On a trip to Israel billed as a fact-finding mission, a group of Republican representatives in Congress jumped into the Sea of Galilee. While most of the members remained clothed, or largely so, Rep. Kevin Yoder of Kansas decided to disrobe entirely
WASHINGTON — They came to town promising something new and different, a fresh reprieve from the antics and proclivities of a “Washington” they disdained.
But during a trip to Israel last summer, several House Republican freshmen engaged in a late-night swim in the Sea of Galilee, complete with one skinny-dipping congressman whose choice threatened to tarnish the reputation of the House newcomers as super-serious number-crunchers who sleep on their office couches and go to bed before midnight.
On a trip billed as a foreign-policy fact-finding mission last year, a large group of Republican members of Congress, and some of their staff and family members, decided to take a swim in the sea after a long day. Among the six members were Republican Reps. Michael Grimm of New York; Steve Southerland of Florida; Tom Reed of New York; Ben Quayle of Arizona; Jeff Denham of California; and Kevin Yoder of Kansas.
Several members — including Southerland, who jumped into the water holding hands with his 21-year-old daughter — said they were moved to dip for religious reasons. (The sea is believed by Christians to be the location where Jesus walked on water.)
While most of the members remained clothed, or largely so, Yoder decided to disrobe entirely, as reported first by Politico on Sunday. This sent most of the members fleeing for the shore, said a participant, and prompted a harsh rebuke the next day from Rep. Eric Cantor, the House majority leader who was on the trip but did not swim in the sea.
More than 80 members of the House went on the trip, which was arranged by Cantor, as guests of the American Israel Education Foundation, a charity affiliated with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobbying group. It was believed to be the largest number of members of Congress to make the trip during a single recess, according to the organizers at the time.
While swimming in that sea is inoffensive to Israelis — indeed, there is an annual race in that body of water — Yoder’s nudity, as well as possible over-imbibing by some members that evening at the restaurant near the beach where they swam, angered Cantor, who believed it distracted from their foreign-policy mission.
While there was some indication that the swimming attracted the interest of the FBI, it appears that investigators were more interested in learning about other details of the trip to the politically sensitive nation, and only learned of the swim in passing.
But on Monday, Democrats nonetheless quickly leapt on the swimming incident. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee released a statement saying the episode “looks more like a scene out of ‘Animal House’ than a delegation of members of Congress representing America in Israel.”
A spokesman for Yoder — who was criticized in his 2010 campaign for refusing a breathalyzer test when pulled over while driving — did not return phone calls or emails seeking comment. But he did release a statement to Politico on Sunday that read:
“A year ago, my wife, Brooke, and I joined colleagues for dinner at the Sea of Galilee in Israel. After dinner I followed some members of Congress in a spontaneous and very brief dive into the sea and regrettably I jumped into the water without a swimsuit.”
He apologized for any embarrassment he had caused to his district.
Kansas Democratic Party Chairwoman Joan Wagnon called Yoder’s behavior “inexcusable” and said if the incident had occurred in Kansas, he would be forced to resign. She later issued a statement calling for him to step down.
“I’m astonished these people think they can go on these junkets like this and no one will know what they do,” Wagnon said.
Information from The Associated Press is included.