145 House members call for $360 million in nonprofit security grant funding

A large bipartisan contingent of House members is calling to double funding for the Nonprofit Security Grant Program (NSGP) for a second year to $360 million for the 2022 fiscal year, citing a “lethal threat to faith-based communities.”

A letter obtained by Jewish Insider, which was signed by 145 members of the House — approximately a third of the chamber — shows broad House support for increasing funding to the Department of Homeland Security grant program, which provides funding for nonprofits and faith-based organizations to improve their security programs. The letter was led by Reps. Bill Pascrell (D-NJ) and John Katko (R-NY), the ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee, and lays out in stark language the threats facing the Jewish community and Congress’s need to stay vigilant. 

Last year, the House approved $360 million in funding for the program for the 2021 fiscal year — quadrupled from $90 million for 2020 — but the Senate initially approved only $90 million. The two chambers ultimately compromised at $180 million.

“The rise of domestic extremism is a threat to every community in our entire country. It is one of the challenges of our time. Increasing this funding is essential to protecting our neighbors and houses of worship, especially synagogues and Jewish community centers,” Pascrell told JI. “The terrible growth of antisemitic incidents and violence is an outrage, and I am leading my colleagues to secure this support to keep our Jewish neighbors safe. The need is unfortunately out there, and I am fighting in Congress to meet it.”

The letter, addressed to Reps. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA) and Chuck Fleischmann (R-TN), the chair and ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Homeland Security, specifically requests $180 million for each of two NSGP sub-funds, the Urban Area Security Initiative NSGP and the State Homeland Security Grant Program NSGP.

“Today’s threat environment provides a compelling public interest in protecting against attacks on the nonprofit sector that would disrupt the vital health, human, social, cultural, religious, and other humanitarian services and practices they provide to communities, and which threaten the lives and well-being of millions of Americans who operate, utilize, live, and work in proximity to them,” the letter reads.

The letter highlights assessments from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security about the pressing threat from domestic extremists and foreign terrorist organizations — particularly to the Jewish community. It notes that the FBI and other agencies have noted that domestic violent extremists “will continue to pose a lethal threat to faith-based communities, particularly the Jewish community,” while warning that Iran “could act directly or enlist the cooperation of its proxies,” including Hezbollah, to attack “U.S.-based Jewish individuals and interests.”

Demand for NSGP grants has typically far outstripped funding availability, a trend which is expected to continue this year despite the funding increase. Grant awards for 2021 have not yet been announced.

The letter is signed by a broad spectrum of members of Congress, including progressive Reps. Barbara Lee (D-CA) and Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) as well as conservative Reps. Rodney Davis (R-IL) and Steve Stivers (R-OH).

In the Senate, progress on considering NSGP funding for 2022 appears to be moving more slowly. When contacted by JI last week, senators from both parties who had been particularly vocal in favor of increased NSGP funding in the past declined to provide specific funding targets for the coming year, but emphasized their commitment to the program.

“Just as I have for years, I will be leading the fight for critical [fiscal year 2022] Nonprofit Security Grant Program (NSGP) funding again this year after securing a historic high of $180 million last year due to increased threats against the Jewish community,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) told JI last week. “The recent antisemitic attacks in Riverdale and across the country are concerning, and warrant a strong response from legislators. I will always stand with and fight for the safety of Jewish people. No one should fear for their lives because of how they worship and who they are.”

The $360 million funding target has received support from a range of Jewish groups lobbying on the issue, including the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Federations of North America, the Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel of America.

Progressive reps push antisemitism definitions that allow for increased criticism of Israel

A group of progressive House Democrats plans to encourage Secretary of State Tony Blinken to consider alternatives to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance working definition of antisemitism, suggesting two definitions that allow for broader criticism of Israel. 

A draft of a letter to Blinken obtained by Jewish Insider, which is being led by Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), and has been signed by Reps. Mark Pocan (D-WI), Andy Levin (D-MI), Jamie Raskin (D-MD) and Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), urges Blinken to “consider multiple definitions of antisemitism, including two new definitions that have been formulated and embraced by the Jewish community,” pointing to the Nexus Document and the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism.

The IHRA definition, first developed in the mid-aughts by a collective of government officials and subject experts, was used as guidance by successive Republican and Democratic administrations dating back to the George W. Bush administration, and codified by a 2019 executive order from former President Donald Trump. The push to codify the definition was born out of a 2014 meeting in then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-NV) office.

While there is some overlap between the two more recent definitions and the IHRA working definition of antisemitism — which has been adopted by dozens of countries, many of them European — both the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism, a majority of whose signatories are academics, and the Nexus Document, which was authored by U.S.-based academics, allow more space for criticism of Israel. The Jerusalem Declaration describes the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement as “not, in and of themselves, antisemitic.”

The Nexus Document pushes back on the idea — included in some of the IHRA definition’s associated examples — that applying double standards to Israel is inherently antisemitic. The Nexus Document argues instead that “paying disproportionate attention to Israel and treating Israel differently than other countries is not prima facie proof of anti-Semitism” and that “there are numerous reasons for devoting special attention to Israel and treating Israel differently.” The Jerusalem Declaration similarly argues that boycotts of Israel are not inherently antisemitic.

“While the IHRA definition can be informative, in order to most effectively combat antisemitism, we should use all of the best tools at our disposal,” the letter argues. The letter will remain open for signatures until Tuesday.

Left-wing Jewish groups, including J Street, have been vocal about their concerns with the IHRA definition.

Abe Foxman, the former director of the Anti-Defamation League who led the organization while the IHRA definition was being developed, argued that this criticism stems from disagreements with Israeli policy, rather than legitimate issues with the IHRA definition itself.

“The common denominator of all the groups who don’t like the current definition are groups that have issues with Israel,” Foxman said. “[The IHRA definition] included a new dimension of antisemitism which was anti-Israel and anti-Zionism because in the last 20 years or so, antisemitism metastasized to use Israel as a euphemism for attacking Jews.”

In a letter to the American Zionist Movement in February, Blinken said that the Biden administration “enthusiastically embraces” the IHRA definition, indicating that efforts to implement alternative definitions may struggle to gain traction at the State Department. 

Foxman told JI that he is concerned that considering other definitions of antisemitism, as Schakowsky’s letter urges, would “water down” the State Department’s efforts to fight antisemitism and could also lead the range of other governments and private institutions that have adopted the IHRA definition to reconsider doing so.

Other House Democrats have defended the IHRA definition in the past and its adoption by the federal government. In a 2019 Times of Israel op-ed, Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL) urged the government to adopt the IHRA definition as “an important tool to guide our government’s response to antisemitism.”

“Opponents of this definition argue that it would encroach on Americans’ right to freedom of speech,” Deutch wrote. “But this definition was drafted not to regulate free speech or punish people for expressing their beliefs, however hateful they may be. It would not suddenly make it illegal to tweet denial of the Holocaust or go on television accusing Jews of being more loyal to Israel than the United States. But it would identify those views as anti-Semitic.”

In January, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations adopted the IHRA definition, and it has the support of major mainstream Jewish organizations including the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League.

Read the full text of the letter here:

Dear Secretary Blinken:

We write to thank you and the entire Biden Administration for your commitment to fighting against the rising threat of antisemitism, both globally, and here in the United States. We applaud your prioritization of combatting this ancient hatred. In carrying out this critical work, we urge you to consider multiple definitions of antisemitism, including two new definitions that have been formulated and embraced by the Jewish community.

