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.

Laura Loomer’s latest stunt
Loomer poses with Roger Stone (Loomer Campaign)

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 The Cook 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.”

Al Gross family photo
Al Gross, his wife, Monica, and their four children. (Facebook)

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.

Al Gross
Edgar Blatchford

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.”

Nita Lowey poses for photo
Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY), U.S. Secretary of Labor Tom Perez, Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) and Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) appear at an event in New York in May 2014. (Gary He/ U.S. Department of Labor)

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.”

In Long Island, Democrats are vying to unseat Rep. Lee Zeldin

Rep. Lee Zeldin’s (R-NY) victory in his 2018 reelection bid was not unexpected. But the narrow margin of his win over political newcomer Democrat Perry Gershon in New York’s 1st district two years ago came as more of a surprise.

Now Gershon, a real estate lender, is gearing up for a rematch against the three-term Zeldin, one of two Jewish Republicans in the House of Representatives, in a district that has trended red in recent years. But before he can take on the incumbent congressman again, Gershon must face off against three candidates in the district’s Democratic primary on Tuesday: chemistry professor Nancy Goroff, Suffolk County legislator Bridget Fleming and business consultant Greg Fisher.

Gershon is confident that, this time around, he has the experience and name recognition necessary to beat Zeldin. “I spent my time in the off year engaged in the community, meeting with people… and taking the retail politicking to a level I was unable to do the first time around because nobody knew me,” Gershon said in an interview with Jewish Insider.

Goroff, who teaches at Stony Brook University, is significantly ahead of Gershon in fundraising, with nearly $2.4 million raised and $760,000 still in the bank. Gershon has raised approximately $1.2 million and has $188,000 remaining, while Fleming raised $700,000 and has $112,000 on hand. Fisher has raised no money, according to Federal Election Commission filings.

The Democratic nominee will likely need a sizable fundraising haul to compete with Zeldin — who has raised nearly $4 million and has more than $2 million still on hand.

Goroff believes her background in science will give her an edge over her competitors and will ultimately be an asset on Capitol Hill. “I will bring unique skills and expertise to Washington, so that I can be a leader on issues that matter, like climate change and healthcare and getting us out of the COVID-19 pandemic crisis,” she told JI. She also highlighted her accomplishments at Stony Brook, including pushing to expand healthcare coverage and leading diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. 

“I think that I can hit the ground running in Washington and really lead on important issues,” she added. Goroff, who hopes to leverage her background to serve on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee and the Education and Labor Committee, said she’s intensely focused on climate change.

“I want to be a resource for other members of Congress. I want to make sure that my office is helping members have access to the best information available,” Goroff said. “This is for Republicans and Democrats, that they can get their questions answered and then hold their [colleagues’] feet to the fire to make sure that we’re really taking meaningful action on climate change.”

Fleming is also focused on the environment, touting her record in the county legislature. “On all these issues when Donald Trump and Lee Zeldin have abandoned us, I’ve been a champion and I’ve been known to stand up for our environmental resources,” she said.

Fleming pointed to her past electoral victories and experience as a lawmaker as evidence that she’s the best choice to take on Zeldin in the fall. “I have a great deal of support because of the work that I’ve done for the community over the years,” she said. “But also I know how to run a good race, and it’s going to be a tough race.”

Perry Gershon

Goroff and Gershon both told Jewish Insider that their Jewish faith has been a driving force behind their political aspirations and their decision to challenge Zeldin.

Both candidates criticized the congressman for voting against last year’s House Resolution 183 condemning antisemitism. Zeldin said he voted no on the resolution because it had been watered down, but Goroff posited that Zeldin’s preferences for the bill “didn’t match the reality of what was going on on the ground.” Gershon called Zeldin’s vote against the bill “appalling.”

“The reason that I got in is that I want to make the world a better place,” Goroff said. “It’s very much that Jewish idea of public service and improving the world around you. It means getting involved in [the] community.”

Gershon and Goroff are also largely aligned on their approaches to the U.S.-Israel relationship. They both support a two-state solution, but believe that the president and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have made the peace process more difficult, and said the potential annexation of parts of the West Bank — which could happen as soon as July 1 — would be a further obstacle to peace.

“Too often, the discussion… has been focused on whether the Israelis or the Palestinians have the right to take a certain action, as opposed to… whether it’s actually in their self-interest,” Goroff said. “There seems to be a very short-term focus. And it’s largely about Netanyahu trying to stay in power, as so much of his activity over the last years has been.”

Gershon — who has visited Israel nine times — was mostly in agreement, but noted that the Palestinians lacked a voice in conversations related to peace negotiations. “A two-state solution isn’t in the cards right now because there’s no one negotiating for the Palestinians,” he said. “But I’d like to see the settlements stop, and I think that will help bring a partner to the table.”

Fleming criticized the Trump administration’s “impulsive” foreign policy. “Policy has to be formulated and implemented that will ensure stability in the region and safety for the citizens of Israel,” Fleming weighed in. “In that respect, I think we need to ensure that financial support for Israel is maintained.”

Gershon stated that cutting U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority was unequivocally “the wrong move.” 

