CTNJ file photos
U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty and Republican Mark Greenberg (CTNJ file photos)

Congresswoman Elizabeth Esty stands to the right of many of her Democratic colleagues in supporting Israel, even amid its controversial bombings of the Gaza Strip earlier this year. Backers of Mark Greenberg, who is challenging the first-term incumbent in Connecticut’s 5th District, say he’ll be even more supportive.

When House Minority Leader Eric Cantor was upset in a primary in Virginia earlier this year, the U.S. House of Representatives lost its only Jewish Republican member.

Greenberg and four other Jewish Republicans (Bruce Blakeman and Lee Zeldin in New York, Elan Carr in California, and Micah Edmond in Virginia) are running this fall and have the support of the national Republican Jewish Coalition.

Noah Silverman, that organization’s congressional affairs director, said Wednesday that Esty’s endorsement by J Street, a Middle East affairs political action committee funded in part by billionaire George Soros, means that “anti-Israel” activists believe she will come through for them, despite her comments during this campaign.

Esty said last week that she is a “strong believer that Israel has the right and obligation to defend itself.” Compared to Greenberg, she said “there’s no difference in our views on that whatsoever.”

Esty went further and blamed Hamas in a statement deemed contrary to many national media reports and even criticism from within President Obama’s administration of Israel’s handling of the Gaza Strip conflict this year.

“A lot of the carnage we’ve seen there is directly related to Hamas’ use of human shields,” she said.

Esty supports a “two-state solution,” but said that “Palestinians have to elect leaders that don’t have (as) one of their top goals the destruction of Israel.”

Greenberg, a Litchfield businessman, went further in April, calling for the resignation of Secretary of State John Kerry over comments Kerry made about the potential for Israel to become “an apartheid state” if the “two-state solution” isn’t developed.

Bill Evans, Greenberg’s campaign manager, said Wednesday that “Mark believes that Israel is our greatest ally in the Middle East and one of our most reliable allies in the world.”

“Israel is a democracy in a part of the world where democracies are rare and unlike many of its neighbors, Israel allows religious freedoms, and treats women equally as men,” Evans said. “Mark believes that Israel has earned the support of the United States because of a relationship that dates back to America being the first nation to recognize the Jewish State as an independent country. In terms of foreign policy, Mark believes it is important to maintain a strong relationship with a stable partner like Israel. Mark strongly supports the United States-Israel Strategic Partnership Act of 2013 that declared Israel our ‘major strategic partner’ and expanded coordination in defense, energy, and agriculture as well as other sectors.”

Greenberg’s comments about religion and foreign policy have generated controversy in the past. In his unsuccessful 5th District Republican primary bid two years, ago, he described Islam as “cult-like,” and said it was “not as peaceful” a religion as Christianity or Judaism. “Some people who believe in that religion are out to kill us,” he said on WNPR’s “Where We Live” radio program.

Last month, Greenberg’s campaign accused Democrats of plotting to make his Jewish heritage an issue in the campaign. The fact that Greenberg “identifies as Jewish” was included in a lengthy “opposition research book” prepared by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Esty said she has “not read” the document and had nothing to do with it. She said both parties do opposition research, and she’s sure that there’s something similar out there innocuously listing her as a “Congregationalist.”

“I would never make religion an issue,” she said.

Silverman, of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said the organization is “definitely following the race” in Connecticut’s 5th District.

“We’re excited about Mark Greenberg and the other Jewish republicans who are running,” said Silverman, whose organization invited Greenberg to a leadership breakfast in Washington earlier this year. “We are very forthrightly pro-Israel and forthrightly pro-defense. We believe that the lesson of our history is that we assure peace through strength, and we also are very strong believers in the American system of government and society, and tend to think that the solution to our problems is not to become more like Europe. We’re very free-enterprise oriented and lean toward smaller government, and we’re not necessarily as unified on our views of social issues.”

Silverman said that Esty’s endorsement by J Street clearly means “they’re not the same on the issue” of Israel.

“For pro-Israel voters, that’s a very clear signal,” he said, citing J Street’s recent support of a UN resolution condemning Israel, which the Obama administration vetoed. “In the general framework of Israel policy in Washington, it’s understood that a candidate who has their imprimatur is less reliable than a candidate like Mark Greenberg, who they oppose.”

Silverman said that J Street is attempting to displace organizations such as AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) that are 100 percent behind Israel.

But an Esty supporter who has worked with AIPAC says Esty has worked with the organization and has been one of Connecticut’s most supportive elected officials when it comes to Israel.

“There’s no lack of support in her record and her actions,” said Daryl Woborow, chairman of the Democratic Town Committee in Avon and past president of the Farmington Valley Jewish Congregation. “She does not come off as a (J Street)-type person.”

At a meeting he was involved in between AIPAC and Esty in March, Woborow said that the organization was “very impressed with her,” and that she even gained some supporters among conservative Republicans involved with the group.

“I’ve worked with her for three years . . . I’ve never heard any anti comments towards Israel or towards actions of Israel,” he said.

Laura Maloney, Esty’s spokeswoman, discounted the Jewish Republican Coalition’s take on the race.

“It’s hardly surprising that a Republican organization would attack Elizabeth, a Democrat,” she said.  “What’s disappointing is the attempt to yet again turn Israel into a partisan football. Support for Israel should remain above petty politics.”

Matt DeRienzo is the editor of the Center for Public Integrity.

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