Josh Mandel fundraiser next week to feature high-profile roster

Josh Mandel, a Republican Senate candidate in Ohio, is holding a high-profile virtual fundraising event on Monday alongside several pro-Israel heavyweights including former U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, billed as a “special guest” on the invitation for the May 10 event. 

Elan Carr, the Trump administration’s special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism, who is one of 15 hosts, shared the invite in a Wednesday morning tweet. “Amb. Friedman and I, with leaders from across the country, are proud to support front-running US Senate candidate Josh Mandel,” Carr wrote. “48th Treasurer of Ohio, US Marine, Iraq War veteran, and my good friend, Josh is a true patriot and great leader for our country.”

Other hosts include Sandy Perl, a partner at Kirkland & Ellis LLP in Chicago; Jon Diamond, president of Safe Auto Insurance in Columbus; former AIPAC President Howard Friedman; Michael Tuchin, a partner at KTBS Law LLP in Los Angeles; author and businessman Seth “Yossi” Siegel; and Phil Rosen, a partner at Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP in New York. 

The fundraiser suggests that Mandel is likely to receive some significant support from prominent members of the pro-Israel community as he struggles to gain traction in the crowded field of candidates vying to succeed outgoing moderate Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH). Former GOP state party chair Jane Timken, tech executive Bernie Moreno and businessman Mike Gibbons have entered the race in recent months, and more are expected to join as election season heats up.

“Josh is a proud American, Marine, Jew and Zionist,” Scott Guthrie, a spokesman for Mandel, told Jewish Insider on Wednesday when asked about the upcoming benefit. “He is grateful to have the support of so many American patriots who have fought for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship. He also feels blessed to have evangelical Christian Zionists across Ohio supporting his campaign for U.S. Senate.”

Still, Mandel appears to have had some trouble courting contributors, despite early favorable polling from the conservative Club for Growth, which endorsed him. Recent filings from the Federal Election Commission revealed that Mandel’s campaign lost money in the first quarter of the year. In April, sources told Axios, Mandel crashed a Palm Beach donor retreat hosted by the Republican National Committee, but was escorted from the event because his name was not on the invitation list.

Mandel has emerged as a polarizing figure as he seeks to channel former President Donald Trump, who remains popular among Republican voters in Ohio and has yet to make an endorsement in the race. In March, Mandel’s Twitter account was briefly suspended after he posted an inflammatory poll asking whether “Muslim Terrorists” or “Mexican Gangbangers” would be “more likely to commit crimes.”

The tweet drew widespread condemnation, including from a Jewish community member in Columbus who, in a Cleveland.com guest column, castigated Mandel’s “reprehensible rhetoric” as “no different than the way people used to talk about Jews.”

Recently, Mandel has somewhat softened his rhetoric, presenting himself as a more traditionally conservative man of faith in his first TV ad, released at the end of March during Passover.

“This time of year we celebrate that God is always in control,” Mandel said in the 30-second spot over soft piano accompaniment. “I’m Josh Mandel, and I personally know that’s true. You see, my grandma was saved from the Nazis by a network of courageous Christians who risked their lives to save hers. Without their faith, I’m not here today.”

“I’m Josh Mandel and I approve this message, because in dark times like this past year, faith is our brightest light,” he concluded. 

Mandel ran unsuccessfully against Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) in 2012. He mounted a second challenge in 2018 but withdrew from the race. From 2011 to 2019, he served as Ohio’s state treasurer, overseeing record investments in Israeli bonds.

In a February interview with JI, shortly after he announced his candidacy, Mandel emphasized a deep personal connection with the Jewish state. 

“I’m raising my three kids to be proud Americans, proud Jews and proud Zionists,” he said, adding: “I’m also proud to have many cousins who live throughout Judea and Samaria, and I believe that Jews have the biblical right to live, build and prosper in every corner of Judea, Samaria and the entirety of Israel.”

After 100 days, Jewish leaders weigh in on Biden’s domestic policy

As President Joe Biden reaches his 100th day in office tomorrow, the president is touting his administration’s achievements on vaccinations and the passage of a massive stimulus package. 

