Congress has hundreds of caucuses, collections of politicians with common interests in everything under the sun –- the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, the Medicare for All Caucus, the Chicken Caucus.
On Monday, a new, bipartisan caucus was announced, one that hopes to rebuild a historic alliance that has lately seen some tensions: the Congressional Caucus on Black-Jewish Relations.
Jewish and African-American activists and politicians have cited the importance of standing together in the face of rising white nationalism. But it remains to be seen whether political differences will get in the way.
“Any time leaders (in this case, of Congress) take the full view of white supremacy and a more expansive approach to fighting it, it’s a positive development. Solidarity is to be heralded,” Marjorie Feld, a professor of history at Babson College who has studied black-Jewish relations, wrote to the Forward in an email.
But at the same time, she wrote, “I fear that the same problems that have stood in the way of Black/Jewish alliances will continue to plague this Caucus, though. And that’s mainly Israel/Palestine.”
The new group was announced in Washington at the annual convention of the American Jewish Committee, which organized meetings in January that led to the caucus’s formation.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Jewish Democrat from Florida and the former chair of the Democratic National Committee, said that Rep. Brenda Lawrence, an African-American Democrat from Michigan who also spoke at the launch, had pushed for the caucus’s formation.
“She came to me on the House floor well over a year ago with the idea that for so many years, our two communities, generation after generation have stood in this gap with one another, have lifted as we climbed, and pulled each other along when that was necessary as well,” Wasserman Schultz told the audience.
The other founding members were Reps. John Lewis, the Georgia Democrat and civil rights legend; Lee Zeldin of New York, one of two Jewish Republicans in Congress; and Will Hurd of Texas, one of two African-American Republicans in Congress. (Hurd, whose district is 70% Hispanic, and Wasserman Schultz are already two of the co-chairs of the Latino-Jewish Caucus.)
The history of the black-Jewish alliance is a source of pride in the Jewish community: Jewish activists helped found the NAACP, Jews were strongly active in civil rights efforts in the South in the 1960s, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with Lewis and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, Alabama. Jews and African-Americans remain two of the most loyal Democratic constituencies, and their advocacy groups push for similar anti-discrimination and anti-poverty policies. But things became more complicated in the late 1960s and beyond, when African-American leaders began to identify more with the Palestinian movement and have less sympathy for Jews benefiting from white privilege.
“The ways in which blacks and Jews are natural allies, and the ways in which there are intrinsic tensions between the two communities — every few years, it plays out on different political issues,” said Marc Dollinger, a professor at San Francisco State University and the author of “Black Power, Jewish Politics: Reinventing the Alliance in the 1960s.”
One issue currently playing out in Congress is the treatment of Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat and one of the first Muslim women in Congress. Omar, who was born in Somalia, has repeatedly been criticized by prominent Jews -– including fellow congressional Democrats –- for making anti-Semitic statements (Omar has apologized for some of those comments).
But several politicians of color said that many of the criticisms of Omar –- especially those coming from President Trump and other Republicans -– were racist and Islamophobic. Some admitted that they, like Omar, didn’t know about the history or negative connotations of certain anti-Semitic tropes -– and efforts by Jewish members of Congress to educate them flopped.
Adding to matters is the fact that Zeldin himself has been one of Omar’s biggest public antagonists, repeatedly accusing her of anti-Semitism, calling for her to be kicked off the Foreign Affairs Committee and introducing a House resolution specifically condemning her. The Democratic-controlled House eventually passed a resolution condemning anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry in general, but not naming Omar or anyone else.
Another person adding tension to black-Jewish relations in recent years is Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who saw a new wave of prominence last year after leaders of the Women’s March defended their ties with him. Although Farrakhan has been an outspoken anti-Semite for decades, several members of the Congressional Black Caucus have met with him over the years, and Rep. Danny Davis of Illinois said last year that he had “no problems” with Farrakhan (Davis condemned him a few days later). But some have argued that the Jewish community’s focus on Farrakhan was disproportionate to his true popularity and revealed unexamined anti-black biases.
Additionally, movements like Black Lives Matter have lost Jewish support because of some affiliated groups’ criticisms of Israel, including calling its Palestinian policies “apartheid.”
A big challenge facing the new caucus, Dollinger said, is “the split is over this notion of, is anti-Zionism anti-Semitism? With the progressive, anti-Zionist left going, ‘I’m not anti-Semitic, I’m anti-the oppression of Palestinians.’ I think that is going to be the challenge that this new congressional alliance is going to have to navigate.”
And to be sure, the progressive, anti-Zionist Jewish left is already up in arms over the inclusion of Zeldin. Any Congressional Jewish group that wants to be bipartisan has to at least consider including him, since there’s only one other Jewish Republican to choose from. But many have taken issue with Zeldin’s treatment of Omar, as well as the fact that he has held fundraisers with former Trump advisors Steve Bannon, who once called his website Breitbart “the platform of the alt-right,” and Sebastian Gorka, a longtime member of a Hungarian group with historic Nazi ties.
“Lee Zeldin is a white nationalist who had Steve Bannon headline a fundraiser for him and regularly weaponizes antisemitism to undermine Rashida [Tlaib] and Ilhan,” tweeted Yonah Lieberman, a leader of the leftist Jewish group IfNotNow, referring to Congress’s two Muslim women. “Disappointing that @BrendaLLawrence and @repjohnlewis would work with someone like him on something as important as this.”
Ginna Green, chief strategy officer of Bend the Arc: Jewish Action, said that white nationalism was the chief issue of shared concern for African-Americans and Jews -– including Jews of color. “We must work within and across our communities to address these intersecting challenges and call out this hateful ideology wherever we see it advanced, whether it comes in the form of scapegoating immigrants, propagating anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, or preventing communities of color from participating in our democracy,” she said in a statement.
The Caucus on Black-Jewish Relations has already grown in the first 24 hours of its existence. But as more members join, the potential for conflict could grow as well. There isn’t currently a Jewish Caucus, reportedly because Jewish lawmakers don’t want to wade into the “who is a Jew” controversy. Hurd, the lone African-American House Republican, has refused to join the Congressional Black Caucus because he thinks it’s too partisan in favor of Democrats. And how would Zeldin react if Omar, who has certainly received a crash course in Jewish relations, tried to join the new group?
Even if all of that got sorted out, the fact remains that many caucuses don’t seem to do much. It’s unclear when the last time a piece of legislation was passed by, say, the Soccer Caucus, or the Congressional Friends of Liechtenstein. (According to AJC, the caucus will also help members raise awareness to each other of their communities’ needs and share resources to bring them together).
In any event, Dollinger said, using the past to guide the future of black-Jewish relations would not always be perfect.
“That wonderful alliance…was just as complex then as it is now,” he said. Even in the 60s, he explained, white Jewish leaders of the time “understood that allyship was a good thing, but they understood that it was limited.”