the Village Voice as “America’s first elected heathen,” Halloran is the leader of a small polytheist congregation in Queens, where he has lived all his life.
He is a strong supporter of Israel and backs Jerusalem as its united capital. During his trip, Councilman Halloran met with Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz as well as several MKs from the Likud, Yisrael Beyteinu and Shas.
In an exclusive interview with The Jerusalem Post, the former New York City police officer discussed his commitment to the Jewish state, his move from backing Ron Paul to Mitt Romney, and the relationship between New York’s Irish and Jewish communities.
Describing himself as “very excited” to be in Israel, Halloran said he relished the opportunity to do some “sightseeing,” especially in Jerusalem, having passed through Israel previously only as a stopover to other countries. “I have never had the opportunity to really explore, which is what this trip is all about.”
Halloran’s agenda included visits to holy sites in the Old City, Ras al-Amud, the Mount of Olives and the Yemenite Village in Silwan.
Why did you make a point of visiting Jewish communities in the eastern half of Jerusalem?
The United States is a nation of laws. Could you imagine someone telling someone that you cannot live in Spanish Harlem because you are not Spanish? Could you imagine someone saying you cannot live in the south Bronx because you are not black? Can you imagine someone saying you can’t move to Bensonhurst in Brooklyn because you are not Italian, or Williamsburg because you are not an Orthodox or hassidic Jew? That would never happen. It is unthinkable to me that people who have legitimately purchased land, because they are Jewish, cannot be there.
The notion that we can segregate our populations because somebody, somewhere, thinks that there should be an artificial line, is anathema to anyone who respects the rule of law – and the fundamental notion behind that is that somehow Arabs and Jews can’t get along.
That’s the flawed premise that they are operating from. Anybody who is a neighbor should be able to get along with everyone else as long as they are respecting each other’s rights. The problem has been that there hasn’t been a two-way street of respect; that Israel has constantly been on the defensive; that when you go to bed at night and when mortar grenades can get launched across your neighborhood, it takes a very different perspective to be able to sit there and say “I am going to remain.” I admire the courage and tenacity of those who are willing to legally purchase, move in and stay there because they made a choice – and nobody, including the government, should take that choice away from them.
Your personal faith has been described as ‘neo-pagan.’
Well, that is how the press likes to depict it because they choose to make things sensational. I am a polytheist.
I believe in God, the great creator in the background, much like the founding fathers of my nation, who were Jeffersonian deists. We see him as the great watchmaker.
Much has been made of that in my first council race but the reality is that the United States is a nation founded on the notion of religious freedom.
Many of Israel’s supporters in the US come from an evangelical Christian background. Do your religious views play any role in your support of Israel?
No. My support of Israel is based on the rule of law.
Israel is the only true democracy in the Middle East with stability. It is the only one that actually follows through in practicing the rule of law when many other countries in the region have feigned adherence to the rule of law.
Israel has, sometimes to its own detriment, been willing to follow the rule of law and I admire that. I also admire the tenacity of the Jewish people, having come through so much and so many trials and to still be here, looking to the future.
Of course, my religion, as a minority religion, also has a kinship in that respect because the Jews have always been a minority in the greater scheme of the world stage yet they have played such an important part in shaping history. And so, that kinship, coupled with the respect for the rule of law, [Israel being] our natural ally in the war against terror and their help in the spread of democracy and bringing liberty and freedom to the world is why I am so able to readily identify with them.
Of course, as a New Yorker, someone who was there on 9/11, who lost a relative in the towers on 9/11, I understand in a very personal way how important it is for there to be a free and unfearful populace living in the country, and Israel still does not have the freedom from fear of attacks from rockets and mortars.
Can you expand on this? New York city has foiled 17 separate bomb attacks by Islamist terrorists over the past 10 years, and it doesn’t get into the paper and it doesn’t get talked about because our police have done such a great job.
But as an elected official in New York, I am aware of it so I understand what the people of Jerusalem, the citizens of Israel, are going through, and I certainly identify with it and I would certainly hope that my country was more helpful in finding the solution to prevent these things from happening in the future.
If we all believe in the rule of law, if we all believe in the goodwill of men then this should not be an issue.
Why is Israel so important to you in campaigning for Congress?
First and foremost, I am currently a city council member. I am the ranking Republican on the public safety committee.
We’ve had a long-standing relationship in the intelligence community [between] our police office and Israel, because of the nature of terrorism in the region and the top-notch work that Israel has always done in providing information on the front – so that is critical.
I am someone whose cousin died in the towers on 9/11 – my cousin was Lt. Vincent Halloran, a firefighter – so the war on terror is a very real thing to me and something that my country should always be paramountly concerned with.
So a lot of this is from the natural alliance and friendship that existed between Israel and the United States on national security issues. But more importantly for this particular Congressional race, I have a very large ethnic Jewish population inside the district that is very concerned about the tenor of America’s foreign policy right now.
