Washington Watch: Reject Jewish caucus plan

A call by the American Jewish Congress (AJCongress) for a “first ever Congressional Jewish Caucus” is wrong on history, necessity and intention.

Lee Zeldin. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Lee Zeldin.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A call by the American Jewish Congress (AJCongress) for a “first ever Congressional Jewish Caucus” is wrong on history, necessity and intention.
There has been a Congressional Jewish Caucus since before I went to work on the Hill nearly 50 years ago; it has been an informal and successful arrangement that has worked and doesn’t need fixing, especially as being proposed by Jack Rosen, the AJCongress president. He contends that establishing for a formal caucus would permit Jews in Congress to “fully come together... amidst the turbulence of today’s ultra-partisan politics.”
It could wind up doing just the opposite.
His proposal is a predator in lamb’s wool. That was revealed in several interviews when Rosen blasted Democrats for not being tough enough on comments by two Muslim members of the House that many considered antisemitic. He told Jewish Insider that he was miffed other Jews didn’t support a flawed resolution by Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-New York) with a selective condemnation of antisemitism.
Failure by Democrats to take Zeldin’s bait led US President Donald Trump to “brand the entire party as being anti-Jewish,” Rosen said. Trump, with his own long record of antisemitic tropes and tripe, went on to declare “Democrats hate Jewish people.”
Rosen praised Trump’s “aggressive name-calling tactics” as “formidable,” and said the president’s “statements are not completely unfounded.”
Rosen – a wealthy New York businessman – took over the American Jewish Congress, a one-time bastion of Jewish liberalism that went broke in 2010 in the Madoff scandals, turning it into a “private Jewish State Department,” according to The Forward. A Jewish Week profile described him as “an autocratic, ego-driven lay leader with his own agenda.”
Zeldin, a Trump loyalist and one of only two Jewish Republicans in the 116th Congress – the other is David Kutsoff of Tennessee, the other 25 Jews in the House and eight in the Senate are Democrats plus Bernie Sanders, who aligns with the Democrats – is pressing for a resolution condemning antisemitism by the two Muslim women, but makes no mention of Republican antisemitism.
Zeldin misrepresented what Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Minnesota) said when he issued a press release saying he “blasts House Democratic leadership for refusing to identify and crush ant-Israel and antisemitic hate…”
FOR ALL their pious condemnations of antisemitism, Republicans are suspiciously oblivious to what the ADL reports are the main sources of threats and violence Jews face: white supremacists and the extreme right groups that have gained new legitimacy and new aggressiveness under a president who has stated that such groups include some “very fine people.” Republicans are focusing instead on two Muslim Democratic members of the House in promoting Trump’s slanderous campaign to brand Democrats as anti-Jewish.
Republicans have a major problem in their tent with Islamophobes, white supremacists, anti-Semites and assorted bigots. It took them 19 years to reluctantly get around to doing something about Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), the poster boy for racism, and even then there was no mention of his antisemitism.
Then there’s Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Arizona), whose six siblings accused him of using an “antisemitic dog whistle.” His own brother said his hateful rhetoric helped feed the antisemitism behind the Tree of Life synagogue bombing in Pittsburgh and an attempt on the life of Jewish philanthropist George Soros, a favorite target for Trump and other Republicans.
There are 36 Jews in the current Congress – not a record, but formidable. For many years, overt antisemitism discouraged many Jews from running for office; it wasn’t just bigotry among voters, but among potential colleagues as well. One Jewish congressman had to be physically restrained from going after a notorious Jew-baiting colleague. Other antisemitic members preferred demonstrating their bigotry with code words like “international bankers,” “Hollywood moguls” and “globalists.” They did it in the 1920s, the 1930s and today while Trump carries on the tradition (see his tweets).
THE ALMOST secret informal Jewish caucus was first convened about 50 years ago by congressman Sid Yates (D-Illinois), the senior Jew in the House. He insisted that the group stay below the radar, not even admitting its existence. It convened in his office and usually involved issues regarding Israel. He retired in 1999 and was succeeded by Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Illinois); she embodied a whole new generation of proud Jews, not reluctant to assert her Jewish identity and its role in public policy.
Unlike the House, Jews in the Senate “never formed an informal or formal caucus – although they might ally with each other on specific issues,” according to Jews in American Politics by Sandy Maisel and Ira Forman. “There is no Jewish Caucus,” senator Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) once said. “If there were, I would not have tolerated it.”
Yates was typical of a more cautious generation of Jews who’d experienced antisemitism, had lived through the Holocaust, Israel’s birth and its struggle for survival.
I saw the generation gap firsthand when my boss, congressman Benjamin S. Rosenthal (D-New York), finally got his top legislative priority to the floor of the House but asked a colleague to manage the debate. The colleague was not as smart, articulate or as much of an expert on the subject as Rosenthal, who I protested should be the one out front. Why? I asked him. “There’s 2,000 years’ worth of reasons.”
I came of age when Israel had sparked the world’s imagination and respect with its victory in the Six Day War. 1967 brought in an era of Jewish pride.
Jewish members of the House usually convened on issues regarding Israel and there was considerable unity – notwithstanding one or two who would take one position inside the caucus and say just the opposite outside. It was an unwritten rule for many years that Jews, especially in Congress, would not criticize Israel in public.
That began changing when the conservative Jews began speaking out against the peace policies of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, but it accelerated in the Netanyahu era. The Israeli prime minister’s campaigns against president Barack Obama’s peace proposals and Iran nuclear deal were very bitter and divisive, and his subsequent alliance with Trump – who is opposed by over 75% of Jewish voters – has led to an ever-widening rift between American Jewry and Israel.
A formal Jewish Caucus that takes public positions on issues would be under intense pressure from the Israeli government and American Jewish organizational leaders to stifle dissent in the name of Jewish unity and solidarity with the Jewish state.
One veteran Hill staffer and former House colleague told me, “I hope there never is a Jewish Caucus, because it would quickly become an in-house Israeli lobby” enforced by the embassy and some pro-Netanyahu senior members “to keep straying liberals in line.”
There is no need for a formal Congressional Jewish Caucus – not because of an earlier generation’s fears, but because it brings no added value. Why be a target for white supremacists and racists, who are such a vital part of the Trump base? There’s no value in formalizing a caucus that could then be pressed to declare – unnecessarily – the “Jewish” position on issues of the moment. As we’ve witnessed in recent weeks, there is no consensus even on issues like antisemitism and Israel.
We’ve got enough tzoris without AJCongress trying to advance Donald Trump’s antisemitic agenda of branding Democrats as anti-Israel and anti-Jewish.