It's time for a 'Congressional Jewish Caucus'

In many ways, Jewish issues are quintessentially American issues. Jews are as much a part of the American social, economic and cultural fabric as any other ethnic or religious group. We care about the security of the homeland, we care about the economic wellbeing of our children and our neighbors, we care about the state of the world and the legacies we leave to progeny.

The distinct history and identity of the Jewish people — what we’ve endured and what we continue to face at home and abroad — requires special attention. In the U.S., anti-Semitism is resurfacing both on the left and the right of mainstream politics. There is a growing political divide over supporting Israel and countering the existential threat of a nuclear Iran.

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Politicians in both parties now traffic in dangerous anti-Semitic tropes with relative impunity. White supremacists are emboldened to spread and act on hate and increasingly commit assaults, murders and massacres of Jews. We would do well not to treat these ignoble features of our modern political and cultural life as mere spasms or aberrations. We must not ignore the hate and indifference that spawned them. 

This is why I am calling for the establishment of a bipartisan “Congressional Jewish Caucus.” It may surprise some that no such organization exists within the Congress. Caucuses are informal organizations comprised of members of Congress who work toward achieving common interests. There is a Congressional Black Caucus. There is a Congressional Hispanic Caucus. There is a Freedom Caucus. There is even a Bike Caucus, which promotes cycling.

I like to believe the absence of a Congressional Jewish Caucus is not a slight or an oversight, but rather a reflection of the overlap of Jewish issues with the cares and concerns of all Americans. But let us not be naïve; the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh was not targeted by accident. The swastikas being spray-painted on Jewish graves and places of worship with alarming regularity are not mere mischief. As much as these acts strike at the heart of the American idea of plurality and tolerance, they strike first at the sense of security and belonging of the Jewish people. It’s time we had a united, bipartisan voice in Congress.

In terms of numbers, Jewish-Americans are well-represented in Congress. There are 36 Jewish members in the 116th Congress — six more than in the 115th. For an ethnic and religious minority that makes up only about 2 percent of the U.S. population, comprising 6.7 percent of Congress is a great achievement. Several Jewish members of Congress occupy prominent, leadership roles in congressional committees.

While these numbers are promising, they betray a factionalism that is winnowing the traditional consensus in the Congress regarding Jewish concerns. Particularly worrisome are the emerging intraparty and interparty splits on these issues. Both parties face extreme viewpoints on their fringes. And the battle lines between Democratic and Republican are stark; necessary solidarity against the threat from Iran, for example, has been undermined by partisanship. 

We need party leadership to step up and challenge their own — and each other — to defend the interests of Jewish Americans, but we also need Jewish politicians to work together and speak with a clear, collective voice to protect Jewish interests at the national level. That is why we need a “Congressional Jewish Caucus.” 

Consider the ongoing firestorm around comments made by Democratic Reps. Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarGroups, lawmakers use 4/20 to raise awareness about marijuana sentencing reform Ocasio-Cortez plans visit to Kentucky despite being disinvited by GOP colleague Man arrested for threatening Dems, citing Omar comments MORE (D-Minn.) and Rashida TlaibRashida Harbi TlaibTrump takes aim at Dem talk of impeachment Democrats leave impeachment on the table Tim Ryan doesn't back impeachment proceedings against Trump MORE (D-Mich.), who have made comments many considered anti-Semitic. In the recent past, such comments would have been met with swift bipartisan scorn, repudiation and possibly censure. But that’s not what happened. Although it began as a clear stand against anti-Semitism, Resolution 138, which was drafted in response to this controversy, was watered down by the House to appease its “progressive” wing. Had there been a bipartisan Jewish caucus at the table to intervene, the outcome might well have been different.  

A Jewish caucus would also provide a platform for Jewish Americans to represent themselves as a minority in the United States. As much as Jewish Americans are assimilated into every facet of American life, it bears reminding ourselves and the nation that political decisions that affect us are in large measure being made by non-Jews. Representation of the Jewish perspective on issues from anti-Semitism to civil rights to foreign policy is invaluable to promoting our distinct concerns and priorities, which are based on a unique identity, character, and history.

Indeed, at a time when Rep. Steve KingSteven (Steve) Arnold KingThe Hill's Morning Report — Combative Trump aims at Pelosi before Russia report Steve King's campaign spent more than it raised last quarter It's time for a 'Congressional Jewish Caucus' MORE (R-Iowa) has commented, “white nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?” we need a Jewish caucus. At a time when an avowed neo-Nazi gets himself onto an official ballot to be a U.S. representative, we need a Jewish Caucus.

Ultimately, a “Congressional Jewish Caucus” would be stronger than the sum of its parts. The Jewish American community is far from monolithic, but what connects us is far greater than what divides us. In that same vein, if they were united, Jewish members of Congress could have a larger impact on legislation and achieve the goals of Jewish Americans at large. Those goals are by and large shared by all Americans of goodwill. The formation of this caucus is a good first step. 

Jack Rosen is the president of the American Jewish Congress. Follow Rosen on Twitter at @JackRosenNYC.