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Jewish Dems working to organize Congressional Jewish Caucus

A new effort is underway to create a Jewish caucus in Congress, to more forcefully respond to a rise in antisemitic incidents and rhetoric.

Jewish House Democrats acknowledged to Jewish Insider that they regularly meet in an informal working group to discuss issues related to antisemitism, yet a public call is putting pressure on formalizing the group.

Jack Rosen, president of the American Jewish Congress and a longtime donor to Democratic candidates, called for such a group in an op-ed last week, and told Jewish Insider that he came forward following “Israel-bashing” from “ultra-left progressives” in Congress.

“What prompted me to come up with this idea was the vote on the anti-BDS bill, the Israel-bashing we are getting from some of the ultra-left progressives and understanding that we are now living in the new political climate,” Rosen explained in a phone interview.

On the state and municipal levels, the California legislature and the New York City Council each have a Jewish caucus.

In Congress, there are currently 34 Jewish lawmakers out of the body of 535 in the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, including two Republican House members — Reps. Lee Zeldin (R-NY) and David Kustoff (R-TN).

The informal group among Jewish House Democrats has met for years, said Rep. Lois Frankel (D-FL), who has attended meetings since she was first elected in 2013. “There has been an informal working group of Jewish congresspersons for as long as I’ve been here, I think it goes back way before I was in Congress,” she said.

The informal group is led by Reps. Eliot Engel (D-NY) and Nita Lowey (D-NY), both senior Democratic members and respective leaders of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and the House Committee on Appropriations.

Rep. Frankel said that discussions about formalizing the caucus have come up in recent weeks, particularly following the statements made by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN).

“There have been folks who have mentioned to me the idea of formalizing,”  said Rep. Frankel. “This sort of came up in response — we had this situation with one of our colleagues who made some, we thought, some offensive remarks. So there’s been some discussion about, should we be in the position where Jewish members make more of a formal statement together. That’s really been some of what I’ve heard. As far as I know there hasn’t been any action taken.”

Rosen, for his part, said the lack of congressional action against Rep. Omar is a driving force behind the public call for a formalized Jewish caucus, stressing that despite the fact that Jewish members serve in senior leadership positions, “they failed in passing a resolution specifically condemning antisemitism.”

After Jewish Insider reported that Rep. Omar had referred to Americans who support Israel as “pushing for allegiance to a foreign country,” House Democrats spent a week debating how to address her comments and, with pushback from progressives and the Congressional Black Caucus, downplayed Rep. Omar’s use of the language. The resulting resolution, therefore, broadly opposed hate and bigotry against all groups, with sections devoted to antisemitism.

“What played out was that the Progressive Caucus, the Black Caucus (CBC), wanted to see a resolution that represented attacks on more communities as opposed to pinpointing where the problem was,” Rosen noted. “And they prevailed. Had there been a Jewish Caucus, they would have walked into the Speaker’s office unified as the Black Caucus did and there could have been a different outcome.”

Rep. Dean Phillips (D-MN), who is part of the informal Jewish working group, called their meetings “as important now as ever,” and echoed Rep. Frankel that discussions are happening over whether to formalize.

Rep. Phillips said it would be a group decision whether to include Jewish Republican members. “I can tell you my personal mission is to broaden conversations and coalitions and that means extending invitations and I would certainly, personally, like to see such a caucus more broad, rather than less. Ultimately that’s going to be a decision of everybody at the table and I can’t speak to that yet.”

Halie Soifer, Executive Director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America (JDCA) told Jewish Insider that if the Jewish members of Congress “believe a Jewish Caucus is needed or would make their voice more effective, it is something that JDCA would certainly support.”

Rosen maintained that a bipartisan Jewish caucus could have prevented the stalling of Rep. Zeldin’s antisemitism resolution, which was introduced in January, that specifically mentions Rep. Omar’s comments and her 2012 tweet saying Israel had “hypnotized the world.”

