Sestak’s Israel Ties Go Way Back


Joe Sestak, who is running for the opportunity to be the Democratic nominee in this year’s Senate race, has a long history as a friend of Israel.

There were barely enough people to hold a minyan when former Pennsylvania Congressman Joe Sestak — now seeking to become the Democratic nominee for Senator next November — arrived late Thursday afternoon at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Bryn Mawr to discuss his plans to restore the American Dream for working families.

But following his remarks and a question-and-answer session in which he attempted to address public concerns in a non-political way, Sestak spoke at length with the Jewish Exponent. The man who said he’s honored to be a participant at the Jan. 15 installation of Rabbi Jon Cutler — a naval reserve chaplain who connected with Sestak, a retired admiral, over their service — at Congregation Beth Israel of Chester County, revealed he has longstanding ties to Israel going back to his years in the Navy that underscore his great affinity for the local Jewish community.

He also indicated he’s probably made more visits to Israel than the number of people who were in the building listening to him speak. “I’ve been to Israel conservatively at least 10 times — probably more like 14,” said the 64-year-old Sestak, who’s hoping for another shot at current Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), who defeated him by 80,000 votes in 2010. “I can remember going there in the early ’70s when everyone had a pistol on the table, it was so bad there. I once left my ship in Israel on purpose and spent two weeks traveling through the country. I was on the Richard E. Byrd in 1978. It was the middle of my deployment, so I could leave from any port I wanted to; I waited until we got to Haifa.”

On a later trip, Sestak did what so many tourists do: “I bought my wife’s diamond engagement ring there,” he admitted. “In Tel Aviv. But I went everywhere. And I read the history. I still have my T-shirt that says, ‘Never Again Masada.’ ”

And he’s not the only one in the family with such familiarity. “My wife, Susan, works for the Israeli military” as an analyst for the Institute of Defense Awareness, he explained. “She goes over there every few months working with Israel. She was there during some of the shelling from Gaza.”

All of which has given Sestak a thorough awareness of the situation. “Until you’ve traveled to Israel, you don’t really understand why they feel like they do.” He then recalled a time there was so much Israeli cell phone interference it jammed naval radar. “It’s a postage stamp. I do believe in a two-state solution. The problem is, there’s no one to negotiate with. But I’ve been quoted saying before I’d lay down my life in the Navy for Israel — and I’d do it today.”

Closer to home, Sestak was dismayed to learn of the imminent closing of Israeli consulate in Philadelphia. “It’s darn important,” he replied. “I know they tried to close it before — it’s probably a money thing.”

Perhaps “The Admiral,” as he’s known on the campaign trail, can exert some of his influence from his days in Congress. After all, they sort of owe him one. “When I was a congressman, the ambassador from Israel had my wife and I over along with the head of the Israeli Navy  for the first night of Chanukah when we were in Washington,” recalled Sestak. “It was a wonderful time celebrating with them. During the dinner, the ambassador and the head of the  Navy  said to me, ‘We can’t get access to the new ship the navy is building.’ It took me four months, but I met with the CEO of the shipbuilder “and got them access.”

Besides that, Sestak carries a midrash with him and cites a story he once heard from a rabbi of the devotion of two friends — one condemned to death but the other willing to give up his life to spare him. The king is so touched by their humanity, he declares he’ll spare them both if they make him their third friend.

Sestak says one other thing he’s learned about Judaism is it seems more applicable than other religions. “The rabbi looks at me,” said Sestak, “and says, ‘You have to remember: Many of us don’t even think there’s an afterlife.’ ”

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