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Will Black Lawmakers’ Anger Over Benjamin Netanyahu Speech Hurt Support for Israel?

In fewer than 140 characters, U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel of New York summed up the feelings of many African-American lawmakers toward Israel’s leader these days.

“Bibi:” the 23-term representative tweeted, “If you have a problem with our POTUS’s foreign policy meet me at AIPAC but not on the House floor.”

Rangel, a frequent attendee of the annual dinners held by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, kept it short by using a common Washington acronym for President of the United States. But to ensure his message got across, he attached a photo of himself glaring down in what his critics on social media described as a “tough guy look.”

Rangel, a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus, has many Jews in his district, which covers Harlem and Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He has also long worked closely with the New York Jewish community on Israel and other issues. Nevertheless, he is just one of a notable number of African-American lawmakers who have announced that they plan to sit out Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s March 3 speech to a joint meeting of Congress. The list includes, among others, Rep. G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina, who is chairman of the CBC, and the iconic civil rights leader John Lewis of Georgia, who has long been close to the Jewish community. The only two Muslim members of Congress, African Americans Keith Ellison of Minnesota and Andre Carson of Indiana, have also announced they plan to sit out Netanyahu’s address.

Like many Democrats, these lawmakers are deeply angered at what they view as a partisan pact between Netanyahu and House Speaker John Boehner. The House speaker, they note, revealed the plan to bring the Israeli leader to Congress without consultating with either the White House or his Democratic counterparts, in violation of normal protocol. His January 21 disclosure of the plan, moreover, came just one day after Obama told Congress in his State of the Union address that he would veto legislation, backed by Israel, to slap new, tougher sanctions against Iran while negotiations are ongoing to restrain that country’s development of nuclear capabilities.

The lead role taken by these black lawmakers on the issue was in part a product of their sense that America’s first African-American president was being treated by a foreign leader and by the House speaker in a way none of his white predecessors had ever been treated. The stands taken by Rangel, Lewis and several others attracted notice because for many years they had easily found their place on the list of safe votes for Israel in Congress.

Yet for all this, many Jewish activists evinced little concern that the overall close cooperation between black and Jewish lawmakers on Capitol Hill — including on Israel — was in any danger of falling apart.

“I don’t think this will diminish support within the Congressional Black Caucus for Israel, but I do think the caucus feels this is an insult for the president,” said Rabbi Steve Gutow, president and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

A Jewish congressional aide involved in work with the CBC seconded this view, stressing that disagreements are not spilling over to any other field of cooperation between the black and Jewish lawmakers. And several members of the CBC themselves agreed.

“The ultimate question that I’ve been asked is: What will it do to black-Jewish relations?” Florida Democrat Alcee Hastings told the Forward. “Nothing. It will do absolutely nothing.” Hastings, a member of the CBC who plans to attend Netanyahu’s March 3 speech, rejected the notion he’d been put in a situation of having to choose between supporting Israel and backing an African-American president.

“It almost offends me that that thought is present,” Hastings said. “Bibi is using this as a political tool, and you know, I do things political, and last time I looked so does everyone else in politics.”

As of two weeks before the scheduled speech, 22 House members and three senators have announced their intention to boycott Netanyahu’s appearance. More than half of the House members — 13 — are members of the CBC. But a closer look at the list finds different motivations behind the decision to sit out on the Israeli leader’s address.

Some CBC members, such as Barbara Lee of California, are strongly aligned with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party and have been consistent critics of Israel’s policies. Others stated their collective offense, as African-American elected officials, at Netanyahu and Boehner slighting Obama.

“I think it’s an affront to the president and the State Department what the speaker did,” Lewis told the Associated Press. But a spokesperson for Lewis made it clear that his decision not to attend Netanyahu’s speech was a personal move and not part of an organized boycott. As a hero of the civil rights movement, Lewis is revered both in the African-American community and among generations of Jewish activists who supported the struggle. “John Lewis is a big deal,” a Slate article noted. “He is the most respected member of Congress.”

Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) has been known as a strong supporter of Israel. Image by getty images

Still, a majority of the 46-member CBC have chosen, at least for now, not to stay away, including many who represent major Jewish communities or who hold close ties with the pro-Israel community. Among these are Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey; Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, whose congressional district includes parts of Brooklyn and Queens in New York; fellow New Yorker Yvette Clarke, whose district includes Crown Heights in Brooklyn, and Florida’s Frederica Wilson and Hastings.

Two Jewish members of the House, along with a Jewish senator, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, have also been among those who have announced they will not attend the speech. But in the case of the two Jewish House members, the ethnic makeup of their congressional districts has been a driving factor. As Tennessee’s Steve Cohen [explained:][4] “My district is majority African-American and a lot of people see this as dismissive of the first African-American president.” John Yarmuth of Kentucky, the other Jewish House member staying away, represents the district with the largest African-American population in his state.

The fabled political coalition between the Jewish and the African-American communities has long been based primarily on their shared domestic interests as largely urban constituencies with parallel political needs, and on a past of shared liberal values, in particular when it comes to civil rights. Nevertheless, an effort has been made in recent years to engage the African-American community on issues relating to Israel as well.

This initiative, headed by AIPAC and by the American Jewish Committee’s Project Interchange, has been working with young black leaders to enhance support for Israel on college campuses, in local politics and on Capitol Hill. AIPAC has made a point of reaching out to student leaders from historically black colleges and inviting them to participate in its annual policy conference in Washington. On the political level, most contacts are maintained in the local arena, with activists from AIPAC and from Jewish community relations committees forging ties with congressional representatives.

These ties are not in danger of breaking because of the latest spat, say Jewish activists. But recent tensions have highlighted the fact that support for Israel among black members of Congress is more prone to instability. “[Their support] is a result of our ties with the leadership on many issues, not of a drive from their constituency,” explained a pro-Israel advocate who has worked on the issue for years.

African-American members of Congress are now in contact with the Israeli embassy in Washington in an effort to organize a meeting either with Netanyahu during his visit to Washington or with Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer. This meeting, said a congressional source, should be viewed as an attempt by both sides to contain the conflict and ensure future cooperation. A spokesman for the Israeli embassy declined to comment on the issue.

Meanwhile, on the domestic front, even as the Netanyahu speech controversy bubbles, cooperation between the two communities continues.

Jewish groups have been among the leading voices in the battle to pass new voter rights legislation. Several Jewish progressive organizations joined the “Black Lives Matter” campaign and were part of a “die in” protest on Capitol Hill. These types of initiatives were not affected by the controversy over Netanyahu’s speech, and activists believe that even disagreements regarding Israel will not scar the relationship.

Rabbi Marc Schneier, founder and president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, recalled an earlier era when Israel angered CBC members because of its extensive arms sales to South Africa’s apartheid regime in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions. Pressure from black lawmakers drove Jewish members of Congress to bring up the issue repeatedly with Israeli leaders, eventually leading to a change in Israel’s policy and to more cooperation between the two ethnic groups on Capitol Hill.

“Now, too, we have a chance to work together,” Schneier said, “to sensitize members of the CBC on the danger of Iran’s nuclear program.”

Some of the members of Congress had more creative ideas for dealing with Netanyahu’s speech and the firestorm it started.

“I wish the president had met with Netanyahu and the following week, without saying anything to Boehner or to Netanyahu, invite and entertain politically his opposition,” suggested Hastings, in what he described as “a sort of ‘back at you.’”

Cohen, on the other hand, joked that he had considered demonstrating his objection to Netanyahu’s speech by sitting upstairs in the visitors’ gallery, “just like women do in Orthodox synagogues.”

*Contact Nathan Guttman at [email protected] or on Twitter @nathanguttman

[4]: intensifies

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