While the White House is largely focused on the pandemic, the first 100 days also offer insight into how the administration will approach key issues of interest to the American Jewish community. A clearer picture is emerging of how Biden plans to address antisemitism and domestic extremism, and how the White House is engaging with Jewish organizations and other faith-based groups. 

So how is Biden doing? Jewish Insider checked in with community leaders across the ideological spectrum to see where they think the president is doing well, and where there is room for improvement. 

“The Biden administration is taking a go-slow approach to many things of strong interest and concern for American Jews,” said James Loeffler, director of Jewish studies at the University of Virginia. “I think that that has frustrated Jewish progressives who want bigger, faster change. I think it’s also frustrated conservatives, who expected to see more telltale signs of radical change and were looking for ways to differentiate and say, ‘Oh, the Biden administration doesn’t take antisemitism seriously, or it doesn’t take Israel seriously.’ Centrist liberals are kind of calmed and content.”

Parts of the American Rescue Plan — Biden’s COVID-19 relief bill — received widespread praise throughout the Jewish nonprofit world. Jewish social service agencies lobbied for certain components of the legislation, such as the expanded Paycheck Protection Program, and additional aid for parochial schools, including Jewish day schools.

“It’s very significant that we were able to expand eligibility for PPP loans. We also got the second round of a historic $2.75 billion for a total of $5.5 billion of aid to nonpublic K-12 schools, including Jewish day schools, to deal with their COVID costs,” said Nathan Diament, executive director of the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center. “Other components of the Rescue Plan, whether it’s the child tax credit, or various other pieces, are also going to significantly help people in the Jewish community that are struggling economically.”

“The Biden administration is taking a go-slow approach to many things of strong interest and concern for American Jews”


James Loeffler, director of Jewish studies at the University of Virginia

Halie Soifer, CEO of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, argued that the more than 200 million vaccine doses administered in Biden’s first 100 days are good news for the Jewish community: “Not only does [vaccination] help save lives and livelihoods, but it also allows us all to get back to our life and return to camp this summer, which for Jewish parents like myself is a priority,” Soifer explained. 

Despite polling that showed strong bipartisan support for the legislation, it did not receive any support from congressional Republicans. “The American Rescue Plan IS a bipartisan plan — one that unifies this country,” Biden chief of staff Ron Klain tweeted in February, with a link to a poll showing a majority of Americans supported the proposal. 

Not everyone buys it. 

“If you’re going to unite the country, you’ve got to figure out how to do it. The first bill that passed through Congress of any note since he became president was this relief package. The prior relief packages have bipartisan support. This one didn’t,” said Richard Sandler, executive vice president of the Milken Family Foundation and a self-described centrist who has donated to both Democrats and Republicans. “It would seem to me that every effort should have been made, even if concessions had to be made, to have bipartisan support.”

Biden’s “idea of bipartisanship is not having a meaningful dialogue and a negotiation and working together to come to a common goal,” said Republican Jewish Coalition executive director Matt Brooks. “They’re not really interested in collaboration with the Republicans. They’re interested in capitulation with the Republicans.” Brooks also expressed concern about “the incredible runaway spending and printing money that the administration is doing under the guise of COVID relief and infrastructure.”

Some Democrats have argued that bipartisanship is not an option in the wake of the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol and the many Republican members of Congress who voted to challenge the results of the presidential election. 

“I view that as being derelict in your responsibilities as a representative, as a leader,” said Sandler. “If you don’t like what they did on a certain day, what they said, that doesn’t mean you don’t make an effort to work with them. You might not be able to work with them. Then you could make that decision after that.” 

Biden took office on the heels of the January 6 attempted insurrection, at an unprecedented inauguration ceremony with just a few hundred spectators due to both the pandemic and the lingering threat of violence. “The shadow that was cast over these first 100 days was the assault on the Capitol. And as Jews, as we think about the first 100 days, the assault on the Capitol was white supremacy rearing its head in a very ugly, antisemitic, and anti-Black racist way,” said Jonah Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. 

