Jewish nonprofits push for additional changes to COVID bill

The House Budget Committee released a draft of the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill on Friday that House Democrats are hoping to push through the lower chamber by the end of the week. But some Jewish groups are hoping to see further changes in the legislation.

The current 591-page draft of the bill includes, among other provisions, $1,400 checks for Americans, an extension of federal unemployment benefits and additional funding for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) for small businesses — including nonprofits, funding for schools and vaccination efforts and an increase in the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour — which seems unlikely to survive the Senate.

This week, the House will further revise the bill before moving it on to the Senate, where it is likely to undergo a range of additional changes. 

Shortly after the draft bill was released, the Jewish Federations of North America sent a letter to government affairs professionals calling on them to join a letter from the National Council of Nonprofits and a JFNA campaign advocating for changes to the COVID bill.

The Orthodox Union, JFNA, Agudath Israel of America, Jewish Community Centers Association of North America, Jewish Art Education Corporation, New York’s Jewish Museum and numerous local Jewish organizations signed the Council of Nonprofits letter in late January.

The letter calls for full unemployment benefit reimbursements for self-insured nonprofits. The current bill includes 75% reimbursements — up from 50% previously — but Nathan Diament, the director of the OU’s Advocacy Center, said the OU is pushing for further increases in the Senate.

Another major request made in the letter — increased charitable-giving incentives — is not included in the bill draft, and is unlikely to be added.

“That’s not in this package, frankly, because it’s expensive,” Diament said. “And even though $1.9 trillion is a lot of money, that would make it even more expensive. So that’s not in the cards.”

JFNA’s campaign focuses on Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — otherwise known as food stamps.

The current bill increases federal contributions to Medicaid home and community-based services by 7.35%. JFNA is calling for a 10% increase. The bill also increases Medicaid and SNAP funding, but to a lesser extent than JFNA requested.

The Jewish organizations backing changes to the legislation are also pushing to increase the funding available for Jewish elementary and secondary schools. The current bill allows non-public schools, including parochial schools, to receive funds designated for addressing learning loss and other academic, social and emotional impacts from the pandemic — including funding for additional instruction sessions like summer school or extra tutoring programs.

Under the bill’s current language, this fund will make up at least 20% of the total $128 billion being provided to the Department of Education.

Diament said the OU is advocating for non-public schools to be given access to a larger slice of the COVID relief funding, not just the learning loss fund. The restrictions introduced in the latest bill were not part of the original CARES Act passed last March.

“Here as currently drafted, it’s only for a very, very small part. So we’re trying to see if in the Senate, we can get that revised, so it follows the CARES Act precedent, and frankly so it’s more fair to Jewish, Catholic and other non-public schools,” Diament told Jewish Insider on Friday.

Despite the concerns, the current version of the bill does include many provisions that Jewish groups and other nonprofits had hoped to see.

Diament applauded Congress for expanding PPP eligibility for nonprofit organizations, another goal laid out in the Council of Nonprofits letter. Larger nonprofits had previously been mostly excluded from the PPP, a restriction which JFNA president Eric Fingerhut also previously bemoaned.

“This is something we and the Jewish Federation and others have been working on for months and months,” Diament said. “We’re thankful that now that’s been mostly corrected in this new legislation.”

According to Diament, the PPP changes are largely thanks to action from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Small Business Committee Chair Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-NY).

Diament further praised increases to the child tax credit — to $3,600 for children under age 6 and $3,000 to children up to age 17 — as particularly impactful for the Orthodox community.

“The $3,600 tax credit is also going to be of significant help especially to larger families in the Orthodox community that have lots of kids and who are lower and middle income,” he explained.

Senate Democrats are optimistic that Congress can pass the bill — which will, at a minimum, require 50 Democratic votes in the Senate, plus Vice President Kamala Harris —  and send it to President Joe Biden before March 14, when federal unemployment benefits are set to expire.

House Foreign Affairs Committee picks subcommittee leadership

House Democrats and Republicans are picking their leaders on the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s subcommittees. Here’s a rundown of who is in charge of the committee in the 117th Congress:

Full Committee

  • Chair: Rep. Greg Meeks (D-NY) is the new chairman of the committee, and has promised “a leap towards a new way of doing business.”
  • Vice chair: Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-NJ), a former assistant secretary of state, told Jewish Insider, “The job of the committee is not to be a cheerleader. Our job is to conduct oversight” on issues like the Iran nuclear deal.
  • Ranking member: Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX), who is entering his second term as the committee’s ranking member, had a collaborative relationship with former chairman Eliot Engel.

Middle East, North Africa, and International Terrorism subcommittee

  • Chair: Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL) will serve another term at the top of the subcommittee whose jurisdiction includes Israel and its neighbors.
  • Vice chair: Freshman Rep. Kathy Manning (D-NC), the former chair of the Jewish Federations of North America, told JI shortly after her election that getting placed on the House Foreign Affairs Committee would give her the opportunity “to stand up for” the U.S.-Israel relationship.
  • Ranking member: Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) is entering his second term as ranking member on the subcommittee.

Africa, Global Health, and Global Human Rights subcommittee

  • Chair: Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA) has been the top Democrat on the subcommittee since she was first elected to Congress in 2011. 
  • Vice chair: Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), who previously faced calls for her removal from the committee following 2019 remarks that invoked antisemitic tropes, was appointed vice chair last week, and some repeated their concerns.
  • Ranking member: Rep. Christopher Smith (R-NJ), who has been in Congress for more than 40 years, was the subcommittee’s chairman when the GOP controlled the House.

