By Miriam Raftery
February 23, 2018 (San Diego) – Few family trees are without some bad apples. But should the actions of an ancestor you never met haunt you if you decide to seek public office?
Ammar Campa-Najjar was born in America to a Catholic mother of Mexican descent and a Palestinian Muslim father. Now a Democratic candidate for Congress running for Rep. Duncan D. Hunter’s seat, his platform includes calling for a lasting peace in the Middle East that respects both Israelis and Palestinians.
This week, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz ran a story headlined, Grandson of Munich Massacre Terrorist is Running For Congress – Sounding a Peaceful Tone on Israel. The story claims that Campa-Najjar’s grandfather was in the terrorist organization Black September that was responsible for killing Israeli Olympic competitors in Munich, and was later killed by Israeli security forces.
The newspaper also acknowledges that Campa-Najjar has rejected violence and won endorsements from San Diego rabbis,“winning praise from members of the local Jewish community for his moderate positions on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.”
The story indicates Campa-Najjar, who grew up in El Cajon., lived for a brief period with his father in Gaza, where he developed empathy for both sides and resolved, “What my grandfather did was inexcusable. The goal is for our generation to be better than our predecessors, and find a way to end this conflict.”
The article hit print days before the California Democratic party meets in San Diego to make endorsements in the 50th Congressional District race. With endorsements from most major Democratic clubs and progressive groups, Campa-Najjar has been the clear leader expected to win endorsement over several rival candidates.
Campa-Najjar responded to East County Magazine’s inquiry on the Haaretz article initially by stating that some details on his ancestor claimed in the article are “historically unclear among scholars on both sides, but what is clear is my complete and unequivocal condemnation of violence and the murder of innocence. It simply is not justified.”
He has been previously vetted and passed a background check as a former White House intern and official in the Labor Department during the Obama administration.
Asked his views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and whether he supports a two-state solution, Campa-Najjar provided an in-depth statement in which he states he feels “I’m blessed to have been born in America, a country where regardless of your appearance, the sound of your name, or where your family came from, you can achieve your dreams if you work hard and believe enough.”
He acknowledges his heritage’s “heartbreaking history,” adding, “Palestinians and Israelis have lost too much over the years of bloodshed, that’s why I am committed to helping broker a lasting peace in my lifetime. Resolving this conflict is in America’s best interest. It's not only the crown jewel of world diplomacy, it's the Achilles' heel of the Middle East. Extremists have used this conflict as an alibi to attack innocent people in the Middle East, the United States, and the world over. That’s why as an American, I am committed to seeing this conflict end… these old wounds must be re-opened, then I pray God gives purpose to their unspeakable pain. I pray that purpose is to see peace prioritized by my generation of Palestinians, Israelis, and the whole of humanity.”
As for what it would take to attain peace in the Middle East, he states, “To achieve peace, Palestinians and Israelis will have to make the same personal choice I’ve had to make: leave the dark past behind so that the future shines brighter through the eyes of our children. Fashioning a lasting peace will not be easy, but it is necessary. The Jewish people are among the most oppressed people in human history, while the Palestinians are among the last occupied people in human history. Both sides have faced near annihilation, the result of which is a fear that has sowed distrust and postponed peace.”
He adds, “In the final analysis, both sides will have to make generous compromises for the sake of peace. The final arrangement will be a peace deal neither side wants, but everyone needs. Ultimately, Israel will have to acknowledge its wrongdoings as the sovereign state and accept the Palestinian’s rights to self-determination, independence, and equality. Palestinians will have to renounce violence and fanaticism, acknowledge their Jewish neighbors, and accept new realities.”
He emphasizes that attaining Mideast peace is not, however, his motivation for running for Congress. If elected, he says he wants to focus “less on the wars we’ve waged abroad, and more on the wars we wage within. From income inequality, debilitating healthcare costs, gun violence on the rise, veteran homelessness, the inevitable displacement of millions of workers due to automation, to the worst calamities of climate change, America must prevail over many challenges in the coming years. I believe we are up to meeting these challenges, if we choose to chart a new course toward redefined American greatness together .”
His statement concludes, “Life is all about choices. I choose to continue to stand where I always have, with my fellow Americans. I hope they will too.”
He also forwarded a list of several rabbis who have endorsed his candidacy, including two who provided statements.
Rabbi Ner Tamid from the Conservative Masorti Synagogue in Poway praises Campa-Najjar as a rarity in politics, someone who embodies “personal responsibility and a vision that prioritized both security and hope. Ammar immediately made the matter personal by explaining how an unknown relative had been implicated in the Munich Olympian massacre, and that, while he did not know him, he knew growing up that he had two possible paths: one, avenging his death by bowing to pressure to hate Israel, or the other, defying the pressure and restoring family honor by forging paths of peace. He chose the latter.”
He adds that Campa-Najjar “didn’t avoid the importance of Israel’s security: he embraced it, including his concerns about his own party’s positions on Iran. He spoke eloquently about how Mideast security depends on Israel's security: a vision larger and less parochial that we often hear. He spoke as a visionary not only of how the human rights of Palestinians are crucial to Israel's security,” the Rabbi added. “He spoke as a visionary not only of how thehuman rights of Palestinians are crucial to Israel’s security, but how Israel's security is crucial to the human rights of Palestinians. “
Rabbi Devorah Marcus, senior rabbi at Temple Emanu-El of San Diego, states, “Ammar proactively sought a meeting as a way to build relationships within the Jewish community. His passion is building bridges and creating a shared vision for a tolerant world. “ She adds that Campa-Najjar impressed her with his knowledge on the Israel-Palestine conflict, bringing a perspective born of life experience.
Rabbi Marcus adds, “He is a realist with a dedicated optimistic commitment. He supports Israel and he supports Palestine. He speaks comfortably about the good and the difficulties of both communities. As a rabbi, I feel that we have an ally in Ammar who understands our fears, concerns, hopes and dreams for Israel…Ammar is a reflection of the ways that diversity helps make our communities and our world a much better place.”
Campa-Najjar has amassed more money to fund his campaign than Hunter, who has been plagued by a federal criminal investigation into the Congressman’s campaign finances and allegations of spending lavish amounts of campaign donors’ money on personal expenses including a family vacation in Italy, oral surgery and tuition at his child’s school. Hunter has denied those claims but took out a loan to repay his campaign.
A key question is just how Haaretz obtained information on Campa-Najjar’s family history and whether an opponent’s campaign on either side of the aisle may have been involved, given the timing of the story just days before his endorsement consideration by the state Democratic party.