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Strong peace advocate loses House race

NEW YORK, Nov. 8 (JTA) – No stranger to political cliffhangers, longtime U.S. Rep. Sam Gejdenson finally fell in Tuesday’s elections.

Gejdenson (D-Conn.) was the ranking Democratic member on the House International Relations Committee, which like all other committees in the Republican-dominated House, will be headed by a GOP representative in the 107th Congress.

But sources say that with another Jewish representative, Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), in line to become the ranking House Democratic member on that committee, the Jewish perspective will still have a strong, influential voice in foreign policy debates.

In fact, some pro-Israel activists say that Lantos’ support for Israel may be less tied to the Oslo peace process than was Gejdenson’s.

During his 10 terms representing Connecticut’s 2nd District, Gejdenson, the son of Holocaust survivors who was born in the Eschwege displaced persons camp in Germany, carved a deep niche in foreign affairs.

Gejdenson was involved in Israel and the Middle East, and Jewish organizational officials say Gejdenson was known as being there for Israel at critical moments.

But he was considered to be ideologically closer to Labor Party governments in Israel – and the peace process – than the more hawkish one of Benjamin Netanyahu.

Gejdenson played a “special role” and took leadership on the peace process and mediation efforts in the Middle East, said Tom Smerling, executive director of Israel Policy forum, a Washington think tank that has been a strong advocate for the peace process.

“Sam has been one of the members of Congress who understands most clearly the strategic importance of the peace process to Israel and the United States,” Smerling said.

His close ties to the peace process and the Israel Policy Forum apparently caused some friction at times with the pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, according to sources in Connecticut.

AIPAC officials were not immediately available for comment.

Gejdenson was also involved in Third World debt relief and pressed for U.S. payment of money it owed to the United Nations. He was also heavily involved in defense issues. The second largest supplier of U.S. military submarines is housed in Groton, which is part of his district.

Gejdenson “was a strong voice for U.S. engagement in the world, and much of that conviction that the United States must be a leader expressing its true values grew from his personal experience, and his family’s experience during the Holocaust,” said Jason Isaacson, the American Jewish Committee’s director of government and international affairs.

Gejdenson’s focus on foreign affairs made him an easy target for attacks from his opponent, Republican Rob Simmons, that he was out of touch with his district.

Gejdenson still owns a house on his family’s farm inside the 2nd District, which is a working-class district with a small Jewish population.

But he spends some time, particularly during the summer, at his second wife’s home outside the district, and Simmons hammered away at this fact in televison ads.

The strategy appeared to pay off, as Simmons won with 51 percent of the vote.

It was not the first time that Gejdenson has faced a tough race. In 1994, for instance, he won by just 21 votes.

His strengths, including his knowledge of foreign affairs and defense, was offset by Simmons’ background as a Vietnam veteran who won two bronze stars.

Simmons also worked for the CIA and was staff director for the Senate Intelligence Committee.

(JTA staff writer Julie Wiener contributed to this report.)

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