Asia, the Pacific, and Nonproliferation subcommittee

  • Chair: Rep. Ami Bera (D-CA) was reelected to chair the subcommittee, with plans to focus on China, North Korea and democratic decline in the region.
  • Vice chair: Rep. Andy Levin (D-MI) emphasized his commitment to protecting Tibet and democracy in India when he was appointed as vice chair.
  • Ranking Member: Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH) chaired the subcommittee from 2013 to 2014.

Europe, Energy, the Environment, and Cyber subcommittee

  • Chair: Rep. William Keating (D-MA) was reelected to a second term leading the committee.
  • Ranking member: Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA) is a former FBI agent in his third term in Congress.

International Development, International Organizations, and Global Corporate Social Impact subcommittee

  • Chair: Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-TX) was one of three members seeking the top spot on the Foreign Affairs Committee. He was the committee’s vice chair in the 116th Congress.
  • Ranking member: Rep. Nicole Malliotakis (R-NY) told JI she hopes to preserve and advance the Trump administration’s “significant inroads” on economic and national security issues.

Western Hemisphere, Civilian Security, Migration, and International Economic Policy subcommittee

  • Chair: Rep. Albio Sires (D-NJ), a refugee from Cuba, chaired the subcommittee in the previous Congress.
  • Ranking member: Rep. Mark Green (R-TN) is a U.S. Army combat veteran who participated in the capture and interrogation of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

Quotable: “I’m delighted to be chosen to serve as the vice chair of the Middle East, North Africa and Counterterrorism Subcommittee,” Manning told Jewish Insider. “Israel is one of our most important allies and I will advocate for policies that ensure Israel’s long-term safety and security. I am also committed to addressing Iran’s destabilizing behavior in the region, including their continuing efforts to become a nuclear power and their fostering of terrorism around the world, including funding of Hezbollah and Hamas. In addition to these priorities, the Subcommittee must also work to root out antisemitism and to advance human rights across the globe.”

This post was updated at 11:35 on 2/18/21.

House staffers expect Pelosi to continue status quo despite shrunken majority

Although Democrats will enter the 117th Congress in January with a significantly narrower House majority than they have enjoyed for the last two years, House staffers say they are not expecting Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) to significantly change her strategy in the next term.

Pelosi will likely continue to keep a firm grip on her caucus to manage the ongoing rift between the progressive and moderate wings of the party, three House staffers told JI.

“I think Pelosi and [House Majority Leader Steny] Hoyer continue to be effective notwithstanding their age because they are extraordinary bridge-builders,” one aide said. “They are able to coalesce and bring disparate parts of the caucus together in ways that few people can… I don’t see leadership changing their modus operandi much.”

A second aide agreed, noting that Pelosi “demands loyalty and… perfection.” 

The aide predicted Pelosi will be willing to cut deals with both the progressive members in her party and moderate Republicans — when needed — to pass bills. But they also acknowledged that the Democrats’ smaller majority will create “legislative barriers.”

“I think the goal will be to pass legislation, so however that gets done,” the aide said. “Whether that’s through progressives demanding change or compromise with Republicans, I think she’ll know when to make that judgement.”

Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-IL), a conservative Chicago-area Democrat who has served in Congress since 2005 and who lost his primary race earlier this year to a progressive challenger, said Pelosi will have a tough challenge holding her caucus together during the upcoming term.

“The narrow House majority is going to make things incredibly difficult,” Lipinski said. “There will be a lot of interesting politics going on in the House as Speaker Pelosi tries to keep both the left flank and the right flank of the Democratic Party on board for any bipartisan legislation that comes out of the Senate that President Biden really wants to get passed into law.”

He predicted that the Senate will likely be the main engine of legislation in the upcoming term, and that President-elect Joe Biden will likely have a significant role to play both in helping to wrangle House Democrats and in encouraging Democrats in both chambers to moderate their stances.

“The question is going to be how does the House… pass what the Senate passes,” Lipinski said. “President Biden is going to have to step in and really ask the Democratic Caucus in the House to go along with some legislation that probably the progressives are not going to be happy with in the House. And if they don’t, [Democratic leaders will] probably have to reach out to moderate Republicans in the House.”

The House’s approach to Israel going forward will be set in large part by new House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks (D-NY), the second aide told JI, but said prior to Meeks’s election that they “don’t anticipate that much will change on the big issues.”

The first House aide also noted that the Democratic leadership “feel a debt of gratitude towards the frontline vulnerable members who flipped the Republican seats [in 2018] upon whose backs we kept the majority” — several of whom voted against Pelosi’s speaker bid in 2019.

While Pelosi is expected to retain the gavel, her position is dependent on the support of a handful of her previous rivals — as of now, she can only afford to lose four votes in the race for speaker, Lipinski noted.

Three of the Democrats who voted against Pelosi in 2019, Reps. Kurt Schrader (D-OR), Jason Crow (D-CO) and Jim Cooper (D-TN), told JI they will vote for Pelosi, while several other members who opposed her last bid lost their seats in last month’s elections.

Two legislators — Reps. Elissa Slotkin (D-MI) and Jared Golden (D-ME) — have publicly said they will not vote for Pelosi, but others have yet to publicly commit either way. 

