Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy III spoke to Brandeis students about the complex relationship between the United States and Israel and discussed the countries’ shared governmental principles. The event, which took place Friday, was sponsored by the Brandeis Israel Public Affairs Committee and was moderated by Prof. Yehudah Mirsky (NEJS). 

BIPAC President Isaac Graber ’19 began the event by introducing the speakers. Mirsky, a graduate of Yale Law School, teaches at the Schusterman Center for Israeli Studies and previously served as a special advisor to the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor under the Clinton administration.

Kennedy is the House Representative for Massachusetts’ 4th district. A graduate of Stanford University and Harvard Law, Kennedy served in the Peace Corps for two years before becoming a prosecutor. In 2012, after three years, he resigned from his prosecutorial job to run for political office. 

Mirsky first asked Kennedy how he reconciles the legacy of his family’s influence in politics with his own role in office. “I am very proud of what my family has accomplished … and the contributions they have made to our country,” Kennedy replied, acknowledging that he attained his status “in no small part because of the work and contributions” of his predecessors in politics. He said that while his family is powerful, he “throw[s] everything that [he’s] got into this job.” 

Mirsky then moved to Kennedy’s support of Israel, stating that while Kennedy is “fundamentally supportive of the state of Israel,” he is also a “full-throated supporter of liberal and democratic values.” Mirsky viewed this as “striking,” asking how he came to bear his current foreign policy stances on the Middle East.

In his response, Kennedy said he had originally kept himself informed by reading newspapers, but became more educated when he first traveled to Israel. The trip was especially meaningful to him because of his Catholic faith, and he emphasized the impact of seeing biblical sites in person. When he went to Israel, he felt “the sense of not only thousands of years of history, but the vulnerability, the reality … and the challenge of trying to implement democracy in a very tough neighborhood in the midst of extreme differences.” 

He said that from its founding, Israel has demonstrated “a commitment to those underlying fundamental principles” which constitute democracy and are important to the United States. The debate over Middle East geopolitics is one which involves “passionate opinions across the spectrum,” but also “a willingness to hear people out,” he said, noting that people can come at the issue in legitimate ways from progressive and conservative standpoints.

Mirsky moved the discussion to the recent Israeli election, which saw incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu win a fifth term over opponent Benny Gantz. He asked how Netanyahu’s victory could shift U.S.-Israeli relations, given that the United States is ruled by “an administration that loves the Jewish state and despises most liberal American Jews.” Kennedy re-emphasized that the fundamental values of Israel are the same as the United States’, adding that the two are committed to empowering the individual. Though he believes that a strong U.S.-Israel relationship is very important, he does not believe that “that means I can shy away from criticizing policies from any government, including Israel.” He said he believes that he can still criticize politicians while “staying true to the underlying principles” that are the foundation of the countries’ relationship.

In an interview with the Justice, Kennedy discussed the current stance of the Democratic Party on the Israel-Palestine conflict. “I don’t think supporting Palestinian rights … should … come at the cost of the right to exist for the state of Israel. I don’t think those two things are antithetical,” he said, stating that he is a “strong supporter of a two-state solution.”

Kennedy added in the interview that he does not believe “a progressive movement is antithetical to a strong support for Israel,” and noted that “the Democratic Party at large still stands very strongly with the state of Israel.” In the future, he said, he does not see “the party ever moving away from strong support for the state of Israel.”

During the talk, Mirsky asked Kennedy, who sponsored legislation against the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, how he reconciled his position with the principle of free speech. “I think the point of BDS is to isolate and undermine the state of Israel,” Kennedy said. He continued that the BDS movement is “not for a two-state solution, which I think is really quite necessary in the Middle East,” Kennedy said. 

Elaborating on his idea of peace, Kennedy stressed that there needs to be a plan in which “the structures of Israeli society are strong enough to support.” The “international focus,” he said, should be to “build up Palestinian structures” to support a long-term, successful peace plan. He emphasized that working with all involved parties is crucial to creating a successful peace plan. “Given that the Palestinian authorities have not been consulted at all, I don’t possibly understand how a plan is going to be successful when it is dropped down from above,” he said. 

During the Q&A, Brandeis alumnus Julian Cardillo ’14 asked about how Kennedy views the belief that extremism conflates moderation with apathy. Kennedy stated that progressives on Twitter are “a slice of a larger whole” of the electorate and stressed that all voices are “legitimate” and must be considered when making campaign policies. “There’s a way to be both pretty darn progressive, and pretty pragmatic about the way in which you are going to implement those values.” he said.

Going back to the Israeli election, Ellie Eiger ’20 cited an article from Haaretz which reported on a “historically low” voter turnout among Arab-Israelis, and mentioned that Gazans are ineligible to vote. Eiger wondered how, in light of this, Israeli elections were truly democratic. Kennedy replied by returning to his comparison between Israel and the United States, noting that “this is not only an issue that takes place in Israel,” referencing U.S. voter suppression of minorities. 

Kennedy concluded his talk by emphasizing the importance of the upcoming 2020 election in the United States. He called upon attendees to “understand that there is a massive choice that will have huge ramifications on the future of our country [and on] the future of relations with a whole bunch of different issues around the world. … You all have this extraordinary opportunity to actually influence it … do not think that someone else will have this one covered. The stakes are just too big,” he stressed.