Benjamin Gilman, one of two Jewish Republican members of the House of Representatives and for three decades a staunch supporter of Israel and Jewish causes going back to the struggle for Soviet Jewry, announced his retirement Tuesday after redistricting pushed him into a new district with fellow Republican Rep. Sue Kelly.
Gilman, 79, had vowed in May to seek re-election regardless where redistricting (mandated by the 2000 Census) placed him. When the state Legislature approved new lines last month that put him and Kelly in the same district, Gilman considered challenging Kelly in a primary or even becoming a Democrat to run against her in November.
In recent days, however, he reportedly began telling associates that a private poll he conducted indicated that Kelly would win. About 70 percent of the new 19th Congressional District (parts or all of Dutchess, Putnam, Westchester, Rockland and Orange counties) was Kelly’s old district, while 28 percent was Gilman’s.
Gilman’s current 20th district includes Rockland, Orange, Westchester and Sullivan counties.
The consolidation of the districts was prompted by the need to eliminate two of New York’s 31 congressional seats because of slow population growth. Republican leaders had expected Gilman, the oldest member of the House, to retire soon and believed he was the most expendable.
Gilman announced his retirement in a press release Tuesday night.
"Regrettably it became evident that the state’s efforts to target our district in order to protect other incumbents undermined our efforts to successfully pursue another term in Congress," he said in the statement. "Accordingly it is with great remorse that I must announce that I will not be standing for re-election to the 108th Congress."
Gilman was a hawk on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, praised Gilman as "one of the few members of Congress who understood the flaws and dangers" of the 1993 Oslo peace accords between Israel and the Palestinians.
Toward that end, he fought against American aid to the Palestinian Authority.
Gilman had the most clout when he served for six years as chairman of the House International Relations Committee. Term limits forced Gilman to give up the post last year. He currently serves as chairman of the subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia.
"Ben Gilman, who came across as an old-fashioned country lawyer, was in fact one of the most brilliant and knowledgeable analysts on the Middle East I met on the Hill," Klein said. "His commitment to Israel was not a knee-jerk or political commitment, it was from his heart and soul. … He’s almost irreplaceable as a friend of a strong Israel."
Similar words of praise came from other Jewish leaders.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said Gilman "served his country, his constituency and his community with great devotion and distinction, and he has a great contribution yet to make. … He looms large in the history of this period. We wish him great success and look forward to continuing to work with him in whatever he decides to do."
Michael Miller, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, praised Gilman as a "stalwart friend of Israel, a champion of the cause of Soviet Jewry, and a defender of the victims of [Palestinian] terror. Moreover, as a member of the Jewish community, we will miss his authoritative voice within the Republican Party and its congressional representation. His legacy will be most difficult to match in its measure of accomplishments."
Miller noted that just last month he turned to Gilman after a Russian Jewish emigre was denied a visa to receive medical treatment in New York.
"He was the only person we thought of to rectify the situation," Miller said. "He sent a letter to the State Department and a visa was issued within days. That’s Ben Gilman. He’s a great humanitarian and a mensch."
Jess Hordes, the longtime Washington director of the Anti-Defamation League, said Gilman has been a "leader in Congress on issues of concern to the Jewish community for many years, and particularly issues relating to support for Israel."
That view was echoed by Brad Gordon, legislative director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, who said Gilman was a "leader on virtually every issue important to the pro-Israel community. He brought passion to the issues, integrity to Congress, a spirit of bipartisanship to all his work, and he will be sorely missed."