A spokesperson for Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-NY) — who helped lead the insurgency against Pelosi in the 2019 election — did not comment when JI asked if she’d vote for Pelosi in January, and several others have declined to say how they plan to vote.

Rep. Tom Malinowski dishes on former JCC teammate Tony Blinken

It took just over two weeks for Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-NJ) to be formally declared the winner in New Jersey’s 7th district election. The Associated Press called the race for Malinowski hours after polls closed, but his sizable lead over State Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean, Jr., shrank from 28,000 votes to just 5,314 — a 1% margin — by November 24. The first-term incumbent, who beat longtime incumbent Rep. Leonard Lance (R-NJ) by more than 16,000 votes in 2018 is, nonetheless, satisfied with the win. 

In an interview with Jewish Insider on the eve of Thanksgiving, Malinowski sounded relieved. “I had a tougher challenge than many people,” said Malinowski, one of roughly a dozen Democrats reelected in districts that went for President Donald Trump. “[The Republicans] really put up a strong opponent, spent a lot of money. So I feel like we overcame a lot.”

Malinowski is also grateful that during his second term, he will serve both in the House majority and alongside a White House he feels he can work with, opening the door to collaborate on issues important to the New Jersey congressman. 

President-elect Joe Biden’s recently announced pick for secretary of state, Tony Blinken, added to the New Jersey congressman’s excitement. Malinowski and Blinken are longtime colleagues, having both served together under former Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. The pair were also teammates on the Edlavitch Jewish Community Center of Washington, D.C.’s indoor soccer team. 

Last week, when reports emerged that Blinken had been nominated to be the country’s top diplomat, Malinowski tweeted a picture of the team after their only championship win, from the the winter of 2005, with the caption, “[Blinken] will be joining the best foreign policy team since this one… which was undefeated!”

“You don’t realize. This is a great honor for you,” Malinowski gleefully bragged in his JI interview. “You are talking to the goalie of the D.C. Jewish community center championship indoor soccer team.” 

“We were just awesome. We were just so good,” Malinowski said of his team, which also included former Obama administration officials Robert Malley and Philip Gordon. 

Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-NJ) and Anthony Blinken on the Edlavitch Jewish Community Center of Washington, D.C.’s indoor soccer team in 2005. (Twitter)

Malinowski first met Blinken at the State Department in the Clinton administration during the tenure of former Secretary of State Warren Christopher. Malinowski was Christopher’s speechwriter, while Blinken worked in the European Bureau. In 1994, Blinken left Foggy Bottom to become Clinton’s chief foreign policy speechwriter and director for speechwriting at the National Security Council, a role Malinowski took over four years later. 

Malinowski shared with JI that while serving in the Clinton White House, he and Blinken “teamed up” to write “parody versions of famous songs, where we changed the lyrics to make fun of our foreign policy” and “directed a couple of self-parody movies together.” When pressed, Malinowski declined to leak the revised lyrics or share footage of the films — at least not before Blinken’s Senate confirmation.

The two friends later “revived the band” when they served together in the State Department under Obama.

“Tony and I share a sense of humor about the world, a belief that the more serious your job, the more important it is to find some humor in it,” Malinowski explained. 

Blinken is “a great diplomat,” Malinowski said of his close friend. “He has the right personality for the job. He will be a good leader for the people at the State Department who have been disparaged and dismissed by the current [Trump] administration.” 

“I think this is the first president in my lifetime who is appointing, from my point of view, the perfect person for every job,” Malinowski added, speaking more broadly about Biden’s key administration appointments. 

Malinowki said that both Blinken and Jake Sullivan, who was tapped as Biden’s national security advisor, “are strong believers in the idea that American power comes from American principles, and that there has to be a moral component to our foreign policy if we are to advance our interests effectively. They both have a tendency to challenge conventional wisdom. They are comfortable with being challenged by others, and I think they’ll always tell the president what he needs to hear, not just what he wants to hear.”

Even if Republicans maintain control of the Senate following two Georgia runoffs in early January, Malinowski predicted a smooth confirmation process for Biden’s foreign policy team. “I’m sure the Republicans will suddenly rediscover their obligation to conduct oversight now that there’s a Democratic president,” he quipped. “But so far the people Biden has nominated are people who enjoy broad bipartisan respect in Washington.” 

The Democratic congressman — who was endorsed for his reelection bid by J Street, the Jewish Democratic Council of America, and Democratic Majority for Israel — sought to reassure supporters of Israel that as the chief diplomat representing the Biden administration, Blinken “is always going to listen” on issues affecting Israel. Malinowski also noted that there are “few leaders in the Democratic Party, or any party, who will be more grounded in a traditional American approach in support for Israel security, who understand more clearly the moral and historical basis for America’s relationship with Israel.”

“And if you come to him with a thoughtful and principled argument, he’s going to hear you out,” Malinowski emphasized, “Tony’s not an ideologue. He’s not insecure in the way I think [Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo was.”

Still, Malinowski cautioned that the Israeli government “has to understand that there are going to be significant changes” in the Biden administration’s approach in the Middle East, particularly toward Saudi Arabia. “I think it would be a very serious mistake for the Israeli government to think that they can somehow shield a guy like [Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman] from that change, solely because he has — for pragmatic and self-interest reasons — moved closer to the Israeli perspective on some issues,” Malinowski warned. “This is an administration that is going to care about human rights, for example. It is going to care about the plight of civilians in Yemen. It’s not going to tolerate governments in the Middle East that kidnapped and chopped to pieces journalists,” referencing journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.   

