Inside the 11th-hour passage of the bill elevating the U.S. antisemitism envoy
A bill elevating the State Department’s special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism to the rank of ambassador passed Congress on Thursday, nearly two years after first being introduced. Prior to its passage, the legislation appeared to stall in the Senate, raising concerns in the final days of the 116th Congress that legislators might have had to start over in the new Congress.
The House of Representatives first passed its version of the bill on Jan. 11, 2019. But — despite broad bipartisan support for the legislation — procedural issues bogged down the bill once it reached the Senate.
Several proponents of the bill both inside and outside Congress told JI that they believed the bill was going to die in the Senate, forcing a reset in the new session of Congress, which began January 3. This characterization was disputed by other Hill staffers and activists who had been communicating with senators to advance the legislation.
“I wouldn’t say it was dead, but it needed outside help,” a Republican aide told JI.
The bill was hampered by a dispute over whether to pass an amended version of the House bill or an identical bill that originated in the Senate, according to two Senate aides familiar with the bill, as well as American Jewish Congress President Jack Rosen.
Rosen, who spoke to several senators in an effort to move the bill forward, said Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) preferred to pass the bill as a Senate measure. Menendez did not respond to a request for comment.
Backers of the legislation told JI that Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV) was critical to clearing the roadblocks that stood in the way of the bill’s passage.
“Rosen became incredibly engaged and helpful,” a Senate Republican aide familiar with the bill told JI. Both Senate staffers familiar with the bill said that the senator had aggressively pushed colleagues to pass the legislation.
“Senator Rosen… moved this up in her agenda and began to push her colleagues,” Karen Barall, director of government relations for Hadassah, told JI. “She was very effective in ensuring this was understood to be an important measure. Without her, this would not have passed the Senate.”
Rosen told JI she was pleased that the bill passed through both chambers by unanimous consent — a procedure used to expedite legislation without requiring a formal vote. “In the Senate, I was able to build on my bipartisan record of working with colleagues to fight antisemitism by ensuring this critically important bill was brought to the floor and passed,” she said.
The Senate passed the bill on December 16, leaving a narrow window for the House to pass the amended bill and send it to the president’s desk before the end of the 116th Congress.
To ensure the bill made it through the House, supporters had to contend with a chamber focused on urgent debates over government funding and COVID-19 relief payments, as well as disputes between Republican and Democratic leadership, generating concerns that the bill would not make it back through the House before the end of session.
“The issue that came up was not a substantive issue related to the text of the legislation, but rather they got caught up in Republican and Democratic food fight over other issues,” a pro-Israel activist involved in discussions about the bill said.
In addition to Rosen and the bill’s lead sponsors in the House, Reps. Chris Smith (R-NJ) and Brad Schneider (D-IL), a number of Jewish advocacy organizations joined the effort, including the Anti-Defamation League, Hadassah, the Orthodox Union, American Jewish Congress, American Jewish Committee, Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
“After the Senate voted, there was very little time for the House leadership to act and major legislation — the NDAA, the omnibus, COVID relief — were understandably top priorities for House leadership,” said Barall. “Hadassah and other organizations made an aggressive push to get this done though, and send the bill to the president.”
The pro-Israel activist who asked not to be named credited Smith and Schneider for winning the support of their respective parties’ leaders to allow the bill to pass by unanimous consent on December 31.
Assuming President Donald Trump signs the bill, President-elect Joe Biden will become the first president to nominate a special envoy on antisemitism for Senate confirmation, although it will likely take time before he announces a pick for the spot, and even longer for the nominee to be confirmed.
Trump took 23 months to nominate the current special envoy, Elan Carr, for the position. An individual involved in discussions over the bill told JI that he expects an extended delay to fill the slot, noting that Senate-confirmed nominees face a more expansive background check process, and must go through the lengthy confirmation process, which can take months.
Given that Biden still has yet to nominate some Cabinet secretaries and a range of other high-level appointees that will require Senate confirmation, it’s unlikely the president-elect will name his pick for the position before his inauguration on January 20, the source added.
Among the names said to be under consideration by the Biden transition team are former ADL national director Abe Foxman, past envoy Ira Forman, Emory University professor and noted Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt, University of California, Berkeley professor Ethan Katz and ADL senior vice president of international affairs Sharon Nazarian. Foxman and Katz declined to comment to JI. Lipstadt did not respond to a request for comment.
Nazarian confirmed to JI she has spoken to members of the Biden transition team about the role and is submitting a formal application. She posited that her experience at ADL, as well as her personal experiences as an Iranian-born Jew, uniquely qualify her to expand and advance the special envoy’s office.
“My number one mission every day… is to advocate and to monitor and to educate, and to train as many people, stakeholders, government officials, as I can to first of all, make them aware of the threat of global antisemitism, and how it manifests in our lives today,” Nazarian said. “I feel like I’m well-positioned both as a practitioner of this work, as someone who’s led a very large team at ADL at the senior executive level, and also [as] someone who’s lived it through my own intersectional identity.”
Nazarian argued that the special envoy’s office, to date, has not taken a sufficiently modern or forward-looking approach to antisemitism, and has relied too heavily on 20th-century understandings of and approaches to global antisemitism.
Forman, who served as special envoy under former President Barack Obama from 2013 to the end of Obama’s term, declined to say if he was in consideration for the slot, but told JI, “I know there are a number of highly qualified people who could undertake this critical work and I am confident the Biden team will make an excellent choice.”
Highlights from the first day of the 117th Congress
The deep divisions that marked the 116th Congress showed no signs of abating on the first day of the 117th session on Sunday. As new members in both houses were sworn in, Capitol Hill was focused on challenges to the results of the November election and discord over congressional COVID-19 protections.
