Retirement of Pro-israel Lawmaker Greeted with Sadness by Activists
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Retirement of Pro-israel Lawmaker Greeted with Sadness by Activists

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In the fall of 1997, a pro-Israel U.S. congressman heard about the threat Israel faced from Iran, which was close to refining a missile capable of hitting the Jewish state.

He introduced legislation that would sanction countries and companies that provide Iran with the technology to build up its missile program.

That legislation became the basis for a presidential executive order, which eventually led to a U.S. law that punishes entries that aid Iran in its quest for weapons of mass destruction.

It’s no small wonder, say Jewish observers, that Jews will miss that voice in the U.S. House of Representatives.

For more than 30 years, Gilman was known for his strong understanding of foreign policy and tireless advocacy for Israel.

The 79-year-old lawmaker announced Tuesday night that he would not seek re-election in November, saying he was leaving his seat “with great remorse.”

Gilman is leaving Congress as a result of the state’s redistricting plan, which eliminates two seats from New York’s congressional delegation.

Gilman, who has represented a district just north of New York City since 1972, would lose part of that area, prompting speculation that he would not win in his new district.

He reportedly flirted with becoming a Democrat, but instead decided to resign.

Often the lone Republican Jewish member in the House, he was a leader on foreign policy issues, especially given his powerful role as from 1995 to 2001 as chairman of the House of Representatives’ International Relations Committee.

He currently serves as chairman of the subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia. His strongly pro-Israel positions earned him the praise of a number of Jewish groups.

“Throughout his 30 years in Congress, Ben Gilman has been a leader on virtually every issue important to the pro-Israel community,” said Howard Kohr, executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby.

“He brought passion to the issues, integrity to Congress, a spirit of bipartisanship to all his work, and he will be sorely missed.”

Gilman voted to increase aid to Israel over the years. He also worked on behalf of Israeli MIAs, in support of Jerusalem, or as many put it, “on every area of Jewish interest.”

Gilman has always had a hard-line approach toward the Palestinians, sometimes putting him at odds with advocates of the Oslo peace process, including the Clinton administration.

He has been a vocal critic of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and he spearheaded legislation in 2000 that would have cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority if it unilaterally declared a Palestinian state.

It is unclear who might be the next chairman of the Middle East subcommittee, but many Jewish activists say it’s hard to imagine any successor who will have close to the breadth of knowledge and understanding of the situation in one of the most volatile areas of the world.

“He has more experience than anyone,” a congressional staffer said. “He also brought personal caring to the issues.”

Gilman also was at the forefront of the Soviet Jewry movement in the 1970s. He worked on behalf of refuseniks, met with Soviet officials, participated in vigils and heard individual cases and helped out whenever he could.

“He was one of the giants,” said Mark Levin, executive director of NCSJ: Advocates on Behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States and Eurasia. “If we need something, he’s one of the first members we call.”

When Soviet officials censored mail to refuseniks and activists in the mid-1980s, Gilman took the lead and got the mail delivered, Levin said.

He continues his close bond with the Russian Jewish communities and that bond applies to his local constituency as well.

Gilman would set aside Fridays to meet with Orthodox and Russian constituents in Monsey, N.Y., to hear their concerns.

“He would hold court,” said Joseph Halfon, a longtime supporter and friend of Gilman’s from Rockland County, which is part of Gilman’s district. “He was an icon in the community.”

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