According to Malinowski, the recent secret meeting between bin Salman and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “is not an alignment that is in Israel’s medium- to long-term interests.” 

“This is the administration that will be very pro-Israel,” he continued, “but that alignment has to be disentangled from our relationship with Gulf states that have been behaving in many ways that are directly contrary to U.S. interests.”

The second coming of Darrell Issa

After a brief spell in the political wilderness, Darrell Issa, the former longtime California congressman and car alarm magnate, is now preparing to rejoin his Republican colleagues in the House — and he wants to make clear that he hasn’t gotten rusty in the interim. 

“I’m just a little bit more refreshed,” he said in an interview with Jewish Insider on Friday.

The past two years have been unusually sedate for the 67-year-old Issa, who established a reputation as one of the Obama administration’s most dedicated adversaries during his combative tenure chairing the House Oversight Committee, where he led the Benghazi investigation. In 2018, however, he gave up the fight, relinquishing his seat in California’s 49th congressional district when it looked as if he would lose to a Democrat — ending a nearly two-decade run in the House.

Issa had set his sights on the U.S. Trade and Development Agency, thanks to an appointment from President Donald Trump in 2018. But his nomination was stonewalled in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by ranking member Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) over an FBI background check, and he was never confirmed. “I think Bob Menendez was just looking to get a pound of revenge,” Issa speculated in an interview with JI last March. 

If Issa is still sore about losing the post, he also sought to convey the impression that he had by no means been defanged. “I was supposed to have a hearing, and Sen. Menendez blew up the hearing,” he said on Friday afternoon. “I went back to the White House the following day and told the president I thought I should switch to holding this seat for my party, and he agreed.”

The congressman is poised to represent the historically conservative 50th district of California, which includes a large swath of San Diego County. Issa was accused of opportunism as he campaigned in a district that sits adjacent to his old one, but he said his priorities have always remained the same and rejected the notion that congressional lines had much meaning. 

“The idea that you represent some very fine lines drawn by some gerrymandering authority, I think, just wouldn’t be appropriate,” he said. “I think anyone would say, wait a second, you represent your country first, your state second and a region third.”

Despite polling that suggested Issa would have a close race, he prevailed over his Democratic opponent, Ammar Campa-Najjar, by more than eight percentage points in the November 3 election.

Issa, for his part, said he never doubted that he would defeat Campa-Najjar — who told JI that he is now planning to write a book about his complex relationship to his late Palestinian grandfather’s alleged involvement in the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre. But Issa nevertheless acknowledged that he had to fight for the seat after a contentious primary battle that hobbled him leading into the general election.

“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist, and I’m not, to know that when $5 million is spent bashing you in the primary you have some work to do in the general to fix that,” he said, alluding in part to an attack ad from American Unity PAC that took aim at some of his past statements on Israel. “It’s not only not my first rodeo,” he added, “but it’s not the first time the bull threw me either.”

The general election battle was also strained as Issa and Campa-Najjar, both of Arab descent, took turns attacking one another over, among other things, their fealty to Israel — even though, according to questionnaires solicited by JI, they hold largely the same views when it comes to the Jewish state. 

While Issa, whose paternal grandfather was born in Lebanon, accused his opponent without evidence of being against a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Campa-Najjar charged that Issa had called Israel an “apartheid state” and expressed sympathy for Hezbollah. 

Issa has denied the allegations, noting that some of his comments have been taken out of context. “Whether someone agrees with me or not, I have two things I’m consistent about,” he said. “I’m an unapologetic supporter of Israel, and I’m willing to go and meet with any leader any time to be better educated without necessarily agreeing with them, but at least hearing them out.” 

During his time in Congress, Issa noted, he met with Muammar Gaddafi as well as Yasser Arafat and Bashar al-Assad. “I’m not afraid to listen to people that I disagree with in the hopes that they will listen to me and their ways will be changed.”

It was such an attitude, Issa believes, that allowed the Trump administration to broker historic normalization deals with Bahrain, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates, which he supports enthusiastically. “For Jared Kushner and the rest of the team,” he said, referring to Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor, “it happened because they believed in it and because they were willing to go anywhere, meet with anyone, to try to achieve it.”

Issa supports a two-state solution and claims that he is “perfectly willing” to engage in good faith with the Palestinian Authority, but he is doubtful that he will be able to do that in the immediate future. “I view these normalizations as an opportunity for the Palestinians to say we would like to normalize relations, let’s sit down and really make that effort anew, and do it sooner rather than later,” he said. “But so far, I see no movement.”

He amended his remark by pointing out that he has seen “a lot of good people within the Palestinian community who want to go a different way.” But, he added, “I don’t see a Palestinian Authority that’s geared to do it, and obviously, as long as Hamas is funded, and well-funded, by Iran, and Hezbollah is still a reality, I’m not sure where we go except to have those conversations and tell them that these are the changes that are needed if they’re going to enjoy what they tell us is their goal.”

President Donald Trump greets Rep. Darrell Issa at a White House event on August 14, 2017. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Though he was initially cold to Trump at the beginning of the 2016 presidential campaign, Issa has since embraced the president wholeheartedly (and the feeling is apparently mutual). In conversation with JI, he singled out Trump’s approach to Israel for praise, commending his decision to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. 

