A Force to Be Reckoned With
By Sara Lehmann
Stuart Force is quite literally the father of the Taylor Force Act. The law came into being after lobbying by Stuart and Robbi Force, parents of Taylor Force. Taylor was a former army officer who was stabbed to death by a Palestinian terrorist while he was visiting the city of Jaffa in Israel on March 8, 2016.
Passed at the end of 2017, under the Trump administration, the law prohibits the executive branch of the U.S. from providing economic support to the Palestinian Authority (PA) unless they take steps to “end acts of violence against U.S. and Israeli citizens” perpetrated by individuals under their jurisdiction and end “pay-for-slay” payments. In addition, the U.S. Secretary of State is required to periodically certify that such steps have been taken by the PA.
President Trump signed the bill into law in 2018 and immediately slashed more than $200 million in direct aid to the PA and stopped funding for UNRWA. At the time of its passage, PA President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the Taylor Force Act and vowed to continue paying families of “martyrs and prisoners.”
Taylor Force, who is survived by his parents and sister Kristen, lives on through the Taylor Force Act. His father, Stuart Force, a former pilot who lives with his wife in Texas, spoke to me about his son Taylor and the tragic event that changed their lives and the lives of Americans and Israelis in the State of Israel.
Can you tell me about Taylor and who he was as a person?
We are in awe of Taylor. He was such a good person. He had goals right from the beginning and very good instincts. We stressed the family and having good friends, and his peer group had good people with moral values. Being surrounded by people like that makes it easier for a child to grow. He was also very humble. He accomplished so much but you would never know it.
Taylor had the benefit of being in situations where the leaders in his life were very encouraging. Starting at the age of five, he went to a summer camp in Texas that stressed personal development. The camp’s motto was, “Don’t wait to be a man to be great. Be a great boy.”
I only found out after Taylor passed that he gave a speech at that camp. I was going through his things, doing the worst task of my life — being executor of a son — and found his speech. He wrote, “My priorities are G-d first, family second, me and everybody else third.” I still get choked up when I talk about it.
How did those priorities play out in his academic life?
When Taylor was young, he set his goal to go to West Point. At the age of 13, when we lived in New Mexico, Taylor said that he wanted to go to New Mexico Military Institute to prepare, and spent grades 10-12 there. He got nominations for West Point from our congressman and our Senator, Kay Bailey Hutchinson.
After four years at West Point, he went to a field artillery unit. In 2010, his unit got orders to go to Iraq for 13 months. My wife and I decided at that time that we didn’t want to be traveling around the country while he was in a war zone. She was a flight attendant and I was a pilot. We retired and moved to South Carolina and waited by the phone and held our breath, hoping we would never get a terrible phone call. Fortunately, between his time in Iraq and then Afghanistan, we never got that sad news that too many families get.
Sadly, you got that phone call from a totally different place. How did Taylor find himself in Israel?
After the army, he applied to graduate school and was accepted to Vanderbilt University’s MBA program. Before starting, he took a trip to Europe with friends. He went on a solo trip to Cracow, Poland, and signed up for a two-hour bus trip to Auschwitz. That tour of Auschwitz made a very deep impression on him, even though he didn’t talk too much about it.
Do you think that trip inspired him to visit Israel?
I think so. That and the fact that one of his best friends from West Point is Jewish. He got married and invited Taylor to wonderful Shabbat dinners. He was exposed to the traditions. When Vanderbilt had a spring break and arranged a trip to Israel, Taylor was intrigued and joined. He and 30 classmates flew to Israel. That’s how he ended up on the boardwalk in Jaffa on March 8.
No one can fathom losing a child. How do you cope with the grief?
I still have a hard time. It’s a void that will never be filled. When I got the phone call and the person identified herself as a Vanderbilt chaplain, I said to myself, this is not going to be a very good phone call. It wasn’t. They informed us that Taylor had passed away in an ambulance.
Robbi and I are still in disbelief. We are sad that he did not have a chance to complete his mission in life, whatever that would have been. The sadness is always there, but there’s the anger we feel that Taylor, like so many others who are taken young, never had a chance not only to experience life, but to complete their lives and to make themselves as good as they could be, and to make the world a better place. I think that’s what bothers us the most to this day.
Other Americans have been killed by terrorists, but you took your grief and channeled it into the life-affirming Taylor Force Act. Can you talk about that process?
