Originally published in the San Diego Jewish World.
There is no question that individual Jews have a lot of clout in Congress. Four of the 28 Jewish members of the House of Representatives hold important committee chairmanships.
They are Democrats Eliot Engel on the Foreign Affairs Committee; Nita Lowey on Appropriations, Jerry Nadler on Judiciary; all from New York; and Adam Schiff of Intelligence, from California.
In the U.S. Senate, Chuck Schumer of New York is the Minority Leader, and three of the other seven Democratic Jewish senators are the Ranking Members of their committees. They include Dianne Feinstein of California on Judiciary; Bernie Sanders of Vermont on Budget, and Ron Wyden of Oregon on Finance. (Sanders is an independent but caucuses with the Democrats).
The clout of individual Jewish lawmakers is all to the good, Jack Rosen, the president of the American Jewish Congress, told me in an interview on Tuesday. But as a group, Jews in the Congress have failed to maximize their effectiveness in mobilizing against anti-Semitism and against attacks on Israel, he said.
In a telephone interview, Rosen cited a recent effort to censure U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) for comments suggesting that Jews who seek congressional support for Israel have “allegiance” for a foreign country. That comment prompted a resolution which, in its original form, would have censured Omar for anti-Semitic remarks. However, according to Rosen, the Congressional Black Caucus, with some 50 members, and the Progressive Caucus with some 90 members (with some overlapping membership) took a stand against censuring Omar. Instead, at their insistence, a watered-down resolution was crafted that condemned all forms of hate and which did not reference Omar specifically.
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Rosen rued that “times have really changed” to such an extent that a straightforward vote condemning anti-Semitism can’t make it through the Congress. In years past, he said, such a resolution would have breezed through, perhaps unanimously
The American Jewish Congress leader said it was a similar shock when a bill the leadership of the House of Representatives bottled up a bill that would have given congressional approval to states that are passing laws denying their business to companies or individuals who actively engage in boycotts against Israel. Those anti-BDS laws state that Israel is an important American ally and that such boycotts harm American interests. Opponents, however, argue that such laws abridge constitutional guarantees of free speech.
Rosen is calling for the 28 Jewish members of the House of Representatives and the 8 Jewish members of the U.S. Senate to form caucuses to defend the interests of Jewish-Americans against anti-Semitism and to defend against anti-Semitic attacks on Israel.
With two Jewish Republicans in the House of Representatives – Lee Zeldin of New York and David Kustoff of Tennessee – the House Jewish Caucus should be bipartisan, Rosen says.
Thus far the idea hasn’t caught on fire, but no one has formally opposed the idea either, Rosen said.
I asked Aaron Hunter, who serves as press secretary to Congresswoman Susan Davis, what the Jewish Democrat from San Diego thinks about the idea. “This was her response: Jewish members have discussed forming a caucus but couldn’t find consensus,” he messaged back. “Not convinced a caucus would add value to our values or activism.”
“It’s hard to make changes in government,” Rosen commented on hearing Davis’s position. He said that he has been talking to other Jewish members of Congress and while some took the same ambivalent position as Davis, others were more enthusiastic. He said he wasn’t in a position to name any congressional supporters yet, but said he anticipated he would be able to do so in the future.
I asked if Jewish members of Congress are somewhat reticent to identify themselves as Jews for fear of playing into the canard that Jews in this country have too much power, and thereby fueling the forces of anti-Semitism.
Citing the rising number of anti-Semitic incidents in the United States – including the deadly attacks on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and the Chabad of Poway in California – Rosen said anti-Semites already have been emboldened, and that the Jewish community must utilize whatever legal tools are available to fight anti-Semitism.
He said in the situation of the Omar resolution and the fight against BDS, if Jewish members of Congress had taken a firm stand, as a Jewish caucus, they might have been more successful.
Besides speaking directly with members of Congress, Rosen is taking his campaign to the Jewish media, and is calling upon more than a million social media followers of the American Jewish Congress, and several hundred thousand persons on the organization’s email list, to call upon the Jews in Congress to caucus together formally in the names of Jewish unity and Jewish defense.
Here are the names of current Jewish members of Congress: Senate: Richard Blumenthal, Ben Cardin, Dianne Feinstein, Jacky Rosen, Bernie Sanders, Brian Schatz, Chuck Schumer, and Ron Wyden. House of Representatives: Suzanne Bonamici, David Cicilline, Steve Cohen, Susan Davis, Ted Deutch, Eliot Engel, Lois Frankel, Josh Gottheimer, David Kustoff, Andy Levin, Mike Levin (who says he was raised as both Jewish and Catholic), Alan Lowenthal, Nita Lowey, Elaine Luria, Jerry Nadler, Dean Phillips, Jamie Raskin, Max Rose, Jan Schakowsky, Adam Schiff, Brad Sherman, Brad Schneider, Kim Schrier, Elissa Slotkin, Debbi Wasserman Schutz, Susan Wild, John Yarmuth, and Lee Zeldin.
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