The March resolution rejecting antisemitism and hate and bigotry, however, “provided a political opportunity for Trump to label the Dems as being anti-Jewish,” said Mr. Rosen. “We know that President Trump is probably the best brander in the world and he took advantage of the issue to brand the entire party as being anti-Jewish.”

Norm Coleman, Chairman of the Republican Jewish Coalition told Jewish Insider that he’s “not looking for a Congressional Jewish Caucus. I’m looking for members of Congress to call out [Rep.] Ilhan Omar for repetitive antisemitic tropes and to support her removal from the House Foreign Affairs Committee. I’m wary of members of Congress taking cover on the antisemitism issue by joining an American Jewish Caucus, rather than personally speaking out against Rep. Omar and others for antisemitic words and actions.”

Bernie Sanders: Israel being run by a ‘right-wing, racist government’

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) commented on Benjamin Netanyahu’s reelection as Israel’s prime minister earlier this month during a live CNN town hall in New Hampshire on Monday.

Shelly Tsirulik, a student at Harvard University: You have been an outspoken critic of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Yet Israel is also one of America’s most important allies in the world. Given that Prime Minister Netanyahu just won another term in office, how do you plan to maintain the strong U.S.-Israel relationship despite those critiques?

Sanders: “Look, what I have said over and over again, and I repeat to you: I happened to, as a young man your age, I spent a number of months in Israel. I worked on a kibbutz for a while. I have family in Israel. I am not anti-Israel. But the fact of the matter is that Netanyahu is a right-wing politician who, I think, is treating the Palestinian people extremely unfairly.” (applause)

“What I believe, you know, the U.S. gives billions of dollars in military aid to Israel — what I believe is not radical — I just believe that the U.S. should deal with the Middle East on a level-playing-field basis. In other words, the goal must be to try to bring people together and not just support one country, which is now run by a right-wing — dare I say — racist government.”

“I am 100 percent pro-Israel. Israel has every right in the world to exist and to exist in peace and security, and not be subjected to terrorist attacks. But the United States needs to deal not just with Israel but with the Palestinian people as well.”

U.S. designates Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as ‘terrorist organization’

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced Monday the official designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization, placing sanctions on the military body embedded within the Iranian regime.

The official designation is expected to take effect next week, Secretary Pompeo said, and foreign governments and individuals are on notice that any dealings with the Iranian government are expected to be under threat because of the IRGC’s deep involvement and can be prosecuted under U.S. penal codes.

“If you’re the general council for a European financial institution today, there’s more risk,” Sec. Pompeo said of doing business in Iran. “It is absolutely the case that the IRGC amounts to a significant piece of the Iranian economy through pure kleptocracy and it is also the case that it is sometimes difficult to know whether the IRGC is involved. That is, the diligence effort is an enormous undertaking.”

The announcement builds on the Administration’s efforts to increase sanctions Iran after leaving the Iran nuclear deal. It also makes it more difficult for any future U.S. administration to re-enter such a deal, says Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.“You can’t just push this away, wipe this way with a reentry into the nuclear deal. It’s going to create a higher bar for anyone trying to provide some financial relief to Iran if that day comes to pass,” he said.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif called the announcement an election gift to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and said that Israel is “dragging the U.S. into a quagmire on its behalf.”

A(nother) misguided election-eve gift to Netanyahu. A(nother) dangerous U.S. misadventure in the region.— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) April 8, 2019

#NetanyahuFirsters who have long agitated for FTO designation of the IRGC fully understand its consequences for US forces in the region. In fact, they seek to drag US into a quagmire on his behalf.@realDonaldTrump should know better than to be conned into another US disaster. pic.twitter.com/i4bcfgxybT— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) April 7, 2019

The move also comes before a May 2 deadline on whether to renew waivers for countries currently buying Iranian oil. Sec. Pompeo declined to comment on the status of waiver renewals during a press briefing at the State Department.

Nathan Sales, the head of the Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism, said the announcement is the next step in the Administration’s “maximum pressure campaign” and adds criminal charges to any organization or individual that does business with the IRGC.

“It’s not just that the IRGC supports terrorism that its proxies undertake. Today the IRGC stands accused and convicted of directly engaging in terrorism itself,” he said.