In 2016, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), of which the United States is a member, adopted a non-legally binding definition of antisemitism. The Department of State began using this working definition at this time. In September of 2018, the Trump Administration announced that it was expanding the use of the IHRA definition to the Department of Education. This was followed by the 2019 “White House Executive Order on Combatting Antisemitism” that formally directed federal agencies to consider the IHRA working definition and contemporary examples of antisemitism in enforcing Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.

While the IHRA definition can be informative, in order to most effectively combat antisemitism, we should use all of the best tools at our disposal. Recently, two new definitions have been introduced that can and should be equally considered by the State Department and the entire Administration. The first is the Nexus Document, drafted by the Nexus Task Force, “which examines the issues at the nexus of antisemitism and Israel in American politics.” The Task Force is a project of the Knight Program on Media and Religion at the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism at USC. The definition is designed as a guide for policymakers and community leaders as they grapple with the complexities at the intersection of Israel and antisemitism.

Another valuable resource is the recently released Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism (JDA).  The JDA is a tool to identify, confront and raise awareness about antisemitism as it manifests in countries around the world today. It includes a preamble, definition, and a set of 15 guidelines that provide detailed guidance for those seeking to recognize antisemitism in order to craft responses. It was developed by a group of scholars in the fields of Holocaust history, Jewish studies, and Middle East studies to meet what has become a growing challenge: providing clear guidance to identify and fight antisemitism while protecting free expression.

These two efforts are the work of hundreds of scholars and experts in the fields of antisemitism, Israel and Middle East Policy, and Jewish communal affairs, and have been helpful to us as we grapple with these complex issues. We believe that the Administration should, in addition to the IHRA definition, consider these two important documents as resources to help guide your thinking and actions when addressing issues of combatting antisemitism.

Once again, we thank you and President Biden for prioritizing this important matter and urge you to use all tools at your disposal to combat the threat of antisemitism.

Left-wing groups pour money into Louisiana special election

Two longtime Louisiana Democrats — State Sens. Troy Carter and Karen Carter Peterson — will face off this Saturday in a special election runoff to fill the congressional seat for Louisiana’s deep blue second district. The seat, which encompasses most of New Orleans and part of Baton Rouge, was previously held by former Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-LA), who left Congress to lead the White House Office of Public Engagement.

The two Democrats have staked out positions reflecting what’s become a familiar battle in the Democratic Party: Carter fills the mainstream/establishment lane and Carter Peterson has claimed the progressive lane. And as Carter pulled ahead in the race, progressive groups threw their support behind Carter Peterson.

In the all-candidate election on March 20, Carter led by more than 10 points, with 36.4% of the vote to Carter Peterson’s 22.9%. The third-place candidate, progressive activist Gary Chambers, who came in at 21.3% of the vote, has endorsed Carter Peterson, likely helping her narrow the gap with Carter.

The race has been shaped in part by the endorsements and outside support each candidate has received. Carter Peterson has been endorsed by former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, EMILY’s List, the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Peace Action and several other outside groups. Late-breaking endorsements have also arrived in the past week from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY). EMILY’s List and the League of Conservation Voters have poured money into boosting Carter Peterson — EMILY’s List had spent $600,000 as of March and the LCV spent $400,000.

Carter is endorsed by Richmond, Democratic Whip Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC) and Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), in addition to a score of local officials and unions.

“This is a classic race of D.C. versus the locals,” Dane Strother, a Democratic political strategist who has worked closely with officials in Louisiana, told Jewish Insider, referring to the apparent dichotomy between the high spending from outside groups on Carter Peterson’s behalf and Carter’s endorsements from local officials. 

Some similar dynamics are playing out in the special election in Ohio’s 11th district, where progressive donors are boosting State Sen. Nina Turner.

Since the initial election, Carter Peterson has significantly accelerated her fundraising — at the time of the election, she had raised $450,000 to Carter’s $924,000. She now heads into Saturday’s election having raised $830,000 to Carter’s $1.1 million.

Ahead of Saturday’s election, experts generally agree that it’s anyone’s race and, without any public polling, it’s difficult to pinpoint a clear frontrunner. “My guess is it’s dead even,” said Strother.

The fact that neither candidate has released any internal polling indicates that both campaigns believe the race is neck-and-neck, added Brian Brox, a professor of political science at Tulane University in New Orleans.

Neither Carter nor Carter Peterson agreed to numerous interview requests from JI.

The election, local observers said, is likely to come down to the most committed activists and which candidate has best been able to mobilize them. Strother predicted that turnout will be 10% or less of eligible voters.

“This is a special election when you’ve just come off of having several elections. There is a bit of voter fatigue,” Robert Hogan, a professor of political science at Louisiana State University, told JI. 

Even the weather this weekend in the New Orleans area — rain is forecast for Saturday — could affect the ultimate result, given the already-low expected turnout.

“If we have a bad weather day on Saturday, then… I would be worried about some rather low turnout,” Brox said. “The winner will be determined by who is best able to mobilize those absolute core supporters who will go out in bad weather and vote regardless.”

Despite the energy that progressive groups have dedicated to this race, local observers have raised questions about their ultimate impact.

“I see this as primarily a fight among factions within, or at least the results of voting will be a fight amongst factions within the New Orleans area,” Brox said. “It’s an intra-Democratic Party fight, but it’s a local Democratic Party fight. So I think that to the extent that a national group is getting involved, it’s only because they would have people in town that appreciate the help or are kind of on the same page, but I’m not sure that any of these voters are looking to either the Biden administration or to other progressive groups to take their cue; I think that this is very much inward-looking.”

Experts also say that, despite Carter Peterson’s efforts to frame herself as more progressive than her opponent, the two are not, in practice, very far apart on policy issues, and would likely vote similarly in Congress.

“There might be some subtle differences in terms of the kinds of legislation that they would author, but I would suspect that they would be… highly correlated in terms of the votes that they would cast in Congress,” Brox said. “You see this tension between establishment and the progressive wings, even though I think the actual distance isn’t that great.”

Recent debates have reflected the broad agreement between the two candidates on a range of issues, at times turning acrimonious as the two have sought to draw distinctions between themselves. Carter Peterson has attempted to tie Carter to former President Donald Trump, who is widely unpopular in the solidly blue district, and Carter has accused Carter Peterson of opportunistic faux-progressivism.

Both candidates, however, have also been in local politics since the mid-1990s, meaning they are well-known and well-established in the district, regardless of broader national political trends and the mutual attacks.

“They’re just both so well-known that the ability to change the narrative on one or the other is going to be somewhat limited,” said Robert Mann, a former Louisiana politics reporter who is now a professor at Louisiana State University. 

The lopsided national spending in support of Carter Peterson also makes the outcome of the race an imperfect predictor of trends in the Democratic Party in the Biden era, suggested Strother.

“I don’t know that this is a proxy fight. There’s been no real expenditure from the moderates in support of Troy Carter… I think you’d have to have money on both sides to determine if this is a predictor for the future,” he explained. “And you don’t. You only have money on one side.”

Even so, for Louisiana’s 2nd district, the race is likely to carry significant consequences.

“The person who’s going to win is going to be an incumbent in a safe district for a long time, unless they get caught up in a scandal or decide to run for something else,” said Brox. “So the stakes are pretty high.”

Congressional efforts to repeal Iraq war authorization raise questions about Iranian proxies

A House push to repeal the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) has picked up support across the political spectrum as President Joe Biden begins taking significant steps to extract the U.S. from Middle East conflicts that date back to his time in the Senate, leaving some legislators concerned that a full repeal could open the U.S. and its assets to future attacks.

