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Rep. Stacey Plaskett joins the ‘Limited Liability Podcast’

Delegate from the Virgin Islands talks Black-Jewish relations

TOM WILLIAMS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Del. Stacey Plaskett, (D-V.I)

In this week’s episode of Jewish Insider’s “Limited Liability Podcast,” hosts Richard Goldberg and Jarrod Bernstein are joined by Rep. Stacey Plaskett for a frank discussion on Black-Jewish relations in America and representing a U.S. territory in Congress.

The following has been lightly edited for clarity.

Jarrod Bernstein  

Delegate Stacey Plaskett is the non-voting member of Congress from the United States Virgin Islands, a dear friend of mine, and we’re really thankful to have her on the podcast to talk about lots going on today. Why don’t we start off with, Delegate Plaskett, what is it like to be a non voting member of Congress?

Rep. Stacey Plaskett  

Well, I think that’s an interesting way of putting it, I would say it’s a limited voting. And the limited vote depends on who’s in power, how much of that limit is there. So all members of territories, or as I would say, all members of the American colonies have a right of voting in committees. And so we vote fully in committees. And when the democrats have control of the House, we vote on the floor on amendments. And when we are on the Committee of the Whole. We do not vote on final passage. When Republicans are in control, then there is no voting on the floor, and we are relegated to the votes and committees and just doing the other business of members of Congress. That is, you know, passing, sponsoring legislation, co sponsoring, debating, etc, etc. So one of the things that I have just noted, it’s interesting, I was talking to a group earlier today, is that in this position, I feel like I am, it’s the same as my life. Because I sit on the floor quite often and find myself being an observer rather than an actor. And I think it gives me a greater sense of members and strategy and thoughts about members than other members of Congress have. I can sit there and I know which member of New Jersey is going to vote first and which ones are waiting to see who another particular member votes ahead of them. Which members of the front line are waiting for the last minute because ‘I don’t want to take the vote,’ are waiting to be whipped by the majority leader or the whip team to ask them to vote a certain way. You know, it gives you a much greater observation. But it also means that you’ve got to work harder because you don’t have those votes to negotiate with,  with other colleagues and with the leadership. And so you’ve got to really be creative and a hustler. To get your skill done.

Jarrod Bernstein  

You’ve achieved quite a bit of notoriety for a delegate from a territory. You know, you don’t often hear a ton of news out of the territorial delegations, but you’re one of the house impeachment managers, you’re on Ways and Means. You alluded to it a minute ago when you said you’re a hustler. How is it to do advocacy as somebody who is using all the instruments of soft power? It seems like you’ve mastered this, but I’d be interested to hear more about how that actually works and how you make those deals.

Rep. Stacey Plaskett  

Soft power. Huh, soft power. I don’t know. I just have always felt that, you know, I was raised in a house where my mother explained to me that you’ve got to be better than everybody else. You’ve got to have more hustle than everybody. I’m putting you in the same places where people have much more resources than you and you’ve got to figure out a way to come out on top. I don’t want you to come home in the middle, or average or at the bottom, you’ve got to be on top. And so that’s always just kind of given me a drive. I came here knowing that I was going to make this position very different than the position had been previously.  I wanted to be outside of the box of what was expected, I asked not to be put on the same committees that the other territorial members had been placed on, because I wanted to forge a very different path. And interestingly, I think what I’m doing is so much about what we, as Caribbean people do in America. From the first Caribbean people who came to this country and offered support in its formation, we have always kind of had a chip on our shoulder and felt that we have more to prove. From our boy, Alexander Hamilton, right on through to today, we have to step outside of the box. People are looking at us a little askew. And so we’ve got to prove ourselves. And, you know, that’s the only way I feel that my constituents, who are often completely underserved, forgotten, and behind the eight ball, are going to get ahead.

Rich Goldberg  

When you look at other territories that have taken the step to have referendums to say, you know, ‘do you want to be a state not just a territory?’ Puerto Rico obviously comes top of mind, we had the referendum last Fall with with the ‘yes’ succeeding narrowly. The last referendum, I can think about the Virgin Islands is probably over 20 years ago, maybe there is one more recent. Is that something that’s come up? Has anybody thought about doing that? Where do you sort of stand on that idea of statehood for the Virgin Islands,