Material support to a designated foriegn terrorist organization can carry a maximum penalty of 20 years, Mr. Sales said. Outstanding cases include the deaths or injuries of an estimated 603 U.S. troops serving in Iraq, as concluded by the Department of Defense.

Iran threatened reciprocal action against the U.S. over the announcement, Reuters reported, IRGC commander Mohammad Ali Jafari threatened an end to calm in the West Asia region.

Secretary Pompeo said Monday that “we have made clear, both privately and publicly, that an attack on the United States of America is something they ought to think more than twice about.”

Republican lawmakers praised the move.

Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) offered complete support of the Administration’s new designation, writing on Twitter, “The IRGC has been wreaking havoc throughout the Middle East and is a direct arm of the Ayatollah’s hateful policies. Secretary Pompeo and President Trump have rightfully put enormous pressure on Iran.”

Congressman David Kustoff (R-TN) said the President is sending a clear message that the United States does not do business with a country that terrorizes people in and outside its borders.

“We must remain vigilant against those who wish to bring Americans harm and continue to stand with our greatest ally in the Middle East, Israel,” Rep. Kustoff said.

Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon said his country thanks the U.S. for recognizing “Middle East realities”, writing on Twitter, “The IRGC is the main exporter of Iran’s regional terrorism. The world should follow this example & increase the pressure on Iran! [sic]”

Mr. Schanzer, speaking from Israel ahead of their national elections on Tuesday, said the announcement has had little airtime in the country’s political debate.

“When you look at sanctions designations and announcements, it really resonates among a certain group of wonks in Washington as well as Jerusalem. It rarely resonates outside the kind of expected audience.”

This post has been updated.

Laura Kelly is the Capitol Hill reporter for Jewish Insider. Follow her @HelloLauraKelly

Yemen war powers vote turns partisan on Israel language

Democrats succeeded in passing a resolution Thursday directing the removal of U.S. troops in Yemen despite an effort by Republicans to insert language on Israel and BDS that would stoke divisions in the Democratic Party.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) called into question the motivations of Republicans who sought to introduce an amendment regarding U.S. support for Israel, and was a “cynical and dishonest tactic” to block their bill opposing the Saudi-led war in Yemen.

The Yemen bill, which passed the House 247 to 175, directs the removal of all U.S. troops from hostilities in Yemen unless authorized by Congress. The bill heads to President Trump’s desk where it will likely be vetoed, marking the second time the president has used such authority.

The Republicans attempted to block passage of the Yemen bill by invoking the motion to recommit (MTR), a last opportunity to amend and debate a measure before a final vote on an overall bill. Republicans had succeeded in passing two previous MTR’s, one on antisemitism and another on immigration.

House Democrats met the Republican move with harsh condemnation.

“The American people will not be fooled or misled by this tactic,” Leader Hoyer said during floor debate of the measure. “No one can accuse me of failing to defend the U.S.-Israel partnership and strongly opposing B.D.S. and I will be voting against this motion and I urge all my colleagues to do so as well.”

Representative Ted Deutch (D-FL), chair of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa and Internatinoal Terrorism, took to the House floor to say that he  carries “the legacy of the history of the Jewish people.” “There is no one in this chamber, no one, who would question my commitment to opposing B.D.S. or fighting antisemitism or supporting our ally Israel,” Rep. Deutch said to loud applause from the Democrats. “But I also strongly reject – I strongly reject – I strongly reject what my colleagues are doing here today.”

Rep. Susan Wild (D-PA) said the move by Republicans is an effort to paint the party as divided over Israel. “I have not seen any sign of division in the Democratic caucus about support for Israel. But, I think that’s what they’re trying to create an appearance of division,” Rep. Wild said.

The Republican motion failed by a vote of 228 to 194, although at least seven members broke ranks with their parties. Reps. Thomas Massie (R-KY) and Justin Amash (R-MI) voted no on the motion to recommit and five Semocrats voted in favor, including Reps. Jefferson Van Drew (D-NJ), Anthony Brindisi (D-NY), Joe Cunningham (D-SC), Elaine Luria (D-VA) and Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ).

