For Wiley Nickel, ‘never again,’ is a personal declaration
In an interview with JI, the freshman Democrat from North Carolina expressed “a deep appreciation for the challenges the Jewish community faces.”
Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images
In one of his first floor speeches as a House member early last month, Rep. Wiley Nickel, a freshman Democrat from North Carolina, took a moment to acknowledge the victims of a deadly shooting that had recently occurred outside a Jerusalem synagogue on International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
The incident in late January, in which seven Israelis were killed by a Palestinian gunman, “was no random act of violence,” Nickel said from the lectern. “This was a heinous and cowardly attack rooted in hate, bigotry and antisemitism.”
“In the face of such evil, it is imperative that we come together not as Democrats or Republicans but as Americans committed to fighting against antisemitism and defending the sacred relationship between the United States and Israel,” he added. “‘Never again’ is more than a mere hashtag for social media. It is a solemn oath.”
For Nickel, 47, such declarations are personal, he explained in an interview with Jewish Insider not long after his speech. “The Jewish community, their story is my story,” he said. “My mother is Jewish. My great-grandfather fled Poland prior to the Holocaust and would not be here today if he had stayed in Poland. When we talk about antisemitism, we need to continue to speak up.”
Despite a verifiable claim to Jewish heritage, Nickel made clear — in contrast with a certain Republican lawmaker from New York — that he is not a practicing Jew and, like his father, identifies as Episcopalian, even as he grew up in a mixed-faith household celebrating Passover and observing the High Holidays with his mother’s family.
Nickel’s maternal great-grandfather, Harry Sott, fled Jewish persecution in Poland in 1907 and ultimately settled in Detroit, according to an immigration document provided by the congressman’s office. (The record describes Sott as “Hebrew.”) He met his wife, who had escaped the same Polish town, in the U.S., a spokesperson for Nickel told JI.
Harry, who worked on the assembly line for the Ford Motor Company, became a successful textile manufacturer and then retired to California, where he bought land. His son, Herbert, would also prosper, though his effort to become a practicing attorney was not without its challenges, Nickel said of the hardships his grandfather endured before opening a real estate law firm that is now one of the largest in Michigan.
“People wouldn’t hire him because he was a Jew,” Nickel told JI. “I certainly have a deep appreciation for the challenges the Jewish community faces.”
As a new member of Congress, Nickel, a former state senator and Obama administration staffer, says he is keeping those challenges in mind amid an uptick in antisemitic incidents, including in North Carolina. “This is an incredibly important issue to me,” he vowed.
The congressman said he has joined the House Bipartisan Task Force for Combating Antisemitism, which is now led by a fellow North Carolina Democrat, Rep. Kathy Manning. He has also signed onto legislation promoting Holocaust education as well as a resolution “recognizing Israel as America’s legitimate and democratic ally and condemning antisemitism.”
Moreover, Nickel said he is planning to take his first trip to Israel this August with a House delegation of freshman Democrats sponsored by the AIPAC-affiliated American Israel Education Foundation, whose annual trips to the Jewish state are a rite of passage for many new congressional lawmakers.
“We need to continue to strengthen our military, economic and cultural ties with Israel to make sure that we have peace in the Middle East,” he told JI.
Nickel supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict negotiated directly between both parties, he said. “The U.S. has a role to play to facilitate those discussions,” he argued, “but both Israelis and Palestinians have legitimate aspirations.”
In conversation with JI last month, he shied away from expressing direct criticism of Israel’s new right-wing governing coalition, which is promoting a controversial judicial overhaul that raised concerns among Democratic lawmakers in the House and Senate as well as the Biden administration.
“Whoever’s in charge, and whatever coalition is governing, we just need to make it clear that we stand with Israel,” Nickel said. “That’s a fundamental position I have. We stand with our friends, and Israel is a country where we have a sacred relationship.”
The congressman said it was “absolutely crucial” to the region “that we have a strong and stable democracy in Israel.”
Even before he was elected to Congress this past November, Nickel, who became a state senator in 2019, had participated in debates over Israel that have caused ongoing tension between varying members of North Carolina’s Democratic Party.