Rep. Stacey Plaskett  

So we just recently had a referendum that we would adopt the Congressional Organic Act as our Constitution, so that we can amend that. That passed overwhelmingly. And for the last two and a half years, I’ve been petitioning our local government, our local legislature and our governor, asking them if they would allocate a really small amount of money to educate Virgin Islanders on what the different status options are, and the pros and cons of each one. You know, what does it really mean, financially and economically, to be independent? What does it mean to be a state in terms of the politics of that? Or to be a Commonwealth? Or you know, any of the other possibilities that are there. Not so that people are just getting that off of the internet or off of somebody on a talk show, but really having a true understanding about each one of those and what that means. And then for us to have a referendum on it in the next two years. Two years from now, we will be 175 years from our emancipation from chattel slavery. And I believe that’s a prime time for us to, as a people, say, internally, this is what I want us to be. I can have my own ideas about where we should be, but that is not necessarily the will of the people. And I think that’s what should drive the decision making. And then, my final thought to that was that whatever that outcome is of that referendum, that should be the position that whomever represents us in Washington at that time, as well as the governor and the local government should be pushing for.

Jarrod Bernstein  

And to ask you a question a little bit closer to home, for me, at least. You know, I’m one of those obnoxious people who thinks the world ends at the Hudson River. So you did spend quite a bit of time growing up in New York City, in the five boroughs, and between there and St. Croix, we’ve talked a lot on the show about the relationship between the far-left and antisemitism and how some, you know, have tried to take the imprimatur of the Black Lives Matter movement and stretch it beyond its breaking point into something that is not particularly related to the Israel-Palestinian  .

Rep. Stacey Plaskett  

Do you talk about the far-right’s antisemitism?

Jarrod Bernstein  

I talk about the far-right’s antisemitism all the time.  But what is your take on the state of Black-Jewish relations generally, as as somebody who spent a lot of time in New York and as an observer and a thoughtful person about this, is it getting better? Is it getting worse? What can we be doing to build that relationship? As people like, Rich and I, have a big bully pulpit in the Jewish community. Knock on wood. What should we be talking about?

Rep. Stacey Plaskett  

That’s an interesting question. You know, I grew up Between Bushwick and Williamsburg, you know, so you’re getting different groups of the Jewish community, some which actually don’t even get along with each other, right. And then moving home to the Virgin Islands, which is a very interesting place, because we have one of the oldest, continually running synagogues in the Western Hemisphere, started by a Sephardic Jewish community. And then we also has a have a very sizable, Palestinian-Jordanian community as well, in the Virgin Islands. And they both coexist very well together. And so what is the position that I have taken on that as an African person of African descent, as someone who lives in America and African-American and Afro-Caribbean person? You know, I do think there are different groups of Jewish and Black communities think very differently about this, right? I think back on the protests this past summer, and there were Jewish people who were out there repping the fact that they were Jewish and supporting that Black lives do matter. And so when you say the term Black Lives Matter, are you talking about an organization or a theory? And for me, it’s a theory that, yes, our lives matter. And that’s what we’re trying to get across that until Black Lives Matter, then all lives don’t matter. And there were Jewish people, you know, Amish people who supported that. But there’s also, I think, a dichotomy and a belief that I brush up against, and that worries me, that my Jewish brothers and sisters think that if I support the existence of Palestine, that means that I don’t support them as Jewish people. And so that’s worrisome to me, like how do you navigate that? How do I believe that there should be a two state solution? That what is happening on both ends are problematic. That there should be a ceasefire, that we need to have peace and not feel like I am saying that one side is better or the other side is not? I’m supportive of the Jewish state, but I did not believe that Netanyahu is necessarily the best leader of the Jewish state at this time. I believe in a Palestinian state, but I condemn Hamas. So does one cancel out the other? I’m not sure. And that’s for me, to ask my brothers and sisters who are Jewish and that are of Palestinian descent, to educate me, and to help me figure that out, in the same way that I asked my white friends — I’m happy when they want to be educated, and want to be thoughtful about their position on Black people in America.

Rich Goldberg  

Yeah, I think, and I’ve contemplated this in the last few days and we’ve had lots of conversations. My synagogue was very active, like you talked about, in, you know, we’re in the middle of COVID lockdowns and, you know, we saw what happened with George Floyd and the protest movement started and people were very moved to go out to the streets and join and show their support. And, you know, they’re connected now to a lot of feeds, a lot of influencers, a lot of movements, networks, social organizations, that they got involved with from last summer, and they just, I think assumed, ‘okay, you know, we’re in solidarity here.’ And now with rockets raining down on Israel, we’re seeing real venom from some of these social media feeds within social organizations of comparing people who support Israel, to white supremacists and Nazis and the language — I think Jarrod was referring to — the language of anti-racism theory being hijacked for a different agenda. I think that’s what worries a lot of people is to see that kind of language which then moves from what you’re talking about, which is, ‘I don’t agree with this selected government. I support the right of a Jewish state to exist obviously in safety and security. I don’t like Netanyahu,’ to There’s a fundamental hostility in some of these messaging of the idea of a Jewish state that defends itself.

