An article in RollCall, the Capitol Hill newspaper, this week about the Congressional Jewish Staffers Association, reminded me of how things have changed for Jews working in Congress since I went to work there in 1970.
For many years senior Jewish members of Congress were so sensitive about anti-Semitism among their colleagues and the general public that they would not acknowledge the existence of a “Jewish caucus” in the House. They’d meet privately and informally to discuss issues of mutual concern.
Some were so reluctant to identify that they didn’t list religion in their profiles in the Congressional directory.
When I went from the House of Representatives to AIPAC in 1980 one of the first things I did was publish in the Near East Report a list of all Jewish members. It was a source of great pride to me, but apparently not to some of our older board members.
I was harshly criticized by the Old Guard for breaking the “Shush, don’t make waves” rule. One of the group’s officers didn’t even want it known that he was Jewish – he should’ve changed his name if he was that scared – or to be publicly identified as a leader of the Jewish lobby because he had Arab employees in his Michigan factory.
But Members of Congress didn’t share that fear. In fact the only feedback I got from the Hill was calls from the offices of two Republican congressmen. Why were they left off? Well, I explained, you don’t identify yourself as Jewish. But I was born Jewish and consider myself Jewish, they said. There was another Jewish congressman, born in New York City but elected from a conservative district in Arizona, who wanted nothing to do with the rest of the Jews, as far as I could find out. We never heard from him.
Israel and Mideast policy led the agenda for Jewish lawmakers in the 1970s, when support was much more tenuous, but the Viet Nam war was also high on their agenda. Most were at the heart of the anti-war movement.
By the 1980s a more assertive generation of Jews was moving in.
One of the most moving moments I witnessed in the Capitol was Sen. Rudy Boschwitz (R-Minnesota) speaking about his family’s decision to flee Germany in the wake of the 1933 Reichstag fire and Hitler’s coming to power. That proud Jew taught his colleagues what it was like to be a Jew and what it meant to be an American. He also taught them a new word: metzia. A bargain. That’s how he described U.S. aid to Israel, a metzia for American taxpayers during the Cold War. It was an important message for his fellow Republicans, who in those days largely voted against foreign aid.
Rudy made another important contribution to Jewish life on Capitol Hill. He played schadchan, matchmaker, for Jewish staffers. As the father of unmarried sons who he wanted to marry nice Jewish girls, he organized Jewish singles parties for young staff members. The first one was a Purim party in a large Senate hearing room in 1983; like many to follow, the room was packed wall-to-wall.
Rep. Larry Smith (D-Florida), who also had two unmarried children at the time, picked up the torch and sponsored similar meetings in the House. I don’t know how many matches these two were responsible for, but they made great contributions to Jewish life on Capitol Hill, and deserve much credit.
The parties ended after Rudy left the Senate in 1991 and Larry left the House in 1993.