Rep. Jake Auchincloss talks Netanyahu, Bowman, Biden and antisemitism

The Massachusetts Democrat said he’ll walk out of Netanyahu’s congressional speech if he attacks Biden, and discussed his concerns about the Antisemitism Awareness Act

Rep. Jake Auchincloss (D-MA), closing out his second term on Capitol Hill, has emerged as a prominent, pragmatic voice among younger members of the Democratic caucus, and is seen as a potential leader on key issues. 

Jewish Insider’s Editor-in-Chief Josh Kraushaar and senior congressional correspondent Marc Rod sat down with Auchincloss, who is Jewish, for nearly an hour in his Capitol Hill office last week to discuss the state of the Democratic Party, the situation in the Middle East, antisemitism, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s upcoming address to Congress — and more.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Jewish Insider: What [lessons] do you read from that pretty decisive victory from George Latimer [over Rep. Jamaal Bowman] in New York?

Auchincloss: I would caution any pundit from extrapolating from that race to broader dynamics. There was a lot going in there that is idiosyncratic to that district. There is Jamaal’s break with the president on [the] bipartisan infrastructure [bill]. There’s obviously some of his own unforced errors in regards to both constituent communications and engagement, and also actions here on the Hill. It’s got a big Jewish community there, very engaged Jewish community. You’ve got Oct. 7 as a catalyzing agent, a challenger who is already very well-vested in the community. I know it’s an attractive proposition to take a single primary with — how many people voted, like 30,000? — I would caution against extrapolation.

JI: It seems like rock-solid support for Israel is at a low point in the Democratic Party, at least in [the time you’ve been on the Hill]. Is it possible to get back, in the Democratic Party, to the pre-Oct. 7 point and what would have to happen to make that happen?

JA: Joe Biden, Chuck Schumer, Hakeem Jeffries, the three most prominent Democrats on Capitol Hill, in Washington — strongly pro-Israel. The Democratic Party remains a pro-Israel party. 

We have an under-30 problem, for sure. So I worry more about Congress 20 years from now than I do Congress today — you saw the vote tally for Israel … But I do worry about the next generation, and that is going to require addressing not just Gaza, but also the West Bank. And in some ways, the West Bank is going to be equally as important as Gaza, because much of Netanyahu’s strategy over the last decade was about destabilizing both … The Israelis need to stop with expansion of settlement activity … In terms of antisemitism, as I’ve said before, the Democratic Party can’t have double standards on antisemitism, and we should look at the Labour Party in Great Britain as a warning.

JI: Is the [Democratic] party headed in that direction?

JA: No, the mainstream of the party is not. And yet, I will say that your values are communicated by the fights that you’re willing to pick … Just because the mainstream of the Democratic Party, I believe, solidly understands and opposes antisemitism, does not mean that that value gets communicated effectively if we do not condemn, name, shame antisemitic elements, and that includes what’s happening on college campuses. 

JI: Rashida Tlaib spoke at a conference where there was promotion of terrorism, PFLP affiliates in Michigan. Very few Democrats — a couple spoke out — but very few wanted to comment, that we talked to. Do Democrats need to speak out when there are these episodes within the party?

JA: It’s unacceptable, yes. And I think we also, though, have to be cautious that we are not injecting oxygen in a way that takes a spark and makes it into a fire, right?… Some things we’re going to say, ‘Hey, this is best just marginalized by silence.’ But I think other things, like when individuals are claiming that allegations of rape or sexual violence after Oct. 7 are propaganda — that’s unacceptable, that needs to be said.

JI: What are you looking at and thinking about ahead of [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s] congressional speech? What are you hoping to hear from him? What are you afraid that [he’ll say]?

JA: What I’m hoping is that he’s going to tell us he’s going to call elections. That’s what I’m hoping for … What I want to hear is a concrete proposal for day-of governance to defeat Hamas. The president’s 10 points that he put forward a month ago, month and a half ago — [including bringing the] hostages home [and the] permanent defeat of Hamas — those two remain the objectives, and I think the prime minister needs to articulate how he does that and and not do hand-waving of ‘Military now, governance later.’ It’s got to be how we’re going to do military and governance intertwined.

