(New York Jewish Week) – Republican candidate Mazi Melesa Pilip highlighted her service in the Israeli military while her Democratic opponent, Tom Suozzi, blasted her party for opposition to an aid package for Israel during the two candidates’ sole debate ahead of a special congressional election on Long Island.
The two politicians largely agreed on using education to combat antisemitism, even as they clashed over other issues including illegal migration, abortion and gun rights ahead of Tuesday’s vote for New York’s 3rd Congressional District.
The election will determine representation in a swing district spanning Queens and Long Island that flipped Republican in 2022 after a decade in Democratic hands, then went up for grabs when the 2022 victor, George Santos, was expelled from Congress after being exposed as a fabulist. It is drawing national attention for its implications ahead of the November election: A Democratic victory would narrow Republicans’ already slim majority in the House.
The candidates’ support for Israel was a major focus of both campaigns.
“Oct. 7 and the hostages is close to my heart. I grew up in Israel, I served in the IDF, I have family members fighting as we speak,” Pilip said when asked about efforts to return Israeli captives in Gaza, including Omer Neutra, a native of the district where Jewish voters could prove crucial in the election. Pilip is an Ethiopian-born Orthodox mother of seven who served in a non-combat role in the Israeli military’s paratroopers brigade.
“We have to support Israel. We have to do everything in our power to bring the hostages home,” she said, while wearing a prominent Star of David necklace beneath a red blazer.
The debate came shortly after the House voted down an aid package to Israel that ties in funding for border security and Ukraine. Some Republicans have opposed the legislation after former President Donald Trump spoke out against it.
Piilip said ahead of the debate that the legislation “basically legalizes the invasion of our country at the southern border” — an echo of Trump’s opposition to the bill. During the debate, she said she had brought up Israel aid with House Speaker Mike Johnson and, if elected, would push him to support Israel.
“I know he’s going to support me. I know because he will understand me. By living in Israel, understanding the needs of Israel, I will be able to deliver,” she said.
Suozzi, who is not Jewish, underlined his past support for Israel, including a solidarity visit in December. He said he had met Neutra while the hostage was a high school student and had been in touch with the family since his abduction. Both candidates appeared alongside the Neutra family at a rally last month.
“I think everybody wants to get the hostages home but you’ve got to actually do things to support that happening,” Suozzi said. “Right now, there’s bipartisan legislation that includes, among other things, funding for Israel. Oct. 7 was four months ago. How come we haven’t gotten this passed?”
He added, “We have to, No. 1, get the money to Israel. There’s bipartisan legislation that my opponent opposes.”
The debate hosted by Long Island’s News 12 in a studio in the town of Bethpage featured audience questions, including a high school student who asked what the candidates would do to protect Jewish students amid a surge in reports of antisemitism since Oct. 7. Suozzi and Pilip both stressed education as a remedy.
“Antisemitism is very real. The fear people are feeling is very real and I empathize with young people especially that are being subjected to this hateful rhetoric,” Suozzi told the student, highlighting legislation he passed while representing the district in Congress in the past that mandated Holocaust education in New York.
“Too many people in the world deny the existence of the Holocaust so we need to educate people about the reality of the Holocaust and educate people about the realities of antisemitism,” he said. “We need to educate people at a very young age about how wrong hate is.”
Pilip, saying she was speaking as “a Black woman, as a Jew, as a mother,” described hesitating due to fear when her son asked for a Star of David necklace as a Bar Mitzvah gift. She said she had joined a recent rally against antisemitism at Columbia University and worked as a county legislator to set up a task force to combat discrimination of Jews.
“When it comes to the Jewish community, when it comes to Jewish students, we are not doing enough to stop antisemitism,” she said. “Everything starts with education. Unfortunately we are not educating our children enough about hate and antisemitism and in Congress I will hold accountable everyone.”
Suozzi represented the district for three terms before leaving office to launch an unsuccessful run for governor in 2021. Pilip is a legislator in Long Island’s Nassau County who was elected in 2021.
During the debate, Pilip repeatedly linked Suozzi to President Joe Biden, who won the district in 2020 but is polling poorly with voters there this year, and charged Suozzi with voting with the so-called “Squad” of progressive lawmakers most of the time as a Congressman. She blamed Suozzi and his Democratic party for problems stemming from migration and crime.
“Biden, the Squad and Tom Suozzi are taking our country to the wrong direction,” she said in her opening remarks. “If you want safe communities, if you want secure communities, I am your first choice.
Suozzi accused Pilip of being light on experience and policy specifics, and beholden to “extremist” positions in the Republican party. During heated discussions about gun rights and abortion, Pilip refused to say whether she supported a ban on semi-automatic weapons or if she identified as pro-choice.
“I’ve always worked across party lines to get things done. My opponent is unvetted and unprepared,” Suozzi said.
The race remains tight days ahead of the election, with early voting already underway. A Siena College poll released on Thursday said that Suozzi leads Pilip 48-44% among likely voters, with constituents saying Pilip will do a better job handling the Israel-Hamas war, the influx of migrants and decreasing taxes. Voters favored Suozzi on protecting democratic rights and on abortion issues, the poll said.