In the Senate, all four first-term GOP senators are joining a long shot effort by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) to delay the counting of the Electoral College votes.
Sen. Roger Marshall (R-KS), said that he felt voters wanted representatives to continue to “follow through” on “irregularities” in the election.
“This is a decision of the heart that we need to follow through on some of these irregularities,” Marshall said Sunday in a press gaggle. “We want our day in court where everybody’s in the same room, put all the facts down and then let America decide.”
State and federal courts nationwide have repeatedly thrown out a series of lawsuits from President Donald Trump and his allies over the election results. Despite the dismissal of dozens of related court cases, Marshall insisted: “I don’t think that the courts have heard all of the facts.”
The Kansas freshman demurred when asked if he thought Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) had erred in attempting to quash the election challenges in the Senate, adding that he thinks the divisions in the conference will “make us stronger” and “prove that we can listen to each other and still come to some type of agreement that we’re professionals and we can respect each other’s opinion.”
Shortly afterward, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO), who opposes the election challenges, took a different tone, remarking that efforts to overturn the results are bound to fail. “I actually like to come up with plans that have a chance of being successful,” he said.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), usually a close ally of the president and a likely 2024 presidential hopeful, broke with Trump Sunday night, announcing he would also oppose the election challenge.
Incoming Democrats also faced questions about Republican moves to overturn the election results.
Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-CO), the only Senate Democrat to flip a Republican-held seat this cycle, cast an optimistic tone despite the tension in the chamber.
“Many Republicans are being torn in different directions. This is a great experiment in democracy. And this is a test and I think we’re going to get through it,” Hickenlooper said.
On the other side of the Capitol, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) eked out another term as speaker of the House — one she previously said would be her last — with the votes of 216 Democrats, having secured support from several representatives who opposed her in the past.
Two Democrats voted for alternative picks — Rep. Jared Golden (D-ME) cast his vote for Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), while Rep. Conor Lamb (D-PA) voted for Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY). Reps. Mikie Sherrill (D-NJ), Elissa Slotkin (D-MI) and Abigail Spanberger (D-VA) — all centrist Democrats with backgrounds in national security — voted present.
All 209 Republicans present for the vote backed House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA).
Res. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO) — a progressive upstart who unseated a longtime Democratic congressman in Missouri’s first district — cast their votes for Pelosi late in the afternoon, after missing their assigned voting time — which had been divvied up alphabetically to limit the number of representatives on the floor and allow for social distancing.
Ocasio-Cortez’s delayed vote prompted questions about whether she had been holding out for concessions from Pelosi, something Ocasio-Cortez rejected after casting her vote. Ocasio-Cortez told The Intercept last month that she thought the House leader and other top Democrats needed to be replaced, but that there were currently no viable alternatives.
“We are just an extremely slim amount of votes away from our side risking the speakership to the Republican Party,” Ocasio-Cortez said Sunday. “This is bigger than any one of us and that is consequential… This is not just about being united as a party. It’s about being united as people with basic respect for rule of law, our Constitution and the actual underpinnings of American democracy.”
The New York congresswoman added that she believed Trump should be impeached over his call with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, reported by the Washington Post on Sunday, during which Trump suggested that Raffensperger “find” enough votes to reverse his defeat in Georgia.
“If it was up to me, there’ll be articles on the floor quite quickly,” Ocasio-Cortez said.
Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) similarly called for Trump’s impeachment, and criminal prosecution, on Twitter on Sunday night.
Hostilities in the House began even earlier in the day, during the early afternoon quorum call to open the new session of Congress, when Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) — who has promoted antisemitic conspiracy theories — and another incoming Republican legislator prompted a “screaming match” between Republican and Democratic staffers by refusing to wear masks on the House floor, in violation of House coronavirus rules.
House Republicans also objected to a new plexiglass enclosure on the House floor designed to allow House members who are nominally quarantining for COVID-19 exposure but have tested negative to vote on the floor, prompting a dispute between Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL), the ranking member of the Committee on House Administration, and attending physician Brian Monahan.
Davis described Monahan’s explanations of the setup as “horseshit” and claimed that the “only reason this is happening is because Speaker Pelosi needs to be re-elected speaker.”
Once the speaker election wrapped up in the late afternoon, the House hit another snag when Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX) forced a recorded House vote on whether to swar in elected members from Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, which was widely viewed as an attempt to put his GOP colleagues on record as accepting all the election results in these states, despite disputing the results of the presidential race.
“It would confound reason if the presidential results of these states were to face objection while the congressional results of the same process escaped public scrutiny,” he explained on Twitter. Two Republicans, Reps. Morgan Griffith (R-VA) and Andy Harris (R-MD) voted against swearing in all new members of Congress.
Roy was one of seven House members, including Reps. Thomas Massie (R-KY), Tom McClintock (R-CA), Ken Buck (R-CO), Kelly Armstrong (R-ND), Mike Gallagher (R-WI) and Nancy Mace (R-SC) who released a joint statement Sunday afternoon denouncing their colleagues’ challenge to the election results.
The day’s events concluded when Pelosi swore in the new Congress — mostly in one large group of members who had rushed to the floor to vote on the swearing-in issue — scrapping a previous plan to swear in members in small groups.
After the first swearing-in, hundreds of representatives flooded out of the House chamber, packing nearly shoulder-to-shoulder into the hallway outside, social distancing forgotten.
