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Amid the catered receptions lining the halls of Congress to celebrate the start of the new session, there was at least one place with kosher food: the National Jewish Democratic Council party.
Complete with blue and white balloons and a short speech by Israel's Ambassador to Washington Sallai Meridor, Thursday's event feted the six new Jewish members of Congress, whose entry into the exclusive legislative club marked a historic high-point in Jewish representation. Altogether, 43 (8 percent) of the United States's 535 senators and representatives are Jewish, despite Jews comprising only some 2% of the American population.
The 110th Congress's 13 Jewish senators and 30 Jewish representatives comprise the greatest number to have ever have sat in one Congress, though there were more Jewish representatives (but fewer Jewish senators) in the early '90s, when Democrats last had control of the legislative branch.
That fact is no coincidence, said Jewish political activists: Jews vote overwhelmingly Democrat (87% did so in November 2006, according to exit polls) and it would be hard to imagine record Jewish representation when the Democratic party was not in the majority.
Among the Jews in Congress, only two senators (Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Norm Coleman of Minnesota) and one representative (Eric Cantor of Virginia) are Republican. There are also two independent senators (Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut), but both of them have indicated they will caucus with the Democrats.
"The Jewish population tends to be predominantly Democrat," said Richard Foltin, legislative director of the American Jewish Committee. "If you have a greater number of Democrats being elected, you're going to have a greater number of Jews in office."
That translates into better committee appointments, Foltin continued. The 110th Congress is not only distinguished by how many Jews holding office, but by how many key leadership positions they hold, particularly on committees important for Israel.
"To some extent, who gets to serve on committees is somewhat a function of interest," Foltin explained. "Those who have these interests [in the Middle East] would be inclined to seek positions on the International Relations Committee, for instance."
Tom Lantos of California, a Holocaust survivor, became the House International Relations Committee chairman this week.
Doug Bloomfield, a former legislative director from AIPAC, also pointed to the significance of seniority in leadership appointments. As Jews have become more comfortable in identifying their religion and running for public office, they increasingly find themselves in more prominent positions by virtue of time.
"This is a generation of Jewish members who are not sensitive about being Jewish," he said. "This new generation is much more assertive. They've also been here longer and have more authority."
"It's impressive," said William Daroff, director of the United Jewish Communities' Washington office. "To have a minyan in the Senate and three minyanim in the House, depending on how you count a minyan? It is a real testament to the political strength of the Jewish community."
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