“President after president promised to move the embassy to the building we built for that purpose,” Issa said. “Even though it was called a consulate, that building was built to be the embassy just waiting for a president to issue the order.”

Issa refused to acknowledge that Trump had lost the election, even as the president’s increasingly desperate legal efforts to disenfranchise millions of voters have been struck down in the courts and condemned by a smattering of Republican leaders. 

“We don’t know the outcome of the legal battles, so I don’t want to be presumptuous beyond what’s fair, but I think the one thing that we can know is that President Trump has grown the party,” Issa said, citing the president’s strong showing with Latino voters this cycle. “He’s given us an opportunity to continue reaching out to people who became Trump voters.”

Still, Issa seemed willing to allow for the possibility that Trump wouldn’t be in the White House next term. “I would be much happier if President Trump prevails in these legal challenges,” Issa said, “but for a moment, assuming he didn’t, then our job is to work with the president but not to work for the president.”

One issue on which he isn’t willing to budge is the Iran nuclear deal. President-elect Joe Biden has vowed to return to the agreement brokered by his old boss, former President Barack Obama, and which Trump abandoned in 2018. But Issa, who described Iran as “an existential threat to the region,” said that he would fight to keep the United States out of it. 

“The undoing of that agreement, and the successes based on a much closer relationship with Israel and asking for and getting Arab nations to come to the table, has worked,” he said. “So, with all due respect if Biden becomes president, the failed policies of President Obama should not be considered for a return. I mean, they’re just that, they’re proven to have failed, versus the policies that have gotten us a lot further down the peace trail.”

That isn’t to say he doesn’t envision reaching across the aisle on occasion. Issa expressed admiration for some Democratic members of his California congressional delegation, including Reps. Juan Vargas (D-CA) and Scott Peters (D-CA). On foreign affairs, he said, “Juan and I see eye-to-eye with some frequency, and Scott and I have done immigration reform and other issues together.”

On the Republican side, Issa said he is looking forward to reengaging with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) as well as minority whip Steve Scalise (R-LA). “They early on endorsed me and supported me,” Issa said, “and that makes a difference when it’s not a close call in the beginning.”

Issa told JI that the leading Republicans on the three House committees he previously sat on — including judiciary, oversight and foreign affairs — have all asked him back. “The intent,” he said, summarizing his approach as he readies himself for a new term in Congress, “is to return to the committees of jurisdiction I’ve historically been involved with and continue a lot of the work that I was doing on transparency.”

“I always tell people, the idea that you’re going to do something new after 18 years — the only thing new is that two years of sitting on the sidelines, waiting to be confirmed, gave me a perspective,” he said. “But it’s not going to change the basic goals that I had when I was in Congress.”

House letter raises concerns about Israeli demolition of Bedouin settlement

A letter sent by several dozen congressional Democrats to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo this week raises concerns about the Israeli government’s demolition of a Palestinian Bedouin community earlier this month.

The Israeli government demolished the Khirbet Humsah village in the West Bank, displacing 73 Palestinians, in early November. The Israeli military claimed the settlement was illegally constructed in a firing range in the Jordan Valley.

The letter, spearheaded by Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI) urges Pompeo, who is visiting Israel this week, to communicate U.S. disapproval of the demolition to the Israeli government, and push the Israeli government to cease similar actions going forward.

The letter — which describes the demolition as “a serious violation of international law” and a “grave humanitarian issue” — also requests information on whether Israel used military equipment it received from the U.S. in the demolition.

Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-CA), one of the letter’s signatories, told Jewish Insider he signed on because he sees the Israeli government’s actions as impediments to peace.

“I think these Israeli demolitions bring us further away from a two-state solution at a time when we need to see both sides moving in the opposite and more peaceful direction,” Lowenthal said. “We do not believe the U.S. should support, directly or indirectly, any action which undermines a two-state solution.”

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) characterized Pompeo’s failure to address the demolitions as particularly concerning given his upcoming visit to a West Bank settlement.

“For the secretary of state to visit the West Bank without even acknowledging the home demolitions, that’s counter to American values and our framework for a two state solution,” Khanna said. “The only way we’ll make progress in the region is by standing up for both Israel’s security and the human rights of Palestinians.”

Other notable signatories include Reps. Joaquín Castro (D-TX) — a candidate for the House Foreign Affairs Committee chairmanship — Debbie Dingell (D-MI), Jamie Raskin (D-MD) and Nydia Velázquez (D-NY).

Kathy Manning is seeking a spot on Foreign Affairs

As the first woman to chair the Jewish Federations of North America, Congresswoman-elect Kathy Manning (D-NC) is no stranger to big jobs. But during orientation for newly elected members of the House of Representatives — which began last week — she’s come to terms with just how busy her schedule as a congresswoman will be.

“One of the things I’ve learned is how precious a commodity my time will be,” Manning said in an interview with Jewish Insider on Tuesday afternoon. “Because there’s so much to get done, and so many ways to approach the problems that we want to solve for the American people. So managing my time is going to be a challenge.”

With her limited time, Manning said her top priority is to assist in efforts to control the COVID-19 pandemic, but she’s also eyeing a spot on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, in part because of her commitment to and “deep knowledge” of the U.S.-Israel relationship.

“Being on that committee would allow me, I think, to stand up for what I believe is such an important relationship,” she said. 