Jewish groups lay out priorities for Biden administration, next Congress
As President-elect Joe Biden’s cabinet shapes up and the final few days of the 116th Congress tick by, national Jewish and pro-Israel groups are planning out their agendas for the next administration and new Congress.
Priorities and approaches, laid out in a series of interviews with Jewish Insider, vary from group to group, but frequent themes for at least three — including J Street, the American Jewish Committee and the Jewish Federations of North America — unsurprisingly include diplomacy with Iran, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and tackling domestic antisemitism.
Some of the organizations, like JFNA, have communicated with Biden’s transition team in the weeks following the election. The group laid out a detailed set of priorities in a memo to Biden’s transition team, according to Elana Broitman, JFNA’s senior vice president for public affairs, that fall into several categories including COVID relief, increasing nonprofit security funding and fighting antisemitism. Broitman added that the organization is pushing legislators to codify the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance working definition of antisemitism, prioritize healthcare and increase efforts to support Holocaust survivors.
J Street’s policy agenda includes reentering the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and deescalating military tensions, rolling back Trump administration actions the organization sees as antithetical to Israeli-Palestinian peace, opposing annexation and settlement expansion and otherwise promoting peace.
Dylan Williams, J Street’s senior vice president for policy and strategy, told JI the Biden administration should take a number of major early steps toward peace, including reestablishing a separate consulate in Jerusalem to serve Palestinians, reissuing State Department guidance on discussing settlements and reinstating and expanding humanitarian aid to the Palestinians, including through the U.N. agency tasked with working with Palestinians.
Williams added that the organization has urged Palestinian leadership to “take advantage of the opportunity that this new administration provides” and change its policy of paying Palestinian prisoners jailed for terrorist activities — something the Palestinian Authority is reportedly working toward.
“I think that you will see a vast amount of opportunity for improvements in U.S.-Palestinian relations, in the event that Palestinian leadership follows through on those discussions,” he added.
In the longer term, Williams argued that Congress will be critical in pushing back against “deepening occupation and creeping annexation,” and called for legislators to investigate the Trump administration’s efforts to “blur the distinction between Israel and the settlements,” introducing new measures to clarify that distinction and conducting oversight of how Israel is using American aid.
J Street communications director Logan Bayroff added that he’s hopeful the Biden transition team and Congress will signal their commitment to re-entering the Iran deal to counter what he described as the Trump administration’s efforts to foreclose the possibility of diplomacy with Iran.
“Trump’s trying to start a lot of fires and deliberately trying to provoke the Iranians into saying, ‘Well, we can’t work with any American administration,’” Bayroff said.
The American Jewish Committee, which opposed the JCPOA in 2015, is taking a more restrained approach. “We had grave concerns about the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” said Jason Isaacson, the group’s chief policy and political affairs officer. “We will be urging the Biden administration to work in close coordination with our European and Middle East allies.”
The group — in contrast with J Street — will encourage the administration not to “remove from the U.S. negotiating arsenal the leverage that exists because of the sanctions imposed under President Trump,” Isaacson added.
AJC intends to focus on two pieces of legislation it supported during the current session of Congress in the event that they do not pass this year: the Jabara-Heyer NO HATE Act and the Partnership for Peace Act.
AIPAC declined to discuss its policy agenda until it announces its priorities for the new Congress next year, but spokesman Marshall Wittmann said: “We look forward to working with the incoming administration and Congress on an agenda of further strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship and advancing our mutual interests in the region.”
Each group will also have to contend with a potentially divided Congress, should Democrats not sweep January’s Senate run-offs, and a shrunken Democratic majority in the House, which will likely create hurdles for lawmaking on a range of issues.
While Williams was not optimistic about the possibility of bipartisan compromise, he noted that a divided Congress is “a situation we’ve been in for some time.”
“I can’t point to anything that we’re not pushing for anymore, just because the Senate doesn’t happen to be held by Democrats,” he added.
Leaders from AJC and JFNA highlighted their groups’ abilities to work with both Republicans and Democrats.
“AJC has always been an organization that values nonpartisanship, that worked with members of Congress from both sides, administrations of both parties, that hews to the center representing the broad mainstream of the American Jewish community,” Isaacson said. “I believe that in the center lie solutions to many of the problems we’re discussing.”
“We’ve been in the business of advocacy on issues of concern to our community for more than a century… We have found ways over the years to work with leaders on both sides of the Hill and both sides of the aisle,” Isaacson continued. “I believe the message from the voters is stop playing games. Try solutions.”
JFNA President Eric Fingerhut said his organization is in a similar position.
“Our strength is in bipartisan work,” he said, noting JFNA’s longstanding relationships with officials in Washington and among state and local legislators.
“This is, I think, the moment when the longstanding work of our community to build relationships on all sides comes to fruition,” Fingerhut said. “We’re in a very strong position to put forward the priorities of the Jewish community… We have leaders who are on both sides of the aisle, and we’ve always had that.”
Members of Congress rebuke Germany over pending SCOTUS art restoration case
A bipartisan group of lawmakers is raising concerns over efforts by the German government to petition the Supreme Court to dismiss a case involving property purchased from Jews by the Nazis in 1935.
In a strongly worded letter to German Ambassador to the U.S. Emily Haber, members of Congress expressed concern about Berlin’s petition to the Supreme Court in relation to more than half of the famed Guelph Treasure, a collection of more than 80 pieces of medieval art. The German government has argued that it cannot be sued under U.S. law over the pieces, sold in 1935 by a collective of Jewish art dealers to Nazi agents, and now displayed in a German museum.
Heirs of the items’ Jewish owners are suing in U.S. court to recover the 42 pieces of art, arguing that they were sold under duress for far less than their true value.
