Jewish Democrats back Jeffries after resurfaced defense of uncle’s antisemitic remarks

Current and former Jewish Democratic lawmakers and his Jewish community supporters describe Jeffries as a trusted friend, while the RJC says he ‘owes the Jewish community an explanation’

(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 30: U.S. House Minority Leader Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) speaks during a weekly news conference at the U.S. Capitol on March 30, 2023 in Washington, DC.

Jewish Democrats who have long been staunch supporters of House Minority Leader Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) are standing by Jeffries this week following new revelations that he publicly defended his uncle, Leonard Jeffries, in the early 1990s, after the elder Jeffries made offensive comments about Jewish people.

Leonard, then a professor at City College in New York, made comments about the involvement of “rich Jews” in the African slave trade and alleged that Jews in Hollywood engaged in a “conspiracy” to denigrate Black Americans. 

CNN reported on Wednesday that the House minority leader, who was in college at the time, penned an editorial in a Binghamton University newspaper defending his uncle as the subject of “a media lynching complete with character assassinations and inflammatory erroneous accusations.” Jeffries also named Nation of Islam leader Rev. Louis Farrakhan, notorious for his own antisemitic comments, as another individual unfairly maligned for his opposition to the “ruling elite.” Since he was elected to Congress in 2013, Jeffries has said he only had a “vague recollection” of his uncle’s controversy and said that his parents kept him shielded from it.

Jewish supporters of Jeffries who spoke to Jewish Insider on Wednesday and Thursday largely brushed off the controversy as long in the past, and defended the legislator’s record in office. Jeffries, who has clashed with the far-left elements of his caucus, has generally maintained strong support among mainstream Democrats, particularly in the Jewish and pro-Israel community.

“I know Hakeem Jeffries. I know his record, his heart, and his soul,” Rep. Brad Schneider (D-IL) said in a statement to JI. “He and I have traveled to Israel together. He is a friend of mine, a friend of the Jewish people, and a friend of Israel,” 

Other Jewish Democrats, including Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) and Dean Phillips (D-MN), also rallied to Jeffries’ defense, describing him as a close friend and a stalwart ally of the Jewish community. Wasserman Schultz is a co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on Black-Jewish relations, of which Jeffries is a member, and Phillips serves in Democratic leadership with Jeffries. 

Rep. Kathy Manning (D-NC), the Democratic leader of the House’s bipartisan antisemitism task force, did not respond to a request for comment.

“I served in Congress with Hakeem Jeffries and can tell you first hand that he is among the first and most effective voices in consistently attacking anti-Semitism and supporting Israel on the floor of the House,” former Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY), who led the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee when Jeffries was first elected, told JI. “He’s an indispensable ally and advocate, and that record speaks for itself. Anyone trying to make an issue out of a college essay is doing a disservice to that record.”

Jeffries was a board member of Binghamton’s Black Student Union, which invited his uncle to speak on campus amid the controversy. Following protests by Jewish student groups, Jeffries spoke at a press conference defending the invitation.

Former Sen. Norm Coleman (R-MN) and Matt Brooks, the national chairman and CEO of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said in a statement to JI, “Jeffries owes the Jewish community an explanation as to why he lied and attempted to cover up his defense of these revolting antisemites.”

Coleman and Brooks said that the revelations reflect “the Democratic Party embracing and promoting antisemites.” These criticisms have been echoed by other Republicans in recent days, including the National Republican Campaign Committee. Republicans have also criticized Jeffries for deriding Black conservatives in the op-ed.

Jeffries spokesperson Christiana Stephenson said in a statement to JI that he “has consistently been clear that he does not share the controversial views espoused by his uncle over 30 years ago. Leader Jeffries has been in public service for more than 16 years as a state legislator and Member of Congress. His track record of bringing communities together and standing up for everyone speaks for itself.”

Jeffries’ Jewish supporters outside of Congress are also standing by him. Jeffries’ district includes a sizable Jewish population, with which he has maintained a strong relationship.

Gideon Taylor, the executive vice president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, said in a statement to JI, “Hakeem Jeffries has been a very strong, stalwart and close friend of the Jewish community and of Israel in the long time we have known and worked with him. We look forward to continuing to work with him as we have in the past in the fight against antisemitism and hate and in seeking a safe and secure Middle East for Israel and its neighbors.”

Michael Miller, the former executive vice president and CEO, previously told JI that Jewish leaders were initially apprehensive of Jeffries because of his uncle’s history, but emphasized that Jeffries’ record in office had dispelled those concerns.

Hank Sheinkopf, a New York-based Democratic strategist who is Jewish, told JI that while “there will be people” in the Jewish community who feel they can no longer trust Jeffries to defend them, he anticipates that the new reporting will have little impact on Jeffries’ support base.

“People really don’t think of Hakeem Jeffries and Leonard Jeffries as being anywhere close to each other in their thinking or their behavior… Jeffries was not in any position to do anything about anything, so therefore it’s going to be hard to blame,” Sheinkopf said. “Jews are very fair about this. They’re not going to blame him for what his uncle did, and he’s made sure to keep himself away from this.”

Sheinkopf also predicted that Jeffries will be quick to clearly distance himself from the controversy and his uncle. “If he’s smart, he will say, ‘These are events that happened a long time ago. My record with the Jewish community is pretty clear. We go forward,’” Sheinkopf said.

“It’s not in his interest to be seen as antisemitic in any way or to be seen as supportive of the Squad or the growing anti-Israel groups that make up the Democratic Party,” he continued. “Why? Because it’ll cost him in his ability to raise money from significant players and he’s going to need every dollar that he can get his hands on if he wants to take back the House in 2024.”

Leon Goldenberg, a Jewish community activist from Brooklyn who describes himself as “very close” with Jeffries, said Jeffries should not be judged based on the decades-old events.

“It’s not like this happened last year and he’s been hiding it,” Goldenberg told JI. “You have to look at his track record for the last 20 years that he’s been running for office, in office.”

Asked whether he felt Jeffries had misrepresented his involvement in the situation, Goldenberg said “that’s a possibility” but added, “he did this, whatever went on, when he was 19 or 20 years old… I’m sure there are things that you did when you were 19, 20 that you regret.”

Jeffries’ office did not respond to a question about his descriptions of his knowledge of and involvement in the controversy.

Norm Eisen, a former U.S. ambassador and House impeachment counsel who has known Jeffries for more than two decades, told JI that the reporting “raises absolutely no concerns for me” and Jeffries “is staunchly supportive of the Jewish community, and he’s proven it again and again.”

Regarding Jeffries’ descriptions of his recollection of the controversy, Eisen said, “he’s not a misrepresenter and it would make no sense for him to misrepresent,” adding, “You can’t fault him for not recalling a few stray lines that he wrote decades ago when he was in college.” 

Democratic Majority for Israel’s board co-chair, Todd Richman, who said he has known Jeffries since he was a new member of the New York State Assembly, also stood by him, calling him “a strong ally to the Jewish community, a staunch opponent of antisemitism and a steadfast supporter for the U.S.-Israel relationship.”

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