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Jewish leaders to Mayorkas: DHS needs liaison focused on domestic terror

American Jewish leaders, shaken by last week’s insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and its antisemitic underpinnings, told the Secretary-designate of the Department of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas, that he should create a new liaison to the Jewish community focused on domestic terrorism.

In a Friday call that was scheduled before Wednesday’s unprecedented assault on the Capitol, Mayorkas, who is Jewish, signaled that combating domestic terrorism would be a priority amid an surge of white supremacy and neo-Nazi activity, participants said in interviews on Sunday. It was part of a series of calls with Jewish leaders planned by the Biden transition team.

Several of the 20-some leaders on the call suggested the new role in Mayorkas’s department because the State Department’s special envoy on antisemitism, established by the Global Anti-Semitism Review Act of 2004, largely focuses on global antisemitism.

“There’s been a monumental shift versus the last time these conversations were held, in the Obama administration,” said Halie Soifer, CEO of the Jewish Democratic Council of America,. “At that time, the biggest concern and threats to the Jewish community were abroad and the interests of the organized Jewish community largely focused on Israel and the Middle East.

“In the immediate aftermath of Trump’s insurrection,” she added, “it was clear that the DHS is going to be one of the key — if not the key — addresses for the Jewish community to ensure the safety and security of our institutions.”

The Biden transition’s official readout of the 90-minute virtual meeting said that Mayorkas emphasized the ways in which his agency “can work closely with Jewish leaders” to ensure America “is secure from threats both foreign and domestic.”

William Daroff, CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish American Organizations, described the discussion as “open” and said it focused on Jewish communal security, immigration, the increase in antisemitism, and strengthening what he called the “vital” the collaboration between the community and the department.

Several participants said that Mayorkas, who is 60 and known as Ali, also “kibbitzed” with the leaders, many of whom he established relationships with during his years as deputy secretary at the department in the Obama administration.

Daroff said that Mayorkas also “discussed his personal connection to the Jewish story of America — as a refugee from Cuba and his parents as refugees from Europe.” He mentioned his past membership at the Washington Hebrew Congregation, where his daughters had Bat Mitzvahs, and his current membership at Adas Israel Congregation.

Mayorkas “views himself as a proud member of the Jewish community,” noted Nathan Diament, the Orthodox Union’s executive director for public policy. “And he was clearly engaged and interested in what we were talking about.”

One participant in the call who spoke on the condition of anonymity because it was off-the-record, said it is “comforting” to see Jews will have a close ally in such a senior position — and that the meeting was significant because it indicated that “Jewish leaders are going to be incorporated in the decisions moving forward.” Joel Rubin, executive director of the American Jewish Congress, called the timing “quite remarkable,” only days after the Capitol attack, and said that gave it a “much deeper meaning than just a typical outreach meeting to the community.”

The Biden team’s outreach to this broad range of Jewish leaders comes after years in which organizations representing Reform and Conservative Jews or liberal causes were ignored by President Trump and his cabinet. Groups on the call included the Jewish Federations of North America; the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism; the Orthodox Union; the National Council of Jewish Women; Americans for Peace Now; the Jews of Color Initiative; and the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable.

This marked the first time that Jews of color, which the initiative estimates as making up 12% to 15% of American Jews, were included explicitly with a seat at the table.

One of the participants said the group was “very aligned on immigration and on responding to white supremacy, which doesn’t always happen with diverse groups of people.” The open discussion, this person said, “sends a signal of cooperation when it’s needed, and that the Jewish community will be integrated, not just in the very obvious parts of the administration, but also around domestic issues.”

The Biden transition has scheduled a COVID-19-related call with members of the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable on Monday, featuring the campaign’s Jewish outreach director, Aaron Keyak, and Rebecca Katz, a transition team adviser on the coronavirus pandemic.

The National Council of Jewish Women is hosting a separate outreach call with Jewish advocacy groups on Tuesday, featuring Keyak and Kalisha Dessources Figures, a former policy adviser to President Obama’s White House Council on Women and Girls, with a focus on diversity, equity and inclusion issues.

Jacob Kornbluh is the Forward’s senior political reporter. Follow him on Twitter @jacobkornbluh or email [email protected]

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