In their letter, the representatives — including Reps. Jim Banks (R-IN), Abigail Spanberger (D-VA), Elaine Luria (D-VA), Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ) and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) — express concerns about the German government’s arguments in the case, claiming that suits over stolen property during the Holocaust are permitted under U.S. law.
The letter highlights concerns regarding the German brief filed in the case, which argues in part that the transfer did not occur under duress and that the forcible seizure of artwork does not constitute an act of genocide.
“We are concerned that the brief your government has filed has attempted to distinguish the forced sale of the cultural artwork collection in question from ‘expropriation’ under international law,” the letter reads. “Putting aside the legal argument… your government seems to be arguing that forced sales of art to the Nazi regime do not constitute takings at all and that the definition of genocide does not include… the full elimination of Jews from German economic life starting in 1933.”
“The brief your government filed seems to suggest that genocide is understood as involving infliction of physical killing and harm, but not economic crimes,” the letter continues. “This is deeply concerning.”
The German Embassy did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Spanberger explained to JI that a rabbi in her district, Dovid Asher, brought the issue to her attention. She emphasized that legislators sought specifically to raise concerns about “the missing historical context” in the German government’s brief, and not to weigh in on the case as a whole.
The letter seeks to “reiterate the U.S. Congressional record on the Holocaust and genocide more broadly,” Spanberger said in a statement. “As the international community continues to work toward justice and to educate people of all backgrounds and generations about the Holocaust, it is important that we recognize the full-scope of systemic persecution that took place.”
In a statement to JI, Banks expressed support for the families suing the German government.
“The U.S. Congress can’t give back the millions of lives taken during the Holocaust and it can’t come close to righting Nazi Germany’s wrongs, but we can do our part to give the victims’ ancestors back a small part of what was stolen from them,” he said.
Asher told JI that he approached Spanberger because she had been receptive and approachable on a variety of issues of concern to the Jewish community since being elected in 2018.
“She is incredibly thoughtful, incredibly sensitive, and incredibly kind,” he said. “Whether the issue pertains to Israel or to antisemitism in the U.S. or abroad or Holocaust issues, I knew that I would have somebody in our corner who would fight on behalf of what’s right.”
Oral arguments in the case are set for Dec. 7.
Members of Congress launch international task force to combat online antisemitism
A bipartisan group of members of Congress will announce on Tuesday the creation of a new global inter-parliamentary task force to combat digital antisemitism.
Members of the task force include Reps. Ted Deutch (D-FL), Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), Chris Smith (R-NJ) and Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL), along with elected officials from major parties in Canada, the U.K. and Australia. Another member of the panel is member of Knesset Michal Cotler-Wunsh from Israel’s Blue and White Party, the daughter of former Canadian Justice Minister Irwin Cotler. In July, Cotler-Wunsh challenged a Twitter spokesperson during a Knesset hearing over the company’s decision not to delete or flag a post by Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that she said was “calling for genocide.” In a May tweet, Khamenei called for “firm, armed resistance” to bring about the “elimination of the Zionist regime.”
In an interview with Jewish Insider, Deutch said the lawmakers coalesced around the issue of online antisemitism because as social media continues to grow, “it’s unfortunately more and more being used to spread hatred and antisemitism. And we know that what may begin as online threats in the virtual world can lead to violence in the real world.”
Deutch said conversations about combatting global antisemitism began when he attended the World Holocaust Forum at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem earlier this year, and felt “compelled to move forward” with more action after social media platforms — including Twitter, Facebook, TikTok and Google — failed to counter it. “We are aware that there are efforts by multiple groups, and non-governmental organizations who are trying to address this,” Deutch said. “We think that it’s important for elected officials from countries that are experiencing concerning and really upsetting increases in antisemitism to speak out.”
The goals set by the task force, as reviewed by Jewish Insider, include raising awareness about online antisemitism and establishing a consistent message in legislatures across the world to hold social media platforms accountable. The group will also work to adopt and publish transparent policies related to hate speech.
“Always and at this time in particular as we stand united in fighting a global pandemic, another virus rages that requires global collaboration and cooperation,” Cotler-Wunsh said in a statement. “By working with multi-partisan allies in parliaments around the world, we hope to create best practices and real change in holding the social media giants accountable to the hatred that exists on their platforms.”
Deutch maintained that “the power of having a group of elected officials” from different parties across the globe come together on this issue “will highlight the need for action by the companies and the need for action by our respective legislative bodies.” He added: “And most importantly, we hope this will help advance the conversation that’s premised upon the fundamental understanding that we just shouldn’t accept this spread of antisemitism that we’ve seen on social media platforms.”
The Florida congressman told JI that as the group gains traction, its organizers will look to expand “into many more countries.”
Gottheimer introduces bill condemning Palestinian Authority payments to terrorists
A resolution introduced on Tuesday by Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ) criticizes the Palestinian Authority for payments to terrorists and honors a woman from his district killed in a suicide bombing.
“I think you need to keep a spotlight on this until the Palestinian Authority comes out and renounces martyr payments to terrorists,” Gottheimer told Jewish Insider. “And I just don’t understand why that hasn’t happened. And we need to keep the pressure on to get them to do that.”
Sara Duker, 22, of Teaneck, N.J., was killed in a bus bombing in Jerusalem on February 25, 1996, which also took the lives of 25 other people. Two other Americans were also killed in the attack, and are referenced in the bill, which is cosponsored by Reps. Tom Reed (R-NY) and Max Rose (D-NY).