Rep. Stacey Plaskett  

I think you’ll find…I hear what you’re saying. I think also for a lot of Black people were concerned, because we also see Palestinians as Brown people in some respects. And so that, in some ways, makes us feel that we have an obligation to use our platform to maybe speak for a group that does not have the same platform as we do. And while I have a discussion on the floor, like, ‘Well, you know, not every Jewish person is white.’ The general consensus or cultural message that has been put to African-Americans is that Palestinians more likely represent the type of oppression that Black Americans have had, or Native Americans have had. It’s similar, as opposed to what, you know, a Jewish state created by the predominantly Ashkenazi European Jews.

Rich Goldberg  

It’s so stunning to me, because I reflect…and by the way, thank you for this conversation. This is such an important conversation that we haven’t had…I remember as a kid at the Passover Seder and the comparisons of the Civil Rights movement to the Passover story, and that being one of the major connection points for Black Jewish relations. And we remember, you know, that the Jewish leaders who were out there in the streets, you know, side by side with Civil Rights leaders at the time, and, and that sort of imagery, that song, you know, the Black Moses, right like that, there’s a lot of these sorts of things we talk about, where, where we bring that that comparison together. And yet, it’s evolved over the last few decades, it really has, into more of what you’re saying, where, I think that the early Jewish state had that sort of feeling of camaraderie, and somehow we’ve evolved into this narrative which has shifted. Even though, to your point, Israel rescued Ethiopian Jews and integrated Ethiopian Jews into Israel, the Misrathi Jews, you know, from all around North Africa and the Middle East. I don’t know how we I don’t know how we fight back that narrative, I don’t know.

Jarrod Bernstein  

And I would just observe, you know, the person who in this world taught me the most about the meaning of Passover was not a rabbi or a Hebrew school teacher, it was Barack Obama, when he pulled out a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation at the conclusion of the Seder, and sat in his home and made us read from the Emancipation Proclamation to really understand the American nature of the holiday. But, you know, I think the first step is having conversations like this, right, that are slightly uncomfortable, but very real. And, and confronting the issues. And this is how I’ve gotten to know the delegate and sort of my day job. It’s not to be shy, not to shy away from uncomfortable conversation.

Rep. Stacey Plaskett  

Yeah. I wonder, you know, for a lot of my colleagues when we’re having the discussion, you know, they bring up and help me with the pronunciation, the Nakba. Right? They talk about the displacement of the Palestinians, as a major inflection point in their shift in attitude, and I don’t know what you guys think of that. Can we come? Can we recognize a point when that has changed which could maybe be instructive to us about how to reevaluate that relationship?

Rich Goldberg  

Yeah, the Nakba is a troubling term, for me at least, because the reference historically is to the creation of the State of Israel. And so if somebody says, you know, ‘we were triggered by the Nakba,’ or you know, ‘we have to, we have to respond to the Nakba.’ To me, and again, maybe it’s becoming sort of general terminology that’s just being used without knowing the etymology, to me that represents ‘we have a problem that the Jewish state was created in 1948.’ And and in its root there, you know, to us again, as Jews, that can be sounding like antisemitism as well. ‘You don’t even believe that Jews have a right to exist as a Jewish state.’ Fundamentally, that’s a problem. But I guess the question is, where can we go as a community to have these sort of dialogues, you know, whether it’s closed door, you know, if it’s with the Black Caucus, if it’s with individual members. It sounds like either it’s Israel’s problem as a government, and obviously, I’m not here to advise the Israeli government. But as an American-Jewish community, I feel like we need to be doing more to bring some modern education to members and information of ‘Here is the diversity that exists in Israeli society. And by the way, here’s the lack of diversity that exists in the Palestinian territories.’ No LGBTQ rights, flourishing LGBTQ rights in Israel. No women’s rights in the Palestinian territories flourish and women’s rights in Israel. I think there’s a great progressive message here. It’s just it’s just getting lost somehow.

Rep. Stacey Plaskett  

Yeah, you’re assuming that all Black people are progressive?

Rich Goldberg  

No, I’m not saying that. Trust me as a Republican. I welcome as many conservatives to the party, trust me.