The United States has always been an ally of Israel, but in the last three years there has been a decline in, I think, the real politics on the ground. Israel has become more isolated given the Arab revolutions that have taken place last year in the Arab Spring, and our country did not do the right thing. We helped create a vacuum of power in Syria, in Egypt and in Lebanon, and the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists have made this about taking control – and that creates an incredible threat to the State of Israel.
In the background, of course, has always been Iran – and we know that Iran is not a rational actor.
They have called for the destruction of Israel and now they are on the path to nuclear weapons.
That’s not acceptable and our president should have stood firmly behind Israel, and said we will do everything necessary to prevent this – up to and including military intervention.
And Israel needs to know that when the United States faced a crisis in October 1962, when the Russians were going to put missiles in Cuba, that’s 1,150 miles away from Washington, DC. Tel Aviv is 1,162 miles from Tehran. There is no difference whatsoever in the threat that Israel is facing with the nuclear programs that Iran is engaging in, and the what the United States faced during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
There are a lot of concerns outside of foreign policy, in terms of inside of New York, there is a movement right now to ban a certain type of circumcision practice – which of course is crazy. It’s unfortunate that we find ourselves having to work for protecting religious freedom in this country, especially due to the US’s history of being founded based on religious freedom, but these are things that are happening right now that are giving the general tenor of politics.
This trip and understanding the bigger picture of the world is something that everybody who is going to serve in the US House of Representatives needs to have.
You were a supporter of Ron Paul, who has something of a reputation when it comes to Israel. How do you square your support for Israel with Paul’s isolationism?
First of all, when it comes to presidential candidates nobody is perfect. You pick the person who represents the majority of your views and you support them. Ron is a liberty-oriented Republican, somebody who believes in shrinking the size of government. On domestic issues I think he is a great candidate, but from the beginning I have criticized his foreign policy.
He believes in a very non-interventionist foreign policy and he correctly points out, by the way, that we give seven times as much money to Israel’s enemies as we do to Israel. So that discrepancy, in and of itself, is a problem. It’s something that he addressed.
But make no mistake about it, the president has an obligation to the bigger picture of the world, and I think that is something that Ron’s positions have been problematic on, and I’ve said that from the beginning of my support of him.
That doesn’t change the fact that on domestic issues I think he has a lot of great ideas.
But for those of us who have worn the uniform of our country, and those of us who feel that there is a bigger national security issue – we have been critical of Ron on those issues.
I am supporting Mitt Romney as the Republican candidate for president now and he will have my full support, and I know he pledged to be a great friend of Israel. He is someone who understands the national security issues we have and I think he is someone who will make sure Israel knows it has a partner and a friend.
Israel is a persistent issue in American political campaigns, with candidates from both parties trying to show their pro-Israel credentials as superior to those of their opponents. Aside from candidates like yourself who come from districts with many Jews, what accounts for the importance of Israel in American politics?
It’s a twofold issue. The first is that in national security matters there is a tremendous overlay between what we have experienced in terrorism here and what goes on in the Middle East, particularly in Israel.
Remember, whether we are talking about Hezbollah or Hamas, a lot of the funding mechanisms that allow them to go out into the world and do what they do are because of the circumstances, particularly right now in Israel, so we inherently have a national security need to have a very close relationship in that respect.
No. 2 is that Israel, in terms of humanitarian issues and in terms of the rule of law, internationally and much like the United States, subscribes to a fundamental picture of how the world should be in terms of governance. That means a democratic republic with a constitution looking at representatives who are elected in free elections, without the finger of the government on top of them. That sort of affinity is what ties us closely together. It is the same sort of relationship we have with England, which shares so many of our values.
Because of that nexus it has created a mutual dependency between our two countries. Don’t forget, while Jews as a percentage of the American population aren’t huge, they have had a tremendous impact, whether we are talking about the civil rights era or even earlier than that.
Remember, when the Irish came to New York there were signs in stores that “the Irish need not apply,” and it was the Jewish community in New York that helped embrace the Irish, to bring them in. Eventually we grew tremendously and the Irish became a dominant political force in New York City for decades. But that all came about because we were helped out by another immigrant group that came a little bit earlier. That created some natural alliances and that’s why you see so many civilrights marches in the 1960s – there were many Jewish and Irish persons walking together.
It’s a much bigger percentage of influence because of the dynamic history coupled with the natural affinity.
As a congressman, if elected, you will be involved in foreign policy issues. What are your foreign policy views?
It is my hope to be on the foreign affairs as well as homeland security committees, both of which have a tremendous role in shaping the relationship we have with Israel. I will certainly be one of the persons calling for the United States to continue funding the vital link between our two countries and making sure that the resources are there. But I will also be making sure that the military resources remain in place, and that they are continuing to support those of us around the world who are fighting terror and working so hard to make sure that we can all live and walk down the street safely.
Because it can happen anywhere, as evidenced by the recent attack in Bulgaria, we must constantly be vigilant and that is something that I will bring with me to Washington, and hopefully it will have an impact.
