A new effort is underway to create a Jewish caucus in Congress, to more forcefully respond to a rise in antisemitic incidents and rhetoric.
Jewish House Democrats acknowledged to Jewish Insider that they regularly meet in an informal working group to discuss issues related to antisemitism, yet a public call is putting pressure on formalizing the group.
Jack Rosen, president of the American Jewish Congress and a longtime donor to Democratic candidates, called for such a group in an op-ed last week, and told Jewish Insider that he came forward following “Israel-bashing” from “ultra-left progressives” in Congress.
“What prompted me to come up with this idea was the vote on the anti-BDS bill, the Israel-bashing we are getting from some of the ultra-left progressives and understanding that we are now living in the new political climate,” Rosen explained in a phone interview.
On the state and municipal levels, the California legislature and the New York City Council each have a Jewish caucus.
In Congress, there are currently 34 Jewish lawmakers out of the body of 535 in the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, including two Republican House members — Reps. Lee Zeldin (R-NY) and David Kustoff (R-TN).
The informal group among Jewish House Democrats has met for years, said Rep. Lois Frankel (D-FL), who has attended meetings since she was first elected in 2013. “There has been an informal working group of Jewish congresspersons for as long as I’ve been here, I think it goes back way before I was in Congress,” she said.
The informal group is led by Reps. Eliot Engel (D-NY) and Nita Lowey (D-NY), both senior Democratic members and respective leaders of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and the House Committee on Appropriations.
Rep. Frankel said that discussions about formalizing the caucus have come up in recent weeks, particularly following the statements made by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN).
“There have been folks who have mentioned to me the idea of formalizing,” said Rep. Frankel. “This sort of came up in response — we had this situation with one of our colleagues who made some, we thought, some offensive remarks. So there’s been some discussion about, should we be in the position where Jewish members make more of a formal statement together. That’s really been some of what I’ve heard. As far as I know there hasn’t been any action taken.”
Rosen, for his part, said the lack of congressional action against Rep. Omar is a driving force behind the public call for a formalized Jewish caucus, stressing that despite the fact that Jewish members serve in senior leadership positions, “they failed in passing a resolution specifically condemning antisemitism.”
After Jewish Insider reported that Rep. Omar had referred to Americans who support Israel as “pushing for allegiance to a foreign country,” House Democrats spent a week debating how to address her comments and, with pushback from progressives and the Congressional Black Caucus, downplayed Rep. Omar’s use of the language. The resulting resolution, therefore, broadly opposed hate and bigotry against all groups, with sections devoted to antisemitism.
“What played out was that the Progressive Caucus, the Black Caucus (CBC), wanted to see a resolution that represented attacks on more communities as opposed to pinpointing where the problem was,” Rosen noted. “And they prevailed. Had there been a Jewish Caucus, they would have walked into the Speaker’s office unified as the Black Caucus did and there could have been a different outcome.”
Rep. Dean Phillips (D-MN), who is part of the informal Jewish working group, called their meetings “as important now as ever,” and echoed Rep. Frankel that discussions are happening over whether to formalize.
Rep. Phillips said it would be a group decision whether to include Jewish Republican members. “I can tell you my personal mission is to broaden conversations and coalitions and that means extending invitations and I would certainly, personally, like to see such a caucus more broad, rather than less. Ultimately that’s going to be a decision of everybody at the table and I can’t speak to that yet.”
Halie Soifer, Executive Director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America (JDCA) told Jewish Insider that if the Jewish members of Congress “believe a Jewish Caucus is needed or would make their voice more effective, it is something that JDCA would certainly support.”
Rosen maintained that a bipartisan Jewish caucus could have prevented the stalling of Rep. Zeldin’s antisemitism resolution, which was introduced in January, that specifically mentions Rep. Omar’s comments and her 2012 tweet saying Israel had “hypnotized the world.”
The March resolution rejecting antisemitism and hate and bigotry, however, “provided a political opportunity for Trump to label the Dems as being anti-Jewish,” said Mr. Rosen. “We know that President Trump is probably the best brander in the world and he took advantage of the issue to brand the entire party as being anti-Jewish.”
Norm Coleman, Chairman of the Republican Jewish Coalition told Jewish Insider that he’s “not looking for a Congressional Jewish Caucus. I’m looking for members of Congress to call out [Rep.] Ilhan Omar for repetitive antisemitic tropes and to support her removal from the House Foreign Affairs Committee. I’m wary of members of Congress taking cover on the antisemitism issue by joining an American Jewish Caucus, rather than personally speaking out against Rep. Omar and others for antisemitic words and actions.”
By Jacob Kornbluh in New York and Laura Kelly in Washington, D.C.
Jacob Kornbluh is the national politics reporter for Jewish Insider. Follow him @jacobkornbluh. Laura Kelly is the Capitol Hill reporter for Jewish Insider. Follow her @HelloLauraKelly.