After listening politely to Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-Dist. 11) speak about life as a politician working with “435 class presidents” and how he tries to put a human face on government, students at the Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School gave him a thorough grilling.
They asked about spending; gun violence; sanctions against Iran; sequestration; Israeli construction in East Jerusalem; Palestinian sovereignty; far-right Republicans; and former Sen. Charles Hagel’s nomination for Secretary of Defense.
Some of the questions, like the one on gun control, and some of Frelinghuysen’s answers, especially on construction in East Jerusalem, elicited applause from the 230 high school students gathered in the auditorium for the event.
“I’ve always supported control,” and background checks on anyone buying a gun are “a no brainer,” said Frelinghuysen. “I know we don’t need automatic weapons, but the question may boil down to what is an automatic weapon.”
On expanding Israeli housing in contested East Jerusalem, he started, “Oh, boy. These are great questions.” When he continued with, “I say Israel is a sovereign nation and Israel needs to do what Israel needs to do,” he received applause.
Asked about the budget battles in Washington, Frelinghuysen focused on “reckless spending” and declined to discuss what programs, if any, he would cut. Instead, he offered a lengthy defense of spending on the military and social safety nets, and outlined the difficulties presented by cuts.
When a student asked, “You seem like a moderate Republican. What do you do with the more uninformed Republican, or conservative, colleagues?” Frelinghuysen quipped, “I can’t prevent people from being stupid.”
Both Democrats and Republicans “have people who are out of control on the far left and the far right,” said Frelinghuysen. “There are some members of Congress who are so conservative that they would bring the whole country down to follow their view of what fiscal conservatism is. I worry that the country is so polarized. I’m in the middle but there aren’t many in the middle.”
Reminding the students that as a member of the House he does not have a vote on former Sen. Chuck Hagel’s nomination as Secretary of Defense, he went on to say that he does not support Hagel for the position. “I serve on the Defense Committee and he has said things not only about the State of Israel but about people that have hate for us, and you can’t just take those statements back. I don’t support him. And what I hear is that neither Democrats nor Republicans like him. He is not popular. He is a polarizing figure. But I understand that the president has a right to have the secretary of his own choosing,” he said.
He urged students to continue to be vocal in their support of Israel or any cause they feel strongly about.
“Israel supporters are often criticized for putting pressure on Congress. But I say, if you have a cause, you need to work that cause,” he said. “Those who support Israel are among the most vocal of all the people I come into contact with.”
Frelinghuysen came at the invitation of the school’s American Israel Public Affairs Committee club, in part because of his record of support for Israel. It was the first time a member of Congress has visited the school.