Monday, June 03, 2019

New Congressional Black-Jewish Caucus Announced: Will It Go Anywhere?

Apparently brokered by the AJC, Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-MI) announced the creation of a new bipartisan Congressional Black-Jewish Caucus. The other co-founding members are Reps. John Lewis (D-GA), Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), Will Hurd (R-TX), and Lee Zeldin (R-NY). Its stated goals are to:

  • Raise awareness of each community's sensitivities and needs, in Congress and around the country.
  • Provide resources to members of Congress to empower them to bring African-American and Jewish communities together, combating stereotypes and hate and showcasing commonalities.
  • Support stronger hate crimes legislation and advocate for increased government resources to confront the threat of white supremacist ideology.
  • Support legislation and work to expand access to democracy and protect election integrity.
To be honest, I'm not entirely sure what to make of this. The concept is great, but I have to wonder whether initiatives like this ever do anything substantive beyond the press release.

I also find the list of founding congressmen and women to be interesting (are they seeking out additional members?). The list includes two Black Democrats (Lawrence and Lewis), one Black Republican (Hurd), one White Jewish Democrat (Wasserman-Schultz), and one White Jewish Republican (Zeldin).  Let's quickly run through who they are:

Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-MI)

Lawrence is a third-term congresswoman from Michigan; holding the seat previously occupied by now-U.S. Senator Gary Peters. Prior to entering Congress, she was the first African-American woman to serve as mayor of Southfield. She also was a member of the unsuccessful Democratic gubernatorial ticket in 2010, serving as Virg Bernero's running mate. 

In Congress, she's a member of the Congressional Black Caucus and Congressional Progressive Caucus. I honestly don't know much about her, and don't think of her as a particularly high-profile member of Congress. But Lawrence's district has both a large Black and Jewish population, so it makes sense for her to try and take a leadership position on this question.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL)

Former head of the DNC, Wasserman Schultz is probably best known as the favored target of 2016 Bernie dead-enders after they level up. That made her a target for a primary challenge from Sanders-backed Tim Canova, which got pretty nasty actually, but she ended up prevailing with 57% of the vote. She is one of the most high-profile Jewish Democrats in the House, and has what I consider to be a pretty standard political posture for a Jewish Democratic politician -- generally progressive voting record, while also being "establishment-friendly". Unfortunately, the 2016 election history means she is positively despised by the insurgent wing of the Democratic Party.

Rep. John Lewis (D-GA)

One of the legends of American politics and a civil rights hero, John Lewis has massive respect within the Democratic caucus and within the CBC in particular. He's also, throughout his career, been a stalwart friend of the Jewish people -- there's probably no more common "go-to" in Congress for Jewish-Black relations than Rep. Lewis. If anyone was going to join a cause like this, it'd be him. Unfortunately, that cuts both ways -- it is in many respects less interesting that John Lewis joined this caucus, because "of course he would". It doesn't actually signal the sort of broader buy-in one would hope for.

Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY)

I was honestly surprised to see he was onboard with this, as Lee Zeldin is -- how to put this gently -- a monster whose spent the past year gleefully tossing molotov cocktails all over the "Black-Jewish relationship". Ideally, being part of an initiative like this will tame Zeldin's wilder instincts -- someone can perhaps explain to him why taking an antisemitic voicemail left at his office and randomly demanding Ilhan Omar (who is never cited, mentioned, or alluded to in the message) denounce it is not how we play nicely with others. More likely, Zeldin will simply end up blowing this thing up from the inside.

What's really going on here, I imagine, is a stark example of the limits of trying to form a bipartisan caucus of Blacks and Jews. If one is simply looking to foster healthy relations between the Black and Jewish community in Congress, Republicans are, with all due respect, kind of irrelevant. But if you absolutely insist on having a Jewish Republican in the mix, Zeldin has the almost singular virtue of, well, being one (the only other Jewish Republican in Congress is Tennessee Rep. David Kustoff. He's a right-wing extremist too, though I still suspect he'd have been a better choice).

Rep. Will Hurd (R-TX)

Speaking of slim pickings, Hurd is who you get when you decide you also need a Black Republican -- he's the only one in the House (swing over to the Senate and you've got South Carolina's Tim Scott as well). He is, to be fair, a much less offensive figure than Zeldin. He also barely squeaked out re-election last cycle against Gina Ortiz Jones, who's already gunning for a rematch, so he might not be around Congress next cycle.