Gottheimer linked the bill to this week’s divestment referendum at Columbia University. Duker graduated from Barnard College the year before her death.
“The BDS movement, which many, like me, believe is antisemitic, are trying to praise and trying to make it as if the Palestinian Authority is being attacked,” he said. “But actually the Palestinian Authority is the one that continues, as we see in this case, to reward terrorists with payments.”
Gottheimer said he sees a “double standard” at play in this incident and other scenarios involving the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which he said turns “a complete blind eye on rewarding terrorists.”
“The reality is there’s still so much that we must stand up to when it comes to the [Palestinian Authority],” he continued, “and this is just an example of that.”
The resolution calls on the international community to condemn Palestinian Authority payments to terrorists and reaffirms the penalties for such activity as laid out in the Taylor Force Act.
“I think you’ve got to continue to shine a spotlight on the behavior,” Gottheimer said. “And the fact that this individual, this terrorist who killed Sarah Duker — the family’s still getting money every single month while in jail because of the pay schedule. I don’t think people realize that.”
Laura Loomer’s latest stunt
Laura Loomer shot to fame in far-right circles as a kind of viral stunt performer who seemed unusually intent on staging random acts of provocation. Three years ago, the 27-year-old conservative agitator disrupted a “Julius Caesar” production — heavy on Trump allusions — in Central Park, and was promptly removed by security officers. In 2018, Loomer handcuffed herself to Twitter’s New York headquarters after she was kicked off the site for tweeting, among other things, that Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) was “anti Jewish.” The list goes on.
“I’m literally the most censored person in the world,” claimed Loomer, adding that she has been banned from virtually every mainstream social media platform, including Instagram, Facebook and Periscope, as well as other services like Uber, Lyft and PayPal.
Now, Loomer is hoping she can pull off what may be her biggest stunt yet: running for Congress in South Florida’s solidly blue 21st congressional district, which includes President Donald Trump’s official Palm Beach residence, Mar-a-Lago. The seat is currently held by four-term incumbent Rep. Lois Frankel (D-FL).
Despite Loomer’s fringe status, experts in Florida state politics believe that she has a solid chance of winning the Republican primary today. Loomer, who entered the race last August, has racked up endorsements from the likes of Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) and Roger Stone. Though Trump has not made an endorsement, he has tweeted in support of the candidate. And Loomer has outraised all of her opponents, having pulled in nearly $1.2 million, according to the latest filings from the Federal Election Commission.
Loomer has taken donations from some high-profile contributors on the right, including the deplatformed conspiracy theorist Alex Jones; Lydia Brimelow, who is married to the founder of the white nationalist website VDARE; Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus; and former U.S. ambassador Eric Javits.
“When I filed to run, people were mocking me on the left and the right because, I guess you could say, I’ve been a controversial figure, and a lot of people have very strong feelings about me because of the way that big tech and the media have demonized me,” Loomer told Jewish Insider in a recent interview, adding: “Now they just have egg on their face because I’m the frontrunner.”
Still, Loomer’s war chest is not a sure sign of voter support, as many of the donations she has received have come from outside the state, according to former Florida Congressman Ron Klein, who chairs the Jewish Democratic Council of America. “People think she’s a viable candidate, but that’s not necessarily the case,” he told JI. “If she was raising money in the district, it would mean she had more momentum.”
“Her game is to be the shock candidate,” Klein added. “She says things that will shock the conscience, and that’s what makes it newsworthy.”
Born and raised in Arizona, Loomer attended Barry University in Miami Shores. Previously, she worked for James O’Keefe’s guerilla journalism outfit, Project Veritas, as well as Rebel Media, a right-wing Canadian news operation. Loomer moved to Palm Beach, she said, about two-and-a-half years ago after a stint in New York.
Loomer, who is active on right-wing social media sites like Parler and Gab, decided to run for Congress because of her experiences being booted from online platforms. “I do believe that big tech censorship is the most pressing issue this election cycle, along with restoring law and order,” said Loomer, who alleges, without evidence, that social media sites including Twitter and Facebook have enabled protest movements like Black Lives Matter, which she describes as antisemitic, while silencing its critics.
Loomer, who is Jewish, said she feels a strong sense of connection with her faith. “I’m not a hyper-religious person,” she said. “I’m Jewish, but for me, it’s an identity. You know, being Jewish is also — it’s cultural, it’s political, and it’s a race. They classify being Jewish as a race now. And so you’re ethnically Jewish.”
Her grandfather, the late Harry Loomer, was a pioneering psychiatrist who was born in Brooklyn and earned his medical degree in Vienna, where he witnessed the Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938 and was arrested by the Gestapo only to be released when the U.S. consulate intervened.
Loomer describes herself as an “open Zionist” and has been to Israel, she estimated, five times — first on a Birthright trip in college and subsequently with the United West, a Florida-based nonprofit that the Southern Poverty Law Center has classified as an “active anti-Muslim group.”
“What we do is we take people to Israel to learn about national security and Zionism,” said Loomer, adding that last year’s trip was focused on border security.
Loomer is one of several far-right Republican candidates this cycle who have emerged as contenders in congressional elections, including Marjorie Taylor Greene, a QAnon believer who recently won her runoff in Georgia’s 14th district and is expected to claim victory in the general election.
Joseph Uscinski, an associate professor of political science at the University of Miami who specializes in conspiracy theories, said that candidates like Greene and Loomer have been able to harness support by taking advantage of low-turnout elections. “These alt-right and QAnon people can win because primaries attract very few voters,” he told JI.
