August 20, 2019

Jewish Group Lobbies to Honor Arab Leader

Congress recently passed a bill with a two-thirds majority in the Senate and the House of Representatives, a seemingly impossible feat in these divided times. The Anwar Sadat Centennial Celebration Act posthumously awards a Congressional Gold Medal to the late Egyptian leader. It was signed into law by the president on Dec. 13, 40 years after the historic Camp David Accords, and 100 years after Anwar Sadat’s birth. The award will be presented to Sadat’s widow, Jehan, at an upcoming ceremony.

How did this bipartisan coalition come together to honor a long-deceased foreign leader? The answer is unexpected and inspiring. An Arab head-of-state is receiving America’s highest civilian honor nearly four decades after his death thanks to the tireless efforts of a group of Orthodox Jews.

Ezra Friedlander is a Liska Chasid and CEO of the Friedlander Group, a public policy firm. He is passionate about creating a more peaceful world, and he takes action to do it. Friedlander traces his interest in public affairs to his childhood, when he heard about an attempt by 400 Orthodox rabbis to meet with President Franklin Roosevelt regarding the Nazi slaughter of Jews in Europe. FDR refused to even meet the group congregated outside the White House. That moment in history taught Friedlander that involvement at every level of government must be a priority for the Orthodox Jewish community.

Anwar Sadat didn’t engage in secret negotiations but rather made open gestures toward Israel.

Friedlander formed a committee of like-minded leaders, including Los Angeles residents Sol Goldner, Stanley Treitel, and Aubrey Sharfman. This group was instrumental in building U.S. support for Israel’s Iron Dome program, and was behind successful efforts to honor Shimon Peres and Raoul Wallenberg with Congressional Gold Medals. Other backers of the Sadat bill include Shafik Gabr, an Egyptian industrialist; Isaac Dabah, an Israeli mogul who operates clothing factories in Egypt; and Tzili Charney, widow of Leon Charney, who advised the negotiators at Camp David in 1978.

The committee chose to honor Sadat with its latest initiative because of his exceptional courage and leadership in making peace with Israel, an accomplishment that ultimately cost him his life. The group wants a new generation to learn how an Arab leader made peace with the homeland of the Jewish people. Sadat didn’t engage in secret negotiations but rather made open gestures toward Israel, in effect saying to the world, “I want peace and I’m ready to go to Jerusalem to do it.” His visit to Jerusalem was historic — and deeply controversial in the Arab world. Egypt was immediately kicked out of the Arab League, and just three years later, Sadat was assassinated by furious Islamists.

Friedlander and his associates worked tirelessly for two years to make the Sadat award happen. They needed “a thousand points of contact” with legislators to get the necessary 270 votes. The lawmakers who led the charge in securing the votes were Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), and Reps. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) and Chris Stewart (R-Utah).

The average staffer of a U.S. lawmaker receives hundreds of emails a day, and breaking through the noise is often impossible. In July 2018, the Sadat Gold Medal Committee still lacked 70 signatures. The August recess was looming, followed by the Jewish High Holy Days and then the midterm elections. Friedlander worried that if he didn’t get the signatures by summer’s end, he never would. Having tried everything else, he flew to Hungary and prayed at the grave of his ancestors, the first and second Liska Rebbes. He asked them to beseech God on his behalf for the needed votes. As soon as Friedlander returned to the U.S., 70 sponsors came aboard and the bills succeeded in both houses. Whether a Liska miracle or the natural result of many years’ hard work, the bill passed and the president signed it into law. 

Friedlander and Goldner, along with other committee members, are traveling to Egypt in February at the invitation of the Egyptian president. Egyptian leaders, like the Orthodox Jews who made the award happen, hope the late Anwar Sadat will become a model for creating peace in the Middle East.

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