Young Israeli-Americans return from battle to take up their next fight on Capitol Hill

A 27-year-old Israeli-American IDF reservist is not the expected face of a movement trying to mend the increasingly fraught relationship between Israel’s government and the Democratic party

Yet Benaya Cherlow put himself at the forefront of the effort to do what he said his government has not: reach out to Democrats, without giving up. 

Cherlow was born in Jerusalem to an American father and Lebanese mother, giving him a unique identity, he said. His father’s parents survived the Holocaust and later settled on Long Island. 

After completing IDF service as an officer in 2020, Cherlow studied decision-making strategy and diplomacy at Reichman University in Herzilya. He moved to Washington, D.C. for an internship in Rep. Brad Schneider’s (D-IL) office when he graduated in June 2023. 

Come October 7, Cherlow’s reserve unit was called for duty. He went back home to Israel where he served 103 days both in Gaza and along the northern border where his brigade faced frequent clases with Hezbollah fighters. While deployed Cherlow kept in touch with friends and colleagues on Capitol Hill, sending memos and key points about what was happening on the ground. 

Young Israeli-Americans return from battle to take up their next fight on Capitol Hill (credit: BENAYA CHERLOW)

He returned to D.C. in early February, and received over 30 inquiries from congressional colleagues about his experience. 

Realizing it was too much to handle on his own, Cherlow turned to Facebook asking Israelis with American citizenship returning to the US from reserve duty to join him for a series of meetings on Capitol Hill. Cherlow fundraised and organized three days of meetings with more than a dozen lawmakers. 

The lawmakers were Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX); Sen. John Fetterman (D-PA); Sen. Pete Ricketts (R-NE); Rep. David Trone (D-MD); Rep. Tom Kean (R-NJ); Rep. Kay Granger (R-TX); Rep. John James (R-MI); Rep. Tim Burchett (R-TN); Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA); Rep. David Trone (D-MD); Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-FL); Rep. Brian Mast (R-FL); Rep. Dan Goldman (D-NY); Rep. Mike Carey (R-OH); Rep. Greg Stanton (D-AZ) and Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-MI). 

Eight Democrats, nine Republicans. 

Five other Israeli-American IDF reservists volunteered to join Cherlow. 

“All of us have knowledge about Israeli and American politics, each of us speaks the two languages,” Cherlow told The Post. “Many Israelis think they understand American politics. They don’t. And many Americans, they think they understand the politics of Israel, but they don’t.”

“So we tried to build a bridge on this gap, because we can talk to them about how Israelis [receive] what Americans are saying, and how in America it sounds what Israelis are saying,” Cherlow said. 

Cherlow emphasized his delegation wasn’t on Capitol Hill representing a political party or ideology. He didn’t even know the political affiliation of his fellow Israeli-Americans. 

Oz Bin Nun, a reserve duty combat soldier who served in the towns near Gaza and the Lebanese border, said not belonging to a lobby organization or political party gave them a huge advantage in Congress. 

“I didn’t think that the impact of these meetings would be so significant for them, and for us, but I found that there is a very large information gap in Congress, and the voices of the people who were in the war and who can share first-hand how things really look are missing,” Bin Nun said. 

Avi Eison, a reservist major ship commander, said the most important thing he told the lawmakers was his personal experience. 

“Everyone’s heard the slogans. But when I talk about the moment I traveled by the Sea of Galilee at the beginning of the war, and thought that this place could actually disappear, they react differently,” Avi said in a statement. “I also insist on translating this into a context they understand – how would you feel if one day you woke up and Lake Michigan or the lake you vacation with your family, simply vanished from the country?”

Republican Democratic Divide

Cherlow joked there is so much polarization in the US that Republicans and Democrats can’t even agree on how to make coffee.

But there are a few things Cherlow expressed to lawmakers that there needs to be a consensus on, like bringing the hostages home and defeating Hamas. 

“Don’t stop us until we are finished with this step,” Cherlow said. “Then we can speak about the things we do not agree on, like who needs to rule Gaza, how the PA can function, how much the US needs to be involved, how much Israel needs to be involved.”

The conversations with Republicans were easy, though he described some of the Republican lawmakers as more radical than the delegation. 

But with some of the Democratic lawmakers and staffers, there were tough conversations. Cherlow said some of their notions of Israel and the war were shaped by people who hate Israel, so then it becomes their reality. 

Cherlow accused Netanyahu and his Minister of Strategic Affairs Ron Dermer of causing significant damage to the relationship with Democratic party. 

