February 06

Friends in High Places: An Interview with Congressmen Barney Frank and Gary Ackerman
by Jay Michaelson
p. 2 of 2

Some people feel uncomfortable with a group of Jewish legislators coming from various countries to visit Israel. Did you feel at all conflicted? Obviously you represent your districts, but did you get any sense among any of the participants of a divided loyalty, or even just a sentimental attachment that makes one less objective?

There may be some people like that -- they didn't come. Look, we all deal with this. Certainly for Americans there's nothing unique about this. There are a large number of people in my district who have a strong allegiance to a foreign country, they are emotionally attached to it, and they want me to be sure that American foreign policy is favorable... to Portugal. I don't think any of us felt conflicted. I do think all of us who were there feel that having an independent, strong Israel is also in the national interests of our respective countries.

There are absolutely no dual loyalties. One of the problems Jews have faced from the beginning of the diaspora, in almost every country they've been in, is when the question arises as to whether Jews are loyal citizens. The answer that I've always given is that you can be loyal to two things. You can love your son, and love your other son, and love your daughter, and love your wife -- you don't choose between them. I see no conflict.

Every minority faces this question in every country. John F. Kennedy faced it when he ran for president, and people asked whether he was going to take orders from the pope. Ironically, some of the same people who criticized JFK were, in the last election, critical of John Kerry because he wasn't taking orders from the pope [on the question of abortion]. You know, as if now he's not a good Catholic. The fact is -- with people who would stoop so low as to use someone's religion against them, you deal with it.

If you can be a good Jew and a good mechanic, there's no reason you can't be a good Jew and a good American. Nothing in the constitution of the us that says you must eat pork, unless there's a new amendment I'm not aware of. There are people who will always raise that issue, who are racists, no matter where. And I don't think anyone would raise such a question if there were, say, a conference of Catholic legislators.

Fair enough, but there's no Catholic state.

There is only one Jewish state, and the Jews are a very tiny religion. We are not a group that legislates, and not a group that expresses loyalty, because we are all loyal to our own countries. But we have a keen interest in the problems of ourselves as a people. You know, Mark Twain ran through all of the great civilizations and empires, and came to the conclusion that only the Jews survived, with positive attributes intact. One of the "secrets" of Jewish survival is being Jewish by family. Being such a numerically small group of people, we look to take care of each other. When there's a story in the mainstream news about a Jewish community somewhere, Jewish people read that story because it's a story about their family, even though of course they don't know those people. The uniqueness of the Jewish community is they look after each other, because it's a survival problem. This group of legislators understands that, and understands that the Jewish community in the world today is in a situation that I wouldn't quite call a heightened alert, but I would say there is great concern, because yet again, the sometimes less active and sometimes apparently-dormant virus of antisemitism is raising its ugly head. You see it in the number of resolutions the UN passes condemning one little country, a democracy trying to survive and defend itself; in France, with synagogues burning; even in Britain there is more anxiety. No matter where you go you find this on the increase. These are the kinds of issues that we need to get into. It's not all Israel, all the time, but the things we have in common include a common homeland. Each of us has two mothers nationally.

You know, none of us has a majority-Jewish constituency anywhere in the world. That means that, here are opinion-makers from all over the world who, despite the handicapping conditions of being Jewish in some places, had friends and neighbors elect them to represent them in the parliament of their government. There many problems facing Jews around the world, and you get a unique perspective by talking with the elected fed legislators from these countries. Besides, in politics, like my mother always said, it's okay to have friends in high places.



Jay Michaelson is chief editor of this magazine and a contributing writer for The Forward, Slate, the Jerusalem Post, and other publications. He lives in Jerusalem.

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