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The Republican Congressman Who Discovered He’s Jewish: An Interview with Representative Lee Terry

Congressman Lee Terry

Congressman Lee Terry

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When Lee Terry began serving as a Republican congressman in 1999, representing Nebraska’s second congressional district, he didn’t realize he would become one of the House of Representatives’ Jewish members. Always a friend of Israel, Terry discovered his Jewish roots some ten years ago and began a personal odyssey to reconnect with his heritage.

Terry, who lives in Omaha with his wife and three sons, currently serves on the House Energy and Commerce Committee and was elected vice chair of the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology.

The Jewish Press: How did you got your start in Nebraska politics?

Terry: My father was an anchorman who followed Congress and always talked about Washington at our dinner table. He actually ran for Congress in 1976 and lost. That was when I really became infatuated with how our government works, its history and the political process.

I majored in political science so I could have a major in my interest and hobby. Later on, when I was a practicing lawyer, I had the opportunity to run for city council when I has 29 and actually won. It all started at the city level. We get a lot of press at the national level, but I think the most emotional politics are at the city level.

You discovered your Jewish roots a decade ago. How did that discovery come about?

My birth mother left when I was two and my parents got divorced. I was raised by my dad and didn’t know much about my mother’s side of the family. About ten years ago my cousin from that side of the family made a family tree and found out that my maternal grandmother, who had immigrated as a very young girl from Russia, was Jewish. Her parents settled in Milwaukee and were practicing Jews, and when she was an adult she met my grandfather, a Catholic.

If you marry a Catholic you have to agree to have children brought up Catholic, so my mom was actually brought up as a Catholic even though her mother had been a practicing Jew. A couple years ago my birth mother told me that she remembered visiting her mother in Milwaukee and going to temple on Saturday.

Did your father realize your mother was Jewish and decide not to tell you?

I asked him that and he said, “Well, you know, there were rumors but no one ever said anything.” My grandfather was a professor at a Jesuit university when they moved from Milwaukee to Omaha. I don’t know if they thought that as a Catholic professor at a Catholic university they had to keep it a secret. In today’s world it wouldn’t matter one bit. In fact it would add to the culture. But I have to keep wondering, because unfortunately my grandmother died before I was born and my grandfather died when I was three or four, so I never got to know that side of the family.

Now I’ve been sitting down and learning about Jewish history and religion with some rabbi friends from the Chabad House in Omaha.

What kind of an impact has your discovery made on your life?

I think it’s a more personal impact; I have a greater ethnicity because I have this history in my family that’s really exciting. I like learning about Jewish culture and religion. Of course, I’m discussing this mostly with an Orthodox rabbi. I have a non-Orthodox acquaintance also, but when I talk to him it’s never about Jewish culture and religion; it’s always about politics.

Have your Jewish roots enhanced or validated your outlook on issues as a conservative politician?

I think it validates them. I don’t know if it enhances them because I was a solid supporter of Israel before I learned of my Jewish heritage, but this certainly gives it a greater emphasis and importance to me personally. I don’t think it’s impacted my politics but it’s given it a certain level of confirmation. And the other part is just learning the historical tenets of the faith. There’s so much of it that I say, “Oh gosh, this is what I believe, from the Orthodox perspective.”

That’s why I love sitting down with Rabbi Katzman from Chabad and that’s what we talk about: the Jewish faith and laws, what they are, why they developed, and the relation back to God’s words. I really soak it up. I just love hearing it.

In his recent AIPAC speech, President Obama spoke of supporting Israel and said he has Israel’s back when it comes to Iran, though many Republicans say his words don’t necessarily match his deeds. Would you agree with that assessment?

I do agree with this assessment. I don’t think his actions match his words. It seems like he’s trying to avoid action. The president is trying to avoid even engaging Iran. I guess I would call him inconsistent on the issue.

