On Dec. 17, 2016, Ben Gilman, the former chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a longtime friend of the U.S.-Israel relationship, passed away at the age of 94.
“Throughout his 30 years in Congress, Ben Gilman has been a leader on virtually every issue important to the pro-Israel community,” said AIPAC’s Chief Executive Officer Howard Kohr in a 2002 news article on Gilman’s retirement from Congress. “He brought passion to the issues, integrity to Congress, a spirit of bipartisanship to all his work, and he will be sorely missed.”
First elected to Congress in 1972 from Middletown, New York, Gilman served as the chairman of the House Task Force on Emigration of Soviet Jewry and as an executive member of the Human Rights Caucus. From 1995 to 2001, he served as the chairman of the International Relations Committee, now called the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
In the 1970s and 1980s, he played a significant role in freeing “refuseniks” and prisoners of Zion from the former Soviet Union. In 1986, he worked for the release of Natan Sharansky as part of a major exchange of detainees, teaming up with Rabbi Ronald Greenwald to participate in behind-the-scenes negotiations involving East Germany and South Africa that ultimately led to Sharansky’s freedom.
“I was saddened to learn of Congressman Benjamin Gilman's passing. I remember when Capitol Hill was a central battlefield in the struggle for the freedom of Soviet Jewry, and Congressman Gilman was one of the foremost soldiers in that battle. He was deeply involved in that struggle and was always a staunch supporter of Israel and a champion of the American Jewish community,” said Sharansky. "He was an American patriot and rightly saw no contradiction between fighting for his country and standing up for the Jewish people and for the State of Israel.”
Gilman supported and spearheaded numerous pro-Israel initiatives during his 30-year career, to include leading efforts in favor of foreign aid to Israel, disapproving the AWACS aircraft sale to Saudi Arabia, and urging recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. In 1995, Gilman led a bipartisan group of 200 lawmakers in pledging support for relocating the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and he also authored several bipartisan letters advocating this move.
To counter the Iranian threat, Gilman introduced bipartisan legislation—the Iran Nonproliferation Act of 2000—that sanctions foreign entities that provide Iran with technology that contribute to the development of nuclear weapons or ballistic missile. The law was passed unanimously in both the House and Senate, and was subsequently signed into law by President Bill Clinton. The legislation continues to this day to deter illicit exports to Iran and punish entities that violate the law.
“I was saddened to learn of the passing of former Committee Chairman Ben Gilman. My thoughts are with his family,” said Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), the current chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “As Chairman of this Committee, Ben led in a truly bipartisan fashion and enjoyed respect from his colleagues on both sides of the aisle…A committed supporter of Israel, Ben strove tirelessly for peace.”
“He was a true believer in the U.S.-Israel partnership and in the need for bipartisanship to strengthen and sustain it,” said AIPAC Senior Lobbyist Ester Kurz. “In these times of hyper-partisanship, he leaves behind an important legacy.”
Beyond initiatives affecting the U.S.-Israel relationship, Gilman was no less consequential. His passion for international relations and education led him to sponsor the International Academic Opportunity Act of 2000, resulting in the creation of the U.S. Department of State’s Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program the following year. To date, the program has provided more than 22,000 scholarships to students, affording them the opportunity to study abroad or intern in a foreign country.
Responding to the loss of Gilman, Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY), a fellow member of the New York delegation, hailed Gilman as a “true legislator and patriot who honorably served the Hudson Valley in Congress for 30 years.” Also, Rep. Sean Maloney (D-NY) called him a “true statesman.”
Gilman is survived by his wife, Georgia Tingus Gilman; three children, Jonathan Gilman, Harrison Gilman and Susan Gilman; two stepchildren, Nicole Pappas and Peter Tingus; and 11 grandchildren.
May his memory be a blessing.
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