But even if Loomer advances beyond her primary, she will have a hard time defeating Frankel in a district rated “solid Democratic” by TheCook Political Report. “In that district, it’s almost impossible to see how Loomer pulls it off,” said Rick Wilson, a former Republican strategist and so-called “Never Trumper,” who is based in Florida.
Loomer’s incendiary comments will also likely alienate her from voters in the district, according to Steven Tauber, a professor of political science at the University of South Florida. “Loomer certainly has supporters,” he said, “but she is extremely divisive because of her bigoted statements against Muslims and her outrageous claims that mass shootings, including Parkland, were staged.”
Steven Schale, a Democratic strategist in Florida, was more emphatic in his appraisal of Loomer’s chances. “Do I think a candidate whose views and public statements are so absurdly loony that she’s even been banned by basically every platform imaginable — she can’t even get food delivered by Uber Eats — do I think she can beat Lois Frankel?” he said. “Let’s just say I have a better chance of being named the starting quarterback for the Jaguars.”
Loomer disagrees that she won’t be able to harness support should she make it to November, citing an internal poll that she claims gives her a nine-point lead over Frankel in the general election. When JI requested the poll in a text message, Loomer replied with a link to a Breitbart report but did not go into specifics about the manner in which the poll was conducted.
A separate poll from an outside firm puts Loomer four points behind Frankel in a hypothetical matchup.
Polls aside, Karen Giorno, Loomer’s campaign manager, who previously served as Trump’s chief Florida strategist during the 2016 election, believes her candidate should not be underestimated. “Is it a blue district? Yes,” she said. “Is it unflippable? No.”
Giorno told JI that she came out of retirement to help Loomer get elected. “She is kind of a political celebrity in her own right, but she reminds me very much of a little mini Donald Trump,” Giorno enthused. “You know, she doesn’t sleep; he doesn’t sleep. They work off of four hours a night, if that. They are a bundle of energy.”
For her part, Frankel seems unconcerned by the prospect of going up against a young conservative rabble-rouser with no experience in government. “With COVID-19 still rampant in Florida, I am focused on saving lives and livelihoods,” the congresswoman told JI through a spokesperson.
Former Israeli security officials thank Dem House members for opposing annexation
A group of 41 Israeli former senior security officials have sent a letter of appreciation to Reps. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), Brad Schneider (D-IL), Ted Deutch (D-FL) and David Price (D-NC), the authors of a letter signed by 191 House members and sent to Israeli leaders expressing opposition to annexation.
“We commend you on building such a broad coalition of Members of Congress to join you in signing this letter,” the Israeli officials wrote in a letter sent to congressional offices Monday and obtained by Jewish Insider. “We consider it a further manifestation of the broad-based support for the kind of Israel we have fought for on the battlefield and continue to strive for, one that is strong and safe, maintains a solid Jewish majority for generations to come, all while upholding the values of democracy and equality as enshrined in our Declaration of Independence.”
The signatories include former Mossad chiefs Tamir Pardo, Danny Yatom and Shabtai Shavit; former Shin Bet heads Ami Ayalon and Yaakov Peri; former Deputy Defense Minister Efraim Sneh, and former top IDF officials. Many of the signatories sent a similar letter to Congress last year expressing appreciation for the passage of H. Res. 246, which affirmed “strong support for a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict resulting in two states.”
The former officials indirectly referenced a letter sent by 12 progressive Democrats threatening to condition aid to Israel if the government moves forward with a plan to annex portions of the West Bank. “Any perceived erosion, however misconstrued, in these relations and in the ironclad U.S. commitment to the durability of security assistance risks undermining our deterrence,” they wrote in the letter.
Alaska Senate candidate Al Gross hopes his outsider status will propel him to D.C.
Al Gross is an ideal Senate candidate — at least by Alaskan standards.
The 57-year-old former orthopedic surgeon entered the state’s Democratic primary race last summer as an independent. In an introductory ad, a gravelly voice-over narration touted his rugged background as a commercial fisherman, itinerant ocean hitchhiker and gold prospector who once killed a grizzly bear in self-defense. (It snuck up on him while he was duck hunting some 40 miles south of Juneau.)
Gross’s compelling story has caught the attention of the national media as he competes in the state’s August 18 primary for the chance to challenge first-term Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan in November. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report recently upgraded the race from “solid” to “likely Republican,” giving the Democrats a glimmer of hope as the party attempts to flip the Senate in November.
Though Gross is running as an independent, he has support from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), who attended Amherst College with Gross, offered an enthusiastic assessment of his former classmate in a statement to Jewish Insider.
“He’s a lifelong Alaskan with a deep understanding of the complex policies that impact our environment, our healthcare system and our place in the global community,” Coons said in his statement. “Al is informed, passionate and will legislate in a responsible and progressive way to protect Alaskans — and all Americans. He will be a valuable ally who supports a strong U.S.-Israel relationship. He’s a different kind of candidate, and he will be a strong voice in the U.S. Senate.”
Gross is confident that he can defy the odds and oust Sullivan this cycle, pointing out that Alaskan voters have a strong tendency to favor independent candidates. The Alaskan-born candidate’s father, Avrum Gross, was a Democratic attorney general who served under Alaskan Gov. Jay Hammond, a Republican who represented the state from 1974 to 1982 and whom Gross described as a “role model and a friend” during his formative years.
“That relationship and friendship is why I registered as an independent when I was 18,” Gross told JI in an interview, “because it was always about working together for the betterment of the state.”
Gross, who is Jewish, has long felt like an outsider in a state that takes pride in them. His bar mitzvah, he said, was the first ever in southeast Alaska — his parents flew in a rabbi for the ceremony — and there were only a few Jewish kids in his Juneau high school.
