A recent resolution passed by Congress may have been wrong — Gabriel Zimmerman may not have been the only Congressional staffer to be murdered while pursuing official business.
The 30-year-old community outreach director for Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) was killed at a Tucson constituent event in January that he had helped organize.
The House voted unanimously last week on a resolution to name a Capitol Hill meeting room in his honor.
“Gabriel Zimmerman was the first Congressional staffer in history to be murdered in the performance of his official duties,” reads the resolution, sponsored by Giffords’ close friend and Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.).
But the Harold W. Rosenthal Fellowship in International Relations begs to differ.
The fellowship, which places students in Congressional offices, was named for a Foreign Relations Committee staffer of the late Sen. Jacob Javits (R-N.Y.).
In August 1976, the 29-year-old Rosenthal was en route to Israel on a fact-finding mission for Javits. In Istanbul, his plane was targeted by Palestinian terrorists’ grenades, and he was one of four people killed.
“His intense desire for peace in the Middle East led him to that fateful spot in the Istanbul airport,” Javits said in a floor speech shortly after Rosenthal’s death. “He had been warned not to go. But anyone who knew Hal knew that he would have to go; he would have to make what contribution he could, despite the risk.”
Jonathan Beeton, Wasserman Schultz’s senior adviser and communications director, explained that the office had determined that Zimmerman was the first staffer to be murdered while performing his job after reviewing exhaustive research from the Congressional Research Service.
A report following the shooting in Tucson lists dozens of instances of violence against Members of the House and Senate and their staffers dating back to 1789 but does not include Rosenthal.
The report does concede that the findings may not be complete, however.
“Identifying all who have served Congress in a staff capacity, and then identifying whether they have suffered violence during that service, presents all but insurmountable obstacles to compiling an exhaustive and authoritative inventory of violent innocents,” the report reads. “The material present here cannot with authority be said to compromise all of the attacks on members of Congress or staff that have ever occurred.”
Senate Historian Donald Ritchie confirmed that Rosenthal had been killed while on official business and that it seemed to him that the CRS had overlooked him when compiling their data.
But semantics are important. What constitutes “official business,” for instance?
If a Washington Post article entered into the Congressional Record at the time is right, it could be that Rosenthal’s murder was not counted as a business-related death because he was in Istanbul as a private citizen.
“Technically, Rosenthal was on vacation when he was killed,” the news story said. “He had been invited by the Israeli government, which paid his expenses, to attend a 10-day symposium in Tel Aviv. The stop-over in Turkey was a side trip he took on his own.”
And while Zimmerman was killed during an attack on a Congressional event, there is no evidence that the Istanbul attackers knew a Congressional aide was on the plane.
Richard Gilmore, the chairman of the Rosenthal fellowship board, said he had no interest in pushing for an amendment to the resolution to include a reference to Rosenthal, or to say that Zimmerman was not the only Congressional staffer to be killed on duty.
“We thought it was an interesting footnote, and that maybe we could leverage that to at least a reference to our fellowship, because it does serve Harold’s memory,” Gilmore said.
Beeton told Roll Call that it was nobody’s intention to draw focus on Zimmerman away from others who had befallen tragic ends.
“Any loss of life is unfortunate and sad,” Beeton said. “Our resolution was introduced to honor the life and service of Gabe Zimmerman, who clearly was murdered while helping the people of Southern Arizona interact with their local Congresswoman.
“While all of the research we’ve seen clearly indicates that he was the first person to have been intentionally killed while working for a Member of Congress, that is really beside the point,” he continued.