Developing a joint anti-ballistic defense system should be the "centerpiece" of strategic cooperation between the United States and Israel, Sen. Barbara Mikulski told Jewish leaders and elected officials Sunday.
The Maryland Democrat, saying the Patriot batteries deployed during the 1991 Gulf war were not sufficiently accurate, said the two countries must work to develop "new smart weapons" such as the Arrow system or a tactical laser that would shoot down missiles, whether launched by Iraq or Hezbollah guerrillas on Israel’s northern border.
Widely known as a street fighter whose stature and guts clash with her diminutive appearance, Mikulski spoke poignantly of one occasion on which she lost her composure. During a trip to Poland to research her heritage in the 1970s, when she was a member of the House of Representatives, Mikulski decided not only to visit the places of her roots, but also what she called the "dark" side of Poland.
That led her to Auschwitz.
"I have been a social worker and a child abuse specialist," Mikulski said at the Jewish Community Relations Council’s congressional breakfast in Midtown. "People know that nothing fazes me easily. But when I saw the piles of children’s shoes, that’s when I lost it."
As her audience listened in rapt silence, she added: "I understood that day the need for a Jewish homeland, and I will always do my best to ensure its survival."
It was that support for Israel, together with her key role in securing federal 9-11 aid for New York, that earned Mikulski the top honor at the annual JCRC event at UJA-Federation headquarters.
The event was dedicated to the seven astronauts who perished last week in the space shuttle Columbia disaster.
"They reached for the stars and took us with them," said JCRC president Ezra Levin, before calling for a moment of reflection.
But the hot topics of the day were the elevated security level and the not unrelated pending war on Iraq.
Several speakers displayed political courage by delivering messages not necessarily in favor with the crowd. Rep. Charles Rangel of Manhattan said he continued to oppose the war despite evidence of deadly weapons production in Iraq presented by Secretary of State Colin Powell to the United Nations. Rangel suggested a similar report be compiled on Saudi Arabia for its complicity in terrorism.
"I didn’t need all that to tell me Saddam Hussein is a bum," said the gravelly voiced dean of New York’s congressional delegation. "The question is whether bombing Iraqi children is going to make us any safer."
Rep. Jerrold Nadler said that Israel faces a choice between evolving into an apartheid state or remaining a democracy.
"In 10 years there will be an Arab majority, and Israel canít maintain all that territory without sacrificing either its democratic or its Jewish nature," said Nadler, a Manhattan Democrat. "If all inhabitants [Jewish and Arab] don’t have the right to vote, it will be an apartheid state. In that case, it would be much more difficult to defend Israel on college campuses."
The crowd reacted more positively to speakers like Sens. Charles Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton and Israeli Consul Alon Pinkas, who criticized the French for refusing to support the war plan of President George W. Bush.
The French, Pinkas said, would be speaking German if not for the United States, and "the world would be a different place today" without presidents such as Herbert Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman who led the United States in wartime.
"The Manhattan Project did not wait for polls in Europe," said Pinkas, referring to the program to build an atomic bomb. He then added, in a more diplomatic vein, "but it’s none of our business."