Vice President Joe Biden and Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken attend an event at the State Department on June 30, 2015. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)
Vice President Joe Biden and Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken attend an event at the State Department on June 30, 2015. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Attorney General Merrick Garland — both of whom mentioned their Jewish heritage in their confirmation hearings — have pledged to focus on domestic extremism, particularly in the wake of the events of January 6. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has ordered a review of domestic extremism in the military, while Mayorkas recently announced a similar probe of staff at the Department of Homeland Security. 

Rooting out domestic extremists, many of whom also harbor antisemitic sentiments, has long been a priority for the Anti-Defamation League, which in January wrote to the chair and ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security Committee that “confirming an extremely qualified secretary of Homeland Security is especially crucial in the wake of the domestic terrorist threat that has rocked our nation in recent years, including the deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol earlier this month.” 

The Orthodox Union wrote to those senators praising Mayorkas, and Diament told JI that the OU has remained in contact with the administration on the issue. “We’ve been having a lot of discussions with the relevant offices about antisemitism in particular and domestic extremist violence in general,” he said. “Obviously, this administration is looking to combat domestic violent extremism in a very aggressive way.”

Biden is still naming appointees to prominent roles, though the White House has been notably slow in picking ambassadors. The Washington Post reported this week on an internal document that appears to name Biden’s first slate of political ambassador appointments, which are still unofficial and are coming at a later stage than in previous administrations. Former Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump both began naming their ambassador picks before their inaugurations. 

“An administration faces an enormous number of problems. The president can’t handle them all himself, nor can the secretary state or the national security advisor,” said Elliott Abrams, who served as special envoy on Venezuela and Iran under Trump and deputy national security advisor under former President George W. Bush. “This administration has been extremely slow, I think, by historical standards, in getting its people in place. That’s a mistake.”

Two of Biden’s early picks, Colin Kahl for under secretary of defense for policy and Kristen Clarke for assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, have been criticized for past comments and actions regarding Israel, Iran and the Jewish community. 

Republican senators opposed Kahl’s nomination in part over his position on Iran and work on the nuclear deal during the Obama administration. During Senate debate before a vote on Kahl’s nomination, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) said: “I have come to believe Colin Kahl’s judgment is irreparably marred by obsessive animosity towards Israel.” The Zionist Organization of America and Christians United for Israel urged senators to oppose Kahl’s nomination. He was confirmed this week in a party-line vote.

“This administration has been extremely slow, I think, by historical standards, in getting its people in place. That’s a mistake”


Elliott Abrams, former national security advisor and special envoy on Venezuela and Iran

Clarke, who has yet to be confirmed by the Senate, apologized after facing condemnation for inviting an antisemitic speaker to Harvard when she was a student in 1994. “She is a friend of the Jewish community,” said Pesner, whose organization was one of a number of liberal Jewish groups that came to Clarke’s defense. “She has a long track record of fighting for religious freedom, including specifically Jewish religious freedom — the right to observe Shabbat, or the right to be free of white supremacy and the violent antisemitic form of white supremacy.”

The White House has not yet nominated an antisemitism envoy, an appointment that is expected after Biden begins naming ambassadors. Jarrod Bernstein, who served as director of Jewish outreach in the Obama administration and is a co-host of Jewish Insider’s Limited Liability Podcast, suggested that appointing a visibly Orthodox Jew as antisemitism envoy could send an important signal. “A lot of antisemitism these days tends to be focused at Jews who are visibly Jewish, usually yarmulke-wearing Jews,” Bernstein noted. “It would send a strong statement to that community and other communities that it’s okay to be visibly Jewish, and that antisemitism against that community won’t be tolerated.”

One of the administration’s early moves on antisemitism was affirming its support for the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism. In a letter sent to the American Zionist Movement last month, Secretary of State Tony Blinken wrote that the Biden administration “enthusiastically embraces” the IHRA definition, and the administration is “eager to work with allies and partners to counter Holocaust distortion and combat anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance abroad while we strengthen our efforts at home.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, meet with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on March 9, 2016. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, meet with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on March 9, 2016. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

“I think antisemitism is something that affects all of us. It has certainly raised its ugly head here in the last several years,” Sandler noted. “I’m very confident that the president and his administration will not tolerate that.” 

