Thursday, October 20, 2022

The (Hopefully More Symmetrical) Future of Congress' Black-Jewish Caucus

Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-MI) was one of the key forces behind the founding of Congress' Black-Jewish caucus. The caucus is nominally bipartisan, though with regard to both "Black" and "Jewish" Congress offers slim pickings amongst Republicans. The only Black GOP member, Rep. Will Hurd (R-TX), has already left Congress, and the only GOP Jewish member, Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY) will depart at the end of this term. All other members are Democrats.

But now Rep. Lawrence is retiring (redistricting scrambled her district -- Lawrence endorsed Rep. Haley Stevens in the district that's the closest to being its successor), and the JTA has an interesting article about the vitality of the caucus in the future.

One unfortunate fact about the caucus, Lawrence suggested, is that it has been almost entirely silent on matters of racism. Despite the fact that its existence is nominally about providing a vector where both Black and Jewish members can learn about and be responsive to the sensitivities of the other, in practice the caucus has almost exclusively tackled matters of antisemitism and made little progress in addressing issues of racism.

In addition to the antisemitism she has confronted throughout her tenure, another disappointment, she said, has been the reluctance of her Republican colleagues to call out anti-Black racism. 

“They just put their head down because they’re so committed to a Republican agenda,” she said. “They are not willing to stand up and call a colleague out if their rhetoric is one that promotes racism or antisemitic behavior.”

A review of statements from the caucus suggests that it has only substantially addressed antisemitism, and its most egregious expressions — the hostage-taking at a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas this year; the stabbing attack at a Hanukkah celebration in Monsey, New York, in 2019; and the anniversary of the 2018 massacre of Jewish worshippers in Pittsburgh. 

When the group has made references to anti-Black racism, the caucus talks about it as if it were a thing of the past — in commemoration of the 1960s civil rights cooperation between Jews and Blacks at an opening session in 2019, or in a celebration of Juneteenth, the holiday marking the end of slavery.

Lawrence described with frustration her attempts to get Republicans to talk more about anti-Black racism. She recalled that one Black Republican she would not name said “Look at me, I’m a Black and I made it,” and how conversations with other Republicans devolved into calls on Democrats to condemn Antifa, the loose-knit network of far-left protesters, or the Black Lives Matter movement.

This was always going to be a point of concern.  And it is tremendously disappointing, and a discredit to the hard work persons like Rep. Lawrence have put into this initiative, that the caucus thus far has been so overtly asymmetrical in its focus.

A Black-Jewish caucus is unabashedly a good thing. But it has to be a relationship of equals, not one of Jewish tutors and Black pupils. Ilhan Omar should learn from her Jewish colleagues some things about antisemitism she perhaps hadn't thought of before. But also and equally, Lee Zeldin should learn some things about racism from his Black colleagues that he perhaps was insufficiently attuned to (like why it's offensive for the Capitol Building to honor men who committed treason in defense of slavery). It's absolutely good to come together to denounce contemporary instances of antisemitism such the attacks at Colleyville and Monsey. But it is troublesome that this is not paired with denunciations of contemporary instances of anti-Black racism. In a Black-Jewish caucus neither component should be the junior partner. If the caucus is going to carry forward and do justice to Rep. Lawrence's vision, things need to change.

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