“This is a matter of principle for me,” Rep. Gottheimer told Jewish Insider. “I have always stood strong against antisemitism and always will.”

Rep. John Curtis (R-UT), speaking before seeing the vote on the MTR, told JI, “I would just emphasize how important it is that we figure out how to keep this a bipartisan issue,” he said regarding antisemitism. “One of my worries is that I’m seeing this kind of being fractured into a Republican issue and we really need to keep it a bipartisan issue and I’m hoping we can do that.”

“I think for the most part we’re not seeing in committee meetings its more on the outside of committee meetings where you’re really starting to see this friction. I’m worried that Democrats are leaving this issue a little bit and we really need them to stay with us on this antisemitism and make it a bipartisan issue,” Rep. Curtis said.

Rep. Mark Takano (D-CA), a member of the Democratic Israel Working Group caucus, told JI, that the majority of Republicans voting against the Yemen bill showed their motion to recommit was disingenuous.

“I listened to the Republican [Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX)] make his case about B.D.S. and it’s exactly why I do oppose B.D.S. But this was about trying to undermine a bill about Yemen and the starving, hungry children in a war torn part of the world.”

Rep. Lois Frankel (D-FL) further condemned Republicans of using Israel as “a political ploy.”

“The war in Yemen is one of the worst humanitarian crises… Republicans tried to defeat the resolution by adding language about B.D.S., using Israel as a political ploy. I stand strong in my support for Israel, which can never become a political football. I strongly oppose B.D.S. and have voted for resolutions condemning it on multiple occasions,” she said.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), speaking at a press conference following the vote, called the defeat of the GOP’s BDS. motion, a “turning moment for America” and called on the House leadership to introduce S.1 – the senate-passed bill which includes a provision barring the government from doing business with individuals or organizations that boycott Israel.

“Today was a day in history I didn’t want to see in America. Today, every Democrat but five voted against an amendment to reject the B.D.S. movement. Every democrat but five would not stand with Israel today. This is a turning moment for America.”

Laura Kelly is the Capitol Hill reporter for Jewish Insider. Follow her @HelloLauraKelly

AIPAC’s competition — Obama to host Dems on Monday night of policy conference

Former President Barack Obama will host a reception for freshman House Democrats on Monday evening at the home of Ambassador Esther Coopersmith in Washington, D.C, Jewish Insider has learned. Coopersmith, known as “one of the best at playing the Washington ‘networking’ game,” was appointed by Obama as a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador in 2009.

On Monday night, AIPAC will also hold its leadership reception, perhaps AIPAC’s most-significant annual gathering, which typically puts the vast majority of members of Congress, AIPAC’s leadership, board and national council all in one room, during the same block of time.

Several progressive 2020 presidential hopefuls, including Senators Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris, have already announced they won’t be attending AIPAC’s policy conference this year. However, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio is scheduled to speak at the conference on Monday.

On any given night in D.C. while Congress is in session, members typically attend several receptions, but this conspicuous scheduling conflict has caught the attention of D.C. insiders. Obama’s reception is called for 7:15PM, while the AIPAC gathering is from 6:45PM until 10PM.

Dispatch from Denver: What it takes to produce ‘SXSW for Jewish teens’

Pulling off a five-day gathering in a sprawling convention center with hundreds of speakers at plenary and breakout sessions is no easy feat. Self-styled after the annual South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in Austin, Texas, which convenes around 400,000 guests each March, BBYO put on its International Convention (IC) in Denver, Colorado this past weekend and drew 3,000 Jewish teenagers from over 40 countries, representing a total of 713 communities throughout the world.  

But organizing a conference for a demographic that already has access to unlimited content at their fingertips, and with ever shorter attention spans? BBYO’s CEO Matthew Grossman knows the challenge of catering to today’s teens well and argues the impact of reaching the next generation of Jews and bringing them into the community is great.