Loeffler said Biden is making the right choice in not upending previous administrations’ positions on antisemitism. “I think that the Biden administration has correctly realized that antisemitism has the potential to become a terrific wedge issue for American Jews,” Loeffler noted. “This is a significant issue that conservatives and many liberals in the Jewish sphere are really, really focused on. I think it’s ripening as an issue. And the ‘go-slow’ approach by the administration helps them not to avoid obvious missteps as they try and figure out how to handle it.”

The White House has also not yet announced whether it will appoint someone for the role of liaison to the Jewish community. Bernstein noted that for now, some current administration officials are solid liaisons themselves. “Tony Blinken being at every AIPAC and ADL event for the last 20 years as a staffer, national security advisor to the vice president and civilian — he knows this community really [well],” Bernstein explained. “It’s also very important not to understate how important having Ron Klain as chief of staff is. Ron is a member of this community.”

One new initiative, taken from the Obama years, is the creation of an Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. “The White House is doing a very, very good job and a very, very proactive job in engaging with faith communities — not only the Jewish community, but faith communities across the board, and the nonprofit charitable sector across the board,” said Diament. 

Now, as Biden turns to the next phase of his administration and looks to pass marquee legislation including a trillion-dollar infrastructure bill, Brooks says Republicans won’t let him ram through bills that lack Republican support.

“Thankfully, we have Democratic senators like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema who understand the value and the need for the continuity of institutions like the filibuster in the Senate, not to have a tyranny of the majority, which is what the Democrats want,” Brooks added.

Portman acknowledges GOP struggles attracting Jewish voters

The Republican Party’s growing populism is making it more difficult to attract Jewish voters, Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) admitted Monday during a press conference with Jewish media.

Portman, who announced earlier this year that he will retire at the end of his current term in 2022, has become a prominent moderate voice in both the Senate and his party.

The Ohio senator’s acknowledgment that changes within the Republican Party have alienated some Jewish voters came in response to a question about Josh Mandel, a Jewish Republican who is running to replace Portman; Mandel has embraced right-wing rhetoric and faced criticism from others in the Jewish community over his statements and positions.

“There are bipartisan issues that [members of the Jewish community] strongly support. And with regard to Israel, traditionally, Republican presidents have received more support than Democratic presidents from Israel and in terms of their policies,” Portman said. “There’s also a concern on so many other issues where the Republican Party has become more populist, in some cases more difficult for the Jewish community to support some positions. Immigration would be an example of that.”

He went on to emphasize that public officials need to speak up against antisemitism.

“I think that it’s really important as public officials we all speak out immediately, forcefully, without any equivocation,” Portman said. “Our party can never be a party that is viewed as supporting white supremacists or any other group that would be for antisemitism or discrimination.”

Earlier this year, Portman was part of a group of Republican lawmakers who met with President Joe Biden to discuss a potential compromise on the American Rescue Plan COVID-19 relief bill. The group has since accused Biden of negotiating in bad faith and failing to seriously consider their proposal. Biden has argued that the Republicans were not open to increasing their counter offer for the package.

“I’m very disappointed in the Biden administration… In terms of bipartisanship, they really have not done the outreach that I expect they would. And I’m surprised because that was part of candidate Biden’s campaign,” Portman said, though he expressed hope that a bipartisan compromise could be reached on the upcoming infrastructure package.

“I’m hopeful that we will see more bipartisanship going forward, but I haven’t seen it yet,” he added.

Portman said that, despite former President Donald Trump’s vitriolic tweets and vicious criticisms of Democratic lawmakers, Trump was more bipartisan than Biden has been, pointing to the fact that Democrats held the House of Representatives for the latter two years of Trump’s term and to the bipartisan votes in favor of both COVID-19 relief packages under Trump.

“I wouldn’t necessarily agree… that Donald Trump was more partisan. He was more edgy in his comments and more personal in his comments,” Portman said. “President Biden has been very careful to say very little and when he does say things, he says it in a more moderate tone. But I’m looking for real bipartisanship.”

As ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, Portman has worked closely on the Nonprofit Security Grant Program (NSGP), which provides funding to nonprofits to improve their security measures and has particularly benefited Jewish community institutions.

