March 31, 2021 In The News

Haaretz: Meet the Democrat Aiming to Be Israel’s Biggest Champion in Congress

Rep. Elaine Luria, a second-term Democratic congresswoman from Virginia, has quickly emerged as perhaps the most outspoken defender of Israel from her party in Congress.

A self-described “unabashed supporter” of the U.S.-Israel relationship, the 45-year-old Navy veteran has made a concerted effort to be a vocal proponent of this bond – even if that means going against the party line.

Luria tells Haaretz that her support for Israel and outspokenness on antisemitism is informed by her own experience growing up as a Jewish woman in the South. She says she did not encounter explicit antisemitism growing up, “but things were what they were. My parents couldn’t attend certain elementary schools, there were certain social things in Birmingham that Jews were not allowed to be part of.”

Her stances on Israel draw from her defense background as well: “We need strong voices to show that this is our most important ally in the Middle East and that the relationship is critical to our national defense – and that it’s the right thing to do,” she says. “It’s important that people understand that there is very, very strong bipartisan support for the U.S.-Israel relationship in Congress.”

She herself has worked on a variety of legislation aimed at bolstering U.S.-Israel ties, including co-sponsoring the bipartisan U.S.-Israel PTSD Collaborative Research Act, which takes the two countries’ shared experiences to better assist suffering veterans.

She also led a bipartisan letter during her first term condemning the International Criminal Court over its potential investigation of alleged Israeli war crimes.

“It’s important to be vocal and forward-leaning and do what I can do to try to strengthen that relationship and find new ways to build on it, especially in light of ongoing threats,” she says.

The lawmaker acknowledges there are “some very loud voices” in Congress that do not share her views. She believes, however, that the media tends to amplify those voices. “Sometimes detractors get more oxygen than I think they should,” she says, noting that this is to the detriment of Congress’ ongoing work at deepening ties between the two countries.

Luria has attempted to fill the void left by former New York Reps. Nita Lowey and Eliot Engel, who finished their final terms in 2021 and were arguably Israel’s most stalwart Democratic supporters in Congress over the past several decades.

A spokesperson for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the most influential lobbying group supporting Israel in the United States, told Haaretz that Luria has “demonstrated effective and dedicated leadership in forging bipartisan support for key initiatives to strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship.”

Veteran pollster Mark Mellman, the CEO of pro-Israel group Democratic Majority for Israel, is also quick to laud Luria. The experience, respect and national security knowledge she gained commanding naval combat ships, “combined with her passionate advocacy for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship, affords her a unique role in the House, where she is beginning to help fill the big shoes of key pro-Israel stalwarts who are no longer in the Congress,” he says.

Although Luria, like most other Democrats, voted to impeach the former president, she is quick to praise the Trump administration for “making some great strides” in fostering Israel’s normalization pacts with Arab states. She says the signing of the Abraham Accords, for which she was present at the White House, gave her “great hope.” She adds, “I’m hopeful that that can continue to expand throughout the region and bring in more partners who want to establish those kinds of relationships with Israel.”

She also notes that she would like the Biden administration to prioritize the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“Palestinians have been given opportunities and have not come to the table,” Luria says. “Certainly, if there was any time that progress could be made or U.S. involvement – or involvement alongside our allies – could help move that along and actually make that happen, then I would certainly lean in on that and make it a priority.”

‘A bad deal from the start’

Luria served as a Navy officer for two decades, operating nuclear reactors on combat ships until she retired from the military in 2017. She was elected to the House of Representatives in 2019, and won the support of her relatively conservative constituency largely thanks to her focus on national defense and security. Luria’s positions on defense, particularly regarding Iran and China, have put her at odds with other members of the House Democratic Caucus.

Regarding her stance on allocating more money to national defense, Luria says she has been so vocal “because I think that I’m on the right side of this issue and it’s the right place to be.

“I do differ from a lot of members of my caucus; I think now is not the time to be cutting the defense budget,” she says, adding that she was disappointed by the about 50 Democrats who wrote a letter to U.S. President Joe Biden to advocate for slashing the budget.

Luria, who is vice chair of the House Committee on Armed Services, highlights the importance of a diversity of views among House Democrats while recognizing that the disagreements may stem from issues of personal importance: her lengthy military career, as well as the significant industrial defense presence in her home district.