JI: What is your sense of how [Netanyahu’s speech is] going to play on Capitol Hill, and could this hurt the cause of support for Israel, within your party especially?

JA: It’s up to how the prime minister addresses Congress. If it’s a repeat of 2015, yeah, it’s going to hurt. I’m attending out of respect for the U.S.-Israel relationship, which I think is critical … but if the prime minister criticizes Joe Biden directly, I’m walking out of that speech …  and I would encourage Democrats broadly to make that our approach.

JI: Hamas has repeatedly turned down this [cease-fire] deal, has repeatedly shifted the goalposts … If there isn’t a deal that is achievable here, what does the path forward look like? Do you think that the administration should be supporting Israel continuing its military operations, at that point, until it feels that it’s done? Or do you think that there needs to be sort of a movement by Israel to unilaterally start winding things down at this point, regardless?

JA: I’m not sure it’s a binary like that. Actually, I would argue that they have to be synthesized. My criticism of Netanyahu has never been that he argues that military force is necessary in Israel. I have, to date, still not said that there should be a permanent cease-fire there, because I continue to believe that Israel needs to use military force to degrade Hamas’ capabilities, to control the security perimeter around Gaza, to put pressure on Hamas to negotiate, right? So I think all those things are true. 

My criticism of Netanyahu has always been that he has not twinned that military pressure with a governance strategy. And people call it, oftentimes, the day-after approach. I actually reject that term because it implies a sequentiality that I don’t think exists. It is parallel. It is day-of. You’ve got to be attacking Hamas and, same day, in north, central, even south Gaza, empowering elements of — and it will be probably the Palestinian Authority — to provide security, economic development, infrastructure maintenance.

JI: Do you think Hamas can be, in the language of Netanyahu, defeated in Gaza?

JA: Yes, is the short answer. People like to say, ‘Oh, you can’t defeat an ideology,’ as though we should just all just throw up our hands and be like, ‘Yeah, you’re right. Hamas should just get to do whatever they want.’ No, we can. We can defeat Hamas. Does that mean that there is no human being in Gaza who subscribes to Islamist terrorism? No, of course, not … If you go back to the classic definition of a state as having a monopoly on the organized use of violence and depriving Hamas of the levers of statehood, of having a monopoly on the organized use of violence, 100% we can defeat Hamas. We will not defeat Hamas purely with [bullets] or [bombs]. We will defeat Hamas because there will be an alternative that the people of Gaza find more compelling. 

Part of defeating them is also looking at the education system in Gaza, [which] I think is really critical. People are looking for this easy, knee-jerk bow tie: ‘Oh we’re going to recognize Palestinian statehood, be able to walk away and we’ve done it.’ I think it’s a lot harder. It’s incremental gains in security, infrastructure, economic development, education that just increase standards of living for Palestinians so that they are not being educated into or subscribe to a death cult’s ideology.

JI: This Saudi deal that’s being talked about, they’re apparently asking a lot of the U.S.: more advanced weapons, defense guarantees, domestic nuclear enrichment. Are those things that you’d be amenable to the U.S. providing, if it [helps achieve] regional normalization?

JA: I strongly support the Abraham Accords. I strongly support, obviously, Saudi recognition of Israel and Saudi entrance into the Abraham Accords. I am deeply skeptical of a defense guarantee [from] the United States for Saudi Arabia. I understand what Saudi Arabia gets out of that. I’m not totally sure [what] we get out of that, what Israel gets out of that … I would want to see, also, significant capital, both financial and political, from the Saudis for Gaza as well. The Arab states have done nothing for the Palestinian people for a century. It’s time for that to change, and that needs to be part of a deal.

JI: How are you looking at Qatar right now?

JA: A necessary evil. They’re the interlocutor, obviously, between us and Hamas. I’m not, obviously, in the conversations about the exact ways to calibrate pressure on Hamas’ political arm in Qatar; I agree that we should put more pressure on them, to the extent that we can, to accept the deal, the temporary cease-fire. I also understand that if you do it too much, and they end up in the Sahel [in Northern Africa], and we lose all contact with the political wing of Hamas, we don’t have an interlocutor. I’m not sure that serves the purposes of the hostages, either.