“I think the Palestinian Authority is a potential negotiator on the other side, and certainly a whole lot better than Hamas,” he explained. “And the more you do delegitimize the Palestinian Authority and make it harder for them to operate, the more you’re empowering the more radical elements like Hamas.”

Gershon is also a strident critic of the BDS movement, which, in a position paper, he called “little more than a new manifestation of antisemitism.” 

“It is a lie to suggest that BDS seeks peace in the region or is founded on legitimate principles,” he added. “BDS is particularly threatening at the college level, as the movement tries to brainwash our youth to turn against Israel at a young age.”

Recent polling in the race has provided varied results with no clear frontrunner. A poll conducted in late May by Goroff’s campaign found her in a statistical tie with Gershon, with Fleming trailing by double digits. The May poll was a boost for Goroff, who in a poll a month earlier had trailed Gershon by 22 points. In the April poll, Fleming had a five-point lead on Goroff. Fisher took just 1% of the vote each time.

But a separate poll released by Fleming’s campaign painted a drastically different picture — it found Fleming and Goroff in a statistical tie, with Gershon trailing them.

With no clear-cut winner ahead of Tuesday’s primary, the race is anyone’s game. All three candidates have in recent weeks sought to tie Zeldin — who traveled to Tulsa, Okla., for Trump’s first campaign rally in months — to the president in the hopes that a blue wave will boost their odds with primary voters.

“The damage that Trump has done with his xenophobia, and that Zeldin has done enabling the president — Zeldin didn’t even criticize what happened in Charlottesville, and to me that is a shonda for his Judaism,” said Gershon.

“I’m a big believer in racial justice and in the need — as part of my Judaism — to establish equal treatment for brown people and white people under the law of the land.”

Antone Melton-Meaux says George Floyd’s killing ‘has amplified’ his campaign message

The Democratic primary race to represent Minnesota’s 5th congressional district has shifted in tone since December, when Antone Melton-Meaux first announced his campaign against freshman Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN).

Like many parts of the country, the Minneapolis district has grappled with the coronavirus over the last several months. But in recent weeks, the mood in the district has transformed from anxiety and grieving to anger over systemic racism and racial inequality after the killing of George Floyd and the aggressive police response to the nationwide protests that followed. 

Melton-Meaux, one of three Democrats challenging Omar in the August 11 primary, told Jewish Insider that although the incident served as a watershed moment in the district, his campaign strategy hasn’t changed. “We have spoken about the institutional systemic racial inequities from the beginning of our campaign,” he said. “It’s one of the reasons I decided to run for Congress. So the tragedy of George Floyd has amplified that component of our campaign, so that we can demonstrate the leadership that the people are hungry for.”

This week, Melton-Meaux’s campaign released two television ads highlighting his background as a mediator — a skill set, he says, he wants to bring to a divided Washington. “The political culture in Washington is toxic,” Melton-Meaux says in one of the ads. “We don’t need more dividers… I will bring people together and get things done for our community.” In the other ad, he discusses the hurdles he faced growing up and the current challenges of protecting his children from racial injustice. 

“I would say that the tragedy of George Floyd has made it clear that leadership matters, and how our elected officials serve their residents matters,” Melton-Meaux stressed in a recent interview with JI. “We can’t wait any longer. We need leaders who will take up the mantle and do the hard work with the people to make that change happen.” 

Campaign officials told JI that the campaign will launch an integrated marketing strategy in the coming weeks in an effort to deliver Melton-Meaux’s message to voters. 

Since Floyd’s murder, Melton-Meaux has participated in local protests and marches across the district, engaging with constituents about the need for police reform. At one gathering, he joined his 16-year-old daughter, Ava, and thousands of high school and college students at the Minnesota State Capitol for a moment of silence in Floyd’s memory. “It was a beautiful thing,” he said of the experience, which was dubbed as a “sit and breathe” protest. 

“Residents of my district are tired and frustrated by the seemingly intractable problems we have with police violence, particularly how the police interact with people of color. The inequities that have fueled this moment have existed for decades,” Melton-Meaux said. He called Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey’s handling of the protests “imperfect,” pointing to the jeers Frey received during a rally last week after he refused to commit to defunding the city’s police department. “The crowd booing Mayor Frey’s answer is a clear expression of that anger and frustration,” he explained.

“After decades and centuries of abuse, people will no longer accept being told to be patient or accept incremental change,” he added. “As a black man, I truly understand those feelings. More of the same is not acceptable. It’s time for massive, systemic structural change in public safety. I not only support that, I’m also encouraged by the passion and calls for action in the community.”

In recent weeks, Melton-Meaux has managed to keep his momentum going as he seeks to raise his profile, according to political observers. Nonpartisan pro-Israel groups like NORPAC and Pro-Israel America have hosted virtual fundraisers for the candidate. 

“I am very pleased to have the support of the pro-Israel community, as well as many other communities that have seen the value of this campaign,” Melton-Meaux told JI. “We are doing well with our fundraising so that we can be competitive with the congresswoman [and] to make sure we’re getting our message out and connecting with residents for the upcoming primary.” 