“The other reason I find that committee interesting is that President [Donald] Trump had done a lot of damage to the relationships with our allies around the world,” Manning continued. “And it’s going to take a lot of work to rebuild those very important relationships. And I wouldn’t mind being part of that work.”

Although all incoming members of Congress are meeting together at orientation events, bipartisan cooperation for the incoming class may be hampered by coronavirus concerns.

“It’s been a little difficult to get to know the Republican members in our new class. We are trying to social distance. There have been some different approaches to mask wearing and social distancing that have made it difficult for me to get to know some members on the Republican side,” Manning said.

“On the other hand,” she added, “I have really been able to get to know and bond with the Democratic new members. And that’s been a big advantage.”

Manning was one of a small number of Democrats to flip a Republican-held House seat blue this cycle — although her victory is due in no small part to a court-mandated redrawing of the now-blue district.

Manning seemed relatively sanguine about Democrats’ losses in House and Senate races across the country, noting that many of them were in districts and states that were previously considered reliably Republican.

“They were very, very difficult races. So I think there was always a risk that we would lose some of those seats,” Manning said. “I think the good news is that we won the presidency. And that was the big prize that we were all hoping we would be able to accomplish. And we feel great about that.”

The newly elected congresswoman told JI she believes Democrats can shore up their House majority in 2022 by focusing on controlling the pandemic, facilitating better health care access, decreasing unemployment and improving education over the next two years.

Manning’s former colleagues at JFNA say she’s well placed to get things done in Congress.

“I couldn’t be more proud that a former chair, the first woman chair of JFNA, is continuing her service as an elected member of Congress,” JFNA President and CEO Eric Fingerhut, a former congressman, told JI. “It’s a testament to her leadership and that our leaders continue their love of public affairs in the elected realm. I couldn’t be more excited for her, she’ll make a great representative. It’s a moment of great pride.”

Eliot Engel looks back

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) admits that he has some regrets about his performance in the June 23 Democratic primary, when the 16-term congressman lost in an upset to Jamaal Bowman, the former Bronx principal and political upstart who is heading to Congress next year.

“There are always things you would have done differently, things that you see that might have been changed,” Engel explained in an interview with Jewish Insider on Tuesday. “I think we should look to the future. I can’t change the past. I’m obviously disappointed that I didn’t win reelection.”

Engel said there was “absolutely no indication beforehand” that he should have worried about the race, but he offered one explanation for why Bowman may have beaten him by double digits. “We had these terrible killings, George Floyd and whatever, and that seemed to stir the pot,” Engel said, alluding to mass protests against police brutality that took place over the summer and appear to have given momentum to a number of progressive candidates. “I think that played a role in this race.”

As Engel prepares to step down, the congressman, who represents parts of the Bronx and Westchester County, reflected not only on his recent electoral loss but also his decades-long tenure in the House. “I’ve been in Congress for 32 glorious years,” he said. “I grew up in a Bronx housing project. We didn’t have much money, and we didn’t have any contacts.” 

Engel, 73, still seemed somewhat gobsmacked that he had managed to get elected to Congress in 1989, and that he had risen through the ranks to become chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, a position he achieved in 2019 and which, coupled with his strong support for Israel, he views as one of the crowning accomplishments of his legacy.

“I said when I ran that I would be the best friend that Israel ever had in Congress, and I think that I have kept up that bargain,” he told JI, adding his belief that the U.S.-Israel relationship is in better shape than ever. “It’s no longer built on security and cultural ties, but on economic ties and cooperation in every sector, supported not just by Jewish Americans but by all Americans, or many Americans, and Israel is a strategic partner in every sense of the word.”

The recent normalization deals between Israel and Sudan, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, according to Engel, have positively changed the geopolitical calculus in the Middle East. “It used to be where the Palestinians blocked everything,” he said. “They complained and whined and cried that they weren’t being treated fairly, and then when we tried to get together to treat them fairly, they rejected everything we did.”

“The old fights are really antiquated,” Engel said. “I would always talk to the Arab leaders and say, ‘You and Israel sound very much alike, why do you continue to be enemies?’And I think that the Arabs are finally realizing this, and that’s why you’re having diplomatic relations with all these different [Arab] countries.”

The congressman added his belief that U.S.-Israel relations would be in good shape going forward, and that both parties would be able to work together in a bipartisan manner, at least with regard to the Jewish state. 

“We have a situation now where, if you think of one thing where there’s bipartisan consensus, it’s Israel,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that everybody feels the way I feel. I mean, I think that Israel is one of our most important strategic partnerships, and I think that people understand that the relationship is very important. I don’t like when one side tries to politicize. It’s a nonpartisan issue, and I think it shouldn’t be used as a political football.”

Bowman, 44, has called for conditioning aid to Israel, which Engel regards as foolhardy. “We support Israel because Israel supports us, and we have values that we stand for, and Israel stands for the same values,” Engel told JI. “So to treat our closest friends the way we would treat our adversaries and condition aid on this or that is just ridiculous. It’s just absolutely ridiculous. And if people are going to push that, I don’t think it’s going to pass.”

Engel said he had called Bowman after the primary to congratulate him on his victory and to wish him good luck, but that otherwise, the two haven’t spoken. “I know that some of the things he’s been saying about Israel or whatever are inaccurate and just plain wrong, and I hope that he takes the time to learn the issues, so that he wouldn’t make the statements that he has made,” Engel said. “That’s really not helpful to achieve peace in the Middle East.”

