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A Few Minutes with Mike Lawler

“There Is No Right to Engage in Anti-Semitic Speech”

Congressman Mike Lawler, a Republican who represents several of New York’s Hudson Valley counties (including Monsey, Kiryas Joel, and New Square) may be a freshman in the US House of Representatives, but he’s quickly making a name for himself as a leader on Capitol Hill.  A vocal supporter of Israel, Lawler didn’t waver when his office was vandalized by pro-Hamas supporters in December, calling Israel the United States’ greatest ally and denouncing Hamas for using Gazans as “human shields.”

Here, he shares with Mishpacha his feelings on bipartisan support for Israel, Biden’s weapons freeze, US relations with Qatar, and his latest bill, the Antisemitism Awareness Act of 2023. Cosponsored by a bipartisan group of 61 members of Congress, the bill passed the House on May 1 and is currently awaiting action in the Senate. If it passes, it would have federal law adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism and would require the Department of Education to use that definition when investigating charges of discrimination on college campuses.

The passage of your Antisemitism Awareness Act in the House by a margin of 320 to 91 made headlines.  Was this legislation introduced in response to October 7?

Actually, this is an issue going back prior to October 7. We’ve seen a significant increase in the number of anti-Semitic events on these college campuses, including last year’s CUNY Law School graduation speech.

I’ve been working on a number of bills, including the Antisemitism Awareness Act, and then shortly after the events of October 7, we introduced the bill. This is something we’ve been pushing to get a vote on for well over six months, and were ultimately able to get it across the finish line on May 1.

What’s your response to legislators like Jerrold Nadler, who didn’t vote for the bill, claiming it’s Republican politicking?

Mr. Nadler is sorely mistaken. He falsely claimed that the Office of Civil Rights had received a funding cut when spending remained level year-to-year, and he also claimed the bill might suppress free speech when it explicitly has a First Amendment protection clause built into the bill.

In addition, Mr. Nadler previously cosponsored an almost identical bill in 2018. The only thing that has changed between then and now is the politics within the Democratic Party. Mr. Nadler should be joining us in combating anti-Semitism; instead, he is letting it slide for fear of a revolt in the progressive base.

And what’s the bill’s status now in the Senate? 

We’re pushing Senator Schumer, the Senate’s highest-ranking Jewish official, to bring it to the floor for a vote, but we haven’t heard anything from him, though I know that the press has inquired. We’re trying to get this across the finish line, and I think it’s incumbent on the Senate to act.

What kind of feedback are you getting in general on the legislation? Are people supportive, or do they feel it’s too restrictive and infringes on their freedom of speech?

People are very supportive, and once you explain it, they get it and they realize that there is a lot of misinformation about this legislation. This bill does not ban the Bible. It does not criminalize Christianity. It does not limit constitutionally protected free speech.

What it does is better define anti-Semitism for the Department of Education to enforce Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and codifies an executive order that President Trump instituted into law.

The IHRA definition of anti-Semitism has been adopted by the Obama administration, the Trump administration, and the Biden administration, and by 36 states, so it’s not like this is some made-up definition. It’s been widely accepted and supported by governments across the United States, as well as Jewish organizations.

Universities have traditionally been hotbeds of radicalism, but this has now crossed over into anti-Semitism. Why is this now so rampant on college campuses?

When you look at the situation on these campuses here in America and the schools in Gaza, it’s obvious there’s a lot of hatred that’s being taught, and it needs to be rooted out. The objective here is to change this behavior and make sure that this is not happening on college campuses in America.

People have a right to debate.  People have a right to discuss.  People have a right to oppose decisions made by the Israeli government or the US government. But they don’t have a right to engage in anti-Semitic hate speech on these college campuses, and that’s the objective here — to stop that. So the intention of this bill is to help better define anti-Semitism for the Department of Education, as well as for these universities and college campuses.

You don’t think that the focus on one single aspect of education is a bit narrow? Isn’t the hijacking of higher education itself a phenomenon that should be further explored? 

This is the immediate challenge that we are dealing with, and it requires action by the federal government. As we move forward, I do believe it is incumbent upon all of us to look at our education system and evaluate its effectiveness. We need to ensure we are producing a workforce that fits the needs of the American economy and society.

Why does this bill focus on hatred directed specifically at Jews and not at other groups?

I think we have seen that when those instances [i.e., hatred targeting other groups] have risen up, they’ve been rooted out pretty quickly on the college campuses, and rightfully so, because hatred and racism and discrimination of any kind need to be booted out. But when it comes to Jew-hatred, we’re not seeing that action right now. What we’re seeing is anti-Semitism on college campuses and across America, so at this moment, it’s important to better define what ant-Semitism is, so that the schools and the administrators in the Department of Education can crack down on it.

Do you have other ideas for what the government does to contend with anti-Semitism, beyond college campuses?

It’s a delicate balance, but first and foremost, we have to make sure we’re teaching kids from a young age to respect all religions, including the Jewish faith, and we need to make sure we are teaching history. It’s exactly why I worked with Assemblywoman Nily Rozic to pass a bill that forces the New York State Education Department to examine if the Holocaust is being properly taught in all New York schools. You can’t tell me that it is, when we see this horrific, rampant anti-Semitism in our society.

Moving in a slightly different direction, what are your thoughts on President Biden’s announcement that the United States is pausing its sale of arms to Israel?

I think it’s outrageous.  Congress passed the aid to Israel, so the administration needs to move expeditiously to get the aid to them. Israel is in dire need of support at this moment, and Congress is continuing to push the administration to move the funds as quickly as possible.

Biden’s position isn’t enjoying unanimous support. Twenty-six Democratic lawmakers expressed their opposition to Biden’s weapons freeze. Do you have any ideas for what can be done to hold the administration accountable over this?

