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‘Tip of the spear’: Kustoff, Miller carry Jewish GOP torch in Congress
With Israel becoming an increasingly partisan issue in Washington, the unique role held by Kustoff and Miller has only grown more visible in recent weeks
When Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) referred to Israel as a “racist state” at an event last month, Rep. August Pfluger (R-TX) quickly went to work drawing up a resolution declaring congressional support for the Jewish state.
Two of his first calls were to Reps. David Kustoff (R-TN) and Max Miller (R-OH), who soon agreed to sign on as the measure’s leading co-sponsors. It may not seem like Kustoff and Miller — a 56-year-old former Bush appointee and a 34-year-old former Trump aide, respectively — have much in common, but Pfluger sought them out because they share membership in one of Capitol Hill’s smallest clubs: They are the only two Jewish Republicans currently serving in either chamber of Congress.
“Any time that you can bring a personal story, a personal touch to legislation, it puts a face and a name and history and a legacy to that legislation,” Pfluger told Jewish Insider in an interview. “That’s exactly what Mr. Kustoff and Mr. Miller were able to bring to this resolution.”
With Israel becoming an increasingly partisan issue in Washington, the unique role held by Kustoff and Miller has only grown more visible in recent weeks. In addition to co-sponsoring Pfluger’s resolution, which passed easily, they also both served on the escort committee when Israeli President Isaac Herzog addressed a joint session of Congress in July. Later that day, when Herzog and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) unveiled a first-of-its-kind task force to increase relations between Congress and the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, Kustoff was appointed chairman and Miller was named a member.
“I believe that David and I have been the two loudest Jewish voices [in Congress],” Miller said. “Not just because we are Jewish and there’s only two of us who are Republicans in the whole Congress. Because we know it’s the right thing to do.”
Bolstering Israel and combating antisemitism have been top priorities for both congressmen since their arrivals in Washington. After Miller was sworn in earlier this year, the first piece of legislation he sponsored was the resolution that removed Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) from the House Foreign Affairs Committee for controversial comments she made about Jews and Israel. Kustoff’s first bill after joining Congress in 2017 was the Combating Anti-Semitism Act, which would have increased the federal penalty for threats against synagogues, churches and other religious institutions.
Kustoff and Miller are the “tip of the spear on issues of concern to the Jewish community,” Sam Markstein, the national political director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said. “They’re always trusted and important voices in the room when these sorts of issues come to the fore.”
In interviews, each lawmaker showered praise on the other. “Max is a really good colleague who has a bright future ahead of him,” Kustoff said. “David’s a great guy,” Miller echoed.
“We’ve been a good team thus far,” added Kustoff, the more senior of the pair.
Miller said that he anticipates working more with Kustoff as possible clashes over Israel arise during the appropriations process. “I want to see us take it to a new level,” the Ohioan said. “There’s only two of us, so we need to continue to be loud and we need to continue to stand up for the state of Israel with some Democrats and the two-state solution and combat the ones referring to it as an apartheid state. David and I feel as if we need to be on the frontlines every single day.”
Although the Jewish GOP caucus has shrunk to just two members, it wasn’t always such a small contingent. From 1915 to 1923, Jewish Republican members of Congress outnumbered Jewish Democrats, according to data shared by Herb Weisberg, a scholar of Jewish American politics.
But after the 1922 cycle, the Jewish balance on Capitol Hill shifted to the Democratic side of the aisle, where it has remained ever since. (1920 is also the last time a Republican presidential candidate won the Jewish vote.) In recent years, the high point for Jewish Republican representation came after the 1984 elections, when nine Jewish GOP lawmakers served in Congress, one short of a minyan. At several points in the 21st century, the number of Jewish Republican lawmakers has dipped down to one.
The partisan Jewish divide is particularly acute on the Senate side: Of the 10 sitting Jewish senators, none are Republicans. The last Jewish GOP senator was Pennsylvanian Arlen Specter, who switched parties and became a Democrat in 2009.
“It is useful for any community to have representatives in both parties,” said Weisberg, an emeritus professor of political science at The Ohio State University. “Most Jewish voters are Democrats, but at the same time, it is important to have Jewish Republicans among our national leaders. That really does help represent Jews’ interests.”
Other scholars noted that some of the most prominent previous Jewish lawmakers have been Republicans, including Florence Prag Kahn, the first Jewish woman in Congress and the so-called “mother of the FBI”; Fiorella La Guardia, the future airport namesake and New York City mayor; and Jacob Javits, the longtime New York senator.
Eric Cantor was another notable inheritor of the Jewish GOP mantle; the Virginia lawmaker served as House majority leader and was poised to become the first Jewish speaker of the House before being defeated by a primary challenge in 2014. (Some speculated at the time that antisemitism played a role. Kustoff similarly faced a primary challenger in 2018 who emphasized his Christianity.)
During his time as the lone Jewish Republican lawmaker, Cantor told JI, the Jewish Democratic members would regularly meet without him as a Jewish caucus. “I was not allowed in,” Cantor said. “The interest was not in being Jewish and then Democrat, it was interest in being Democrat and then Jewish.”
Jewish Democrats have reportedly continued such meetings today; Miller and Kustoff say they have yet to be invited, a situation Miller likened to the Congressional Black Caucus, which has also refused to add GOP members. The two lawmakers both said they have still worked productively with Jewish Democratic colleagues — they each named Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) as a willing partner — although they diverged slightly when characterizing the rival party.
“I believe that the majority of Democrats feel the same way that I do, where they absolutely condemn antisemitism, and I’d like to think that most Democrats do support Israel and her right to exist,” Kustoff said.
