Sunday, August 13, 2006

Rep. Pete Stark Up Close

Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) and his press secretary Yoni Cohen

The other day, N and I had the pleasure of meeting a remarkable individual – Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.). Although I don’t see eye to eye with him on many foreign policy issues, I left our meeting with him, which took place in San Leandro, California with a great deal of respect and appreciation for an endangered species of politician. As N remarked several times on our way back to Berkeley, “they just don’t make them like that anymore.” Our meeting took place at a blogger lunch with Stark organized by his press secretary Yoni Cohen.
Stark previously appeared on Kishkushim in one of N’s entries. Back in July, he opposed a House bill, resolution 921, that he called a “puff piece for Israel,” during our lunch. That resolution, N wrote, was a “slightly more robust” edition of Senate resolution 534, “Condemning Hezbollah and Hamas and their state sponsors and supporting Israel's exercise of its right to self-defense.” At the meeting, N asked the Congressman why he had voted no on this resolution. Stark gave us a very candid though hardly original answer. The representative argued that if America is to have any chance to be an honest broker in the Middle East, “we will blow it if we do puff pieces for Israel.” He described the resolution as “pretty tilted.” I am not sure I agree. The resolution may have been tilted, but in the right direction.
Nevertheless, before people rush to condemn Stark as an Israel-hater, it is worth delving into his specific objections and into the larger legislative context of this resolution. First of all, it should be clear to anyone who talks to Stark for more than 5 minutes that he is not and never has been an enemy of Israel. Stark explained that he was uncomfortable with two particular clauses in the bill. He characterized one of these as “giving Israel huge praise for protecting innocent civilians, something [he] couldn’t buy.” The clause in question appears to be #4:
recognizes Israel's longstanding commitment to minimizing civilian loss and welcomes Israel's continued efforts to prevent civilian casualties
I think this is a little less laudatory than Stark made it out to be. It talks about commitment to minimizing casualties and “continued efforts.”
Stark also thought that the resolution “encourages Israel to take any action it deems appropriate.” Given his own opposition to the Iraq War , he was being consistent when he opposed this language, which Stark believes is neither helpful for the US nor for Israel. Again, however, I think the wording was a little less permissive than Stark suggested. Clause 8
supports Israel's right to take appropriate action to defend itself, including to conduct operations both in Israel and in the territory of nations which pose a threat to it, which is in accordance with international law, including Article 51 of the United Nations Charter;
There’s a difference between “appropriate action” and “any action Israel deems appropriate.”
Again, before people rush to judgment, however, I’d like to draw attention to something I’d call the “legislative context” of the resolution. Stark remarked near the end of his response to N’s query that he “got tired of people ramming this down our throats.” By “this,” he did not mean praise for Israel, but (and I thank N for this insight), the never-ending warnings that we all have to be on side and in line. I think his no vote was not about Israel, but about the antics of the Republican party in Congress at the moment.
We also had a chance to question Stark on AIPAC and the Mearsheimer and Walt controversy. He began by praising the organization, which he ranked as one of the most effective lobby groups after the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP). He did not say anything else about AIPAC. Then he referred to, of all people, Noam Chomsky as someone who had debunked the Mearsheimer and Walt study.
I was most impressed by his long fight for Americans’ rights to education and health care (see an article by Stark on the latter). Unlike many other Americans with whom I have talked, who reflexively dismiss the Canadian system (he called this a result of propaganda here), Stark had actually toured Canadian hospitals and had a great deal of praise for Canuck health care. Nevertheless, he emphasized that “socialism will not sneak across the border” and that such a system would not work in the US. Somehow, he also slipped in a reference to the film version of Mordecai Richler’s Joshua Then and Now, “a must-see for anyone who is Canadian and Jewish” (I guess good politicians really do have radars for their audiences).
Stark is obviously blessed with a great deal of stamina both in the House and in the home. The 74-year-old Congressman has been representing his district for 34 years and has no plans to retire. “I am not very good at shuffle board or any of the other things retired people do.” He is also keeping busy raising five-year-old twins and an 11-year-old together with his second wife, while enjoying the נחת (nakhes) of eight grandchildren.


Derek said...

Hey Amos,

I went to high school with Yoni Cohen! We were in the same freshman debate class.

Noah S. said...

I know Yoni Cohen, too - we were both at a two-week seminar on the history of American liberalism five years ago. I remember him being a very smart and no-nonsense type of guy. He wouldn't work for Stark if the congressman weren't progressive.

Amos said...

Derek - I knew he was from Lexington, and I actually wanted to ask him whether he knew you! Crazy.

Noah Kaye said...


I think you in particular might have the wrong Yoni Cohen. This man did not go to Columbia, but Wash U. in St. Louis. As an occasional reader of the blog, he may be amused to find hid identity a topic of discussion. I think he'll take the compliments, though.

Noah S. said...

Do you think I've gone mad? I do not have him mistaken!! We didn't meet at Columbia, but at Williams College in a summer seminar in 2001. Yoni, if you're out there, please confirm this! Reminiscently yours, Noah Strote.

Amos said...

Speaking of which, did you guys know that the new rabbi at the shul (Beth Israel) is also called Yoni Cohen?

Noah Kaye said...

Let's end this before the kid has a heart attack when he googles himself. I got it.