“We’re competing for the most programmed audience in the world,” Grossman tells Jewish Insider over coffee in a hotel lobby beside Denver’s convention center. “To get these kids to commit five days to be doing something Jewish, we’ve got to be able to offer them something that’s better than they can get anywhere else in their teen lives. We’re modeling this after a South by Southwest kind of experience.”

South by Southwest does not come cheap — and neither does BBYO’s IC. Although U.S. teens are expected to pay about a thousand dollars to attend, many come on a scholarship and the event could not be produced without the generosity of Jewish donors and foundations. “We’re trying to put together an experience that they would otherwise not be able to attend because they’re not eligible to attend or their parents wouldn’t let them attend. That’s why you pay money for the great speakers and why we put up first rate musical acts that we know will draw them.”

The impressive lineup of speakers featured A-list celebrities including comedian Chelsea Handler, actor Max Greenfield, NFL player Brandon Copeland, Olympian Adam Rippon; politicians such as Colorado’s first Jewish Governor, Jared Polis, U.S. Senator Cory Gardner, Knesset member Rachel Azaria; along with apparel entrepreneurs Ty Haney of Outdoor Voices and Blake Mycoskie of TOMS shoes.  

“We put a huge diverse program together that will appeal to the interests of the widest swath of teens we could possibly appeal to,” Grossman explains. “We also want to be the best first big Jewish experience they have because, in a way, this redefines what they think about the Jewish brand and the Jewish community. If we can reassociate it as something that they can’t get anywhere else and that lifts them up as young adults, they’re going to pursue it throughout their lives.”

Grossman makes particular note of the 16 different Shabbat services led by teens that BBYO offered on Friday night of the gathering, ranging from Orthodox and Conservative services to ‘Color Me Shabbat!’ and a “Shabbat at summer camp” experience.

Finding the right mix of Jewish and secular programming is not the only balancing act BBYO faces at its International Convention. According to Grossman, there are over 100 teens on the BBYO planning committee deciding which issues should be given prominence at IC.

This year’s gathering coincided with the one year anniversary of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, and just a few months after the Pittsburgh Synagogue massacre. The teens appeared particularly motivated to address the topics of gun violence and school safety. Activists against gun violence Cameron Kasky, a co-founder of March For Our Lives, and Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter Jaime was killed during the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, were invited to give keynote addresses. Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz followed Guttenberg’s speech on Saturday evening and noted to applause how she’s proud of her ‘F’ rating from the National Rifle Association (NRA).

While Israeli flags were visible on t-shirts and throughout the convention hall, mentions of U.S. support for Israel found more modest applause than other political issues. This didn’t stop Israel-related organizations — including AIPAC, J Street, and StandWithUs — from pitching attendees as they roamed the halls.

Grossman sees BBYO’s goal as helping teens establish an emotional connection with the Jewish state, more so than a political one. To this end, the group hosts annual teen trips to Israel; this past year BBYO took 674 high-schoolers to the Holy Land. “When you’re talking about a teenager who’s not yet on campus, getting that emotional connection to Israelis is so important.” This year’s gathering also featured 45 Israelis who, during the opening ceremony, were given a standing ovation as their national anthem, Hatikva, was played.

As for their views toward the Israeli government, Grossman says “the teens are sophisticated and are able to separate in their minds that emotional love for a country while still being critical of that country if they want to be critical of that country.” Grossman added, “the same thing some of them may feel with the United States, they’re proud to be Americans but they could certainly be critical of America.”

So why should Jewish donors join Chicago industrialist Ted Perlman, who pledged $25 million to BBYO last week, in supporting the organization? “BBYO is perfectly positioned to offer a new connection to Judaism following the post-bar/bat mitzvah drop off period,” Grossman answers. “It’s the first time for the teen (independent of their parents) to embrace what it means to be part of the Jewish community.”

While the costs and resources required for these experiences may be high, Grossman notes, “we don’t need to build buildings, we don’t have a lot of overhead.” Grossman says BBYO is ready to scale and can exist almost anywhere thanks to its volunteers. Next year’s IC is scheduled to take place in Dallas, bringing the group that much closer to its Austin role model.

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