A few months after we lost Taylor, we received an email from someone named Sander Gerber, who is a very successful and well-respected member of the New York financial community. The email expressed his deepest condolences. Sander was horrified about the pay-for-slay program — the policy of the Palestinians, rewarding terrorists who kill innocent Israelis and others. He coined the term.
He sent us two things concerning Taylor and his murder. They were rough. The first was a video on social media that showed the Palestinians celebrating Taylor’s death and the proclamation of his killer as a martyr for the Palestinian Youth Movement. The second was a PDF showing the actual language written into the Palestinian law that provides a scale of rewards for committing the crimes. Sander shared this with Senator Lindsay Graham, who is our senator. Senator Graham called me and said he doesn’t want to let this drop. He said that America sends hundreds of millions of dollars every year to the PA, and they turn around and use this money to pay the terrorists.
I said that we would like to be a part of whatever he and Sander had in mind. Sander had spoken over the past couple of years with people who lost family members and none of them wanted to get involved. I was glad that we were given an opportunity to address what took our son away.
What was your role in the bill’s passage and were there any detractors?
We were regular citizens and didn’t have the knowledge of how things work in Congress. Usually Senator Graham or Congressman Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) or Sander was with us to explain the technical aspects of pay-for-slay and how the money that left the U.S. ended up in the terrorists’ hands. But it was our job to tell congressmen about Taylor and how terrible it was to have taxpayer funds heading over there.
There really weren’t too many detractors. I attended the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the law and the vote was 17-4. Four Democratic Senators voted against it, including Senator Cory Booker. Later on, in the process of meeting senators, we met him and put a face to it and explained the whole pay-for-slay system. Booker eventually came around and supported it.
The committee reached a compromise for several carve-outs — one for the East Jerusalem hospital network, another for vaccinations for Palestinian children, and one for waste management and water purification systems. But the main bulk of the money that had been going to the PA was stopped as a result of the law.
You are a plaintiff in a December lawsuit against President Biden and Secretary of State Blinken for transferring “hundreds of millions of dollars from U.S. taxpayers to the PA despite pay-for-slay and contrary to the Taylor Force Act” and for “unlawfully laundering U.S. taxpayer funds through non-governmental organizations to directly benefit the PA.” What response has this elicited?
At the time of the Taylor Force Act, everyone was totally surprised that we sent money to the Palestinians that was being used for pay-for-slay. Now, a few years forward, they’re horrified that the current administration has resumed payments. Whether they send it to UNWRA or NGOs, the money is going there.
Does the Taylor Force Act distinguish between the PA and NGOs like UNWRA?
No. The act itself doesn’t speak exactly to that but the lawsuit specifically lays out how, through the NGOs and UNWRA, the money goes over there and we lose track of it. If it goes to the NGOs, the PA says they have authority over the NGOs. Therefore, it seems they are one and the same.
I recently interviewed U.S. Ambassador to Israel Thomas Nides and asked him about this lawsuit. Nides denied that the U.S. government is violating the Taylor Force Act and insisted that the “U.S. aid money is going to Palestinian people, not the PA … for education, health care, water, all things humanitarian.” On whom is the burden of proof to prove that money the PA is receiving is not benefitting terrorists? And what’s the protocol for oversight?
That is a really good question. I don’t think there’s any way to discern the money flow. Once the money goes to the NGOs, there is no mechanism to ensure that it doesn’t end up in the hands of the PA. They’re very good at hiding things, whether they go through the banks or not. Once the money leaves the U.S., I don’t believe there’s a way to adequately track it. That’s the crux of the problem.
Do you think that the fact that pay-for-slay continues is an indication that American money gets channeled to that program?
That’s a great way to put it. I think you hit the nail on the head. The program is continuing and they’re getting the money from somewhere, especially since there’s a resurgence in terrorist activity. Over the last year, the terrorist attacks have increased dramatically, not coincidentally with Biden giving funds.
My view is that if you can’t adequately assure that American taxpayer money is not being used to pay terrorist actions then you shouldn’t send any money at all. The whole purpose of aiding the PA over the years has been humanitarian. If the U.S. has lost control over ensuring that happens, then you need to stop sending the money.
The whole focus of the Taylor Force Act was to make sure money is not used to pay terrorists. When Biden said they’re sending money and promising it’s only going to help Palestinian people, I don’t think there’s any evidence to back up that that’s going to happen. I wish it would all go to help the Palestinian people. They’ve suffered; they have bad leadership.