Last month, the House Foreign Affairs Committee voted to advance a bill that would fully repeal the 2002 AUMF, originally passed to allow the U.S. to wage war on Saddam Hussein’s regime. The legislation was introduced by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), the only lawmaker at the time to vote against the post-9/11 2001 AUMF targeting terror groups and the 2002 AUMF. The current bill is cosponsored by 114 members reflecting a rainbow of ideological viewpoints, from House Freedom Caucus Chair Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ) to progressive “Squad” members such as Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and Democratic moderate Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-VA). 

Such repeal efforts passed the House on multiple occasions during the 116th Congress, but faced opposition in the Senate — largely from Republicans — and from the Trump administration. This term, Sens. Todd Young (R-IN) and Tim Kaine (D-VA) are pushing similar legislation to repeal the AUMFs from both 2002 and 1991, the latter of which authorized the Gulf War.

Repealing the 2002 AUMF, Lee told Jewish Insider, “is a no-brainer. It does nothing to support troops in the field; it is only a temptation for abuse. [The] 2002 repeal passed the House twice in the 116th Congress. It is past time to get it off the books,” she said, adding: “The 2002 AUMF was intended to enforce UNSC [United Nations Security Council] resolutions regarding Saddam Hussein’s WMD programs. Those programs have been dismantled; the UNSC resolutions have expired; and Saddam himself has been dead for 15 years.”

Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI), who introduced a separate bill to repeal the 2002, 1991 and 1957 AUMFs, described the repeal efforts as “a matter of basic constitutional hygiene.” The Cold War-era 1957 AUMF authorized activity against communists in the Middle East, but was never directly invoked.

“These authorizations are no longer relevant, and their repeal would not impact ongoing operations,” Gallagher told JI. “War powers are Congress’s most important constitutional responsibility, and it’s critical we take this small but significant step forward to reassert our authority.”

Both inside and outside of Congress there remains considerable debate over the continued necessity of the 2002 AUMF. During a House Foreign Affairs Committee meeting last month, Republicans argued that repealing the 2002 AUMF without a broader reform of presidential war powers, including the 2001 AUMF — a much more difficult prospect — could prevent the president from responding to threats to the United States.

The 2002 AUMF was most notably cited in recent years as part of former President Donald Trump’s legal justification for the 2020 strike on Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Iraq.

“It signals unilateral disarmament. The fact that it has been used, the fact that it has been referenced, the fact that it remains there is a deterrent in and of itself to those would-be actors that think they can potentially operate with impunity without it,” Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA), a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee and a vocal opponent of repealing the 2002 AUMF alone, said in an interview with JI.

Some outside analysts, like John Hannah, a senior fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America, agree with Perry that repealing the 2002 AUMF would tie Washington’s hands, particularly in fighting Iranian proxies that have established a foothold in Iraq.

“I do think that the most energetic opponents of an aggressive U.S. policy to combat Iranian regional aggression are the same people who want to either do away with those AUMFs entirely, or to drastically reform them or amend them in such a way that they really limit the ability of any president to take action against the Iranian threat,” Hannah said. “Once you begin getting rid of the AUMFs, the real purpose behind [that] is to tie the president’s hands to address the ongoing threat from Iran and its proxies throughout the region.”

Others say that repealing the 2002 AUMF would have little to no practical effect on U.S. engagement with Iranian proxies in Iraq, given that presidents can continue to cite Article II self-defense powers.

“If you look at the legal justifications associated with military strikes in the Middle East, the primary justification is almost always either the 2001 AUMF or Article II authority,” Gallagher said. “Where the 2002 AUMF is cited, it’s a secondary source of legal authority that is ultimately unnecessary.”

Richard Fontaine, the CEO of the Center for a New American Century, echoed Gallagher.

“You have to ask yourself, would they not have targeted Soleimani if the 2002 AUMF had been repealed prior to it? And my guess is that they would have done exactly the same thing,” Fontaine said. “I don’t think at the end of the day it will make that much difference.”

Of the Trump administration’s argument that the 2002 AUMF allowed the Soleimani strike, Fontaine added, “I don’t know how many people found that terribly persuasive.”

Still others, like Lee, say that the Iranian threat is irrelevant to the debate over the 2002 AUMF.

“The argument that the 2002 AUMF is somehow a tool to be used against Iranian militias that did not exist when it was passed 19 years ago is a complete red herring,” the California Democrat said. “If some members feel that we should authorize force for a proxy war with Iran, they should have the courage to introduce a new authorization to enable that. Otherwise, they are just contributing to the dereliction of responsibility we’ve seen from Congress for 20 years.”

Despite bipartisan agreement among a number of legislators that the 2002 AUMF should be repealed, it is not clear if they will be successful in these efforts.

“There’s nothing that’s not going to be difficult [regarding AUMF reform],” said former Ambassador Dennis Ross, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, adding that efforts to move the issue forward may require the Biden administration to expend political capital in Congress — something it may not be willing to do on this contentious issue so early in the president’s tenure. The Biden administration has expressed support for AUMF repeal efforts.

Fontaine said 2002 AUMF repeal is “possible” but added “there’s a certain ‘Groundhog Day’ quality to some of these debates, because every few years the drive for a new AUMF sort of gathers steam. It’s never actually been successful.”

Even if the 2002 AUMF repeal efforts do succeed, lawmakers are likely to face a nearly insurmountable challenge in reforming the 2001 AUMF, on which there is much less agreement, including among legislators backing 2002 AUMF repeal.

“I think it’s inconceivable that they’ll repeal the 2001 AUMF without replacing it with something,” said Fontaine, “and I think the difficulty of replacing it is so profound that it’s unlikely that it will be repealed,.”

Bipartisan bill seeks to boost joint U.S.-Israel cybersecurity initiatives

A bipartisan group of House and Senate lawmakers is introducing legislation that would provide $30 million over five years to facilitate joint cybersecurity partnership programs between the United States and Israel.

The legislation comes as Washington continues to grapple with an escalating series of cyberattacks in which Russian intelligence was able to compromise scores of government agencies and private companies. The U.S. and Israel’s common enemy, Iran, has also been implicated in a series of cyber attacks in recent years.

In the Senate, the bill is sponsored by Sens. Jacky Rosen (D-NV), Susan Collins (R-ME), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Todd Young (R-IN), joined by Reps. Jim Langevin (D-RI) and Andrew Garbarino (R-NY) in the House.

The legislation would establish a Department of Homeland Security grant program to fund research by a range of actors, including government entities, private companies, nonprofits and academic institutions, under the condition that they partner with corresponding entities in the other country. 

Grants would be assigned by the secretary of Homeland Security, advised by a three-member board made up of one federal government representative and two members recommended by other preexisting U.S.-Israel cooperative groups.

“As cybersecurity threats continue to grow in scale, frequency, and sophistication, it’s critical that we find innovative solutions to acquire new technologies,” Rosen said in a statement. “To help us stay ahead of the curve, this bipartisan legislation would enable greater collaboration between the United States and Israel — a major hub for new and emerging cybersecurity technologies. Together, we can develop forward-thinking cybersecurity technologies and initiatives that protect both nations from malicious cyber actors.”

Collins highlighted the effect last year’s SolarWinds breach had on the security and intelligence communities.

“Cyberattacks pose a grave risk to our national security, intellectual property, personal data, and public safety. The recent SolarWinds hack demonstrated how vulnerable U.S. networks are to cyberattacks and should serve as a wake-up call about the need to address our glaring vulnerabilities,” Collins said in a statement.

Langevin has twice introduced this legislation in the House, in 2016 and 2017, following a fact-finding visit to Israel and it passed both times by voice vote. The Senate did not take action on the bill on either occasion.

