An interview with new member of Congress, Donna Shalala, from JNS:
Newly elected to serve Florida’s 27th congressional district, Donna Shalala is no stranger to politics or the relationship between the United States and Israel. She served as Secretary of Health and Human Services under President Bill Clinton, where she traveled to Israel and helped researchers there obtain grants from the National Institutes of Health, in addition to assisting with other initiatives inside the Jewish state.
She then went into the private sector: serving as University of Miami president for 14 years and president of the Clinton Foundation for two years.
Shalala, who is Arab-American, was endorsed by the Jewish Democratic Council of America. She defeated Maria Elvira Salazar in the midterm elections to replace the retiring Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, known to be staunchly pro-Israel, and became the second-oldest freshman representative ever.
JNS talked with Shalala by phone. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: What is your overall stance on the U.S.-Israel relationship? I know you were briefly detained at Ben-Gurion Airport in 2010 on your way back to the United States.
A: I issued a statement saying that Israel had a right to protect the security of its people. I didn’t have any problem with that. My Jewish friends had a bigger problem than I did. They thought it was absurd. The prime minister got up in the Knesset and said, “We got to take a look at our security because Donna Shalala is one of our friends.” So it wasn’t a big issue as far as I’m concerned.
I’ve been a friend of Israel for a long time. I’ve been working with the universities within the health-care system for a long time. I first went to Israel to be on Mayor Teddy Kollek’s Jerusalem Committee to help plan the city of Jerusalem when I was a young urbanist, a young academic, teaching at Columbia [University]. And I have honorary degrees from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, the University of Haifa and from Ben-Gurion University [of the Negev].
Q: What experiences did you have with Israel when you were HHS Secretary?
A: I actually worked with Israeli health officials to guarantee the Weizmann Institute [of Science] scientists the opportunity to apply for NIH grants among other things. I worked with women leaders in Israel on health-care issues. I went in and out of Israel four times when I was secretary.
Q: Did the scientists get the NIH grants?
A: Absolutely. And to this day, they can apply for NIH grants.
Q: How many times have you been to Israel?
A: Oh, I don’t know. 20? 30? A lot.
Q: What’s your stance on BDS? In 2010, as University of Miami president you said “there will never be a boycott of Israel.”
A: I’m absolutely opposed to a boycott of any kind both in terms of disinvestment, as well as in the attacks on Israeli academics by the British Union. I was one of the first college presidents in the country to denounce that.
Q: What is your reaction to fellow incoming Democrats Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Rashida Tlaib, who have made anti-Israel statements?
A: That’s their position, and I disagree with it. I don’t agree with anyone that makes antisemitic remarks. And my position on Israel is very firm and very clear. There are going to be members of Congress with different positions. That’s their position, not mine.
Q: What is your stance on the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act?
A: I have not looked at specific bills, but I’ll be talking to my colleagues about a list of things I intend to support. Anything that has to do with antisemitism you can be sure I’ll be front and center.
Q: Anything else our readers should know about you?
A: They should know there’s an Arab American with longstanding support of Israel who’s just been elected in South Florida.
Interestingly, Shalala was honored by the American University of Beirut with an honorary degree (she’s of Lebanese ancestry) and students protested because she is “Zionist.” But an article in Lebanon made fun of the protesters and defended her because she has also said that she is a staunch advocate of a Palestinian state.
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