Palestinians celebrated recent terrorist attacks in Israel. How do you stop this culture of hate? Can the Taylor Force Act play a role in changing such a mindset?
The incitement and indoctrination of the populace is going on. If any of our money is used to make the situation worse or creates hatred for Israel and the U.S., then there’s that possibility to withhold the funds.
I don’t sleep well. I stay up and think about Taylor and the situation. I read a lot and listen a lot about the hatred that has built up over the last 70 years, the glorification of martyrs, the teaching of children to view Israelis so negatively. I don’t know how you can change the ideology; I don’t know how you can address that part of the conflict. But until you can get the Palestinian people to rise up and say we need a better life and this isn’t helping us, I don’t think that us sending money is going to help them. It will only enrich the terrorists, enrich Abbas and his cohorts, and enrich Hamas.
Although the PA is not a U.S.-designated terror organization, their encouragement of attacks upon innocent Israelis and visitors to Israel should qualify them as such. Their glorification of the martyrdom of young children is child abuse and should bring about universal condemnation.
This ideology is being supported by pro-Palestinians in the U.S. Have you tried to promote the Taylor Force Act and educate about pay-for-slay domestically to combat antisemitism and anti-Israel hatred on U.S. college campuses and elsewhere?
I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately. Yes, I would like to be involved in explaining the reality of the situation. It bothers me that people on college campuses are speaking so negatively about Israel and are pro-Palestinian. They’ve been indoctrinated.
How does the average person respond when you explain pay-for-slay?
They’re aghast. They say, “Are you kidding? Is that going on in this day and age?” The average American doesn’t know. When they know, they support the Taylor Force Act.
But frankly, I don’t believe most give a darn. Because it’s happening over there, not here. We don’t have pay-for-slay, but the animosity and hatred is being fomented here. People aren’t willing to learn about what’s going on. It’s a hard sell to just get a dialogue going.
There’s a Canadian Jewish advocacy group that recently accused Canada’s government of “complicity in aiding and abetting Palestinian terrorism” through funding. Have you tried to get other countries to adopt their own Taylor Force Act?
After the act was passed in 2018, Robbi and I were invited to the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies in Toronto to speak about it. I told the leader of the center that we would be glad to come up any time to get support there for the Taylor Force Act. He said that it might be a future possibility but right then the Canadian government was socialist and had no desire to visit that subject. They wanted to continue their current policy. The resistance in most countries is quite strong. You can’t even get in to speak.
The Taylor Force Martyr Payment Prevention Act was introduced last year by Senator Tom Cotton and co-sponsored by Senator Graham. It seeks to deter foreign banks from making “martyr payments” by putting their access to the U.S. financial system at risk. How does this enlarge on the Taylor Force Act?
The introduction of the Taylor Force Martyr Payment Prevention Act aims to stop the laundering of foreign money and turning it into U.S. dollars to give to the terrorists. Hopefully that’s going to be reintroduced by Senator Cotton and Congressman Lamborn here in the session.
Some foreign banks that don’t have access to the U.S. banking system are using banks that do have access to launder foreign currencies, changing them to U.S. dollars to send to terror organizations. They like the dollar for its stability and universal purchasing acceptance. Any effort to restrict the flow of money, particularly U.S. dollars, that ultimately ends up in designated terror organizations is welcome.
How do you feel as a non-Jew caught in the middle of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Has it affected your perception of Jews?
I didn’t have any preconceptions or leanings one way or another. I’m pretty non-political, but it’s been a very meaningful experience for Robbi and me. We have come to learn so much about the Jewish culture. We found so much strength from the Jewish people that we met. It’s been spiritual — spending Shabbat dinner with the Gerbers and others, seeing the traditions, the prayers for the children. Every part of the dinner had a meaning. We were also invited to several Jewish weddings. It was a motivating, calming experience. I have nothing but respect and love for the Jewish people. It’s been a life-changing experience, obviously, but it gives us hope that there are such people.
At the beginning of the interview, you described the hardest part of losing Taylor was his not having “completed his mission.” But through the Taylor Force Act, he lives on and saves other lives in the process. Does this give you comfort?
Nobody should lose their life for something like this. I understand accidents and illnesses, but this is an ungodly act and should never happen. However, the Taylor Force Act does give us comfort. If goodness is coming from this, if it gives a chance for people to grow up to be like Taylor, with the same ideals and same goals and same goodness, we feel that this is our contribution. It gives us a sense of peace. n
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