Rabbi Joshua Heller normally tries to stay out of politics.
But the senior rabbi at Congregation B’nai Torah in Sandy Springs said the dozens of Democrats planning to skip Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress on Tuesday are making a mistake.
“I feel like boycotting a speech makes a very strong statement,” Heller said. “And there are times that we may disagree with someone, but it makes an even stronger statement to say, ‘I’m not even going to listen to what that person has to say.’ ”
Netanyahu’s speech has put Democrats in a bind, torn between a longtime ally and President Barack Obama, who objected to the Israeli leader appearing before Congress so close to his re-election. Jewish voters traditionally lean Democratic.
Netanyahu is openly criticizing a potential deal on Iran’s nuclear program — a top Obama administration priority — as not strong enough. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, invited Netanyahu to speak without consulting the White House.
Dozens of Democrats have announced they will skip the speech. Among them is Atlanta Democratic Rep. John Lewis, who told The Associated Press: “I think it’s an affront to the president and the State Department what the speaker did.”
Rep. Hank Johnson, a Lithonia Democrat, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week that he hopes the speech is called off.
“If forced to make the choice, I don’t think I will be in attendance,” Johnson said.
Rep. David Scott, an Atlanta Democrat, said he will be there.
“It’s not the most pleasant way for it to happen, but I think it’s important now that it’s happened,” Scott said. “Better to hear him now because we’re at the crucible of this in a matter of weeks.”
Scott, too, said he’s worried about an Iran nuclear deal. He has worked on the issue for years with the NATO parliamentary assembly.
“This is a dangerous world,” Scott said. “And I think there are areas where the president’s foreign policy has not performed as even he intended.”
Rep. Sanford Bishop, an Albany Democrat, will attend the speech, a spokesman said.
The speech has been a hot topic in Atlanta’s Jewish community, but reactions to it have been mixed.
“If I were in Congress, I’d probably go,” said Matt Weiss, an attorney at McKenna Long & Aldridge who is active in Georgia Democratic circles who said he lives in Johnson’s district.
“But I do understand their concerns about this being viewed as an attack on the president. … I probably would prefer not to see the speech happen, but as a leader of a major ally of the United States, I think even not being thrilled with the fact of the timing of this speech, I would probably prefer for my congressman to attend.”
Democrats are getting pressure from both sides. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a powerful pro-Israel lobby group, is urging members to attend. A coalition of liberal groups including Code Pink and Jewish Voice for Peace — which has a stated goal to “end the Israeli occupation” of the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and East Jerusalem — is pushing a boycott.
“It sends a message that people in the United States are taking things more seriously, being more critical about how to understand the situation with Israel and Palestinians,” said Ilise Cohen of the Atlanta chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace.
Congressional Republicans have embraced Netanyahu’s visit. Georgia Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue last month took his first overseas trip as a member of the Senate to Israel and met with Netanyahu.
Perdue said he welcomed the speech and he shares the prime minister’s concerns about Iran. His fellow Georgia Republican, Johnny Isakson, said on Twitter on Monday that he looked forward to attending the speech.
Eric Tanenblatt, a prominent Republican fundraiser in Atlanta who is Jewish, said Democrats are “politicizing it and I think it’s unfortunate.”
Of Lewis, Tanenblatt said: “By boycotting it, I think he is sending a very bad signal to Jewish constituents in his district. … I know there are people who are disappointed.”
It’s unclear how much backlash Lewis and Johnson would face. According to an analysis by the Berman Jewish Databank, Lewis’ district has about 21,000 Jewish residents, or 3 percent of the population, while Johnson’s district is less than 1 percent Jewish.
But Jewish support was key for Johnson when he first won his seat in 2006, defeating an outspoken Israel critic in then-Rep. Cynthia McKinney in a Democratic primary runoff.
Netanyahu spoke at the AIPAC conference in Washington on Monday and attempted to cool the tensions.
Heller, the Sandy Springs rabbi, watched the speech online and hopes Netanyahu keeps his conciliatory tone before Congress.
“I’m glad that he did that because I think Israel has a lot to be thankful for to America and even to this administration, even where there have been areas of difference,” Heller said. “On the whole, there is still a lot that these two nations have in common.”
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