This is also not Rosen’s first attempt to establish a binational cybersecurity partnership between the U.S. and Israel. In 2019, she introduced a bill that would have required the State Department to explore establishing a joint cybersecurity research center. That bill did not pass out of committee during the previous congressional session.

Bipartisan House members reintroduce Palestinian education bill

A bipartisan group of House legislators reintroduced a bill on Monday calling for a State Department assessment of lesson plans created by the Palestinian Authority and United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). The legislation comes as UNRWA faces criticism for including material that encourages violence and intolerance in its curricula.

The bill was first introduced in late 2019, during the previous congressional session, and was reported out of the House Foreign Affairs Committee without opposition, but failed to reach the House floor before the end of session.

The Peace and Tolerance in Palestinian Education Act was reintroduced this week by Reps. Brad Sherman (D-CA), Lee Zeldin (R-NY), Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ), Brian Mast (R-FL) and David Trone (D-MD).

“Our bill… requires the State Department to issue a report on the curriculum and textbooks used by the PA and UNRWA, including the United States’ diplomatic efforts to encourage peace and tolerance in Palestinian education,” Sherman told Jewish Insider. “The U.S. should review the curricula in both PA- and UNRWA-controlled schools periodically to ensure that Israel is not demonized, and that tolerance, not violence, is being taught to the students in those schools. Our goal is to ensure we have an accurate picture of the curricula and textbooks in PA and UNRWA schools so that any problems can be fixed.”

The bill would mandate annual State Department reports to Congress for 10 years on whether curricula produced by the PA and UNRWA contain “content and passages encouraging violence or intolerance toward other nations or ethnic groups,” what steps the organizations are taking to reform curricula and whether U.S. assistance is directly or indirectly funding curricula containing hateful material.

Sherman told JI that the bill failed to make it to the floor last term due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has slowed legislative progress in the House. But the bill’s backers are optimistic for a better result this term. 

“I find it hard to believe that any real, genuine objection to it can be expected,” said Marcus Sheff, the CEO of IMPACT-se — which monitors the content of school textbooks for compliance with international standards. “From speaking to congresspeople on both sides of the aisle, there is absolute support that [education supporting peace and tolerance] is the education that Palestinian children really need.”

Sherman said that a number of Senate offices have expressed support for the legislation. Sheff told JI that IMPACT-se has been communicating with senators about the legislation as well, and expects the introduction of a Senate companion to Sherman’s bill.

Recent reports from IMPACT-se have found that the Palestinian curriculum, which was modified in 2016 and 2017, still contains material which “incites young people to acts of violence, to jihad and to martyrdom” and “rejects absolutely the possibility of peace,” Sheff said.

The bill’s reintroduction comes on the heels of reports that the Biden administration has quietly allocated more than $100 million in aid to the Palestinians since taking office, after the Trump administration cut off aid to Palestinian Authority.

“Resumption of assistance to the Palestinians, particularly in light of COVID-19, is important,” Sherman said. “The purpose of this bill is to respond to well-founded concerns with respect to the content in PA-produced textbooks, and the use of those textbooks by UNRWA.”

Sheff indicated that the administration’s moves toward resuming aid make the legislation all the more pressing.

“I think that clearly there is an added impetus for this legislation to be in place if indeed there is going to be a resumption of aid to the Palestinian Authority and to the schools,” he said.

In Texas special election, a congressman’s widow fights for his seat

In early February, Rep. Ron Wright (R-TX), who was entering his second term in the House of Representatives, became the first sitting member of Congress to die from COVID-19 complications. Wright’s death kicked off a stampede of candidates — including his widow, longtime local GOP operative Susan Wright, who is considered to be a favorite in the crowded field — hoping to fill his Dallas-area congressional seat. 

Nearly two dozen candidates — 11 Republicans, 10 Democrats and two independents — have announced their candidacies for the May 1 special election in Texas’s 6th congressional district. For any candidate to win outright on May 1, they’ll have to gain more than 50% of the vote in the all-party, all-candidate election, which analysts see as unlikely given the wide field. Should no candidate clear 50%, the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, will face each other in a runoff later this year.

Mark Jones, a political science fellow at Rice University, explained to Jewish Insider that Wright’s experience in area politics, as well as the spate of endorsements she’s received from local politicians, make her a formidable candidate. 

Matthew Wilson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University, added that widows of deceased members of Congress “have a pretty good track record” of winning the seats, given their existing connections within the party and public sympathy. In Louisiana on Saturday, Republican Julia Letlow won the special election to fill the seat that would have been held by her husband, Luke Letlow, who died of COVID-19 complications days before taking office.

Wright said that in her late husband’s last days, he, as well as their friends, encouraged her to run for his seat, and she seeks to honor her husband’s service.

“I really admired his commitment to his constituents. I admired his style. He was a statesman and I want to continue that,” Wright told JI. She added that her experience as a congressional spouse has given her unique insights into how Congress operates, and that she and her husband were “pretty much the same ideologically.”

Wright emphasized that she has been active politically in the district for 30 years, including as a staffer for state representatives. “I understand the constituent work and the outreach and bringing people together with their government to address their problems and access to services,” she added. 

Wright’s husband served on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and she traveled with him to Israel on a trip with the AIPAC-linked American Israel Education Foundation in 2019.

Wright described her visit as “the trip of a lifetime” and said she would be excited to return. “The people were delightful, the food was delightful. The hospitality was wonderful. I was very intrigued and found it very captivating. The people were just so welcoming,” she said.

***

Other than Wright, State Rep. Jake Ellzey and former U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Chief of Staff Brian Harrison are two of the most competitive candidates on the GOP side, analysts told JI. 

Ellzey’s district overlaps with a portion of the 6th congressional district, where he ran in 2018, losing to Ron Wright in the primary. His previous congressional bid, during which he fell short of Wright by just over 1,000 votes, provides him with a potential advantage, said Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at SMU. Harrison has put up strong early fundraising numbers, and may be able to use his service in the Trump administration to mobilize some supporters — particularly if the former president offers his endorsement, Jones and Jillson explained.

Jillson and Jones both regard retired professional wrestler Dan Rodimer — who drew media attention for relocating from Nevada to run for the seat just before the filing deadline, claiming to have the support of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and the Trump family — as a sideshow in the race. Rodimer was the Republican Party’s candidate in Nevada’s 3rd congressional district in November, losing to Rep. Susie Lee (D-NV).

On the Democratic side, political organizer and former journalist Jana Lynne Sanchez, who was the 2018 Democratic nominee for the seat, and Lydia Bean, an author and sociology professor who has previously run for state office within the district, are the top contenders, according to Jones. Shawn Lassitier, a former teacher from outside the district, is also running, with endorsements from local education officials.

A Sanchez campaign poll of 450 likely voters in the district conducted from March 9 to 12 found Wright leading the race with 21% support, tailed by Sanchez at 17%, Ellzey at 8% and Bean at 5%. The margin of error for the poll was 4.6% — meaning Wright and Sanchez are statistically tied.

***

In interviews with JI this week, the other candidates laid out a range of reasons for jumping into the crowded candidate field.

Sanchez, who lost to Ron Wright 53-45 percent in 2018, told JI that she entered the race because “our democracy [is] at great risk.”

“We need to have people like me who will stand up for what’s right and stand up for the people in the district,” said Sanchez, who is banking on name recognition from her earlier congressional bid. She is hoping that recent challenges for the GOP — including the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol — will tilt the scales in Democrats’ favor. The last Democrat to represent the district was Rep. Phil Gramm, who switched parties in 1983, going on to serve one term as a Republican.

