U.S. Elections 2006 Tel Aviv U. Funding Threatened? Issue Roils Tight Illinois Election

An e-mail from a congressional Republican staffer that seems to threaten to cut off U.S. funds to Tel Aviv University unless its principal U.S. benefactor abandons a Democratic candidate is roiling a congressional race north of Chicago. Democrats are calling on U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) to fire Caryn Garber, the staffer who sent the e-mail. Abner Mikva, a former congressman from the district, asked for a federal investigation.

Garber, Kirk’s district representative in suburban Northbrook, wrote to Robert Schrayer, chairman of the Tel Aviv University American Council. In the e-mail sent from Garber’s personal address and addressed to Sam Witkin, the council’s president, Garber asks Witkin to urgently call her on a non-work line.

“Your new Chicago TAU ‘chief,’ none other than Bob Schrayer, is working overtime to defeat Mark Kirk,” Garber wrote in the July 19 e-mail, first reported by the Chicago Sun-Times last Friday and obtained by JTA. “The community is not pleased with his out front actions and it was suggested to me by someone who should know that Itamar should call Bob and tell him that his actions can have a very bad effect on the university.”

The reference is to Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington who now is president of Tel Aviv University.

“Bob Schrayer calls himself pro-Israel?” the e-mail continues. “Hard to believe that he can make the claim while working to defeat the MOST pro-Israel voice on the Hill Mark Kirk. We understand that Schrayer hates Bush that has NOTHING to do with Mark Steven Kirk. Revenge is a dish best served cold. I know that you and Itamar would not want TAU to be sullied by his out of control actions.”

The TAU American Council did not return a call for comment.

Kirk is in a tight race with Dan Seals, a marketing executive, in a district that leaned Democrat in the 2000 and 2004 presidential races and that has a substantial Jewish community.

Kirk’s membership on the foreign operations subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives Appropriations Committee means he influences the disbursement of about $25 million distributed annually through the American Schools and Hospitals Abroad Act.

Witkin said that his TAU council obtained $1 million through the act over the last three years to purchase U.S.-made equipment for the university’s Center for Middle Eastern Genetic Diseases. His office was now preparing to apply for funds for AIDS research.

However, Witkin suggested that neither he nor Schrayer took the threat seriously; the subcommittee generally unanimously approved the funding. “They have always looked at foreign aid in a totally bipartisan fashion,” he said.

Additionally, losing the funds was unlikely to seriously damage the university, although Witkin emphasized that Tel Aviv University appreciated the money.

“The fact that the U.S. government deemed our project worthy of granting an award, we’re very proud of the fact,” he said.

One measure of how little regard Witkin had for the threat was that he did not contact Rabinovich, as requested by Garber.

“It was not something I was going to do,” he told JTA.

Schrayer said he alerted Kirk to the threat, and Kirk wrote back, asking for a copy of the e-mail. Schrayer complied, but since then, he did not hear from Kirk until the story broke last week, although he says he wrote Kirk five times asking for a follow-up.

Schrayer wants Garber fired. “I believe it might be illegal — it is unethical,” he told JTA. “He should have dismissed her immediately and he should have written a letter of apology, not just to me, but publicly,” he said.

He took the threat seriously. “He is a high-ranking member of the committee, and the e-mail certainly suggests he has the authority” to influence whether or not Tel Aviv University receives disbursements.

Kirk is one of Israel’s most outspoken supporters in Congress, leading efforts to purge what he believes are anti-Israel elements operating under the aegis of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, the body that administers assistance to Palestinian refugees.

Schrayer’s support for Seals is especially stinging for Kirk. Until now, Schrayer, an insurance magnate and former national chairman of the UJA-Federation Campaign for the United Jewish Communities, had backed Kirk.

Kirk reprimanded Garber when the e-mail’s contents were revealed last week. Seals called a press conference Tuesday in which he called on Kirk to fire Garber.

“At the end of the day, this is intimidation,” Seals told JTA in a phone interview. “Why is she still being paid by taxpayer dollars?”

He was backed by the National Jewish Democratic Council.

“Congressman Kirk never fired the staffer!” the NJDC wrote in an e-mail to supporters. “She continues to collect her paycheck at taxpayers’ expense.”

Mikva, now a professor at the University of Chicago and formerly a judge and five-term Democratic congressman from the district, wrote federal and state prosecutors asking for an investigation.

“That overt threat of revenge against Mr. Schrayer and the university harms every voter in the district, each of whom is entitled to vote next week without fear of retribution,” wrote Mikva, who cited federal and state law against intimidating members of the public to influence their vote.

Mikva was underwhelmed by Kirk’s reprimand.

“Apparently, the congressman requested from his staffer that she no longer commit crimes,” he wrote.

Kirk’s office did not return a request for comment, but earlier he told Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper, that he was “very upset when I became aware of the e-mail and its sentiment. That does not reflect my view. I reprimanded Ms. Garber and told her that if anything like this happened again, she would be dismissed.”

Kirk said he had sent Schrayer a letter of apology.

Robert Asher, a former president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and a Kirk supporter, issued his own statement, saying the letter “does not threaten any action, particularly not a congressional action,” according to the Chicago Sun-Times.

AIPAC refused to comment on the matter, though Garber is a former staffer for the pro-Israel lobby.

“AIPAC is a bipartisan organization and does not rate or endorse candidates,” spokeswoman Jennifer Cannata said. “Any statement by Mr. Asher was made as an individual political activist and not on behalf of AIPAC.”

Seals told JTA he regrets that Israel has become an issue in the race.

“You’ve got two strong pro-Israel candidates, and that’s how it should be,” he said.

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