The Zionist Organization of America is unique for many reasons. It is an organization built on principle, not afraid to speak out on other issues that others believe to be too controversial to address. ZOA is unapologetic in its defense of Israel on all fronts. It is one of the few organizations that organizes leadership trips for students that actually take student leaders into Judea and Samaria to see the settlements for themselves. The ZOA is also unique in another way, the way it develops and empowers student leaders. The campus department is outstanding and should be a model for pro-Israel organizations. It is fantastic at engaging new students and knows how to channel student innovation to maximize strengths of the campus pro-Israel community in order to achieve successful outcomes.
I began my involvement with ZOA as a student on the 2014-2015 Student Leadership Mission to Israel. My friend had attended the previous trip and told me to apply. I was interviewed and was accepted to the trip. To say that the ZOA trip was a life-changing experience is an understatement. I traveled around Israel with more than 30 of the best pro-Israel student leaders from all over the United States. We met with leading experts such as Caroline Glick, Lt. Colonel Nir Atir (IDF retired), Khaled Abu Toameh, and many others to learn about the challenges Israel faces. Jeff Daube, the director of the ZOA Israel office, explained one issue in particular that really stuck with me: Palestinian violence on the Mount of Olives (the world’s oldest Jewish cemetery). It was shocking to hear that the Arab leadership was inciting people to throw stones and firebombs at Jews who were there to visit the graves of their ancestors. Even more shocking was the discovery that the Arab leadership had been paying locals to desecrate graves on the Mt. of Olives.
Jeff began to tell me about some of his advocacy efforts in both Congress and the Knesset. I was fascinated. I have been heavily involved in advocacy throughout my time at Florida State University. As a member of Student Government, I led a leadership program that trained students how to become advocates and taught them about state and federal issues, with a focus on how they impact higher education. I also helped lobby for a series of issues such as in-state tuition for veterans, state level break pay for student veterans, preeminence funding, and other issues. I had also been active in Israel advocacy as a student senator on my campus. I told Jeff about my experiences and passions for advocacy, and my interest in combining them into a career where I would be able to make a difference advocating for Israel with key decision-makers. At the end of the trip, Jeff told me that he travels to DC twice per year to lobby issues with Congress and the State Department. Jeff graciously extended an invitation to me to accompany him. I immediately accepted.
So in July, I flew into DC and met Jeff. We spent the first day at the State Department. We met with Ira Forman (Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism) and several other officials in the State Department. The next several days, we spent lobbying members of Congress. We met with members from all over the country, Democrat and Republican. We met with John Boozman (senior Senator from Arkansas), Bill Greene (Director of outreach for House Speaker Boehner), Ileana Ross-Lehtinen, Eliot Engel, Lee Zeldin, Mark Walker, Senator Mark Kirk, Congressman Ron DeSantis, and numerous other members and their staffs. We lobbied two main issues. The first issue we lobbied was the issue of the Palestinian Authority (whose budget is mostly comprised of foreign aid) paying salaries to terrorists and their families. These salaries were not based on the number of dependents that a terrorist had, they were instead based on the number of years the terrorist was serving in Israeli prison. Shockingly, the salary scale that we were presenting to the State Department and Congress showed that the more years in prison (meaning the more heinous the crime) the more the terrorist was paid. We had also established that the salaries comprised approximately 4-6 percent of the PA budget. Additionally, there was language in the Foreign Aid bill that required the Secretary of State to determine how much money was being used to pay these salaries, and deduct it from the $400 million per year the US gives to the Palestinian Authority. It was astounding to discover that the State Department had not deducted a single dollar from the PA’s foreign aid, even though they were fully aware of the salaries. The second major issue that we lobbied had to do with bringing in the US to put pressure on the Arab leadership to stop inciting attacks on the Mount of Olives. Additionally, we wanted the attacks on the Mount of Olives classified as both anti-Semitic and as acts of terrorism (which the State Department has been reluctant to do).
The opportunity that Jeff and the ZOA afforded me to lobby our decision-makers in Congress and the State Department was a life-changing experience for several reasons. I was able to establish connections with people who shape US foreign policy and I was able to grow and learn about the process. Finally, I was not just an observer in the meetings; I was allowed to be a participant. Jeff encouraged me to speak during meetings and explain issues to the members with whom we met, and I did. I got the experience of presenting pressing challenges facing Israel to some of America’s top leaders.
The experience of lobbying Capitol Hill with Jeff on behalf of ZOA was both amazing and life changing. I learned many of the ins and outs of lobbying from Jeff and I got to meet with ZOA’s amazing government relations co-directors (Dan Pollak and Josh London). Most importantly, I know I will continue to develop as a pro Israel advocate under the mentorship of amazing people such as Jeff Daube. It is the mentorship that ZOA provides to students such as myself that sets it apart from all other organizations. I cannot thank Jeff Daube and ZOA enough. Going into my senior year of college, I know that I will be able to take these amazing experiences and the knowledge I have gained and use them to further my goal of advocating for the State of Israel.