Jana Lynne Sanchez (Courtesy)

Ellzey’s military service — he was a Navy fighter pilot from 1992 to 2012, serving tours in Iraq and Afghanistan — has played a central role in his desire to run for public office. 

“I’ve just never been one who feels like I can just sit back and enjoy life living in the United States without giving back,” Ellzey told JI. “I’ve seen my enemies. Our environment right now in the culture of politics is one of contempt. And I don’t work that way. So I think I have a unique voice.”

Ellzey also said that his experience as a veteran and member of the Texas Veterans’ Commission gives him a “unique perspective” on issues like defense and the national debt.

Bean cited recent challenges in Texas — particularly the state’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and widespread blackouts that left millions of Texans without power for days after a February ice storm — as motivation to run for the seat. “Texans are dealing with a situation where our leaders are completely and catastrophically failing us,” Bean explained. “I just can’t stand by while Texas Republicans continue to fail.”

Harrison said that he has deep roots in the district, where he went to high school and ran a small business, and that people familiar with his work in Washington encouraged him to run.

“I believe deeply in America, I believe she is worth saving, but that we’re on the wrong course, perhaps faster than ever, and that the time we have to course-correct is limited,” Harrison said. “I think that Texas needs not somebody that just believes the right thing but who’s been tested and been proven able to go to Washington and actually make government more accountable.”

Harrison pointed to his work tackling COVID-related issues while working for the administration, noting his involvement in the Operation Warp Speed vaccination development program and implementing a border shutdown using public health authorities.

Wright, Sanchez and Bean all said that COVID-related challenges would be among their top priorities if elected. Wright said that she wants to help her constituents safely return to work and reopen schools. 

Sanchez said she’d focus on ensuring that COVID aid goes to businesses that need it and that constituents are receiving vaccines. She also expressed concern about healthcare inequities in the Black and Latino communities. More broadly, she framed herself as a moderate looking to join the Problem Solvers Caucus or the New Democrat Coalition.

Harrison said that he seeks to “maximize Americans’ freedom and… protect this country” through initiatives like immigration reform, expanding healthcare choice and decreasing taxes and regulation.

Ellzey expressed deep concern about border security and the Biden administration’s cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline, a planned high-speed rail project through his district.

***

All five candidates expressed concern about Iran’s nuclear activities — but each offered a different take on how to address the regime.

Wright said the U.S. needs to strictly enforce sanctions against the regime to force Iran to come to the negotiating table, and argued that Iran continued to expand its nuclear program despite the 2015 nuclear deal. 

Ellzey was also critical of the 2015 deal, and said he wants any future deal to be ratified by the Senate as a treaty. “You don’t treat them as though we just need to normalize relations with them… Until they start acting as a responsible world actor, which they haven’t, we don’t deal with them,” Ellzey added.

Jake Ellzey (Courtesy)

Harrison called the 2015 deal “even worse” now than when it was first inked, and said that strengthening U.S. relationships with other nations in the region through agreements like the Abraham Accords can limit Iran’s potential to destabilize the region.

Sanchez said that, prior to rejoining the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the U.S. needs to address Iran’s violations of the enrichment limits in the original agreement, as well as shortcomings in the verification process that were in the 2015 deal. “Whatever deal we go back into, it must be verified. We must have the opportunity to demonstrate and to be sure that Iran is not developing nuclear capabilities,” she said.

Bean was more bullish, saying that the Trump administration was “extremely short-sighted” to pull out of the JCPOA, and that she “[supports] rejoining it now.”

All five candidates also framed themselves as supporters of the U.S.-Israel relationship, and said they support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

Wright wants the U.S. to remain at the table facilitating peace talks, and added that she sees the Abraham Accords as a “perfect roadmap” for Israeli-Palestinian peace. “That is positive progress towards peace, that uses diplomacy and not violence,” she said. “The Abraham Accords initiated a new chapter of Mideast peace, and I would encourage the current administration to follow that same pattern.”

Harrison also called the Abraham Accords a “template” for a two-state solution, and emphasized his support for the defense relationship between the U.S. and Israel.

Sanchez broadly expressed support for the U.S. to continue “its role as a peacemaker” between the two sides, as well as continuing to support Israel. 

Bean agreed that the U.S. should be facilitating diplomacy by “encouraging” but not pressuring the sides to come to the table. “No third party can make these two groups come together. They have to come together on their own,” she said. “The best thing we can do is support diplomacy as an ally of Israel.”

Ellzey told JI that “the two-state solution has been proposed many, many times and rejected by the Palestinians. So it’s not that offers haven’t been made to make peace.” He added that the U.S. must support Israel and let the Israeli government take the lead in determining what a final agreement between the two parties should entail.

Harrison and Sanchez have, like Wright, traveled to the Jewish state — Harrison as part of a Defense Department delegation with then-Vice President Dick Cheney in 2008 and Sanchez as a reporter and tourist in 1997. 

Harrison called his Israeli hosts “welcoming and hospitable” and said that the trip underscored the importance of a “cooperative” relationship between the U.S. and Israel, rather than “one or the other sort of dictating the terms of our relationship.”

A Sanchez campaign spokesperson told JI, “What [Sanchez] took away from the trip was a deeper sense of the strength and resilience of the Israelis, as well as the [country’s] enormous economic potential.” 

Within the U.S., none of the candidates said they see antisemitism as a pervasive issue within their own parties, although some of them acknowledged some concerns.

“I have not experienced that in the circles I’ve been in,” Wright said of the GOP. “But I do believe that there certainly could be some and obviously some people hold those views. So I would hesitate to say that it’s an issue within the party as a whole. From top to bottom, nationally, and locally, the Republicans that I deal with… are very supportive of Israel.”

“I haven’t been thrilled with some of the language that has come out of some sections of the Democratic Party, I must say,” Sanchez said. “But I do believe that the Democratic Party in main is not supportive of these comments.” Sanchez and Bean also both told JI they oppose the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting Israel.

***

Heading into May 1, analysts are primarily working to determine who are the most likely candidates to advance to a runoff.

“The real focus here is not so much on who’s going to finish first, but who’s going to finish first and second,” Jones said “The most likely scenario is that one of the two candidates in the runoff will be Susan Wright.”

Jones and Jilson both noted that the district has been trending more Democratic in recent elections, but said it currently remains a red district.

“A weaker Republican candidate and a good race by Sanchez, if she turns out to be the leading Democrat — or Bean — could produce a close race, but you sort of expect a Republican win somewhere in the mid- to upper-single digits,” Wilson said.

“Realistically, if Susan Wright is a candidate in the runoffs, she’s likely to win,” Jones added.

If Democratic voters are divided on May 1, they risk being shut out of the runoff entirely, with two Republicans advancing to that round, Cook Political Report U.S. House editor Dave Wasserman noted. He argued that Sanchez is likely Democrats’ best hope for a runoff slot.

A Trump endorsement could also dramatically reshape the race, Wasserman added, although Trump does not appear to be particularly engaged at this point. 

Regardless, given Democrats’ razor-thin majority in the House and the relative competitiveness of the district compared to other upcoming special elections, this race is likely to be closely watched both in and out of the Lone Star State.

The Chabad chief in the House

When Arie Dana walked up to a Capitol Hill coffee shop on a recent spring morning, I called him over to my table. “How’d you know it was me?” he asked. “Because I look like the Jewish guy?” 

In a fitted blue suit, a navy sweater and light brown oxfords, Dana looked the part of a young, ambitious congressional staffer. He wore round tortoiseshell glasses; his combed-back graying hair appeared perfectly in place. 

