Naked Congressman in the Kinneret: Criminal, Shocking, or Simply Amusing?

Hearing a politician take responsibility and apologize for skinnydipping feels to Israeli ears as the water of the Kinneret must have felt on Yoders skin. Very refreshing.

One would think that the FBI would have enough on its plate, what with keeping an eye on both international terror groups plotting attacks and crazy homegrown terrorists who decide to shoot up movie theaters and college campuses.

But no - apparently, the U.S. intelligence had enough time on its hands to delve into the important national security threat posed by drunken congressmen and their staffers frolicking in the Sea of Galilee late at night after a long, hot day of meetings and briefings in Israel and the Palestinian Authority on a trip that took place a year ago.

Such goings-on were also important enough, once leaked, to be thoroughly covered by the web site Politico, which broke the shocking story of the swim and the investigation:

The FBI probed a late-night swim in the Sea of Galilee that involved drinking, numerous GOP freshmen lawmakers, top leadership staff — and one nude member of Congress, according to more than a dozen sources, including eyewitnesses.

During a fact-finding congressional trip to the Holy Land last summer, Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.) took off his clothes and jumped into the sea, joining a number of members, their families and GOP staff during a night out in Israel, the sources told POLITICO. Other participants, including the daughter of another congressman, swam fully clothed, while some lawmakers partially disrobed. More than 20 people took part in the late-night dip in the sea, according to sources who were participants in the trip.

More than a dozen sources! Youd think they were talking about Watergate, not water antics. Inevitably, the story was picked up by every media outlet known to man, because, as Anthony Weiner well knows, no editor can resist a headline that contains the words naked and congressman.

The juiciness of the story explains the media overkill once the transgression was uncovered (pun intended.) But why the FBI? Its difficult to imagine what could possibly be criminal or dangerous or even unethical about such behavior. Theres the possibility of indecent exposure, maybe, but it sounds like it was pitch dark, and only one participant was totally naked. Abuse of American taxpayer dollars? I might accept that explanation if the behavior took place on a government-funded trip. But, as the Politico article explained, the trip by the delegation of Republican legislators and aides was funded and run by the American Israel Educational Foundation, a group related to AIPAC.

In such a case, one would think that it was AIPAC that should be upset and investigated the incident, not the U.S. government. But presumably, the pro-Israel donors who pony up for such a trip would likely be more pleased than outraged that U.S. lawmakers and aides felt relaxed and happy enough in northern Israel to indulge in a drunken dip in the Kinneret. Kicking back and feeling good is the stuff memories are made up that would presumably make them feel warm and fuzzy about Israel, and all the more likely to support her once they get back to DC. Making sure their visitors have fun is probably part of the AIEF program, although after this incident, they probably will try to make sure they dont have quite too much fun.

Personally, I find it hard to work up a substantial head of angry steam towards the swimming junketeers, either as an American or as an Israeli (Im both.) I even feel a little sympathy. If I spent several days dealing with Israeli and Palestinian politicians trying to wrap my head around the problems of the region, Id probably enjoy a few drinks and a cleansing swim afterwards, too.

Though its hard to understand how the exploits could be interpreted as criminal, the exposure of their behavior is obviously problematic for the politicians involved as far as their constituents are concerned. I suppose its the naked part thats really scandalous, especially for Christians who consider the Kinneret - thats what we locals call the Sea of Galilee - to be filled with holy water trod upon by Jesus. And these are Republicans, to whom the evangelical Christian constituency is important.

As a result, the skinny-dipping congressman, Kevin Yoder of Kansas, has apologized. After he was caught by Politico with his pants down, he issued a statement to the publication:

A year ago, my wife, Brooke, and I joined colleagues for dinner at the Sea of Galilee in Israel. After dinner I followed some Members of Congress in a spontaneous and very brief dive into the sea and regrettably I jumped into the water without a swimsuit. It is my greatest honor to represent the people of Kansas in Congress and [for] any embarrassment I have caused for my colleagues and constituents, I apologize.

Yoders apology is my favorite part of the story because its so American. An Israeli politician would never do such a thing. Our fearless leaders in the Middle East, even in the face of clear evidence and multiple witnesses, will continually deny their transgressions. Corruption, sexual harassment, even rape - no matter how severe the crime, they are always the wronged innocents being set up by their political enemies. Since our parliamentary political system makes them accountable to the smoke-filled back rooms and rank-and-file of their parties and not to the voters, public apologies by politicians are few and far between. Most Israeli politicians even go to prison still protesting their innocence.

In that context, hearing a politician from the U.S. take responsibility and apologize for such a minor transgression as skinnydipping feels to Israeli ears as the water of the Kinneret must have felt on Yoders skin. Very refreshing.

Bathing in the Kinneret.
Yaron Kaminsky
Kevin Yoder