As might be expected, there was some congregational kvetching last week as the minutes passed and the featured speaker, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), was nowhere in evidence.
“Where is he?” one frustrated member asked. “Why is he late?” asked another.
The delay provided enough time for one woman to paint her fingernails, ably assisted by the man sitting next to her, who held the bottle of pink polish aloft as she dipped its brush in and out.
By the time Cardin arrived — about a half-hour late — a crowd of 50-plus filled most of the seats at Congregations of Shaare Shamayim in Northeast Philadelphia. Cardin’s appearance was the second of three political forums held by the synagogue in the election cycle’s waning days.
The first forum, held about a week earlier, had been for local candidates, and a third forum (which happened after press time) was slated for Nov. 1 with David Peyman, senior advisor and national director for Jewish affairs and outreach for the Trump-Pence campaign.
Cardin, a decade-long member of the Senate and a Maryland state legislator before that, came to represent the Democratic Party and its candidate, Hillary Clinton.
But he mostly avoided partisan politics in a wide-ranging talk that addressed a number of questions submitted by audience members.
A lifelong member of Beth Tfiloh Congregation in Maryland — purported to be the largest modern Orthodox synagogue in the United States — Cardin opened his remarks by talking about his involvement with that community.
“We once had a rabbi problem, and called a congregational meeting,” recalled the senator, dressed in a navy blue suit and blue velvet kippah. “I attended that meeting along with several hundred members. And it got heated. It looked like things were really going to blow up. I was the speaker of the state assembly, so I stood up, thinking I would bring some calm. My father literally pulled me down and said, ‘You may think you know politics in Annapolis, [but] you know nothing about shul politics.’”
Cardin explained that he had a long working relationship with Clinton as First Lady, senator and secretary of state. As such, he felt qualified to speak to her positions on everything from women’s rights to the environment.
But, he said, “I’m in shul; I have to talk about Israel.
“I have a love for Israel, and that love for Israel is, to me, in the best interest of the United States,” he said. “There’s a special relationship between Israel and the United States. Israel is our closest ally and the only country in the Middle East that shares our values.”
As the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Cardin said he has a front-row seat to what happens in Israel and the Middle East. “I see what happens on a daily basis — what’s happening in Syria, what’s happening in Iran.”
He voted against the Iran nuclear deal, but believes diplomacy was the right approach.
“We needed to negotiate an agreement with Iran and the international community because the other option was to drop bombs,” he said. “Dropping bombs would have given us immediate satisfaction, but there’s not follow-up. You’re not going to kill with technology — they rebuild. And then we lose the international coalition support for what we had.
“What we did in Congress was pass the strongest possible sanction regime against Iran, to make it really hurt if they did not give up their nuclear weapons. But U.S. sanctions don’t work by itself. You have to have other countries go along with these sanctions. It’s not easy to get Russia and China to go along with what we want to do. Secretary Clinton accomplished that goal. She got the other countries to agree to these tough sanctions.”
Clinton, said Cardin, “understands the danger of Iran; I’ve talked to her about it. … She understands that Iran can never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon. … She’s the only person I believe who can continue to get international support to keep Iran from becoming nuclear.”
Regarding the recent memorandum of understanding with Israel for $38 billion over 10 years, Cardin noted two of its commitments: the Iron Dome defense system and qualitative military edge, known as QME.
“These are critically important programs that were incorporated into the negotiations that Secretary Clinton was involved with that keeps Israel safe.”
Cardin noted that Clinton worked with him and his colleagues on the Helsinki Commission, which promotes human rights.
“I worked with her on anti-Semitism issues. I know not only her commitment but her understanding. That’s why she’s a champion against BDS, [which] delegitimizes Israel.”
Cardin acknowledged the problems that lie ahead, including the difficulty of working with the United Nations.
“The U.N. is a hostile group to Israel, biased against Israel,” he said. “There has not been a need for a veto in the Security Council because of Secretary Clinton’s ability to get America’s position better understood in supporting Israel. … She’s going to make sure Israel is protected in the United Nations.”
Beyond speaking of his personal knowledge of Clinton and what she did diplomatically, Cardin was reluctant to get into a partisan he-said, she-said on the U.S. relationship with Israel.
“I’m not going to politicize,” he said. “We’ve been blessed to have Democrats and Republicans, senators and congressmen, administration after administration strongly supporting that relationship. We’ve had the strongest results in terms of affirmative policies helping Israel during Clinton’s term as secretary of state. So what is this issue?”
Cardin hardly mentioned Trump. He said his mother always cautioned him, “If you can’t say something nice … ”
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