What gave Dana away as “the Jewish guy” — even more than the yarmulke on the back of his head — was his beard. In some places it extended more than a foot, the dark brown hair interspersed with gray. Dana has an identical twin brother, but “I’m the only bearded one of the family,” he told me, smiling. During our conversation, a young man with unkempt curly hair walked by and shouted “Nice beard, dude!” Dana thanked him.  

Nine days after his December 2020 wedding to a woman he met at the University of Southern California Chabad house on Rosh Hashanah, Dana moved to Washington D.C. to serve as the chief of staff for newly elected freshman Rep. Michelle Steel (R-CA), for whom he has worked since graduating college more than a decade ago.

***

Dana’s journey to this moment began during his freshman year at USC. “I was a College Republican, and one of my fellow College Republican friends was Michelle [Steel]’s daughter,” Dana said. 

After graduating, he took an internship with a California state assemblyman, until he received a call from his College Republicans friend. “Michelle’s daughter said to me, ‘Hey, I think my mom is looking for a communications director, are you interested in applying?’” Dana had previously volunteered on her 2006 campaign for the State Board of Equalization, the only elected tax commission in the country. He took the job. 

Last November, Steel, then a member of the Orange County Board of Supervisors, beat incumbent first-term Democrat Harley Rouda (D-CA) to become one of the first three Korean-born members of Congress. (Young Kim (R-CA) also represents parts of Orange County, while Marilyn Strickland (D-WA) represents the area around Tacoma, Wash.)

“I was actually in Crown Heights” — the Brooklyn neighborhood home to the global headquarters of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement — “doing some pre-wedding shopping with my fiancée, and I got an email: ‘Arie, book your flight to D.C. for orientation,’” he recounted. He got on a plane to Washington, and “by the end of the orientation, she asked me to be her chief of staff,” Dana recalled. 

“Arie has been a dedicated member of my team for more than 10 years in three different elected positions,” Steel told JI. “Arie is the one who introduced me to Orange County’s Jewish community, and I’m grateful for his leadership, which is needed here in Washington.” 

Rep. Michelle Steel

Dana is far from the first Orthodox Jew to work on the Hill. There was Peter Deutsch, a former member of Congress who now lives in Israel, and of course Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), who went on to serve as Al Gore’s running mate on the 2000 Democratic ticket. Before Jack Lew served as Treasury secretary under Barack Obama, he was a staffer for House Speaker Tip O’Neill. 

But according to Rabbi Levi Shemtov, executive vice president of American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad) and Washington’s most prominent Chabad rabbi, “there has never before been a chief of staff to a member — which is the most senior position you get — who was Hasidic in appearance and in observance.” Put more bluntly: “You’ve had many people who were shomer Shabbas, but they were not as outwardly recognizable as observant as Arie Dana,” Shemtov explained. “This speaks volumes about what it is possible to achieve in America without compromising religious principles.”

***

When Dana was a freshman at USC, he met Rabbi Dov Wagner, the school’s Chabad rabbi. “We always do, on Sukkot, a sukkah in the middle of campus, and offer students the opportunity to make a blessing over the lulav and etrog,” Wagner told JI. “He stopped by the sukkah at that time and made a little connection.” Dana would not reconnect with Wagner in a serious way until after he graduated.

Raised by Mexican parents in the Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles, Dana did not grow up Orthodox. “In Mexico, some of the different Jewish denominations that you see in [the U.S.] don’t really exist,” he explained. “There’s less religious and there’s more religious, but it’s a very traditional environment.”

Dana had his bar mitzvah at a Reform congregation. “We were the first people, I think, who put on tefillin, ever, in this temple for our bar mitzvah, and it was something that I kept up doing,” Dana said. In college, “I was looking for ways to be more religiously involved. But I also had my parents at home, and we had Shabbat dinner every Friday night,” which did not leave much time for him to get involved with Jewish groups on campus. 

Both Dana and his twin brother started at USC as architecture majors, though Arie later changed his major to religion. (His brother and his sister-in-law, who is also an architect, are now working on an expansion for the USC Chabad house.) 

Dana’s family was not politically active when he was growing up. He was a teenager on Sept. 11, 2001, “which was a very transformative thing to happen your freshman year of high school,” Dana noted. He started reading up on the Middle East, terrorism and foreign affairs, before expanding into other topics. 

“I started reading a lot of libertarian thinkers and philosophers and got into the idea of the free market [as] a great way to help individuals from all backgrounds earn their own success,” Dana explained. “Freedom — in that sense of letting people on their own choose how they want to create their own communities without external force — made me really interested in the political world.”

Apparently, it’s a value espoused by Steel as well: Years later, when she was elected to Congress, she joined the “Freedom Force,” a group of Republican members formed to counter Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s progressive “Squad.” 

But first, at the State Board of Equalization, Dana received an education in big government. There’s “this big state agency,” Dana explained, that, in his view, could get in the way of “allow[ing] people to have the most freedom possible to live their lives the way they want to.” 

At the same time, he was also receiving a new religious education. “I had this great idea that I was going to be an Orthodox Sephardic Jew,” Dana said. But there was no Sephardic community near where he was living, so he began learning again with Rabbi Wagner from USC. They had reconnected when Dana came to Chabad alumni events with a woman he was dating at the time. 

“He had this incredible journey of really engaging in his Judaism very seriously and making it an important part of his life,” said Wagner, the USC rabbi. Dana and Wagner would study the  teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, together. “Learning those things drew me into starting to study chassidus more. And then over time, I was just like, ‘Oh, I think I think this is where I’m supposed to be,” he noted. 

He began to observe Shabbat and keep kosher, which is when people close to him noticed his new observance. “With friends, it was a little bit harder than it was at work,” Dana recounted. “The standard thing is to go out to dinner, or [hang out on] Friday nights, and you can’t do any of those things anymore.” 

At work, “it started out with me just turning off my phone on Friday evenings. I didn’t really say so much about it,” he recalled. “Then [Steel] asked me, ‘Hey, why do you wait and not answer your phone until Saturday night?’” [I responded] ‘Oh, because I’m starting to keep the Sabbath.’” 

Last winter, Dana and Steel “already had a general understanding of many years,” he said. So when Orange County officials had to have an emergency press conference about the coronavirus, Steel knew not to call Dana. “It ended up being a Saturday morning press conference in Orange County, where they ended up announcing that there was going to be a state of emergency,” Dana explained. “I found out about it Saturday night. I was like, okay, it’s gonna be a busy week,” he said. 

It ended up being not just a busy week but a busy year, as the virus spread and Steel’s campaign for Congress heated up. “It was a lot of work in those days. I was leaving barely enough time to get home, and I would just rush home and change quickly and go to synagogue — or not go to synagogue; I stayed at home because everything closed, which in a way makes it easier,” he said. 

“Arie has been a dedicated member of my team for more than 10 years in three different elected positions,” Steel told JI. “Arie is the one who introduced me to Orange County’s Jewish community, and I’m grateful for his leadership, which is needed here in Washington.” 

One silver lining of the pandemic was the Rosh Hashanah dinner where Dana met his soon-to-be wife. “Even during COVID,” said Wagner, “the right people come together.” Dana had been spending a lot of time with Wagner, with most other Jewish organizations not holding events. On Rosh Hashanah, his future wife Chana “just showed up at our door, looking for a place” to celebrate the holiday, Wagner recalled. “Of the very few guests there, two of them met and, thankfully, hit it off.” 

They got married in December, and nine days later moved across the country to the first place Dana had ever lived outside of Los Angeles. About a week later, rioters stormed the Capitol. 

