“Iran is not negotiating in good faith, and they smell American weakness,” the New York congressman warned in Congress several weeks ago. “Our enemies do not respect weakness, they only respect strength. But today...I challenge our president... to bring the Iranian government to their knees. You are the leader of the free world. Act like it.”
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The man of harsh words is none other than freshman Congressman Lee Zeldin, U.S. Representative of New York’s 1st congressional district, a mere five months in office, yet not shying away from taking vocal stances on foreign policy.
Zeldin is not only one of the youngest legislators, at 35 – he is the only Republican Jew in both houses of Congress today, inheriting that title from former U.S. House Majority leader and powerhouse Eric Cantor, who was unexpectedly defeated in a Republican primary in Virginia last summer.
Zeldin is a young and rather reserved replacement for Cantor's booming Southern drawl, hefty donors and political clout. Once a Jewish boy from Long Island with little relationship to the American-Jewish establishment, Zeldin has been endorsed by some of the Republican Party’s most powerful funders, and has quickly emerged as one of the most prominent GOP spokespersons on Israel issues.
“Iran cannot be trusted,” he said one morning, sitting in his sunlit conference room in his Long Island office. “They are doing a good job of playing our President like a string quartet. And the consequences will far outlive President Obama’s second term in office. The president’s foreign policy needs to be focused on strengthening our ties with our friends rather than with our enemies.”
Zeldin’s local office is in Patchogue, NY: a working-class village, one of the last off the Southern State Parkway before the land of the luxurious Long Island Hamptons. Turn off the village’s main street, past the small shops slowly opening up, past the Victorian homes and past the churches and parish centers, and on the second floor of a medical office building, the Congressman holds court.
Soft-spoken yet forceful, tall and lean: Zeldin grew up in nearby Shirley, N.Y., where he attended Hebrew school and had a bar mitzvah - the prototypical American Jew, mildly affiliated, the great-grandchild of Eastern European Jews who immigrated here at the turn of the 20th century. His great-grandfather Morris Zeldin was, according to his 1976 New York Times death notice, a “pioneer” in the Zionist movement, an activist for the United Jewish Appeal and a friend of Chaim Weizmann. His great-uncle Bernard Zeldin founded the Jewish Center of the Hamptons. Generations later, as a student at the State University of New York in Albany, Lee Zeldin followed his ancestors’ precedent: He became a political activist, spending his summers interning at the State Legislature and volunteering on political campaigns.
“I got turned off by a lot of [politics] at that age...I was coming across some of the worst elements of human nature,” he said. So upon entering Albany Law School, he chose to abandon his political aspirations and instead focus on a military career. Graduating at 23, Zeldin joined the Military Intelligence Corps as Second Lieutenant.
Four years of active duty and one Iraq deployment later, Zeldin came home and chose to return to politics after all, after seeing most of his Long Island community leave the island in pursuit of more affordable living. “It solidified my decision to run for office... to do my part to help my very local community.”
In 2010, he was elected to the New York State Senate, and after an initial 2008 defeat against incumbent Democratic Congressman Tim Bishop, Zeldin finally won New York’s First Congressional District seat against Bishop in his 2014 run - ousting Bishop, who had been there for six terms prior. Zeldin has moved back to his childhood hometown, and lives there with his wife and twin daughters.
Zeldin has the demeanor of an idealist, the accessible small-town politician, a humble family man pursuing a career in the military and politics out of a need to serve his people. It has been an ambitious five months for the Congressman, dealing with local issues in assisting war veterans as well as with uniquely Hamptons problems, like reducing the district’s private helicopter traffic. But he seems to have his sights on foreign affairs too, and emphatically so, serving on the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, and subcommittees on the Middle East and terrorism among others, while serving as co-chairman of the House Republican Israel Caucus.
Though Zeldin has become a leading Republican voice on Israel - his policy is influenced more by his knowledge of Israel’s neighbors than of Israel itself. He has yet to visit Israel - but he plans to do so for the first time this summer.
Perhaps most ambitious is Zeldin’s criticism of the President, as an army veteran: Zeldin speaks like a man of the military, where he says he learned the “realities on the ground in the Middle East.” He speaks bitterly of problems faced by American soldiers in Iraq, of commanders lacking sufficient flexibility and resources on the ground to execute counterinsurgency missions.
Zeldin dismisses the President’s recent address at Adas Israel synagogue in Washington, D.C. as “weak.” He has accused Obama of compromising in the Iran nuclear talks in favor of short-sighted domestic support. “Actions speak louder than words,” he wrote in an email later. “If President Obama knows how to strengthen America's bond with our strongest ally and combat anti-Semitism, now is the time to pursue policies that will achieve those results.”
When asked if his Jewish identity at all affects his role in Congress - Zeldin deflected, answering simply that his principles, like any other Congressman’s, are generally informed by the “experiences presented to us throughout life”, and talked about the need for more awareness on the “rising tide of anti-Semitism in the United States, Europe and around the world”.
Backed by the Republican Jewish Coalition - which is “thrilled” to have a Republican Jew in government, to rely on - Zeldin has endeared himself as a rising political star to conservative Jews across the country. “I’ve known Lee for a while,” Matt Brooks, Executive Director of the RJC said. “We are thrilled that he won. He is traveling around the country and helping to expand the number of Jewish Republicans and build the RJC. We think he is a terrific ambassador for our cause.”
Among Zeldin’s supporters is the Adelson family, one of the RJC’s largest funders, who has officially donated the maximum $5,200 to Zeldin’s campaign, alongside millions to the RJC at large in 2014 - the latter remains undefined. “Mr. Adelson is very passionate about supporting causes that strengthen America, our nation's bond with our greatest ally, Israel, and our efforts to combat anti-Semitism and the growing BDS movement,” Zeldin said. “He clearly has much concern for the direction America is headed and the need to elect the right leaders.”
Zeldin and his RJC supporters expect that, as election season approaches, more Jewish voters will vote Republican in 2016 than ever before: While in 1992, 11% of Jewish votes supported the Republican party, in 2012 that number rose to 33%.
“Within the course of the last twenty-plus years,” Zeldin said, “There has been a consistent trend of American-Jewish voters who have voted Democrat their entire life and are now starting to vote Republican. That trend will likely continue, due to the President’s foreign policy.”