Rep. Stacey Plaskett  

I’m sure that members, particularly Black Caucus members are happy to have those conversations. I think what some of them may feel is that they’re not conversations, they’re being told what they are supposed to think or are supposed to do. And, you know, numbers and resources are being utilized as bludgeons to make them think they have to take a certain position.

Jarrod Bernstein  

I think, Rich, we should, use our bully pulpit to help advise the Jewish community as they engage with progressive members black and white, and any color.

Rep. Stacey Plaskett  

Some of us moderate members too.

Jarrod Bernstein  

Can I ask a House politics question, because we have a member of Congress on and I just I, I got to ask you, did McCarthy just sign a blood oath with President Trump from what he asked of Liz Cheney? And are the Cheneys going to have their revenge? Like, how is this gonna play out? It’s shocking to me that this all played out the way it is, but what’s your take on it?

Rich Goldberg  

By the way, Chicagoans, when you say blood oath, we can only think of ‘The Untouchables.’

Rep. Stacey Plaskett  

You know, I don’t. I don’t have an opinion on the Liz Cheney portion, as much. I mean, I understand her removal, because she isn’t following the message of leadership. And it’s very clear what the message is right now, of the House Republicans. I’m not saying all Republicans, but the House Republicans and her inability to agree with them about what happened on January 6 is a reason for her not to be in leadership. What I find more shocking is today, as we are about to vote on this commission, is that, McCarthy is now putting another member out to dry, because he had John Katko, who was the ranking member, the Republican on Homeland Security, negotiate for several months now, what this commission is supposed to look like. And he was able to get the concessions that McCarthy wanted only now for McCarthy to turn around and say, I’m not going to support it. Of course, he can’t support it, because the leader of his party, which is still Donald Trump, has said he doesn’t want to support it. And so, you know, I allow them to let them continue to have that battle. We’ve got our own issues on our side of the aisle. We’ve got, the far-left, going after moderate, thoughtful members, making people take the plank on issues that in some instances is going to cost them their seat. So those are the things that I’m concerned about on my own side of the aisle, and you know, keeping my head on a swivel to make sure that some of the wackadoodles on that side, on the other side. Like Marjorie Taylor Greene, and Boebert and some of the others recognize that they can’t step to everybody they think they can talk crap to. I’ll keep it…we have to stay clean.

Rich Goldberg  

Not in Yiddish, you’re allowed to swear.

Jarrod Bernstein  

Yeah, you’re allowed to curse in Yiddish.

Rich Goldberg  

We’ve had Congressmen do that before. I actually have a follow up because you’ve said a couple of times, you’re a moderate, we know you were formerly a member of the Republican Party, a Republican appointee in the previous administration. You know, when you look at that state of polarization right now on both sides, is there a middle that exists, that you’re a part of the you’re talking to other members, you’re doing bipartisan things that just we’re just not watching because it’s not good television? Or is it very much stressed even on that level?

Rep. Stacey Plaskett  

It’s stressed, but there’s some going on. But it’s not interesting. You know, it doesn’t make the news. I am in leadership with the New Democratic Coalition, which are the pragmatic, you know, moderate Democrats. And we just had a press conference on legislation, you know, a series of legislation that we’ve been working on with Republicans that we’re hoping the President will put in his jobs plan, you know, and it’s infrastructure bill, but I’m sure CNN, Fox News and MSNBC are not going to put that on the air. But even within that, Richard is extremely. There’s a heightened tension here in Congress every day on the floor, you can feel the tension. In previous years I would have stepped in an elevator with any member of congress and said, ‘Good afternoon, what’s going on? How’s your family?’ There are some, some members I won’t even get in the elevator with. At this point, I just don’t want to share any space with them.

Jarrod Bernstein  

Can you tell us about your experience on January 6? Tell us where you were and how that all went down for you?

Rep. Stacey Plaskett  

Yeah, I mean, I do not have the same trauma some of my other colleagues have. I was in my office. Was about to go to the floor. Had actually just put on my suit jacket and was walking out of the office when I was stopped at the front by one of my staffers and told, ‘They just told us to lock the door and you can’t leave the office.’ And so it’s interesting, because I look at the levels of trauma that are actually real trauma that I see in some of the members. And the ones who were up on that balcony, who for 45 minutes could not leave, were only Democrats and members of the press were up in the balcony area. They say they have their own support group counseling for some of them that they’re going through. You know, I kind of watched from television, went down into the holding area where all the members were at a later point, and eventually went back to my office. That evening, seeing what the Capitol looked like — the windows knocked out, feces on the walls in the Capitol. It was horrendous. It was a shock. Really a shock.

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