JI: The foreign funding from Qatar has been reported as sort of a leading driver for some of the problems of antisemitism on campus? Is there anything legislatively that can be done to address foreign interference or foreign money going into universities?

JA: I think that needs to be explored as part of the tax deal [in the] next Congress about tax treatment for universities that take significant amounts of or have significant connections to Islamist ideology.

JI: On the taxes issue — does the administration need to start really putting teeth into these investigations and start threatening or actually taking away tax-exempt status and federal funding from these schools?

JA: Obviously there’s a range of repercussions available as part of OCR investigations. Today, I couldn’t point to an example where I say, ‘Oh, the administration should have been tougher in this sense.’ And so I am reluctant to say that. I will say, as part of the tax deal, that needs to be part of the conversation … We benefit from immigration, we benefit from the fact that other countries want to invest in and send their students to our universities. I’m very liberal on this concept. We also have to recognize that in this there are a couple of bugs in that operating system, and one of them is that, in the same way that Saudi and Qatar are trying to launder their money through golf or through other outfits, they’re trying to do it through education as well, and we do have to be cognizant of that. The same way that I was a co-lead of the TikTok bill we can’t allow the next generation of Americans to be inculcated in a fundamentally anti-American ideology.

JI: You’ve got a lot of colleges and universities [near] your district … What do they need to be doing over the summer, proactively to prepare for [the fall semester] and to, you know, have better responses ready to go in the fall [to antisemitic activity]?

JA: At a high level, enforce their own rules and boundaries. And this was one of the reasons I voted against the Antisemitism Awareness Act. These colleges already have time, place and manner restrictions. They already have Title VI compliance rules that they just under-enforced or downright ignored. I talked about this with … a president of a prominent university who has done a good job. I was like, ‘What’s your secret?’ And he was like, ‘I just enforced what the rules are.’

JI: Your vote against the [Antisemitism Awareness Act] stood out — tell us a little bit about your thinking on that front?

Auchincloss: It opens a constitutional can of worms. It codifies cancel culture on campus. And I’m opposed to cancel culture. And it solves no problem … We don’t need to update congressional statute. We need these faculty and university leadership to enforce their own time, place and manner restrictions, and then we need to fund OCR at the Department of Education to prosecute universities that are failing… 

I saw the potential downside of it being misappropriated to chill speech. And you can see that happening. No other protected class has a single and solitary definition … I think that facts and context and evolving societal understanding should matter in this … What we need these universities to be is ‘small l’ liberal. The Jews have thrived in liberal, open, meritocratic environments. What we do not want to do is double down on, I think, is identitarian politics. I do not think that in the long run, that is going to serve the Jewish people.

JI: That loops into this debate that is happening in the Jewish community about [Diversity, Equity and Inclusion programs], which is, do DEI programs need to be expanded to better include Jews, or should they be dismantled because they’ve been shown to have, it seems like, ingrained bias or failure to recognize the situation of Jewish people?

JA: I prefer the word pluralism, because it’s really what we’re talking about — at least how I interpret the intentions behind DEI. Pluralism is a very old American idea. If you read the 2018 Harvard statement on inclusion and belonging that [Harvard political science professor] Danielle Allen wrote — that version of I think she called it pluralism, but probably today would be called DEI — that version, to me, is conducive to a suitable learning environment.

JI: We saw in New York that the people who occupied Hamilton Hall [at Columbia University] were not charged, most of them at least, at the White House vandalizing statues — I don’t think any of them have been charged. Are you concerned about that?

JA: More broadly about property and violent crime being under-enforced — I’ve always been opposed to that. I disagreed with the decision by a previous Boston [district attorney] to blanket take 20 property crimes and say she proactively was not going to prosecute … I’m a law-and-order liberal. I believe that we should be prosecuting property and violent crime assertively, including this.

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