Dana and his team were in Steel’s office, trying to get the congresswoman out of the Capitol complex — she had tested positive for the coronavirus that morning and did not want to infect her staffers. “We had doctor’s orders, of course, to get her out of the Capitol as fast as we could so that she could go isolate,” Dana said. But when he called the sergeant-at-arms’ office to ask for the best way out, the response was: “There is no safe way out at this time.” So Dana and the other staffers stayed in one wing of the office while Steel isolated in her personal office, keeping the door closed for the next 10 hours that they were trapped together. Her case ended up being mild, and no one else in the office got sick. 

Insurrection aside, Dana has also missed the celebrations and events that typically mark the beginning of a new congressional session. He had to a hire an entirely new team, looking for people who “have experience on what the Hill is like” and understand things like ”what the schedule for a day is like, what do the votes mean, the procedural rules.” Back in Orange County, “there aren’t 2 a.m. votes on Friday night,” Dana explained. “Official business was a lot more regimented and scheduled.” Amid all the new things to learn, he at least knew that his boss understood why he could not be present during those rare Friday night votes. 

The new job brings new policy areas for Dana to learn about, but “we’re trying to be focused on local issues anway,” he said. “The foreign policy side is probably the biggest single change,” he added, but “with the congresswoman being very involved in the Asian-American community,” she already had some experience in foreign affairs. Since coming to Washington, Steel has joined with other Asian American members of Congress to call out violence against the Asian American Pacific Islander community, including after the mass shooting at a series of Asian-owned massage parlors in Atlanta this week. “What happened in Atlanta last night was senseless and tragic, and unfortunately only adds to a long list of recent violent crimes against our Asian American and Pacific Islander community,” Steel said in a statement, before testifying yesterday at a congressional hearing on anti-Asian American discrimination.

According to Dana, Steel also sees collaboration with Israel as a priority. “Water issues are something that’s a huge deal in California, and we have hi-tech and biomedical innovation,” said Dana. “She’s talked a lot about trying to find priorities of places to work together with Israel and the United States to advance that type of innovative spirit and find solutions to those types of issues.”

Dana is excited to explore Washington’s Jewish community more as the weather improves and the pandemic subsides. “I’m really eager to see what the Jewish community is like,” Dana said. Capitol Hill is not known for having a large Orthodox community, but “we’ve had a very warm welcome from the community that there is.” On a typical Saturday, Dana normally walks across town to Chabad in Dupont Circle. 
The lack of kosher restaurants in the District is also an adjustment, with the presence of just a single kosher meat restaurant, CharBar. But in some ways, that reminds Dana of home: “Orange County also had only one kosher restaurant.”

Congressional Republicans push barrage of Iran legislation

Republican lawmakers in the Senate and House have introduced a surge of legislation in recent weeks seeking to further crack down on Iran and put the brakes on the Biden administration’s efforts to rejoin the 2015 nuclear deal.

The eight pieces of legislation address issues including tightening sanctions enforcement, expressing disapproval of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), opposing easing sanctions on Iran and seeking to block the U.S. from reentering the JCPOA entirely.

Some of the measures have gained minimal traction, but others have found support among GOP lawmakers. 

In the Senate, a bill sponsored by Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-TN) seeking congressional oversight over sanctions reductions has gained 27 cosponsors. A resolution introduced by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) opposing any form of sanctions reduction that does not address both Iran’s nuclear program and its other provocations — such as its recent attack on U.S. personnel in Iraq and its exporting of terrorism through its Middle East proxies — has gained 31 cosponsors. The House companion legislation to Hagerty’s bill and Cotton’s resolution have 24 and 30 GOP sponsors, respectively.

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX), who sponsored the House version of Hagerty’s bill, told JI that the legislation seeks to give congressional oversight on sanctions relief in order to give the American people a voice in the process.

“I don’t want to see us again fall back into the scheme of Tehran blackmailing us and extorting us and us giving up sanctions for really very little of anything,” Hagerty said in an interview with Jewish Insider last week. “The concern I’ve got is that the Biden administration wants to roll back our sanctions, just in exchange for reentering the deal. It took us a long time to get the sanctions in place. We’ve got pressure on Iran now that is like never before. And this is not the time to be backing off.”

Rep. Andy Barr (R-KY), who introduced a House bill that seeks to compel the Biden administration to submit any replacement agreement for Senate consideration as a treaty, offered a similar argument.

“If the Biden administration wants to jeopardize the national security of Israel, one of our greatest allies, they should go through Congress to do so,” Barr told JI. “The Biden administration should work with Congress and our allies in the international community to construct similar sanctions implemented at the beginning of the Obama administration that proved effective, instead of accepting as a foregone conclusion that the Iranians will eventually become a nuclear power.”

Hagerty said Iran’s continued provocations under the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” sanctions regime served as evidence that the U.S. should not back down on sanctions.

“I certainly would not want to provide more resources to Iran to do this,” he said, emphasizing that the 2015 deal had freed up funds to the regime.

The Tennessee senator said he expects sanctions to have more long-term success in curbing Iranian activities.

“We need to continue to put pressure on them,” he said. “Their economy is contracting, that has got to be felt broadly, in Iran, and that’s going to put pressure on the regime much more than  anything else we could do right now.”

McCaul said that by limiting the Iranian regime’s access to funds — particularly $70 billion in oil revenue — sanctions created leverage for the U.S. in negotiations with Iran.

“I hope the Biden administration will use that leverage to secure a better, comprehensive deal with Iran,” he said. “President Trump’s crippling sanctions gave the Biden administration an opportunity we cannot afford to squander.”

Barr echoed McCaul’s sentiments. “Iran came to the negotiating table in the first place [in 2015] because of the crushing economic sanctions imposed by the United States and our allies,” he told JI.

Hagerty indicated that he believes the 2015 deal’s European signatories — France, the United Kingdom, Germany and Russia — have fundamentally different interests in negotiations than the U.S. does.

“Think about what the incentives are here: The Europeans want us to get into this deal because they want the sanctions released because they want to be back doing business with Iran again,” he explained. 

The Tennessee Republican said the U.S. should not reengage in talks with Iran until the regime stops all of its attacks on U.S. forces, allies and contractors, and halts nuclear enrichment. Iranian officials have said that they will not return to the negotiating table until the U.S. has lifted sanctions on Tehran.

“They need to take a step back themselves, rather than expecting us to step up and fund them and make concessions without them doing anything,” Hagerty said. 

Secretary of State Tony Blinken has pledged repeatedly that the U.S. will not withdraw any sanctions against Iran until it brings its nuclear enrichment back to compliance with the 2015 deal, but has also said that the U.S. is ready for talks to resume.

Hagerty argued that his legislation “ought to be widely bipartisan,” noting that it follows a similar framework to the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, a provision of which prevented the president from repealing sanctions against Russia without congressional approval.

But bipartisan support has thus far not been forthcoming for Hagerty’s bill, nor any of the other GOP-led legislation addressing Iran’s nuclear program and the 2015 agreement. Without any Democratic support, the legislation is unlikely to pass through either chamber of Congress. 

Nevertheless, the deluge of legislation reflects deep GOP opposition to and concern about the Biden administration’s approach to Iran — which has also taken center state during recent congressional hearings with Biden’s foreign policy appointees. “Members of Congress feel strongly about the Iran issue given the national security implications,” McCaul said “For an issue as important as this, we need all hands on deck.”