Though Obama did not rule out any specific strategy regarding Iran, he made it clear he was still seeking a diplomatic solution. Do you think Israel will have the president’s support if it decides to strike militarily?

That’s questionable. I do not have confidence that the president would support Israel if Israel launched a preemptive move against Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Can Israel rely on Congress?

Yes. There’s a huge majority in both houses to support Israel, and John Boehner is the type of speaker who would put up a resolution of support fairly quickly. Now he hasn’t told me that, but I have the level of confidence in him that he would and that it would pass with probably 80 percent of the vote. I would hope it would be 100 percent, but I know that’s not going to be the case. The Senate is the issue. I think the vast majority of the Senate would approve a resolution supporting Israel, but I don’t know if [Democratic Majority Leader] Harry Reid would allow it to come up [for a vote] for fear it would embarrass the president.

How would any inconsistency between Congress and the president over support for an Israeli military strike affect Israel?

If there’s a stalemate, Israel is the loser because the reality is that it’s only the White House, as the head of the executive branch, that could order any military help or sale of weapons that would be necessary for Israel to defend itself from the onslaught that would occur as a result of any preemptive strike. And it’s only the administration that can defend Israel at the UN.

Do you think Obama’s reluctance to support an Israeli strike is motivated by the upcoming election or by his worldview as it relates to the Middle East?

I do not believe this is election politics. I think he has been lukewarm to Israel from the first day. He has been wont to court Arab nations, I think occasionally at the expense of Israel. So I really believe that the president is anti-military in his views, and he would be offended if Israel would protect itself by a preemptive strike. Those are his political beliefs.

You recently spoke at a dinner in honor of the Gush Katif Museum in Jerusalem. Given the tragic aftermath of the Gaza Disengagement, do you believe in the efficacy of land concessions and a two-state solution?

The two-state solution sounds good on paper, but I’m not so naïve to think it would ever happen or work. Gush Katif really showed that you can’t use land for appeasement. You can’t give up land and hope that the other side is going be peaceful. The Palestinians and Hamas have proved they in fact will continue their jihad against the Jewish people, given the ability to do so. It won’t work. I think most of us thought the two-state solution would bring resolution and security to Israel. Unfortunately, we have seen evidence that it can’t work.

You serve on the House Energy and Commerce Committee and are a firm believer in tapping America’s natural sources of energy. How would you describe our current national security situation in light of America’s dependence on foreign oil, the turmoil in Iran and the Arab Spring?

That’s a perfect question in that the Arab Spring and the Iranian issue with Israel and the threats of closing off the Straits of Hormuz are all reminiscent of 1973, when the OPEC Arab countries embargoed oil to us because of our support for Israel. Absolutely we are less secure as a nation because of our dependence on OPEC oil, and so it’s a personal goal of mine to make us independent of all non-North American oil.

Obama’s policies, primarily Obamacare, have angered conservatives for both social and fiscal reasons. Do you foresee enough of a backlash to upseat Obama in 2012 and bring more Republicans into Congress?

That’s a good question. I’ve been trying to figure that out. It has upset a lot of values-based voters and limited government people, but those people weren’t going to vote for Obama in the first place. So I’m not sure whom he’s alienating. Maybe there are some Catholics who voted for him who will not do so now. And maybe a handful of values voters who voted for him just because they wanted something different. Now that they know that different isn’t necessarily good, they will change back.

Do you think the protracted negative tone of the Republican primaries has turned away voters?

Well it’s been ugly, and I’ve had several Republican voters tell me that they’re tired of it. But I don’t know if it’s turned away voters, because the real issue is going to be: Do you support Obamacare, big government, big spending? And that’s going to be what people look at in November.

So even though people are frustrated and disgusted with the fighting in the Republican primaries, they will all be focused and ready whoever the Republican presidential candidate is. This is really going to be a referendum on President Obama.

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About the Author: Sara Lehmann, a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, was formerly an editor at a major New York publishing house.


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