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An Interview with Rep. Steve Israel
Congressman Steve Israel (D-NY 2)

Congressman Steve Israel represents New York's 2nd Congressional District on Long Island. He is one of only two New York House Members on the House Armed Services Committee, and also serves on the exclusive House Financial Services Committee. The following are excerpts from an interview with Congressman Israel that took place on May 19, 2006.

PJV: You've been very active recently in trying to insert language into defense authorization bills that would limit proselytizing by chaplains in the armed forces. Can you tell us more about those efforts?

I became involved in this issue last year, when a Lutheran chaplain at the Air Force Academy told me about concerns expressed by cadets of all faiths who were being coerced to pray in specific ways at specific services. In one case, an Air Force chaplain at an orientation program told cadets of various faiths that if they didn't accept the chaplain's faith they would "burn in hell." I was appalled for two reasons. First, the military is not an appropriate place to be promoting one religious view over another. Second, how does a superior officer stand in front of young men and women who are willing to die for their country and threaten that they'll burn in hell if they don't pray his way? So last year, as a member of the House Armed Services Committee, I offered what I thought was a non-controversial amendment to the Pentagon budget. It simply said the we welcome the expression of religious views in the military, but we don't want any coercive or abusive proselytizing performed. To my surprise, my amendment was rejected.

PJV: Rejected in committee?

Yes. Then I got together with Congressman David Obie of Wisconsin to take it directly to the floor of the House. A very disheartening debate erupted. One member accused Mr. Obie and me of demonizing his faith and actually used the words - and I'll never forget this - "like moths to a flame these Democrats can't help themselves when it comes to denigrating Christians." That was so over the top that he was later forced to apologize on the floor. Fast forward to this year. I wanted to see if I could find common ground with Republicans on this issue. In the meantime, Duncan Hunter, the Republican chairman of the (House Armed Services) committee inserted his own language. I'm paraphrasing here but the thrust of his language was that military chaplains would have the right to pray in accordance with the dictates of each chaplain's personal conscience, except as limited by military necessity. It sounds innocuous, but it's actually an effective nullification of existing Department of Defense policy which explicitly states that chaplains are required to show tolerance, respect and sensitivity to the religious views of soldiers. What he did was intentionally exclude those words - tolerance, respect and sensitivity - from his proposed amendment. I then drafted my own amendment which preserved every word of the chairman's language and simply added this sentence, "except that military chaplains shall demonstrate tolerance, respect and sensitivity to people of all faiths at all times when prayers are being observed." Sounds pretty fair, right? I mean, who could be against tolerance, respect and sensitivity?

PJV: Who indeed?

Every single Republican on the committee, save one, voted against "tolerance, respect and sensitivity." So it was defeated. I even offered to temper that language because some raised the issue that the words "at all times when prayers are being observed." would require chaplains to take a census or fill out forms every time they wanted to lead prayers. I said, okay, I'll take those words out. It'll just say "tolerance, respect and sensitivity to service members of all faiths." They wouldn't support that change either. The final step in this occurred last week when I tried to get a different amendment to the floor. That amendment preserved all of the chairman's original language, and just added that "chaplains shall behave with tolerance, respect and sensitivity to people of all faiths." The Republican rules committee refused to allow me to bring it to the floor of the house. As a result, we have a defense authorization bill that retreats from established military guidelines. 

PJV: Did you have any support for your amendment?

My position has the support of the U.S. Navy, which wrote a letter to the committee opposing chairman Hunter's language. It also had the support of the National Association of Military Chaplains and the National Association of Evangelicals.

PJV: What's really going on here? Is this another example of Republicans bending to will of the religious Right?

Yes, but it's not really a religious issue. It's a political issue. It's about power. This is about whether it's appropriate to compel and coerce men and women who are ready to die for their country to quit their religion and join another one. Republicans counter that it's a matter of free speech, that you can't prevent chaplains from expressing themselves. I have two responses to that. 

