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Delay, New House Majority Leader, is Darling to Some, Demon to Others

November 19, 2002
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Rep. Tom DeLay is a perplexing figure for the American Jewish community.

The Republican lawmaker from Sugar Land, Texas — who last week was unanimously chosen majority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives — has for years been a lightning rod for liberal Jews who sharply disagree with his conservative stances on abortion and other domestic policy issues.

And DeLay’s comments about Christianity — he has suggested it is the only religion that answers life’s big questions, and has called on Christians to elect Christian lawmakers — have come close to anti-Semitism, some say.

In the last two years, however, DeLay has emerged as a leading pro-Israel advocate, working to get legislation passed that would bring U.S. aid and support to the Jewish state.

While some question DeLay’s motives, many Jewish leaders have chosen to embrace his support. After his election as House majority leader last week, most pro-Israel activists were celebrating.

"Tom DeLay is a true leader and has a time-tested record of being a dear and valued friend of the pro-Israel community," said Melvin Dow, a fellow Texan and former president and chairman of the pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

DeLay is one of several prominent Christian leaders who have vocally aligned themselves with Israel since the Palestinian intifada began two years ago — and have been welcomed by Jewish leaders who have been able to put aside other disagreements with the evangelical Christian community.

Understanding that Israel is in a precarious situation, they believe now is not the time to choose which allies to support and which to discard.

But because DeLay is a legislator — and a very powerful one at that — Jewish leaders say they still hear concerns about relations with a man known as "The Hammer."

"There is discomfort in some segments of the Jewish community," said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. "The Jewish community is uncomfortable with the domestic agenda that Tom DeLay represents."

As part of its "Strange Bedfellows" campaign, the group Jewish Women Watching plans to distribute condoms at the United Jewish Communities’ General Assembly this week. The move is a protest about the links between Jewish leaders and Christian conservatives.

One member of the group said she is concerned about DeLay’s support within the Jewish world.

"This is a kind of selling out of the values of the American Jewish community," said the member, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Noting that a vast majority of Jews are pro-choice and believe in separation of church and state, she said Jewish leaders who support DeLay seem to feel that his stances on domestic issues are less important than his stance on Israel.

It also earns him more kudos than others who take a less hawkish view of the Middle East situation.

"Tom DeLay becomes a better Jew than someone who wants to say something critical about Israel," she said.

DeLay’s bona fides on Israel have been solidified in the past year.

He was the architect of a pro-Israel resolution that passed Congress last spring, a month after the Passover suicide bombing attack in Netanya. The resolution called on the United States to provide additional aid to Israel, and "condemns the ongoing support of terror" by Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and other Palestinian leaders.

DeLay also helped Israel garner $200 million in emergency anti-terrorism aid, sponsoring an amendment to the White House’s emergency supplemental aid package.

President Bush rejected the spending package in which the Israeli aid was included, but voiced strong support for the aid. The money is expected to be in the next foreign aid appropriations bill, which Congress will tackle early next year.

In a speech at AIPAC’s policy conference in April, DeLay consistently referred to the West Bank and Gaza as "Judea and Samaria" — their biblical Hebrew names — saying he had grown tired of the media calling the land "occupied territories."

"As long as I’m in Congress, I’ll use every tool at my disposal to ensure the Republican Conference, and the House of Representatives, continues to preserve and strengthen America’s alliance with the State of Israel," DeLay said April 23.

Less than two weeks earlier, however, DeLay had called on Christians to send their children only to colleges where they could get a "godly education," and said Christianity was the only religion that answers questions about the purpose of life.

"Only Christianity offers a comprehensive worldview that covers all areas of life and thought, every aspect of creation," DeLay told 300 people at the First Baptist Church of Pearland, Texas, on April 12. "Only Christianity offers a way to live in response to the realities that we find in this world."

Foxman has criticized those comments, as well as remarks DeLay made last month at a Christian Coalition rally in which he called on people to elect lawmakers "who stand for everything we believe in and stand unashamedly with Jesus Christ."

But Foxman said Jews must keep their perceptions of DeLay’s stance on Israel and other issues separate.

DeLay’s staff did not respond to requests for comment.

DeLay, who currently serves as House majority whip, is a common target for Democrats. The National Jewish Democratic Council, for example, has criticized DeLay’s record in the past few years, specifically for voting against a resolution commending Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon. DeLay remarked at the time that he did not feel the withdrawal was in Israel’s best interest.

"Tom DeLay is wildly unpopular in the Jewish community," said Ira Forman, NJDC’s executive director. "Pro-Israel activists will say he is popular, but they are not in the majority."

One Jewish leader, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said some Jewish leaders have criticized organizations that speak out against DeLay’s domestic policy, arguing that his support is important for Israel.

DeLay’s views on Israel have been consistent for most of his 17 years in Congress, but they haven’t received much attention until now because DeLay was not such a key player and Israel was not facing the type of life-and-death situation it now confronts.

In Sugar Land, a suburb of Houston, the Jewish community has become quite accustomed to DeLay’s stance on Israel and other issues.

"We have tried to encourage our community, to the degree possible, to compartmentalize our relationship with him," said Lee Wunsch, the executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston. "We separate the issues, so those who have different views on domestic issues can still acknowledge the terrific support on behalf of Israel."

Wunsch and others in Houston’s Jewish community dismiss DeLay’s Christian-focused comments, noting that in personal conversations he expresses a strong understanding of Judaism.

"There’s no malice," said Esther Polland, the federation’s president. "When he talks about a Christian nation, he could be just as happy saying Judeo-Christian."

Houston Jewish leaders also dismiss the argument that DeLay and other leading Christians support Israel because they believe Israel will be the place for Jesus’ second coming, or because Christians would like to convert Jews to Christianity to expedite the second coming.

Matthew Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said it would be wrong to chastise DeLay and other Christians if their support for Israel is born of their religious beliefs.

"We take our friends where we can find them," said Brooks, who said Christian support of Israel for faith reasons shouldn’t be less acceptable than lawmakers who woo the Jewish community for political gain. "If Tom DeLay or others view Israel through the context of their own spiritual background, we should welcome it."

Conservative and Republican Jews seem to have done so. Speaking to a group of Republican Jews last week in California, Republican pollster Frank Luntz mentioned names of key figures in the next Congress.

Only DeLay’s name elicited instantaneous applause.

"He is no longer the demon they once thought," Luntz said.

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