WASHINGTON — Before a packed meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee three years ago, U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., connected her political support for the Jewish state with her personal life.
“My daughter is Catholic. My son-in-law is Jewish,” she said. “Last week I celebrated my birthday and my grandchildren — ages 4 and 6 — called to sing ‘Happy Birthday.’ And the surprise, the real gift, was that they sang it in Hebrew.”
Now that the Democrats have taken control of the U.S. House of Representatives, the party is expected to install Pelosi, 66, as speaker, making her the first woman to hold the position that is two heartbeats away from the presidency.
Political observers say it’s no surprise that the congresswoman from San Francisco considers herself close to the Jews.
The daughter of Thomas D’Alesandro Jr., a former mayor of Baltimore, Pelosi grew up in a Democratic family with Jewish neighbors and friends.
“She likes to say that, growing up in Baltimore, she went to a bar or bat mitzvah every Saturday,” Amy Friedkin, a former president of AIPAC and a friend of Pelosi’s for 25 years, wrote in an e-mail message to JTA.
Friedkin noted that there’s even a soccer field in the Haifa area of Israel named after the lawmaker’s family.
While the Republicans had campaigned partly on the premise that support for Israel among Democrats has waned, exit polls from Tuesday’s voting show that Democrats won an overwhelming majority of the Jewish vote.
With Pelosi as speaker, Jewish activists and officials are confident that the U.S. Congress will remain strongly pro-Israel.
“I’ve heard her say numerous times that the single greatest achievement of the 20th century” was the founding of the modern state of Israel, Friedkin wrote. “She has been a great friend of the U.S.-Israel relationship during her entire time in Congress and is deeply committed to strengthening that relationship.”
Sam Lauter, a pro-Israel activist in San Francisco, has known Pelosi for nearly 40 years. He was 5 years old when the Pelosis moved into his San Francisco neighborhood, he recalls. The two families lived on the same street.
“She’s one of the classiest,” most “straightforward people you could ever meet,” Lauter said. “She’s incredibly loyal.”
Lauter said the Pelosis used to attend the first night of the Passover seder at his parents’ house.
“As far as the Jewish community is concerned, she feels our issues in her soul,” he said.
To illustrate his point, Lauter told a Pelosi story that has become almost legendary in the Jewish community.
At an AIPAC members luncheon in San Francisco right after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, Pelosi was speaking when an alarm sounded.
“Everybody started getting nervous, scrambling toward the door,” Lauter recalled. One person, though, was reading the words of Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem, above the din. It was Pelosi.
“It actually calmed the crowd,” Lauter said. “You could see people actually smiling, saying ‘Wow.’ “
This “wasn’t something done purposefully to show everyone that Nancy Pelosi supports the Jewish community,” he said. It “actually came from inside her.”
Lauter and others say Pelosi will have to draw on that inner strength as speaker, since Lauter predicted that she will hear from those in the Jewish community who argue that Democrats no longer support Israel the way they used to.
Some Republicans, in fact, questioned Pelosi’s support for Israel this summer. The congresswoman ended up removing her name as a co-sponsor from a House resolution supporting the Jewish state during its war with Hezbollah because it did not address the protection of civilians.
While Pelosi’s aides said she was not going to lend her name to a resolution that did not contain a word she had written, Republicans criticized the move.
“It highlights a real wave within the Democratic Party that wants a more ‘evenhanded’ approach on these issues, and that wants to view Israel through the same prism as we do Hezbollah,” Matt Brooks, the executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said at the time. “Watering down is not acceptable right now.”
Brooks could not be reached for comment this week.
For his part, Lauter believes the argument about the Democrats and Pelosi is false.
For instance, he noted Pelosi’s quick response to former President Carter’s description of Israel’s settlement policies as “apartheid” in a forthcoming book.
Pelosi publicly announced that Carter does not speak for the Democratic Party on Israel.
Rabbi Doug Kahn, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council in San Francisco, also applauded Pelosi’s repudiation of Carter’s position.
He has known Pelosi since she started representing his district in 1987. Kahn said his group has always had an excellent working relationship with her. And he praised her passion for issues that relate to equal opportunity, social justice and peace.
Kahn, echoing Lauter’s point, said that Pelosi, coming from a city with such a liberal political reputation, will face challenges from the liberal segments of the Democratic Party that have criticized Israeli policies.
But he is confident that Pelosi, as speaker, will be effective in persuading people with a broad range of views on the Middle East, the importance of maintaining bipartisan support for Israel.
When it comes to Israel, “she truly gets it,” said Matt Dorf, a consultant to the Democratic National Committee. She gets “Israel’s value and asset to U.S. security” and its “importance as the only democracy in the Middle East.”
Jewish organizational officials also commend Pelosi’s record on Jewish communal issues.
William Daroff, vice president for public policy for the United Jewish Communities, the federation system’s umbrella group and a Republican himself, said the lawmaker has helped ensure federal funding of Jewish family service agencies and Jewish hospitals and has supported government programs and policies that Jewish organizations value, such as Medicare and Medicaid.
He also noted that Reva Price, Pelosi’s liaison to the Jewish community for a year and a half, came from the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella group of local community relations councils.
Bringing on board such an insider was “really a masterful stroke,” Daroff said.
Price, he added, has done a wonderful job of playing “traffic cop” with Jewish organizations and in making sure that Pelosi’s agenda is in tune with that of the Jewish community.
She’s been “a real champion of making sure the Jewish community is well served,” Daroff said of the lawmaker. “I’m sure she’ll continue to be a champion.”