Some Democrats told Cherlow’s delegation that they were the first Israelis to come speak with them. They hadn’t heard from any government or embassy officials. 

“This is Israel’s fault, because they just gave up on the Democratic Party. They say there is no future with the Democratic party, so they just gave up on them.” Cherlow said. “It’s not a secret that Netanyahu doesn’t love the Democratic party.”

One Democrat told Cherlow they don’t want to speak with the Israeli government because they don’t share the same values. 

“Then I understood that this is the time for civil society to build a bridge. This is our time, people who care about American security, who care about Israel’s security, to try to save the relationship with the Democratic party. To rebuild the trust with the Democratic party.”

Cherlow is willing to meet with any Democratic lawmaker. He said his group is going to invest a lot of effort into building those relationships. 

“Because if they don’t trust us, if they don’t believe us, if they don’t see us as allies, they will never be open to listening to us or our side,” Cherlow said. 

The most challenging conversation came from McGovern and his staff members. Their perception of the war was so different from what Cherlow and other members of the delegation experienced. 

“This was a hard conversation, because many people do this conversation online on social media, they react to each other,” Cherlow said of a particular conversation with a staff member. “We sat 30 centimeters from each other. And she looked at my eyes and she told me your Air Force wants to kill civilians in Gaza. And I told her how I sacrificed myself to help people.”

But Cherlow said that it was a good conversation, because the staffer wants to meet with them again. 

“If you want to meet us again, we did our job. We started to build a relationship,” Cherlow said. 

Looking to future lawmakers 

Cherlow’s parents and grandparents’ generation remember the Holocaust. They know there must be a Jewish country for Jewish people. 

Though Cherlow said his generation, and other generations born after 1967 or after 1973, see Israel as a fact. 

“But then they say, ‘wait, we heard from our parents that Israel is like this magical country that God loves,'” Cherlow said. “But then they see Israel do a lot of unbelievable things, they say we were lied to about Israel. They say this is not our value.”

Cherlow said younger American Jews have grown up to see a right wing Israeli that isn’t accepting of LGBTQ people, doesn’t accept reform Judaism and is more and more anti-Palestinian. His generation is going away from supporting Israel. 

Now, Cherlow’s sights are set on the Democrat’s future elected officials. He knows most Jewish Americans are affiliated with the Democratic party. 

“We know that the next generation who comes to Capitol Hill are going to be more extreme in not supporting Israel and criticizing Israel. And we know that if we wait to act in 20 years, it will be too late,” Cherlow said. “We need to start right now to work with the next generation about reaching common values and bridges. We need to show them that we are allies, to show them we have values in common, to show them that Israel really is a democratic country with liberal values.”

But when they think about Netanyahu, they think about Trump, Cherlow said. 

Cherlow called Jewish groups like AIPAC’s tactics old-fashioned and unsuccessful at building relationships with younger, more liberal Americans, which influenced Cherlow to organize weekly Zoom calls with friends who also work on Capitol Hill. 

“I explain that there is a difference between Israeli society and Israeli government. There are differences in how Israeli people want to accept the Jewish American community,” Cherlow said. “We must act now to save the relationship with the new generation of the Democratic party.”

Chelow also said that Israelis need to understand that Netanyahu’s policies are massively challenging the country’s relationship with the American Jewish community. 

“We need to keep the Jewish community around the US like our brothers and sisters, like our family,” Cherlow said. “But because of the ultra-orthodox in Israel, who Netanyahu depends on, we hurt [Jewish Americans] a lot.”

When Cherlow returned from fighting and visited Jewish communities in New York, he said he found himself apologizing for the Israeli government. Jewish communities across the US rallied immediately after October 7 to send money and supplies to IDF troops. 

“It’s these American communities that really saved us, right?” Cherlow said. “Without the donations of the Jewish American community, we were in a really bad situation. Our protection equipment on the Lebanese border was from Jewish Americans. Without that equipment, some of us would not be here today.”

Continuing the conversation

Cherlow and his delegation were invited to keep in touch with the lawmakers, and they’ve formed WhatsApp groups with their staffers to keep them informed. 

The lawmakers invited the delegation back to their offices in March to keep the conversation going on the Israeli-American perspective of the war and the country’s relationship. 

Cherlow said he’s reaching out to more lawmakers, especially progressive ones. He’s waiting to finalize the schedule for his next slate of meetings. 

Sen. Chris Van Hollen is the only lawmaker who has declined to make him available for a meeting. Van Hollen has been highly critical of the US’ unchecked military support for Netanyahu, which he’s publicly expressed.