Listen, I think the House Foreign Affairs Committee needs to hold a hearing to get to the bottom of this, and Congress must act to force the administration to uphold the law. We need to know the rationale for this decision, which would cut off critical aid to Israel, and the Biden administration owes us answers. It reeks of political gamesmanship posing as foreign policy.

The arms cutoff is due to the Biden administration’s opposition to Israel’s stated intention to conquer Rafah in southern Gaza to defeat the Hamas battalions still active there. Is the White House wrong for drawing a red line there?

The Israeli government and the IDF need to do what they think is best to protect themselves and to get the hostages back. You see a situation where Hamas is now suddenly willing to engage in a cease-fire, but not on the terms that were negotiated.

Israel needs to defend itself and to make sure that the threat from Hamas is eliminated. And I think the United States shouldn’t be trying to hold Israel to a different standard than it would hold itself to, especially in the aftermath of 9/11 or during the war on terror.

Do you think the Biden administration is doing enough to get the American hostages freed?

I think they are obviously trying to negotiate with the Qatari government and the Egyptian government, but they need to put as much pressure as possible on them to get the hostages released. We have American hostages still being held captive, and I think the administration needs to be as forceful as possible to get that done.

What are your thoughts regarding the US alliance with Qatar, considering that the latter benefits significantly by hosting the Al Udeid Air Base, the largest American military base in the Middle East, but also supports Hamas terror? 

We must hold our allies accountable and ensure their actions are not counter to US foreign policy and interests. We should always be exerting our power and influence as part of our diplomatic and military strategy.

Bipartisan support for Israel is no longer a given. Based on trends we’re seeing, do you see it lasting into the medium term?

So long as there are isolationist forces on the right and anti-Semitic forces on the left, there will be times when it will seem like bipartisan support for Israel is fading. But the truth is that most members of Congress — a vast majority — support Israel, the people of Israel, and the right of the State of Israel to exist. We must build on that strong foundation, and ensure that it does not go away anytime soon.

There’s a lot of finger-pointing, with conservatives blaming the anti-Israel extremism on the left, but it isn’t really as one-sided as that. What would you say to right-wing figures like Candace Owens who have said some very disturbing things about Jews and Israel?

Anti-Semitism must be combated wherever it rears its ugly head and should be called out by everyone, regardless of party. Right now, we are seeing a surge among the far left, but it cannot be tolerated by either party’s extremes.

Moving away from Washington to your home turf, what can you tell us about your success in getting $8 million allocated for sidewalks and critical infrastructure in the Town of Ramapo, which includes much of the greater Monsey area?

Within the Town of Ramapo, we have a large and growing Orthodox Jewish community, many of whom walk on Shabbos. We want to make sure that people are safe, and that entails a critical investment in sidewalk infrastructure and pedestrian safety. We’ve had a number of incidents where people have been hit by cars, including young children who have been killed. As the population grows and there are more and more people who need access to sidewalks, we want to make sure that that the investment is there, and I was happy to secure those funds to build sidewalks.

You’ve made a name for yourself as a strong advocate for your constituents, both now in Congress as well as during your tenure representing the 97th District in the New York State Assembly.  Can you share some of the latest developments on the local level?

We’ve closed over 3,200 cases since I took office, helping a lot of families on a whole host of issues, from passports to getting people out of Israel in the aftermath of October 7, to helping people with benefits due to them. And of course, we’re going to continue to work on all of these issues.

You’ve been working on having more kosher protein options added to the USDA’s emergency food program. Can you share the background? 

I have worked tirelessly with my colleague, Pat Ryan, to advocate for an expansion of The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) to include more kosher items, especially protein options. [Right now, out of 22 protein choices, only two are kosher.]

We sent a letter to the USDA just three weeks ago requesting this change and reiterating its importance for our constituents. I’m hopeful that through our bipartisan efforts, we can get this done. During my term, I’ve also fought to maintain levels of funding for SNAP and TANF, two important nutrition assistance programs for families. I won’t stop working to fight hunger across the Hudson Valley, and will continue to find common cause with my Republican and Democratic colleagues to get it done.

Approximately 12 percent of the people in the 17th Congressional District are Orthodox Jews.  Did that cause any surprises or complications for you when you took office?

No. I’ve lived in the community my whole life and obviously, feel very passionate about representing the district and making sure that our constituents are represented and their voices heard on a whole host of issues. It’s actually not that different from anything I did in the Assembly — it’s just doing it on a much bigger scale.

You are up for reelection in November. What plans do you have for your second term in Congress?

We’re going to continue to fight on the issues that matter to the district, from affordability and taxes, to securing our southern border, to dealing with crime and public safety, to supporting allies like Israel, and working to address the local needs of the community, whether it’s on issues of housing or education or health care. We’re going to continue to stand up and be a voice of sanity in a sea of chaos.

Looking back on your first term in D.C., what surprised you most?

The number of members who choose to hide behind politics and procedure and are unwilling to push back against the lunacy of their own party’s extremes for fear of a primary challenge. It is a real impediment to passing critical legislation.

Given President Biden’s unfavorable ratings in regard to the economy and a host of other issues, why aren’t Republicans farther ahead in the polls for November?

Our country is very divided and because of gerrymandering, there are only a handful of seats that are actually competitive. Regardless of the outcome in November, the margins in Congress will continue to be small. However, I feel that Republicans are in a strong position heading into November to hold the House and win back the Senate.

Do you think foreign policy issues like Gaza factor in voters’ minds, or will November just be about kitchen table issues?

First and foremost, voters will focus on the economy and the border. However, foreign policy, especially around the Israel-Hamas war, will be a factor.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 1011)

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