Melton-Meaux refrained from directly attacking Omar, who recently lost her father due to COVID-19 complications. He suggested that voters in the district are looking for a representative who can build relationships with other lawmakers to deliver results. “We are making sure as a district that we are bringing people along so their voices are heard and that we are building bridges, not burning bridges,” he said, “to make sure that local, elected and federal officials are working together to bring the resources that people need to address these crises that we’re dealing with right now — both with COVID-19 and with the murder of George Floyd.” 

Read our previous feature of Melton-Meaux and his policy views here.

Communal leaders, pro-Israel groups seek to mobilize Jewish voters to save Engel

As embattled Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) fights for his political life, constituents and longtime supporters of the 16-term congressman are growing nervous about his chances in the Democratic primary in New York’s 16th district, where Engel will face a challenger who has been raking in endorsements — and donations — ahead of Tuesday’s vote.

Engel’s possible ouster by Jamaal Bowman, a 44-year-old Bronx middle school principal backed by Justice Democrats, has provoked angst in some parts of the district, where constituents see Engel as a friend and a staunch supporter of Israel. 

Stu Loeser, a political  consultant and resident of Riverdale, told JI that the primary race is — for the first time in years — a topic of conversation in the community. “People obviously aren’t seeing each other as much these days, but when we talk or run into each other, the primary almost always comes up,” said Loeser, who served as spokesperson for former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg. 

Over the last two weeks, Bowman has picked up national endorsements from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA). A poll published Wednesday showed Bowman leading Engel by 10 points. 

Rabbi Avi Weiss, the founding rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, recently published an open letter to Bowman asking him to clarify his positions on Israel. Weiss told JI on Wednesday that he was “very disappointed” that Bowman hasn’t responded to the issues raised in the letter. 

“Amongst the issues… most important to us is the well-being of the State of Israel, one of America’s greatest allies,” Weiss explained. “Dr. Bowman’s Israel policy is too questionable for me to consider sending him to Congress.” 

Harry Feder, a prominent member of the Jewish community in Riverdale and a longtime friend of the congressman, told JI that community leaders are urging members to take the race seriously and vote. “I think it’s a matter of people coming out to vote and that they realize that this election is being looked at nationally,” said Feder, the former president of the Riverdale Jewish Center. “Engel is one of the strongest — if not the strongest —  member of the House in support of Israel, and to lose him as chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee would be a horrible thing for the Jewish community.” 

On Wednesday evening, NORPAC, a nonpartisan political action committee that supports pro-Israel candidates, held a Zoom fundraiser for Engel with 120 Jewish leaders and activists signed on as co-chairs. 

Among them is Rabbi Menachem Genack, the CEO of the Orthodox Union’s kosher division, whose son lives in the district. “We are trying to mobilize people within this district, making sure that our community is aware of [the situation] and comes out to vote,” Genack told JI, pointing to the neighboring 14th congressional district where in 2018 the incumbent, former Rep. Joe Crowley, lost his primary to Ocasio-Cortez, then a relatively unknown challenger. “In a primary, small numbers make a big difference.”

A recent mailer sent out by the Engel campaign and obtained by Jewish Insider highlights Engel’s commitment to combat growing antisemitism and his strong defense of Israel. 

Halie Soifer, executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, told JI that voters in the district “don’t understand or don’t appreciate” the effect of the seniority members of Congress like Engel have. “It’s really an extraordinary opportunity that New Yorkers have to be represented by a chairman of a committee like the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee,” she said.

JDCA endorsed Engel for re-election and is now assisting his campaign with targeted digital ads, as well as phone and text banking, to reach as many Jewish voters as possible. Similarly, Democratic Majority for Israel is running TV ads, sending mailers and operating phone banks to boost Engel’s chance on Tuesday.

A local operative, who declined to be identified by name, told JI that Engel failed to learn from the Crowley episode, choosing to live most of the time in his Maryland home rather than be present in the district. Engel’s absence was a driving factor in Bowman’s rise, the operative noted, leaving Jewish constituents exasperated and concerned about losing a friend in Washington. 

Feder dismissed that notion, pointing out that he and Engel live in the same building in Riverdale. “He was chairman of a committee,” he explained. “Foreign affairs doesn’t stop because of a virus.” 

Jack Rosen, president of the American Jewish Congress, suggested that Engel’s challenge is part of an “instinctive drive” by the some in the progressive movement to oust pro-Israel lawmakers. “We have to understand there’s a showdown here,” he explained. “Why would any of the progressives not support someone with Eliot Engel’s record? They would agree on almost anything, with the exception of Israel. So why are they targeting him? The only differentiator is Israel.” 

Soifer and Feder expressed confidence that Engel will pull off a victory next week — if his supporters turn out. 

“I think he’ll be re-elected,” Soifer predicted. But if Bowman wins, she said her group will “seek to engage” with him and address the priorities of Jewish voters. “We have not said anything disparaging about Jamaal Bowman. We have noted that there’s a difference of views when it comes to Israel.”

Subscribe now to
the Daily Kickoff

The politics and business news you need to stay up to date, delivered daily in a must-read newsletter.