Virginia House candidates battle over Israel in final debate

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. -- Republican Scott Rigell said NPR's recent firing of news analyst Juan Williams is a sign America is falling into the "trap of true political correctness."

During a debate Thursday, Rigell also took a stand against the construction of a mosque near Ground Zero in New York City and said Israel has a right to sovereignty over the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

ADVERTISEMENT
The event was the final meeting between Rigell, Rep. Glenn Nye (D-Va.) and Independent Kenny Golden before Election Day. With polls showing Nye and Rigell tied, the candidates' debate performance could help decide who wins Virginia's 2nd district.

The debate was sponsored by the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater and many of the questions revolved around Washington's relationship with Israel and the Muslim world.

Moderator Joel Rubin asked the candidates if they support the planned construction of a mosque near where the World Trade Center stood. Nye was noncommittal.

"Maybe there's a better use -- a multicultural center," the freshman Democrat said. "Bring people together, that’s what we should be trying to do here." 

Rigell said he would "strongly urge" the group to reconsider building on the site. "There's no a lack of mosques there," he said of New York City.

Rigell also brought up Williams, who was recently fired by NPR for telling Fox News host Bill O'Reilly that when he gets on a plane, "if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous."

Rigell said he agreed with Williams.

"We can, as a nation, fall into this trap of true political correctness. I think the firing of Juan Williams is one example of that," the Republican said. "I think he articulated a view or a feeling a concern that if we were all truly transparent, and in the same scenario that he described, you know frankly, I would share his view.

"I think to be fired for saying something that is an entirely rational concern, I think, was a poor decision on the part of [NPR]," Rigell said.

Some 300 people crammed into the Simon Family Jewish Community Center in Virginia Beach to hear the candidates' final debate. The Jewish community, which leaders say numbers about 6,000 families, has some sway in Virginia's 2nd district. And all three candidates sought to highlight their pro-Israel stances.

"They have a right, a true right and an unquestionable right, in my view, to occupy that land," Rigell said, before criticizing a letter Nye signed onto that urged President Obama to seek an easing of Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip. "By sending that letter," Rigell said, "it is creating doubt of where America stands with our ally, Israel."

The letter was signed by 54 members of Congress, including Nye, who serves on the House Armed Services Committee.

"We recognize that the Israeli government has imposed restrictions on Gaza out of a legitimate and keenly felt fear of continued terrorist action by Hamas and other militant groups," the group wrote. "This concern must be addressed without resulting in the de facto collective punishment of the Palestinian residents of the Gaza Strip."

Rigell said he wouldn't have signed that letter.

Nye disputed Rigell's characterization of the letter's intent and said he supports what Israel has to do to ensure its survival.

"Israel is an important ally; they need our support. We have to continue to work to ensure that they have and maintain a military so their neighbors cannot defeat them," Nye said.

Before the debate started, there was a moment of silence for former Rep. Owen Pickett (D), who represented Virginia's 2nd district from 1987 to 2001. Pickett died on Wednesday at the age of 80. 

Photo by Greg Nash