What is your vision for an endgame to the Arab-Israeli conflict?
The endgame has to be a dialogue, the endgame has to be something that both the residents of the communities there and the Israeli government sit down and talk about. What we cannot continue to do is to have outside countries dictate what will happen. Syria, Egypt, Lebanon – they should not be forcing Israel into concessions without a dialogue.
You know, it goes back to what happened with the Irish Republican Army.
If you remember, during the Clinton administration, they forced the IRA to put their weapons down first, before they would commence peace talks in Northern Ireland.
There is no reason why Israel is entitled to anything less. There should be universal and complete disarmament on the part of Hamas and Hezbollah, and the Palestinian Authority has to renounce that violence immediately before anybody should be sitting down at the table. Civilized people should be having this conversation in a real way and the only way to do that is through peaceful means, and that is something that so far the Palestinians have not been willing to do.
You have mentioned security coordination. Can you expand on its importance to the Israeli-American relationship?
A lot of people either dismiss or don’t really appreciate the connection that happens in the intelligence community in sharing information on national security issues, and how vital a partner Israel has been to us over the years. I think that both Americans and Israelis have to understand that the linkage that we have, that the bond that we share, is really critical as we move forward, especially in light of the Islamist governments that have popped up in Syria and in Egypt.
Going forward we will have to work more closely together to make sure that the world is safe. Iran is a big threat and something that we are going to have to deal with sooner rather than later, unfortunately. I just hope that people understand and appreciate that.
Tell us about your impressions of your trip.
On the way in we met [Jewish Agency and World Zionist Executive chairman] Natan Sharansky, that was the first person that I met with. After that I went up [for a tour of Jewish residences in east Jerusalem] with Ateret Cohanim and was actually able to go inside some of the apartments, Ariel Sharon’s apartment in particular. We went up to Kidmat Zion and we just now left the Gush Katif Museum, looking at the Jews who were displaced from the Gaza Strip.
Some of this stuff is just overwhelming in the sense of the the level of pain and angst that the Jewish community here in Israel, particularly Jerusalem, have had to go through as time has gone on. It’s amazing that there is such a resilience and a spirit of hope despite all the tribulations that they have experienced.
I was very honored to have an audience with the Deputy Speaker of the Knesset Danny Danon. He met with me and briefed me on what he is doing, what is happening in the Knesset in general. He informed me that he is coming to New York, and I will meet with him when he comes to New York, so we have arranged that for September.
He is very interesting and we discussed a lot about foreign policy and in particular the situation in Iran, which, of course, is becoming critical at this stage.
[Danon] introduced me to another Knesset member, Nissim Ze’ev [of Shas], so I was able to speak with Nissim as well, and then the next meeting and the last meeting we had at the Knesset was with Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz. He met with me and was very gracious.
We discussed Keynesian economics and how Israel chose to ignore that neo-socialist form of economic policy and to restore the economy here, to get the production back up and to get a reduction on unemployment and some of the great job creation techniques.
He shares the concerns that we have in America regarding the overall economic bubble that the world is experiencing right now, the destabilization of the European Union, particularly countries like Greece, Italy, Spain and Ireland, which are on the precipice of grave disaster economically.
Meanwhile, we discussed many of the joint ventures, in particular American foreign aid here in Israel which has enabled us to increase business partnerships, and I am looking forward to continuing a dialogue with him because he is coming to New York for an upcoming economic summit in September and we agreed to meet and discuss.
Clearly, the economic ties between the US and Israel are also a strong component [of the bilateral relationship].
This [trip] was a series of meetings to get a feel for the land, a feel for the political climate here and also the general future that we are trying to forge together so it was a lot. I was almost overwhelmed but I was very well prepared by [American Zionist activist and tour companion] Dr. Joe Frager, who gave me a tremendous background. His work with the World Committee for the Land of Israel has done so much to lay the groundwork for politicians like myself to be here.
I was finally joined on the last leg of this journey by State Senator David Storobin, a Republican from New York State as well, the state senator who represents Brooklyn, a Russian Jewish émigré to the United States.
I was also able to visit some of the major Christian shrines, including the Holy Sepulchre, which has such a prominent place in all of the Christian faiths.
What made the greatest impression during your trip?
I think the greatest impression was the Western Wall, because it is a link of both past and present to all of the monotheistic religions, which have in some shape or form the great Temple as a symbol of the genesis of their belief systems, but also because it is a crossroads in the historical world map of what was.
We are dealing with, in the Western Wall, a piece of history that from Roman times on has been a symbol of an enduring people and what it is to maintain your faith, your culture and your heritage in spite of everything else. Just to see the numbers of people coming there just to pray and give thanks is absolutely an incredible experience, and I’m certainly the better for it, but I am also humbled by it because I know that I am just one of millions who have been there to see it, to feel it, to touch it and to experience what it’s like. It is something that is very difficult to put into words.