Democrats have been comparatively much less active in terms of legislative action on Iran. In the House, a bipartisan group of five centrist Democrats and one Republican introduced a resolution last week condemning Iran’s nuclear program. Senate Democrats introduced a resolution in late February calling for “a diplomatic resolution to Iran’s nuclear program”; it  has 11 Democratic cosponsors but no GOP support.

Two other pieces of Iran-related legislation in the House — one calling for an inquiry into potential additional sanctions that could be placed on Iranian leadership and another calling, in broad terms, for a “democratic, secular, and non-nuclear” Iran — have bipartisan support, but do not directly address Iran’s nuclear program.

In addition to the resolutions, House members have also issued at least four letters regarding Iran since the 2020 election, including one from Democratic lawmakers urging sanctions relief and a quick reentry into the 2015 deal, one from Republicans urging a more aggressive approach to the Iranian regime and two bipartisan letters — one laying out a middle path and the other urging continued pressure on Iran.

Nonprofits chalk up wins in Senate’s $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill

The Senate’s 50-49 passage of a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package on Saturday was hailed as a significant victory by Jewish community leaders who had lobbied legislators to include more provisions to support nonprofits and human services.

The package includes a range of provisions for which the nonprofit community had advocated, including an expansion of the Paycheck Protection Program allowing larger nonprofits operating in multiple locations to qualify for loans as long as they do not have more than 500 employees in any one location. It also provides a significant increase in unemployment reimbursements for self-insured nonprofits, as well as aid to state and local governments and an increased child tax credit.

The package’s passage came at the conclusion of an amendment process that ran for more than 24 hours into midday Saturday, which included the longest single vote in modern history of the Senate.

“We’re delighted,” Elana Broitman, Jewish Federations of North America’s senior vice president for public affairs, told Jewish Insider. “This is another major bill that addresses the difficulty of the pandemic on the communities we serve… and also the bottom line of the nonprofits that need to keep their doors open to continue to provide… services.”

Jody Rabhan, the chief policy officer for the National Council of Jewish Women, said the bill “will do more for the economy, families, individuals, than any legislation in the last 20-some years.” 

Although the bill passed with only Democratic votes in both houses, Broitman said that the provisions of interest to the nonprofit community were “true bipartisan efforts.” Polling has indicated that the bill is popular with the American public broadly.

“The appropriators definitely understood the need for some of the PPP provisions, the tax provisions,” Broitman explained. “The heads of those committees, the chairs and ranking members of those committees, and [Senate] Majority Leader [Chuck] Schumer — his office really understood the need of the nonprofits.”

In a win for religious schooling advocates, the Senate also added an additional $2.75 billion in designated aid for non-public schools — matching the amount included in the December 2020 relief bill and replacing a more limited funding stream that the House had included in its relief bill. Under the provisions in the Senate bill, non-public schools also deal directly with state education agencies to apply for funding, rather than going through local school districts to determine what spending is covered. Orthodox Union Advocacy Center Executive Director Nathan Diament credited Schumer, as well as Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), for spearheading the effort to include the funding.

“Much of what we were seeking is in the bill, and I will say very significantly thanks to the leadership of Senator Chuck Schumer, but also with the help of Senator Cardin as well as some others,” Diament said. “We’re very grateful to Senator Schumer for having led this particular piece. It was not without resistance.”

Schumer told JI that he sought to ensure that all students had access to sufficient resources to weather the crisis.

 “The bottom line is that this pandemic has hurt every school and every schoolkid, and we should do all we can to help each and every one of them confront and overcome the COVID crisis, both public and private,” the New York senator said. “This fund, without taking any money away from public schools, will enable private schools, like yeshivas and more, to receive assistance and services that will cover COVID-related expenses they incur as they deliver quality education for their students.”

Broitman emphasized that the funding will especially help non-public schools serving low-income families.

The provision in the latest bill is not identical to the one included in the December 2020 bill — it does not lay out what expenses are eligible for funding, as the December bill did. The bill also prohibits the money from going towards reimbursements for COVID-related expenses, a change from how many state education departments are distributing funding from the December package, according to Diament.

“We’re going to have to work with the Department of Education to put it in a format that’s workable for the schools,” Diament said. “Senator Schumer’s staff has said he put the money in so he’s committed to helping us work with Secretary [of Education Miguel] Cardona and his team on implementation.”

Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) proposed an amendment that would have changed the bill’s language to apply the rules for non-public school funding included in the December package, but the Senate voted it down along party lines at 3:35 a.m. on Saturday.

“It would have been much more clear and simple,” Diament said. “It’s kind of a shame that it was done at the point where basically Democrats were voting down all amendments, even though we had expected that some Democrats would have voted for the amendment.”

The inclusion of dedicated funding for non-public schools riled the National Education Association — the nation’s largest teachers’ union — which released a statement “convey[ing] our strong disappointment in the Senate’s inclusion of a Betsy DeVos-era $2.75 billion for private schools — despite multiple avenues and funding previously made available to private schools.”

According to a lobbyist familiar with the negotiation process, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), the assistant Senate Democratic leader, sided with teachers’ unions as a vocal opponent of the non-public school funding during negotiations.

“She is an advocate for the views of the public sector unions like the NEA and the [American Federation of Teachers],” the lobbyist said. “They’re opposed to any money going to help any kind of non-public schools in any circumstances, including a global pandemic. They don’t really believe that we’re all in this together.”

Murray did not respond to a request for comment.

JFNA’s Broitman highlighted other provisions of interest to the federations’ umbrella group in the package, including ones she said could give homebound seniors access to vaccines through both transportation to vaccine sites and mobile vaccinations; she also cited programs including increased funding for older Americans, nutrition assistance and child-care block grants. 

The bill also provided an additional $510 million for the Emergency Food and Shelter Program, which JFNA has “been a key proponent of,” Broitman said. The EFSP program supports programs like food pantries and rent assistance.

“We’ve all seen the stories about the long food lines, the worries about eviction,” she said. “There are a number of Jewish human service agencies that serve these populations, so being able to get the data about the suffering of the communities [to lawmakers] was really helpful.”

Despite these victories, Jewish nonprofits were not able to push through all of the changes they’d hoped would be incorporated into the final legislation. JFNA had been lobbying senators for further increases in unemployment insurance reimbursements — from 75% in the bill as passed by the House to 100% — as well as an extension of the application deadline for PPP loans, but neither change was included in the Senate’s finalized bill.

With no further COVID relief bills on the immediate horizon, Broitman acknowledged there may not be another opportunity to push these changes through in the near future. But, she added, JFNA will monitor data from federations and agencies to assess future needs and pass that information along to lawmakers as they contemplate future legislation.

Despite her praise for the bill, NCJW’s Rabhan explained that the legislation was limited in what it could accomplish because it was passed under budget reconciliation, a method allowing the Senate to bypass the filibuster on certain tax and spending bills.

Reconciliation rules forced the Senate to strip a federal minimum wage increase out of the bill, and led the House to set aside national paid leave from the start, according to Rabhan. 

“There are limitations to reconciliation,” she said. “It’s like all things in politics and you’re weighing the pros and cons. The Democrats determined the best way to get the president’s rescue plan through was through reconciliation.”

During last-minute negotiations on Friday, the Senate also scaled back plans for unemployment benefits, primarily because Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) opposed Senate Democrats’ original, more ambitious plan. Under the terms of the current bill, the Senate may have to scramble to pass another extension of unemployment insurance, which currently runs out in early October before going on recess in September, Rabhan noted.

Since the Senate made revisions to the version of the package the House passed in late February, it will now return to the House for expected final passage on Tuesday, before Congress sends it to President Joe Biden for his signature.

eJewish Philanthropy’s Helen Chernikoff contributed reporting.