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2011. (Facebook)

Engel is leaving Congress during a tense moment for the Democratic Party as moderate candidates in swing districts have butted heads with progressives over messaging on issues like defunding the police and socialism. For his part, Engel hopes that such “infighting” will “fall by the wayside” and that Democrats can work together to achieve what he described as shared goals around job creation and raising the federal minimum wage.

“By and large, there’s not that much difference between members of Congress,” Engel said, while cautioning, “I do think that we have to be careful. You talk about defunding police or any of these other things, they are not correct, in my opinion, and they are not good issues for the country and we need to be careful. We need to show people that we want to have a big tent. I think that’s important. And we want to show people that they can feel comfortable in the Democratic Party.”

“Of course, there are going to be different people who are going to have different ideas on different things,” Engel added. “We need to be careful, that’s all. A freshman in New York is different than a freshman in middle America somewhere. So we need to be doing everything we can to help get our new people reelected, not fighting and then insisting that people pass some kind of purity test.”

In the last six weeks of his final term, Engel told JI that he is most focused on helping his constituents as the coronavirus pandemic enters a third wave. 

While a number of Democratic congressmen are vying to succeed him in the Foreign Affairs Committee — including Reps. Joaquin Castro (D-TX), Gregory Meeks (D-NY) and Brad Sherman (D-CA) — Engel declined to offer his endorsement.

“I’ve stayed out of it because I think it’s not right for me as I’m leaving to say who I want to replace me,” he told JI. “I think they’re all capable people doing it. I’ve done lots and lots of things with Gregory Meeks through the years, we both represent districts in New York. Brad Sherman has been a good friend. So, we have competent leadership.” (He did not mention Castro in his appraisal.)

As for his next move, “I figured I would let the term end, and then I would sit down and try to figure out what makes most sense for me,” he said. 

“I know one thing I’m not going to do is retire.” 

Engel did express an interest in joining President-elect Joe Biden’s administration, but was vague on details. 

“That’s certainly something I’d consider. People have said to me, would you want to be an ambassador, would you want to be an undersecretary?” Engel told JI without going into specifics. “I’ll see. When Congress ends, I’ll step back and I’ll see what makes most sense for me. I still want to contribute.”

Asked if he had any plans to challenge Bowman when his term expires in two years, Engel was tight-lipped. “I think it’s really too early to see,” he said, adding, “Let’s look at him and let’s see what he does. There are lots of people that I didn’t care for who turned out to be good and a lot of people I liked who turned out to be not so good.”

“Let’s see who he reaches out to,” Engel said of Bowman. “I made it a point to reach out to everyone. Hopefully, he’ll do the same, and we’ll see. That’s the last thing on my mind, worrying about what’s going to happen in two more years. I think that we have a lot of work to do now.”

Can Marilyn Strickland make history in the Pacific Northwest?

In Washington’s 10th congressional district, two Democratic candidates are competing to succeed outgoing Rep. Denny Heck (D-WA) in a race that is viewed as representative of the growing ideological rift between moderates and progressives.

Marilyn Strickland, the former mayor of Tacoma, has earned establishment support from local and national leaders, among them two former Washington governors as well as Reps. Jim Clyburn (D-SC) and Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY). Most recently, she was CEO of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, where she led the opposition to a head tax on businesses that her opponent holds up as evidence of Strickland’s fealty to corporate interests. 

Meanwhile, Beth Doglio, a community organizer and climate activist who serves in the Washington House of Representatives, has pulled in endorsements from labor groups along with progressive stalwarts like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY).

“We are running a very good campaign that highlights the differences between myself and my opponent,” Doglio, 55, told Jewish Insider in a recent interview, arguing that her support for such progressive policies as Medicare for All and the Green New Deal stands in contrast to Strickland’s more measured approach to healthcare and the environment. 

But in conversation with JI, Strickland rejected the notion that she is on the moderate end of a binary that many have put forth, she suggested, to create false distinctions. 

“We love labels because it makes it easy,” Strickland, 58, said in a phone interview earlier this month. “As a woman who is Black and Korean, I’ve been labeled my entire life, or people have been trying to assign a label to me. My lane is left-of-center. There are times when I am very progressive on issues, and there are times when I’m more moderate — it really depends on the needs of the people that I want to represent.”

On Israel and the Middle East, however, both candidates seem to hold relatively similar views that are common among the vast majority of Democrats. Strickland and Doglio both support rejoining the Iran nuclear deal and back a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Neither candidate has been to Israel, but each expressed a strong desire to visit if elected to Congress. Both say that they do not support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, though the candidates speak differently about the reasoning behind their decisions.

While Strickland worries that BDS could cause damage to Israel’s economy, she believes that it has failed to gain enough traction to do so. Her larger concern is that the movement “paints an inaccurate picture of Israeli life,” she told JI. “It’s antisemitic.”

For her part, Doglio also firmly renounced the movement. “I don’t support what BDS stands for because it would eliminate the Jewish state, which is not a two-state solution,” she said matter-of-factly. Still, Doglio noted that even though she won’t back the movement, she respects BDS as an organizational effort given her background in community activism. “It’s hard for me to take tools out of the toolbox for people who feel strongly about something,” she said. 

According to Doglio, many activists in the Evergreen State are supportive of BDS, which she described as a “tough issue” in her community because of a young Washington native, Rachel Corrie, who in 2003 was killed by an Israeli military bulldozer while defending Palestinian homes in the Gaza Strip. Though a court ruled in 2012 that Israel was not at fault for Corrie’s death — and an appeal also was later rejected — Doglio said the issue is still a raw one at the local level. 

