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Speaking frankly, persuading subtly

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Congressman Barney Frank speaks about the relationship between the United States and Israel.

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FEBRUARY 27, 2012

On Thursday, Representative Barney Frank took the stage of a crowded Dwinelle lecture hall, addressing an enthusiastic audience of students with his typical congressional swagger. Best known for his former chairmanship of the House Financial Services Committee (and remarkable comeback abilities), one would expect the Massachusetts congressman to speak about the subtleties of the subprime mortgage crisis. But instead, Frank was the opening act of Tikvah’s Israeli Peace and Diversity Week, the Zionist student group’s “annual celebration of Israeli diversity, tolerance, and peace.” Thus, the congressman was strangely speaking on a topic that he is not well known for — American-Israeli relations.

With this confusion in mind, I shuffled to my seat not knowing what exactly to expect. Why, after all, was this New England liberal lecturing across the country about another nation halfway around the world? But, when the political giant started speaking, his intentions became immediately clear.

“I am a man of the left,” the congressman told the swooning students, referencing his well-known progressive resume to pack a powerful punch: “Therefore, I am a strong supporter of the nation of Israel.” Touching upon a plethora of political issues, Frank explained how his support of Israel is derived from its liberal policies regarding democracy, gay rights and immigration. It was brilliant rhetorical strategy, appealing to Berkeley’s liberal ethos and explaining how Israel has embraced the progressive politics that our campus champions.

Granted, the congressman’s depiction of Israel was not all peaches and cream — or, perhaps I should say falafel and hummus. Frank was quite frank about Israel’s settlement policy, calling some of the more zealous Zionists “thugs.” But, just because Israel is imperfect doesn’t mean it shouldn’t exist, he argued, inviting fellow Americans to be critical friends of what he sees as a vital and vibrant democracy.

Certainly the congressman’s persuasive appeal was not perfect. At one point, for instance, he laughingly called the anti-Israel movement “bupkis” with an air of snobbery that definitely raised some eyebrows. Perhaps Israel is strongly supported in most of America, but Berkeley is in a completely different dimension where groups like Students for Justice in Palestine are a very active political force. But, ignoring a few minor speed bumps, the congressman left the stage doubtlessly having changed some moderate liberal minds on the subject of Israel.

Contact Casey Given at 

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FEBRUARY 27, 2012