She agrees with the rest of her party on matters such as universal background checks on all gun purchases, and is part of a crop of like-minded, relatively new female Democratic lawmakers with national security backgrounds such as Reps. Elissa Slotkin and Mikie Sherrill.

Luria is similarly confident in going against the party line concerning Iran. While she is quick to note she was an early endorser of Biden, she adds that Iran is one area where they have always differed, particularly concerning reentry into the 2015 Iran nuclear deal without demanding any concessions or changes to the deal at the outset.

“I wasn’t in Congress at the time to vote on this, but I think I would have voted against the Iran deal. I think it was a bad deal from the start: the sunset clauses, the fact that it didn’t prevent Iran from getting the other components necessary – such as the actual missile technology – in order to create a nuclear weapon if they were ultimately successful in enriching uranium,” she says.

“It also allowed them to garner a lot of resources that they have passed on to their proxy partners in the region, like Hamas, Hezbollah and others,” she continues. “It was a good intention to try to stop them from getting a nuclear weapon, but it allowed them to do more harm in the region and did not achieve that goal of stopping them.”

Another of Luria’s concerns with the nuclear deal was Israel’s exclusion in the early stages of the process, compared with the American allies who were eventually party to that agreement. “Israel – as directly under the threat of any eventual potential Iranian nuclear weapon – should also be there at the table,” she says.

Luria recently signed a letter advocating that Israel be part of any dialogue concerning eventual negotiations with Iran from the outset, noting that she is reassured by efforts the Biden administration has taken to include Israel in the current dialogue. She also recently introduced a resolution condemning Iranian uranium enrichment, urging Iran to cease enrichment to 20 percent and to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

While Iran may present the most pressing regional threats to Israel, Luria places equal concern with the global threat presented by China and its “uncertain and nefarious ambitions.” She argues that the United States needs to be prepared to respond to the “credible and unpredictable threat” China presents in the Pacific.

China, which this month held a tense meeting with Biden administration representatives aiming to pursue a tough stance on Beijing, also recently signed a 25-year agreement on military and economic cooperation with Iran – a deal estimated to be valued at some $400 billion. At the same time, it has taken strides to expand its influence within Israel, with both civilian and military projects. Luria, however, believes Israel is “cognizant of the malign designs China has in that realm.”

“There are certain vulnerabilities that all the countries in the world have. China has attempted stealing technology [and conducted] industrial espionage. It’s a complicated problem around the world because of how interconnected all of our supply chains are,” Luria says. “Not only Israel, but the U.S. and our European allies need to really strike that balance. You can only deal with diplomacy and important issues if you also carry a big stick to be able to respond, if necessary, and eventually to prevent the kind of military action that is not desired.”

‘Dayenu’

In the military, being part of a “drastically small minority of people” also proved to be a formative experience, she says. She recalls organizing a makeshift Passover seder for her fellow Jewish sailors while deployed on an aircraft carrier in the Middle East, following encouragement from the ship’s non-Jewish chaplain. “We did this in the ship’s library, literally right under the flight deck. They were launching and recovering jets as we were reading the Haggadah. It was a very special and meaningful experience to do that in a very unusual location and circumstance,” she recounts.

She notes how the Passover holiday also marked a landmark in the nascent stages of her career in government: The first time she spoke on the House floor was right before the holiday.

She was responding to her Democratic colleague Rep. Ilhan Omar, who had said in the context of antisemitism accusations and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK to push for allegiance to a foreign country.”

Luria says these comments amounted to claims of dual loyalty.

“I was very surprised when I first came to Congress that these kinds of issues were rushed into the forefront, specifically surrounding antisemitism and claims of dual loyalty by other members of the Democratic caucus,” Luria says. “I never envisioned that would be the course I took or something I would have to respond to, and so quickly after coming to Congress. I thought it was just incredibly important to speak up against antisemitism.

“I made these remarks on the House floor on these claims of dual loyalty: ‘Is it not enough that I served in the Navy for 20 years? Is it not enough that I’m serving my country again, in the government?’ Somebody said to me it sounds like ‘Dayenu,’” Luria says, referring to the Passover prayer. “I was saying these claims are absurd, and here’s why, from my own personal experience. People would come up to me and say ‘You’re so brave to do that,’ and I just never blinked.”