“I’ve been a minority, and that’s what I’ve known since I was a young kid,” he said. “We joke that we’re the ‘frozen chosen’ and the ‘extreme diaspora’ up here.”
He got the chance to explore his “cultural heritage,” as he described it, after graduating from high school in 1980, when he took a year off to travel and work odd jobs. During that time, he spent four months in Israel, three of them volunteering on Kibbutz Gat in southern Israel.
“Spending those four months in Israel really had a profound effect on me,” Gross said, “coming from the biggest state in the country to one of the smallest countries in the world and seeing and understanding the security concerns of Israel.”
“It made me feel a part of a larger community,” he added. “It made me understand some of the issues that I’d been reading about from afar and seeing what Jews throughout the world were going through, and I’ve carried that knowledge back home to Alaska as an adult.”
When it comes to geopolitical dynamics in the region, Gross supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, arguing that President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have taken a unilateral approach that he sees as ineffective.
“It’s critical that the Palestinians be part of that discussion,” Gross said.
Gross has similar complaints about Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal, otherwise known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA.
“I was very disheartened to see Trump pull out of the JCPOA,” he told JI. “I think we should go back into negotiations with the Iranians to ensure that they do not develop a nuclear weapon. But we need to go back to the table with them and negotiate with them, rather than just unilaterally pull out of a prearranged agreement.”
Gross believes that antisemitism is alive and well, even in a remote state like Alaska.
“It’s something that we can’t ignore, and it’s something we’re going to be living with, probably, well into the future,” he said. In high school, he said, his son experienced antisemitism when a classmate wrote the word “Jew” on the back of his jacket in black magic marker. “Just when you think there isn’t any antisemitism, it rears its ugly head.”
“I’m not convinced that legislation by itself is going to solve the problem,” he said. “I think education is the best place to start. People are fearful of the unknown, and I think a lot of people don’t understand what the Jewish religion is or what Jewish people are like, and they’re afraid of them.”
If elected, Gross would be the second Jewish senator from Alaska in a state that has only had eight senators since it achieved statehood in 1959. The first was Ernest Gruening, who served from 1959 to 1969.
Though the coronavirus pandemic has hobbled campaigns across the U.S., Gross avers that his message has only become more relevant in the crisis. He left his profession in 2013, got a masters in public health and now advocates for lower healthcare costs.
“I felt like I had a wide open avenue to race with my platform long before COVID-19 came along,” he said. “Now that we’re in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, it really underscores the need to address some of the healthcare problems that we have in our country and to send people to the Senate who have an understanding of our healthcare system.”
Gross believes he is in tune with the concerns of everyday Alaskans. “I think I have some really good ideas as to how to develop an economy that succeeds in Alaska — that isn’t so critically dependent on natural resource extraction,” Gross said. “Dan Sullivan has nothing other than the status quo to offer, which isn’t working.” (Sullivan’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.)
In the primary, Gross is competing against Democrat Edgar Blatchford, a former Alaskan mayor and an associate professor in the department of journalism and communications at the University of Alaska Anchorage, and another independent, Chris Cumings, who previously ran for Alaska’s House at-large seat in 2018, garnering only 8% of the vote in the Democratic primary.
Blatchford and Cumings both told JI that they have largely vowed to abjure political donations, which gives Gross a sizable advantage in the primary. He has raised more than $3 million in his effort to unseat Sullivan, according to the Federal Election Commission.
While experts say Gross is very likely to win the primary, his buccaneer bonafides may not be enough to give him a victory in the fall.
“He ticks a lot of boxes,” said Amy Lauren Lovecraft, a professor of political science at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. But, she added, while Gross has strong and prominent advertising, “the odds are just against Al” in a state that consistently trends red and that went for Trump by nearly 15 percentage points in 2016.
Forrest Nabors, a political scientist at the University of Alaska Anchorage, was also skeptical that Gross would emerge victorious in the general election, using a baseball analogy to suggest that he wouldn’t bet on the candidate’s prospects.
“Right now,” he said, “it’s kind of like the Yankees playing Baltimore.”
Still, there are occasions in which the Orioles beat the Yankees, and Gross is banking on such a dynamic as he enters the final four months of the race.
“I stepped forward because I thought I could win,” he said. “The state very much will swing to the middle if the right candidate is there, and I think I’m in a position to win.”
Nita Lowey looks back on more than 30 years in Congress
In November 1988, a 51-year-old upstart Democratic candidate named Nita Lowey overcame the odds to defeat two-term Republican incumbent Rep. Joseph J. DioGuardi in a nail-biter of a congressional election. Lowey’s upset, all those years ago, feels reminiscent of the current political moment, as establishment players face stiff competition from progressives.
Last August, Lowey got a taste of that dynamic when Mondaire Jones, a 33-year-old attorney, announced he would challenge Lowey in the Democratic primary. Two months later, Lowey declared that she would not seek re-election. The congresswoman has said she made her decision independent of Jones, who is now poised to succeed her. But the timing may have been significant: Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), who serves in a neighboring district and entered Congress in Lowey’s class, appears to have fallen to a left-leaning challenger in the June 23 primary.
Lowey, for her part, is sanguine about the recent primary election in her own district, the results of which have not yet been officially called. “Whoever wins, I wish them well,” she told Jewish Insider in a phone interview. “I just would hope that they would continue a legacy that, to me, is very important: helping people.”
As she prepares to retire at the end of her term, Lowey, 83, reflected on her decades-long run serving the northern suburbs of New York City.
