NEW YORK (JTA) — Praise for President Donald Trump and boos for Rep. Nancy Pelosi marked a fundraiser here for Bet El, a religious Jewish settlement in the West Bank.
Along with plenty of kudos for the president, the gala featured an extravagant kosher buffet, a seven-person live orchestra and a plethora of Hanukkah decorations.
Speakers included Israeli Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein, “Fox and Friends” co-host Pete Hegeseth, and Reps. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y., and Chris Smith, R-N.J., who was being honored with the American Friends of the Bet El Yeshiva Center’s Congressional Friends of Israel Award. More than 500 people, most of them appearing to be Orthodox, turned out for the event at the Marriott Marquis hotel in Times Square.
Honorary dinner chairman Eugen Gluck, president of the dinner’s organizer, American Friends of the Bet El Yeshiva Center, also spoke.
“We must always show gratification to those who help fight on behalf of the Jewish people,” senior co-chairman Duvi Honig, who is also the founder of the Orthodox Jewish Chamber of Commerce, wrote in an email to JTA. “It was an honor to acknowledge Congressman Chris Smith in the presence of the Speaker of the Knesset Yuli Edelstein, who was released from the Soviet Union as part of the Congressman’s lobbying in the 80s on behalf of freeing Russian Jews.”
The profile of Bet El rose early in the Trump administration when the past president of its American Friends group, David Friedman, was named U.S. ambassador to Israel by Trump. While polls show most American Jews vote Democratic and a majority are at least ambivalent about the settlements, American supporters of the settlements represent an influential minority that welcomes the president’s hawkish Israel policies.
While there were lots of plaudits for both the Jewish state and the U.S. president during the evening, Hegseth began his speech by dissing Pelosi, the Democratic lawmaker from California who will retake the job as speaker of the House of Representatives she held from 2007 to 2011 — the only woman to do so.
“We have a new Speaker of the House coming up in January here in the States. Her name is Nancy Pelosi,” Hegseth said, yielding boos from the room. “Yuli, any chance we can recruit you to be our Speaker of the House? I got a thumbs up. We have a chance — it would be an upgrade.”
A self-described “Baptist Christian boy from Minnesota,” Hegseth also spoke about his connection to Bet El and “the faith of the Judeo-Christian values that we all believe in and we all invest in.”
“That’s why I am so committed to this cause, to the cause of the Jewish people, to the cause of the land of Israel,” he said. “So honored to be here tonight, so thank you very much. It will never change, and thank God we have a president of the United States who feels the same way.”
Zeldin, too, lauded Trump.
“Now we are able to celebrate that our embassy has moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. I was honored to be there. It wouldn’t have happened without President Donald Trump,” he said to applause.
Edelstein spent less time on U.S. politics, instead heaping praise on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and speaking about his support of Israeli settlement building.
“Independence, sovereignty, will eventually come to Judea and Samaria and many more houses with be built in order to reach the number we all dream — a million Jews in Judea and Samaria,” he said, using the biblical names for the West Bank that are favored by those on the right.
Smith called on the audience to help him in his work to combat anti-Semitism, which includes co-chairing a bipartisan task force on the issue.
Last year, the congressman introduced the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism Act to upgrade the role of the State Department’s global anti-Semitism envoy. The House passed the bill in September, but it has not come up for a vote in the Senate.
“With your help, HR 1911 could easily pass this week,” Smith said of the legislation.” We’ve got to get the leadership in the U.S. Senate to just bring it up.”
Jewish organizations have called on the Trump administration to fill the envoy role, which is mandated by law, but it remains vacant.
As the event drew to a close, Zeldin noted the political divide among American Jews. He lamented the fact that out of 32 Jews currently serving in Congress, as well as the 37 in the incoming class, only two — he and Rep. David Kustoff of Tennessee — are Republicans.
“When Pete mentioned that I was one of two Jewish Republicans, you were not sure whether or not to clap to that because what I was hoping [since last year’s gala] is that I would be able to talk about how our numbers have grown,” he said. “There are still just two Jewish Republican members of Congress, so we have to work on that maybe for a couple years down the road.”