Last June, for instance, the state party adopted a series of controversial resolutions accusing Israel of “apartheid” and calling for “targeted sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes,” on unnamed Israelis who committed alleged human rights violations against Palestinians, among other strictures.
“There’s certainly a far-left group in Democratic politics that has the wrong approach on Israel, and we’ve had some resolutions that are ones I do not support and have spoken out against,” Nickel said. “I’m hopeful that by educating members of that group on the issues we’ll be able to avoid that kind of divisive rhetoric. But I think the vast majority of folks don’t support those efforts.”
Late last month, Nickel was among the featured guests who delivered remarks at the founding convention of the North Carolina Democratic Jewish Caucus, a new group formed to address internal divisions over Israel as well as rising rates of antisemitism that have raised alarms among Jewish community members in the Tar Heel State.
The caucus, which intends to become formally affiliated with the state party, was also created to boost organizing efforts ahead of an election cycle in which a number of vulnerable House Democrats in North Carolina, including Nickel, are preparing to defend their seats.
The state’s Supreme Court, which recently won a GOP majority, is now hearing arguments that could result in the implementation of a new congressional map, which would likely give Republican candidates an edge in 2024.
Michael Bitzer, a professor of politics and history at Catawba College in Salisbury, N.C., said he expects the court “will rule that the power of redistricting is an exclusive constitutional power to” the GOP-controlled state legislature, “and therefore all of the maps will likely be redrawn to benefit Republicans.”
“Nobody has any idea what the actual districts would look like, but my best guess,” he told JI, is that Nickel — along with Manning, Rep. Jeff Jackson (D-NC) and perhaps Rep. Don Davis (D-NC) — “would be targeted for cracking their districts, and thus shifting those four districts considerably to GOP-favored.”
Last week, the National Republican Congressional Committee included Nickel, Jackson and Davis — whose districts are rated as “toss-ups” by a leading election forecaster — on a list of 37 House Democrats who “represent prime pick-up opportunities for Republicans,” according to a statement.
A few days earlier, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had added Nickel to a list of “frontline” incumbents whose seats are “key” to the party’s “path to reclaiming the majority,” the group said in its announcement.
“We’re a toss-up race,” Nickel acknowledged to JI. “We won with 51% of the vote. It’s unlikely that they would give me a pass. That’s what we signed up for. We knew it was going to be a tough election. The voters liked our message, it resonated with them, and that’s why I’m here, so we’ll continue to make our case with voters all over the district as much as we can.”
Nickel, whose district includes the state capital of Raleigh, won a competitive race over Bo Hines, a former college football player whose far-right campaign drew comparisons to former Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-NC). Hines, 27, filed to run again shortly after the midterms but has yet to announce if he will seek a rematch.
“If there was a Squad on the Republican side, he would have been part of it,” Nickel said of his former rival, referring to a group of far-left lawmakers who entered Congress in 2018. “The voters are tired of extremists, whether they’re on the far left or the far right. They want people who are going to work across the aisle to get things done.”
During his first bid for federal office, Nickel earned endorsements from the political arms of Democratic Majority for Israel and the Jewish Democratic Council of America — neither of which has announced its plans for 2024. Last week, AIPAC’s bipartisan political action committee rolled out its first round of more than 90 House and Senate endorsements for the 2024 election. The freshman incumbent was not among the initial batch of candidates.
Nickel, who serves on the House Committee on Financial Services, expressed a desire to work with Republicans to enact legislation as a member of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus as well as the centrist New Democrat Coalition. “I start my day, every day, at 6:30 in the House gym working out with Democrats and Republicans in a CrossFit group,” he told JI.
“The focus for us is what can pass both chambers of Congress and get signed by the president,” Nickel explained, citing “access to capital,” “the high price of housing” and “immigration reform” as among the top domestic issues he hopes to address in his first term. “Those are the things that we’re starting to get working on.”
Meanwhile, Nickel pledged that he will continue to advocate for a robust relationship between the U.S. and Israel, as he suggested on the House floor in early February. “That’s just a part of the world that’s personally important to me,” he said.