June 5, 2008
This week Sen. Joe Lieberman called to tell us how exciting the NORPAC mission was for him and the other members of Congress. There was a buzz on the Hill about the size and scope of what is now the second-largest Jewish mission to Washington in the country.
NORPAC mission chairman Mort Fridman and his two cochairs, Richard Schlussel and Jeff Weinstein, set a high bar this year for a successful mission. They wanted 1,000 people to attend. I mentioned that was a stretch given most of the major organizations struggle to get 200 people. However, knowing Mort’s enthusiasm is a force of nature, the committee said, “Let’s try and see what happens.”
Starting at 5:30 a.m. on May 21, our convoy of 22 buses from various pickup spots around the metropolitan area, including West Orange, were on their way to Washington. The NORPAC mission had participants from 10 states plus the District of Columbia. Among the 980 who registered were 40 rabbis and Jewish professionals and more than 300 students. We increased our attendance by 30 percent over last year.
Although I have been doing this for a while, it was only when I saw NORPAC volunteer advocates packing the Mellon Auditorium under a six-story atrium that I thought, “Maybe we have something here.”
The day began with speeches from Fridman, Sens. Mary Landrieu, Robert Menendez, Ted Stevens, and Norm Coleman, Rep. Steve Rothman, and American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy director Ester Kurz. I offered some our advocate-citizens some words of encouragement before sending them off to the Hill.
The pressure during the mission preparation was immense. We wanted each individual to have an opportunity to speak up, as we needed to get 500 appointments with members of Congress so that each of the 125 NORPAC groups could have four meetings. We made thousands of calls to get those appointments. We ended up with 491 meetings, and hope to improve our record next year.
It helped that about half of the Senate had already been in the homes of one of our members over the last six years. We ultimately met with 97 of the 100 members of the Senate. The rest of the meetings on Capitol Hill were with members and staff of the House of Representatives.
This year, we advocated for the increase in foreign aid to Israel to $2.55 billion, three pieces of legislation to impede the financial ability of Iran to complete its nuclear weapons program, and funding for the U.S.-Israel Energy Cooperation Act.
It felt like all our years of work developing relationships and our reputation had finally paid off. Our reception by and large was gracious and warm. The members of Congress and their staff were interested to hear from us and appreciative of the insights we were able to give them on our issues.
Sen. Jack Reed rarely cosponsors any legislation. So I brought out the big guns — I let my mother present to him. Given that the senator was a West Pointer, an Army Ranger captain, Harvard Law School graduate, and two-term senator, my mom, who saw the face of evil in World War II, was the only person on our mission who had the credibility to change his mind. She spoke of how her father was deeply worried after reading Mein Kampf. She reminded the senator that most people did not believe Hitler was serious about his words. She warned him that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a repetition of history and we need to find a way to stop him before he also carries out his threats. The senator decided to sponsor one of the two Iran bills and will revisit the second one more carefully.
During our meeting with House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer we were assured that Congress would find a mechanism to fund the extra $150 million in aid to Israel, even if the budget moves forward only by continuing resolution.
Of all the meetings the NORPAC groups attended, one stood out as a problem. Although we took special care to send strong constituents to the office of Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, our reception was particularly cool. This is worrisome since Sen. Webb is being circulated as a potential candidate for the Democratic vice presidential nomination.
After our meetings on Capitol Hill, the members came back to the auditorium for the afternoon speakers. They heard from Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Sen. Roger Wicker, Rep. Eliot Engel, and Sallai Meridor, Israel’s ambassador to the United States.
As we boarded our buses for home, we felt reassured about our national leaders’ positive sentiments towards U.S.-Israel relations. We were confident we improved the chances that the legislative initiatives we advocated for would be passed.
It is hard to conceive that some 900 attendees, 500 meetings, 125 groups, 22 buses, two training sessions, meals, sound and lighting, talking points, and event hall preparations was accomplished with volunteers and one full-time and three part-time staffers. Yes, we have much to be proud of.
Ben Chouake is the president of NORPAC, the largest multicandidate political action committee committed to strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship.
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