Beth Kieffer Leonard had called her longtime friend Isaac Herzog when she was watching him be appointed Israel’s president, and expected to leave a message of congratulations. She was in awe when he answered the call – and watched him do it on live TV.
“You’re calling,” she recalled him saying. “Why wouldn’t I pick up?”
So of course when the Israeli president addressed a joint session of Congress Wednesday morning, Leonard wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to be one of Herzog’s guests at the event.
“There’s no greater joy to see how he was today,” said Leonard, whose relationship with Herzog goes back to their time in leadership at the Jewish Agency for Israel. “I’m not sure that there has been a more remarkable speech made, certainly in America, by an Israeli statesman. It was incredible.”
In addition to most of Minnesota’s Congressional delegation being in the House chamber, five other members of the Twin Cities Jewish community were invited guests to be in the audience for Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s address to a joint session of Congress.
“It can make any Jew proud to be an American when the Sergeant at Arms called out ‘Mr. Speaker, the president of the state of Israel,’ and he’s welcomed in the same fashion as the president of the United States,” said Dan Rosen, who was a guest of Minnesota Rep. Pete Stauber (R-8th District). “Think of how far Jews of America and the world have come. It brings a tear to your eye.”
Rosen was joined in the gallery by Steve Hunegs, Brad Birnberg, Jon Parritz, and Charlie Nauen, who were guests of Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D), Rep. Michelle Fischbach (R-7th District), Rep. Angie Craig (D-2nd District) and Sen. Tina Smith (D), respectively.
Klobuchar, Rep. Dean Phillps (D-3rd District) and Rep. Tom Emmer (R-6th District) were members of the escort group that were part of the processional into the House chamber
“Imagine this setting: There’s President Herzog on the rostrum, on his right, is huge portrait of George Washington. Up in the gallery to his left is the grandson of Harry Truman,” said Hunegs, the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas. “Our nation’s founding president and the grandson of the president who recognized Israel, in a way all present for the speech.”
Parritz said it was an honor to be Craig’s guest at the speech.
“It filled me with pride to see the incredibly warm reception that President Herzog received, including multiple standing ovations as he spoke about the many deep bonds between the U.S. and Israel,” he said. “It was a powerful experience that I will never forget.”
Birnberg said that the reception from the members was warm and strong.
“The address reaffirmed that the bonds between our two great nations are unbreakable,” he said.
History repeats itself
“On November 10, 1987, I was sitting at home with my wife, Michal, expecting our first child. We were watching the first Israeli President invited to address a joint session of Congress in honor of Israel’s 40s Independence Day. That president was my father,” Herzog told the assembled group. “Standing here today, representing the Jewish, democratic state of Israel, in its 75th year, at the very podium, from which my late father President Chaim Herzog spoke is in the honor of a lifetime and I thank you all heartedly for it.”
Herzog’s roughly 40-minute speech covered all manner of topics, including the necessity of keeping nuclear weapons out of Iran’s reach, normalizing relations with Saudi Arabia, antisemitism, and democracy.
“I’m not oblivious to criticism among friends, including some expressed by respected members of this house. I respect criticism, especially from friends – although one does not always have to accept it,” Herzog said. “But criticism of Israel must not cross the line into negation. of the state of Israel’s right to exist. Questioning the Jewish people’s right to self-determination is not legitimate diplomacy. It is antisemitism.”
Herzog thanked President Joe Biden for the United States’ first-ever National Strategy to Combat Antisemitsm.
“Vilifying and attacking Jews whether in Israel, in the United States, or anywhere else in the world is antisemitism,” Herzog said. “Antisemitism is a disgrace in every form.”
Nauen credited Herzog with talking about the heated debate over the proposed judicial overhaul plan that has led to weekly Saturday night protests throughout Israel for the last 30 weeks.
“He [assured] us he was working with the parties to craft a compromise,” Nauen said.
Herzog said that the ongoing protests is “the clearest tribute to the fortitude of Israel’s democracy.”
“Our democracy is also 120 members of Knesset comprised of Jews, Muslims, Christians, and Druze, representing every opinion under the Israeli sun, working and debating side by side,” he said. “Our democracy is also late Friday afternoon when the sound of the muezzin calling to prayer blends with a siren announcing the Sabbath in Jerusalem, while one of the largest and most impressive LGBTQ Pride parades in the world is going on in Tel Aviv.
“I’m here to tell the American people and each of you that I have great confidence in Israeli democracy. Although we are working through sour issues, just like you, I know our democracy is strong and resilient. Israel has democracy in its DNA.”
The two members of Minnesota’s 10-person delegation that did not attend the speech were Democratic Reps. Ilhan Omar (5th District) and Betty McCollum (4th District). Omar wrote last week on Twitter that there was “no way in hell” she would attend the speech, citing the Israeli government banning her and Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib – a Palestinian-American – from visiting Tlaib’s family. McCollum told the Star Tribune that she was unable to attend because of a “longstanding commitment with tribal leaders which had to be rescheduled.”
Herzog’s speech came the day after the House of Representatives passed a Concurrent Resolution that reaffirmed that Israel was not an apartheid or racist state 412-9-1. Omar was one of the nine voting against; McCollum was one voting “present.”
“I condemn antisemitism and hate in all its forms, and my record is clear. Last Congress, I voted for H.Res.1125 affirming this stance, and I have always and will always speak out against hate,” she wrote in a statement. “I vote ‘present’ on this resolution because Americans, Israelis, and Palestinians deserve genuine steps forward on the goal of peace, not more division and political gamesmanship.”