But Miller, whose Washington career began as former President Donald Trump’s “music man,” more closely echoed the tune of his ex-boss. “The Democrats and their rhetoric and their ideology when it comes to the State of Israel and a two-state solution, and how they harbor individuals that call Israel a racist and apartheid state and never condemn it, it’s absolutely something to behold,” he said. “It’s disturbing, quite honestly.”
Although Miller and Kustoff are the only sitting non-Christian GOP lawmakers, both said their minority status in the party had never caused discomfort. “I will tell you that the most antisemitism I’ve experienced has actually been from our own people,” Miller said, referring to Jewish “Democrat friends” who have called him a “self-hating Jew” and a “kapo.”
Cantor, Kustoff and Miller all cited congressional delegations to Israel, particularly the annual bipartisan AIPAC trip for freshmen, as a cherished opportunity to share their faith with colleagues. “I was the only Jewish member [on my trip],” Kustoff said. “To be able to not only talk about Israel with the non-Jewish members, but to… see things through their eyes, and how much they appreciate and realize the significance of our relationship with Israel, is really special.”
“They would come back from those trips more Zionist than the Israelis,” Cantor joked of his non-Jewish Republican colleagues.
Kustoff and Miller both expressed hope that shifting Democratic views on Israel could prompt more Jews to gravitate to the GOP going forward, a desire shared across the party. The GOP is a “natural home for American Jews,” Cantor said. “It’s pretty clear that Republican values are most closely aligned with the Jewish culture,” Pfluger, who is Christian, added.
But Weisberg, the Jewish political scholar, said that history suggests that whenever Jewish Republicans have harbored that hope in the past, their predicted surge in Jewish support has rarely materialized. “Occasionally, it looked like the Jewish Democratic vote was going to slip away, and then each time, things happened that brought it back,” Weisberg said, pointing to the presidential candidacies of Pat Robertson in 1988 and Pat Buchanan in 1992 — and Donald Trump in 2016 — as events that blunted previous near-migrations.
In a statement to JI, Jewish Democratic Council of America CEO Halie Soifer said that the modern GOP has taken stances “antithetical to the values and views held by the vast majority of American Jews.” She added: “It’s not surprising that there are 36 Jewish Democrats in Congress and only two Jewish Republicans. What’s surprising is that there are any Jewish Republicans.”
Currently, more than 70% of American Jews identify as Democrats, a political reality that can be palpable even at synagogues. Park Synagogue, a Cleveland-area Conservative synagogue where Miller is a member, states at the bottom of its website that “we actively welcome gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, non-binary, queer and straight individuals.” Kustoff’s synagogue in Memphis, Temple Israel, hosted a “Repro Shabbat” earlier this year, which it promoted by proclaiming, “Reproductive freedom is a Jewish value.”
When asked if Kustoff’s pro-life voting record conflicted with that statement, Temple Israel Senior Rabbi Micah Greenstein had a few more issues to add: “What about the avalanche of guns?” he asked. “What about the way [Tennessee state Rep.] Justin Pearson was treated?”
Still, Greenstein emphasized that people of all political views were welcome at the synagouge and praised Kustoff as “honest” and “honorable.” The rabbi also said he and Kustoff keep in touch when the congressman works on legislation related to Israel or antisemitism, although he interacts more frequently with his other congressional congregant, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN).
Kustoff, who was confirmed at Temple Israel in the 1970s, is a third-generation member of the Reform synagogue. “His roots run deeper in Temple Israel than mine do,” Greenstein said.
Miller has a similarly storied lineage, hailing from one of Cleveland’s most prominent Jewish families. “He’s been bred, literally bred, on the importance of being a good Jew and a good American,” said Joshua Skoff, the senior rabbi at Park Synagogue. Miller’s grandparents were the real estate titans and philanthropists Sam and Ruth Miller; his grandmother also waged a run for Congress, while his uncle Aaron David Miller has served under six secretaries of state. (Aaron David Miller’s son, attorney Daniel Miller, wrote an op-ed last year accusing his cousin of belonging to a political movement “that’s endangering America and endangering Jews.”)
Skoff has known Miller his entire life and officiated the congressman’s bar mitzvah. “That responsibility, of being a Jew and an American, he took it very seriously then, and I’m not surprised that he takes it very seriously now,” the rabbi said.
“Even in their chaotic lives, they try to keep Shabbat as part of their focus,” Rabbi Rosie Haim said of Miller and his wife Emily, whose wedding Haim officiated last year. “Max is a really good cook. He learned how to cook Shabbat dinner, so he’s really the main cook.”
Another way that Miller keeps in touch with his Judaism on Capitol Hill: the placement of a mezuzah outside his Cannon Building office. “I understand what it means for our people, but for me, in the halls of Congress, it’s an identifier,” Miller said. “It’s saying, ‘hey, I’m Jewish. I’m not afraid to say I’m Jewish. Here’s my mezuzah.’”
“With the rise in antisemitism, some homes do not put the mezuzah on the outside,” Haim noted. “The fact that he has a mezuzah outside his office: when his door is closed, that’s what you know about him. You know his name and you know the mezuzah.”
Last month, when the House was debating the pro-Israel resolution he and Kustoff co-sponsored, Miller was in the speaker’s chair presiding, which he called an “incredible honor.” While Miller was doing so, he may have noticed another familiar symbol in the Capitol, one that Kustoff looks to frequently as a reminder of his own Jewish heritage.
The House chamber features 23 marble relief portraits of various historic “lawgivers,” from Hammurabi to Thomas Jefferson. “They are all profiles,” the Tennessean explained, “except for the one that looks directly at the speaker’s podium. And that is Moses, looking directly at the speaker. He’s the only one that’s front-facing, everybody else is a profile view.”
“When I get to preside and I look directly on at Moses,” Kustoff said, “that’s all the inspiration anybody needs — whether you’re Jewish or not.”