Mike Doyle, a Democrat serving his 13th term in Congress representing Pennsylvania’s 18th District, traveled on a J Street-sponsored trip to Israel, including the West Bank, in February. It was his second visit to the Jewish state.
Doyle chatted with the Chronicle this week, discussing a variety of topics, including Israel, gun control, anti-Semitism and Rep. Ilhan Omar. The interview preceded an off-the-record town hall-style conversation with the congressman on April 15 at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, and sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
Traveling to Israel with J Street
Doyle was invited on the J Street-sponsored tour of Israel by Nancy Bernstein, co-chair of J Street Pittsburgh. He toured the country along with her and Pittsburgh residents Rocky Schoen, Ronnie Cook Zuhlke and Fred Zuhlke. Also on the trip were four other members of Congress, and several members of J Street from around the country.
Although it was difficult to meet with many elected Israeli officials because they were in the midst of primary season, the group did meet with Ambassador David Friedman, former Prime Minister Ehud
Olmert and Israeli business leaders. Additionally, they had a security briefing with the IDF Strategic Planning Division.
“We also had a tour of the West Bank, where we had a chance to go to Palestinian villages and speak with Palestinians there,” Doyle said, adding that they “visited some Israeli settlements in the West Bank” as well.
The group “had a sit-down with President Abbas up in Ramallah, and his ministry and his intelligence service general. And we also had lunch with some Palestinian business leaders.”
Doyle said he “liked the trip because it was very balanced, we got a chance to see both sides of the coin and the region, and to see some of the challenges.”
A proponent of a two-state solution, Doyle came away from the trip “realizing that nobody is sure what the solution is there, but I think that some of the moves that our administration has made vis-a-vis Israel have not helped the situation in terms of a two-state solution.”
The congressman was critical of several actions of the Trump administration, including moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, and “the cutting back of humanitarian aid to the Palestinians.”
“This sort of tough-love approach he seems to embrace is, I don’t think, having the desired effects. I think it is creating more hostility toward the United States and Israel on behalf of the [Palestinian] people as a result of the aid not flowing there.”
Doyle came back from the trip with the view that peace in the region, and a two-state solution, at least for the time being is “elusive just given the circumstances there now.”
Freshman Rep. Ilhan Omar and accusations against her
“We have 63 new members in the Democratic caucus,” said Doyle. “I have yet to meet Congresswoman Omar, I have not met [Alexandria] Ocasio-Cortez or Rashida Tlaib. You would think they were the only three members we have in our caucus, because they, for various reasons, generate much of the press that is written about our new members of Congress.”
Because he has not yet met her, Doyle was hesitant to pass judgement on Omar and the statements she has made since taking office that many see as anti-Semitic, including the claim that members of Congress are improperly influenced by donations from the pro-Israel AIPAC.
“My inclination initially with a new member [of Congress] that needs to understand that when they say something — probably my initial thought would have been to pull that person aside and try to mentor them and say, ‘Hey what you say has an impact.’”
“Many people have taken what she says as being insensitive at best, and I think she’s being judged,” Doyle said. “But I think equally offensive is what the president did — to put that in a video and stoke up the anger that has been stoked up, and now she is under death threats — is certainly not responsible behavior on the part of the president either.”
The fact that Omar is among the first Muslim women elected to Congress, “puts her in a category where people are going to pay attention to what she says,” Doyle said. “So I would hope that it’s a learning experience for her.”
“Weaponizing” the Omar controversy for political reasons is problematic, cautioned Doyle.
“I think the worst thing we could do is get in a situation where political parties just weaponize these things against one another,” he said. “The president had made statements that the Democrats hate Jews, that Democrats don’t support Israel. This is just ridiculous. I have a 25-year track record of supporting Israel, and our majority leader — Steny Hoyer — there is not bigger supporter of Israel than him.”
Israel is a strong ally, Doyle noted, but that does not prohibit U.S. leaders from criticizing its administration.
“This is an ally of ours,” he said. “Now, are we critical of administrations in Israel? I’m critical of this current administration in my country; I don’t think that makes me anti-American. I’ve been critical of administrations in Israel, too, but not the support we have for the country and our alliance. So, I think it is a dangerous precedent when the president is trying to make it sound like Democrats are moving away from their alliance and friendship to Israel. It is absolutely untrue.”
Increasing anti-Semitism in the United States
Doyle pointed to ADL statistics, showing a nearly 60 percent rise in anti-Semitic incidents in 2017.
While noting that a lot of these incidents occur on college campus, Doyle also cited statistics that “three-quarters of the violent murders are being done by white supremacists. The data is there. It’s not speculation or anecdotal.”
“Clearly,” he said, anti-Semitism “is on the rise,” and some of Trump’s rhetoric could be fueling it.
“Hate begets hate and eventually leads to violence,” said Doyle. “When people fill their heads with hate, and start to believe that some other group — whether it is a religion or a race, or whatever — is somehow either threatening to them, or subhuman, and decide to act on it, that’s what you see. These people, their heads are filled with hate, they are unstable to begin with, then add a cache of weapons in the house to that, and that is a prescription for the kind of tragedies that we are seeing here in Squirrel Hill, and in Christchurch, New Zealand, and all over the country.”
The president, he said, instead of speaking in words that “would unite us,” often speaks in words “that divide us.”
“When he says things — the way he says them are just dog whistles to these extreme groups out there that it is OK to behave in the way they are behaving,” Doyle said. “He doesn’t come right out and say it that way. It’s more subtle than that, so he can always say, ‘Well, that’s not what I meant.’ But I think the message is fairly clear at times.
“I think he needs to understand that he has the biggest bully pulpit in the world as president of the United States, and when he says something, there are people who pay attention to it, and they feel empowered to behave a certain way. He is certainly not helping the process.”
Although the recent gun control legislation passed by Pittsburgh’s City Council could be overturned at the state level, Doyle still thinks that passing it was “the right thing to do,” especially in light of inaction on gun control at the state and federal level.
“I think it is safe to say that the Pennsylvania state government and the federal government are not acting — that we have seen tragedy after tragedy after tragedy after tragedy, and Congress do absolutely nothing except have a moment of silence. And the state laws haven’t helped much either,” he said.
“I understand the frustration that people in the city felt, especially after witnessing what we witnessed in Squirrel Hill,” he continued. “Sometimes you just have to make a statement. I think cities, not just Pittsburgh, but you’re seeing cities across the country that are starting to take these things into their hands, if nothing else then to stir debate and public opinion toward the state and federal government to act.”
The City Council legislation, which places restrictions on military-style assault weapons like the AR-15 rifle used in the Tree of Life massacre, he said, “was something worth doing given all the tragedies we are seeing in our country, the result — when you look at these mass murders — of weapons that aren’t designed to do anything other than kill people efficiently. These are military-style weapons, and they shouldn’t be in the hands of civilians.” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at