We Don’t Need Formal Jewish Caucus

A call by the American Jewish Congress 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 establishing 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 anti-Semitic.  He told Jewish Insider that he was miffed other Jews didn’t support a flawed resolution by Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY) with a selective condemnation of anti-Semitism.

Failure by Democrats to take Zeldin’s bait led President Donald Trump to “brand the entire party as being ant-Jewish,” Rosen said. Trump, with his own  long record of anti-Semitic 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 New York 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 anti-Semitism by the two Muslim women but makes no mention of Republican anti-Semitism.

For all their pious condemnations of anti-Semitism, 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 great white 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 anti-Semitism.

There are 36 Jews in the current Congress, not a record but formidable.  For many years overt anti-Semitism 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 anti-Semitic members preferred demonstrating their bigotry with  code words like “international bankers,” “Hollywood moguls,” “globalists”  They did it in the 20s, the 30s and today while Trump carries on the tradition (see his tweets).

The semi-secret informal Jewish caucus was first convened about 50 years ago by Rep. 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.

Yates was typical of a more cautious generation of Jews who’d experienced anti-Semitism, 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 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.”

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 percent 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 anti-Semitism and Israel.

We’ve got enough tzoris without AJCongress trying to advance Donald Trump’s anti-Semitic agenda of branding Democrats anti-Israel and anti-Jewish.

The last thing we need is a group of politicians in Washington deciding the “Jewish” position on issues facing the Congress and the nation. They’re the US Congress, not the Sanhedrin.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.