“There’s a strong BDS presence in Washington because of that,” she told JI. 

Doglio said she has had several discussions with community members as part of an evolving effort to better understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “There is not a consensus around what a solution looks like,” she said. “The range of views on that within the Jewish community is big, and so I’ve been taking that in and learning as much as I can.”

Doglio, whose Jewish husband has family in Israel, described her “strong connection” to the Jewish state despite never having visited. Doglio said she met with AIPAC about the possibility of going this past December but wasn’t able to make it happen. She told JI that it would be a priority if she is elected.

Marilyn Strickland family photo
Washington State Representative Beth Doglio and her family. (Courtesy)

Strickland, though, is the candidate who appears to have garnered more support from the pro-Israel community. Last month, she earned an endorsement from the grassroots advocacy group Pro-Israel America, whose executive director, Jeff Mendelsohn, described Strickland as a “strong champion of the U.S.-Israel relationship” in a statement to JI. “There has never been a more critical moment to elect officials to Congress who support clear and consistent pro-U.S.-Israel policies.”

In her interview with JI, Strickland made clear that she was committed unequivocally to such policies, which she came to support after having spent time with members of the Jewish community in Washington who are pro-Israel. “It has just given me the opportunity to learn a lot more about the history,” she said.

“I have an understanding now that the U.S. and Israel have a deep and abiding commitment to supporting democracies around the world,” she said. “This is a very special relationship between the two nations, and it’s important to strengthen this relationship, to partner, to ensure that we are sharing our goals of peace and free speech and democracy.”

Her own identity as a Black and Korean woman, she added, has led her to feel a “shared experience of bigotry and prejudice” with the Jewish people as antisemitism is on the rise. “We just want to make sure that, as I have the chance to serve in Congress, my door will always be open,” she said, “and I’m going to be a friend of Israel and a friend of people who want to support Israel.”

“At the end of the day, we all want peace and prosperity, and that is both for Israel and for the Palestinians,” Strickland said, noting that that she was currently reading Yossi Klein Halevi’s Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor to gain more insight into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Jessyn Farrell, a member of Seattle’s Jewish community and a former state representative, said that Strickland brought a similar sense of care to her position as Tacoma’s mayor. “She’s been a real leader on issues that Jewish community leaders have focused on,” said Farrell, who has endorsed Strickland. 

Former Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland. (Courtesy)

According to Farrell, gun violence is a major concern among Washington Jews after a deadly shooting at the Seattle Jewish Federation in 2006 — and as mayor, Strickland passed a resolution supporting universal background checks that Farrell found reassuring. Shortly after President Donald Trump’s election, Farrell recalled, Strickland also reintroduced a resolution to reaffirm Tacoma’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. 

“It was important to me to make sure that the people of the city I represented understood that we were not going to waver on treating all people with respect and dignity,” Strickland said.

Doglio, who lives in Olympia, has served as a state legislator since 2017 and for the past 13 years has been a senior advisor and campaign director for Climate Solutions, a nonprofit advocating for clean energy. She announced her bid for Congress in February, joining a crowded primary election.

Strickland would be the first Black representative from the Pacific Northwest and also the first Korean-American woman in Congress if she prevails on November 3. Born in Seoul, Strickland moved to Tacoma with her family in the late 1960s. She was on the Tacoma City Council before being elected as the city’s mayor in 2010 and served in that role until 2018. She announced her candidacy in December 2019, shortly after the incumbent, Denny Heck, said he would retire.  

The candidates are vying to represent a district in the western portion of the state that includes the capital of Olympia. There is scant polling in the race, though one internal survey conducted in late August for Strickland’s campaign suggests that she is the favorite, leading Doglio by a margin of 21 percentage points. 

“I feel like, win or lose, we’ve raised really, really important issues,” Doglio told JI.

Michael McCann, a professor in the department of political science at the University of Washington, said that Doglio’s support from organized labor has helped her stand apart from Strickland, whose ties to business when she led the Seattle Chamber of Commerce have been an issue in the race.

“That said, the difference on policy issues and ideology are not great,” McCann told JI in an email, “a moderate progressive vs. more progressive.”

New Mace campaign poll shows statistical tie in SC race

A new internal poll shows Republican state Rep. Nancy Mace and incumbent Rep. Joe Cunningham (D-SC) in a statistical tie in South Carolina’s 1st congressional district, despite some indications that the race has been trending toward Cunningham.

The poll of 400 likely voters, conducted by landline and cellphone calls between Oct. 14 and 16, showed Mace with support from 47% of likely voters, compared to Cunningham’s 45%. The poll had a margin of error of 4 percentage points.

This poll is a welcome sign for Mace compared to another internal poll three weeks ago, which showed Mace 6 points behind Cunningham, according to a polling memo shared with JI. Yet another poll, commissioned by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee released last week, gave Cunningham a whopping 13-point lead.

Gibbs Knotts, a political science professor at the College of Charleston, told Jewish Insider last week that he expects the final race to be close, predicting a single-digit margin of victory for Cunningham.

The new polling numbers also arrive shortly after Mace announced strong third-quarter fundraising, beating Cunningham by $500,000 and giving her a $500,000 cash-on-hand advantage heading into the race’s final weeks.

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