“It’s been an extraordinary opportunity for me,” said the congresswoman, who represents the 17th congressional district, which includes portions of Westchester and all of Rockland County.
That is, of course, an understatement. Throughout her 32 years in office, Lowey has established herself as a formidable presence in Washington, having ascended to the upper ranks of the House Appropriations Committee, which she now chairs along with its subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs.
“She was a powerhouse,” said Howard Wolfson, a Democratic strategist who worked for Lowey in the early 1990s as her chief of staff and press secretary and in the early 2000s when she served as the first chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “I learned an enormous amount from her — about how she operated, how she built coalitions, how she was able to work with people from both sides of the aisle, how she used her charisma and her energy and enthusiasm.”
“She wanted to make a difference,” Wolfson added. “She was there to legislate.”
In her conversation with JI, Lowey rattled off a number of achievements, such as her advocacy on behalf of public television, abortion rights, food allergy labeling, gender equity in preclinical research and environmental protections for the Long Island Sound.
Her work advocating for pro-Israel causes, she said, is a part of her legacy she views as particularly important. “The work that I’ve done regarding the Israel-United States relationship almost makes me feel as [though] I’m carrying on l’dor v’dor, the tradition,” said the Bronx-born Lowey, who is Jewish and has long felt a kinship with Israel.
“I think it’s very important to continue that relationship,” said Lowey, adding her concern that partisan politics have, more recently, interfered with bipartisan support for the Jewish state.
Lowey recalled the time in 2015 that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — who she refers to using his nickname, Bibi — appeared before Congress to deliver a controversial speech that was highly critical of former President Barack Obama’s support for the Iran nuclear deal.
“I called Bibi on the phone and I said, ‘Your coming here without a bipartisan invitation is a mistake,’” she said. “‘I will make sure that you get another invitation, but please, you’ve got to keep Israel a bipartisan issue.’ He came anyway. He didn’t listen to me.”
The congresswoman is also worried about possible annexation of parts of the West Bank, which Netanyahu has said could happen as soon as this month. “I have many concerns about the annexation,” she said. “This expansion would put an end to a two-state solution, in my judgement.”
Still, Lowey spoke affectionately of Netanyahu, whom she has known for decades. Earlier this year, she traveled to Israel as part of a bipartisan congressional delegation commemorating the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
“It was a very emotional — a very emotional time — for me,” said Lowey, who remembers chatting with the prime minister about her first trip to Israel as a member of Congress, during which they rode a helicopter together around the country. “It was just the two of us,” she remembered, “flying over and understanding what this issue was all about.”
Constituents in Lowey’s district, which includes a sizable Jewish population, are more than grateful for her commitment to their needs.
“She’s always available, which is always so special,” said Elliot Forchheimer, CEO of the Westchester Jewish Council. “People appreciated being able to hear from her and being able to have a quick conversation with her, which she would take back to her office and down to Washington as needed.”
Debra Weiner, who is active in the Westchester Jewish community, said Lowey’s voice will be “sorely missed” after she steps down. “A big hole will be left both in our Westchester community here and certainly representing us in the United States Congress.”
“Many of us felt that she was very much one of us,” said Michael Miller, executive vice president and CEO of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, recalling that Lowey would wear a Lion of Judah pin indicating her annual support for the United Jewish Appeal.
Lowey’s decision to work on the foreign operations subcommittee, Miller added, made her their “go-to person.” Miller also noted that Lowey had helped procure federal security funding for nonprofit religious organizations as the country saw an uptick in incidents of antisemitic violence.
“We owe her a tremendous debt of gratitude,” Miller said.
Jackie Shaw, executive director of the Interfaith Council For Action in Ossining, was equally appreciative of Lowey’s service.
“Through Nita Lowey’s hard work and dedication to underserved communities, IFCA was able to receive funding to address critical housing needs,” Shaw said in an email. “With these funds, IFCA was able to continue its mission of providing safe, quality affordable housing. Nita’s leadership will be sorely missed.”
In a statement, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), echoed that sentiment. Lowey’s “career is marked by her fierce advocacy for working families and steadfast desire to give underrepresented communities a seat at the table,” she said, adding, “I will miss seeing her in the halls of Congress.”
Lowey looks back on her tenure in Congress with a strong sense of accomplishment, but pointed out that nothing came without a fight.
“I was one of a small group of women when I got to Congress,” the 16-term congresswoman said. The number of female representatives who now serve in the House, Lowey told JI, gives her faith that the country will be well-served as she prepares to retire. “They come to me and want to learn from me, but I’m continuing to learn from them as I try to help them adjust to this important responsibility.”
More broadly, Lowey emphasized the work she has done since 1989 for constituents in need. “I’m very proud of all the casework we’ve done just helping people,” she told JI. “There are so many thousands of people who have benefited because of the great casework we do in my district office.”
Not that she has any plans of becoming complacent in her final six months in office.
Rabbi Steven Kane, who works at Congregation Sons of Israel in Briarcliff Manor, said he spoke with Lowey just last week about a $100,000 grant his synagogue had received for security upgrades. Though Lowey is in her final term, Kane marveled at the fact that she had made the decision to personally inform him of the grant.
“We were very fortunate to have her,” he said.
Lowey has also been working to pass the bipartisan Middle East Partnership for Peace Act, which, she said, creates joint economic ventures between Israelis and Palestinians as well as “people-to-people” programs — all with the intention of encouraging a “strong foundation,” as Lowey put it, for a two-state solution.
The act, she seemed to suggest, would be one of the crowning achievements of her legacy. “I want to get all these things done before I leave,” she said. “So I’m working very hard.”