First, the chaplain who made the "burn in hell" remark has every right to say that on any street corner in America - in fact, if he was arrested for doing so I'd contribute to his legal defense fund. But when that chaplain puts on a uniform, he's required to function in a pluralistic environment. It's a matter of numbers. There simply aren't enough military chaplains to minister to all the various religions represented in the armed forces. So a chaplain might have to comfort someone in battlefield who's on the brink of death who doesn't share his faith. Telling that soldier he or she is going to burn in hell if he doesn't convert is a violation of that chaplain's responsibility. 

Second, no soldiers, chaplains included, have an unimpeded right of free speech. If a chaplain in uniform was to make a speech condemning the president, for example, he'd be whisked off to a court martial. If he made a speech at a military base saying it was against God's will to go to war, he'd be relieved in a heartbeat. 

PJV: Congressman Curt Weldon, who's district spans Philadelphia's western suburbs, serves on the armed services committee and voted against "tolerance, respect and sensitivity." Do you know why? It's not like his district is a hotbed of Christian fundamentalism.

I did not have specific conversation with him about this issue. But one of the things I'm doing is trying to bridge the divide between the sides on this issue. I just had a conversation with one of my Republican colleagues about the need for some Jewish members and some evangelical members to start having a quiet dialog so that we can understand each other a little better. It's not a religious barrier or a political barrier so mush as a communications barrier. I want to explain how painful it is to me to learn about a chaplain telling soldiers that they're going to burn in hell and they need to tell me why they have such a problem with "tolerance, respect and sensitivity."

PJV: You are a co-chair of the Democratic Study Group On National Security. What's the purpose of that group?

I've always been active in national security issues. In a post 9/11 environment, I've become increasingly concerned that the Democratic party is viewed by too many Americans as being weak on defense. The fact is, we're stronger on national security than the Republicans in many ways. But clearly, our message on national defense issues has not broken through. So I formed the group, which meets regularly with experts in national security, to help us focus on national security issues and pursue more effective solutions. Right now we're especially focused on Iran, which poses a significant threat to our security.

PJV: You were recently in Iraq. What's your take on the current situation there and the prospect of withdrawing American troops?

We can't just pull out at this point. That would leave Iraq in worse shape than when the president said "mission accomplished." The president also said that we will be there for as long as it takes and that for every Iraqi soldier who stands up we'll be able to have a soldier come home. He's also said that there are 230,000 Iraqi troops that have been trained. By his formula, we should be able to bring home the same number of American troops. But clearly we can't, and it comes down to combat proficiency. There are only about 2,000 Iraq troops at Level 1 proficiency. That means they're capable of being an effective force, of fighting and winning independent of any American support. There are another 50,000 at Level 2 proficiency, which means they can fight with American support. The rest are capable of guarding a shopping mall. What I suggest is having the president certify to congress each month how many Iraqi troops have reach Level 1 of Level 2 proficiency and then re-deploy an equal number of American troops. 

PJV: Do you think the Democrats have a chance of taking back the House in November?

I think we have a 60% chance, but only if we can continue to communicate that our ideas on national security are smarter and stronger than the Republicans.

Interview by Charles Smolover

Previous Interviews

  • July 2005:  Chuck Pennacchio candidate in the Democratic Primary for U.S. Senate.
  • August 2005: Lois Murphy who is running for Congress in Pennsylvania's 6th district.
  • September 2005: Pennsylvania State Representative Daylin Leach.
  • October 2005: Bob Casey candidate in the Democratic Primary for U.S. Senate.
  • November 2005: Gov. Howard Dean, Chairman of the Democratic National Committee
  • December 2005: Rep. Jim Gerlach who is running for reelection in Pennsylvania's 6th district.
  • January 2006: Rep. Chaka Fattah from Pennsylvania's 2nd district
  • February 2006: Matthew Brooks, Executive Director of the Republican Jewish Coalition
  • March 2006: Alan Sandals, candidate in the Democratic Primary for U.S. Senate
  • April 2006: Ira Forman, Executive Director of the National Jewish Democratic Committee
  • May 2006: Charles Smolover, Vice-President of the Philadelphia Jewish Voice