* * *

What do we make of this set? Leave Hurd and Zeldin aside -- they're there for obvious reasons but otherwise are non-important. We'll even assume for sake of argument that Zeldin doesn't torpedo the whole deal.

Well, Wasserman Schultz is well respected in the Jewish community but also is a lightning rod for the Bernie-supporting wing of the party. With all due respect to the Florida Congresswoman, whom I actually rather like, she's carrying a lot of weight as the only Jewish Democratic Representative in the group, and I'm skeptical of the vitality of representing the "Jewish" side of Congress through her and Zeldin. Meanwhile, Lawrence is not high-profile, and I don't think really will do much to bring in more support from the CBC more broadly. Lewis is, of course, very high-profile, but he's also in some ways uniquely ill-positioned to signal buy-in from the CBC writ large for the reasons given above.

What's more interesting, then, is who isn't in the caucus. Now again, this was just launched, and so it's entirely possible more people will join. But the question is, who are the sorts of people who, if they did join, would signal that there might be a potential for success here?

On the Jewish side of the equation, you'd want to see both someone from new generation -- say, Elissa Slotkin or Max Rose, or perhaps Jamie Raskin -- and/or a less polarizing member of the old guard (like Jerry Nadler or Jan Schakowsky). Andy Levin -- newly-elected, but part of the Levin political dynasty in Michigan -- would be a great bridging figure here too. Another obvious name to look out for is Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee, who actually represents a majority-Black district. If he joins, it suggests that this sort of initiative is actually being viewed as a positive. If he doesn't, well, it sends a different signal.

With respect to prospective Black members, you'd want to see something similar: someone from the old guard beyond Lewis, and then someone from the new wave. On the latter, I won't even bother mentioning she-who-must-not-be-named (though again, what does it say that Zeldin can be a member but she can't?). But Lauren Underwood, Lucy McBath, or (dare to dream) Ayanna Pressley would be outstanding additions. With respect to more senior figures, Karen Bass or Elijah Cummings or even my own Congresswoman Barbara Lee would be great. There's also a "middle seniority" group that contains some promising figures, like Andre Carson (he'd be a fantastic pick-up, as the other Black Muslim serving in Congress right now) and Hakeem Jeffries (Jeffries, sadly, seems to be at risk of becoming a new Wasserman Schultz or Tom Perez -- which is to say, someone with a solidly progressive voting record who gets identified as a barrier to the advancement of some further-left hero and therefore is transmogrified into a tool of the neoliberal neoliberalist's neoliberalism).

In particular: I see the point of a caucus like this as not just comprising of itself of people who already agree on everything, but also ones who can fairly and effectively communicate their respective community's "sensitivities and needs" -- a project which often will involve explaining why practices by the other community which might internally seem innocuous are actually hurtful. In the Omar dialogues, for example, this is where we get Jewish members explaining why Omar's comments -- perhaps seen as just making the anodyne point that "AIPAC has influence in Washington" -- were harmful and seemed to leverage antisemitic tropes; and also where we get Black members explaining why the unyielding fury of the backlash -- perhaps seen as just "calling out antisemitism" --  were harmful and seemed to reflect a minute policing of Black politicians.

In other words, if you're running through potential members of the caucus with a red pen and looking for all the heresies that should bar them from membership, I'd urge you to stop. Yes, some level of overt antagonism is probably incompatible with productively participating in a project like this (but then: see Zeldin, apparently). But not all disagreements are akin to "overt antagonism", and I don't think any of the names I've listed stand outside the realm of regular disagreement. A functioning caucus that is designed to be a space where both community's can communicate their respective concerns and sensitivities can and probably should have some people who do not start out on precisely the same page. Speaking from the Jewish angle, it is in particular not reasonable to expect this caucus be "Black politicians come into the room and agree that everything the Jewish community has been saying and doing vis-a-vis the Black community is correct and laudatory" (and, of course, neither vice versa).

Finally, I don't want to say any of the people I mentioned above are obligated to join this caucus, or that it reflects badly on them or signals they "don't care about Black-Jewish relationships" if they don't. Congress is a busy place, and these people have things to do. This is one cause among many -- it's one I happen to think is important, but there are lots of issues lots of people think are important. And of course, these Congressmen and women are almost certainly better positioned than I am to see if this caucus has even the potential to turn into something "real" beyond the press release. If it's going to be a waste of time anyway, there's no need for them to cede their limited time to be wasted.

All I am suggesting is that, for a caucus like this to actually succeed, it needs to gain a membership that signifies buy-in from a solid cross-sample of the relevant communities. I don't think the initial membership group does that on its own.

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