How pro-Israel students helped shape a Virginia house race

As Democrats prepare to lead the House of Representatives in January and Republicans count their losses from the midterm elections, it’s clear that forecasts of a “blue wave” manifested in force. Democrats managed to flip more than three dozen house seats from red to blue, and captured many more seats than they need to control the majority.

In Virginia, Democrats targeted four competitive house seats as part of their national red-to-blue strategy. They successfully flipped three of them, but failed in Virginia’s hotly contested fifth district. That race between Republican Denver Riggleman and Democrat Leslie Cockburn for the open seat drew national attention from the pro-Israel community due, in part, to Cockburn’s 1991 book “Dangerous Liaison”. The book, co-authored by her husband Andrew Cockburn, is littered with unsubstantiated conspiracy theories that demonize and delegitimize Israel. According to the New York Times,

“Their book, supposedly a history of the secret ties between Israel and the United States, is largely dedicated to Israel-bashing for its own sake. Its first message is that, win or lose, smart or dumb, right or wrong, suave or boorish, Israelis are a menace. The second is that the Israeli-American connection is somewhere behind just about everything that ails us.”

The cover of Leslie Cockburn’s “Dangerous Liaison”, which depicts the American flag inside the Jewish star.

Indeed, Cockburn’s writings on Israel led to several accusations of anti-Semitism during the campaign. In an article analyzing the midterm elections, Tablet listed Cockburn as one of “Eight candidates who have expressed blatantly anti-Semitic views”, and noted that Cockburn’s writings emphasize the classic anti-semitic trope that, “evil Israelis manipulate America through their favorite tool, American Jews.” In response to Cockburn’s book, Jay Ipson, Holocaust survivor and co-founder of the Virginia Holocaust Museum in Richmond, said, “I don’t know to which hate group she was trying to cater with her book, but her [Cockburn’s] claims are wildly inaccurate.”

The drama surrounding Cockburn’s anti-Israel work stood in stark contrast to Denver Riggleman’s experiences stationed in Israel as an American Air Force intelligence officer, support for the Jewish community, and support for a strong U.S.-Israel alliance.

It is against this backdrop that I first read about the race shortly before the elections. With many polls characterizing the race as a true toss-up, I reached out to pro-Israel student leaders across the country to rally them for a final-push mobilization for Denver Riggleman’s campaign. With youth engagement in the midterms at record highs, it was clear that student activism could be a key factor in this race.

In the 72 hours leading up to the election, and at peak season for mid-term exams at school, pro-Israel student leaders at campuses across the country organized to phone bank over 1,300 calls on behalf of the Riggleman campaign. Students from campuses ranging from UI Urbana–Champaign to USC, University of Alabama, and UC Santa Barbara put aside their political differences to campaign in a bipartisan fashion for a truly deserving pro-Israel candidate.

Denver Riggleman won the race with 53.3 percent of the vote. As pro-Israel student leaders, we are proud of the contribution we made in this victory. In our efforts, we hope to send a clear message that pro-Israel congressional candidates in competitive elections can count on pro-Israel students for meaningful support.

Moreover, we hope to reaffirm the longstanding belief, held by the pro-Israel community nationwide, that support for the U.S.-Israel alliance transcends party lines. In fact, the majority of pro-Israel students who campaigned for the Republican in this race are themselves Democrats. At a time when politics is characterized by extreme polarization, students from both sides of the aisle came together to support a deserving candidate and to defeat a candidate with views antithetical to our own. For us, party politics have no place in pro-Israel political activism and we are proud to contribute to Congress’ bipartisan support for a strong U.S.-Israel alliance.

About the Author
Amir Kashfi is a student leader at UCLA and a Beverly Hills native. A descendant of Iranian-Jewish refugees who immigrated to the U.S. in 1979, he is passionate about engaging other young people in pro-Israel activism.
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