The Ohio senator highlighted during the call that his state has received a higher percentage of the NSGP grants, in part due to high Jewish community interest in the program.

Portman — and his staff, in a subsequent email exchange with Jewish Insider — would not specify a target figure for NSGP funding for the 2022 fiscal year, but emphasized that demand for grants continues to outstrip funding.

“It’s oversubscribed. And it’s not a good data point that it’s oversubscribed because it means there’s a real need. I wish there weren’t but there is, and so we have to be responsive to it,” Portman said.

“Senator Portman will work to make sure the program is funded to meet its needs and continue working with his bipartisan colleagues to make sure that happens,” Portman spokesperson Emily Benavides added in a statement to JI after the press conference.

Major Jewish groups appear to have unified around a request for $360 million in NSGP funding for fiscal year 2022. Portman signed a letter last year calling for increased NSGP appropriations for 2021.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the full text of the letter here:

Dear Secretary Blinken:

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

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

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

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

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

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

AOC engages with JCRC-NY at last

Since taking office in 2019, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) has maintained a noticeably distant relationship with mainstream Jewish organizations in New York City, despite repeated overtures from Jewish leaders seeking face time with her.

But on Thursday, Ocasio-Cortez signaled that she is more willing to engage, joining the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, which represents the Jewish community to New York government officials and counts more than 50 local Jewish groups as members, for a virtual conversation touching on antisemitism, Holocaust education, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and other issues.

The discussion with JCRC’s outgoing CEO, Michael Miller, posted on YouTube Monday morning, is the first occasion in which Ocasio-Cortez has publicly addressed such topics with a mainstream Jewish group in New York.

In the interview — part of a series of conversations with New York representatives in lieu of an annual congressional breakfast, which was canceled this year because of the pandemic — Miller asked Ocasio-Cortez to address the feeling among members of the organized Jewish community that she has been ignoring their calls.

“I’m very proud to have been deeply engaged in our local community and our local Jewish community from the very beginning,” said Ocasio-Cortez, pointing to her involvement with the Jackson Heights Jewish Center in Queens, the Jewish Community Council of Pelham Parkway and the Bronx House, a Jewish community center in the Bronx.

Still, the 31-year-old progressive congresswoman, whose district includes sections of the Bronx and Queens, acknowledged the frustration felt by Jewish leaders in New York who have been eager to meet with her. Her reticence, she suggested, shouldn’t be interpreted as a personal snub. 

During her first term in the House, “especially with the crushing volume of everything that was going on at the time, I was really focused on our backyard,” she said, stating that she had put off conversations with citywide Jewish groups in an effort to address the more immediate concerns of her own district.

“I think that’s maybe where some of that feeling and sentiment had come from,” she told Miller. “But I’m very happy to be engaging now, and now that we have some time, in this transition recovery out of COVID, to be able to do that citywide and statewide connecting as well.”

The congresswoman’s office did not respond to a request for comment about any future plans to engage with Jewish organizations in New York. But her communications director, Lauren Hitt, pushed back against the suggestion that Ocasio-Cortez’s engagement with Jewish groups has so far been lacking. 

“I’d just note that this isn’t her first event with JCRC, let alone a Jewish leader in New York,” Hitt said in an email to Jewish Insider, noting that Ocasio-Cortez had participated in a march against antisemitism in January of 2020. “She also met with the president of J Street and visited the Jewish Association Serving the Aging.”

For JCRC, however, last week’s virtual conversation with Ocasio-Cortez was notable. Miller had first inquired about setting up an in-person meeting with the congresswoman in 2018, not long after she pulled off a surprise primary upset over Democratic incumbent Joe Crowley. By the end of her first term in office, Miller had yet to hear back — as he recounted in an interview with JI last fall after Ocasio-Cortez, facing mounting pressure from pro-Palestinian activists, withdrew from an Americans for Peace Now event commemorating slain Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. 

“There is a lot of frustration,” Miller said at the time. 

The effort to set up an interview this term went more smoothly. JCRC reached out to Ocasio-Cortez’s office about the virtual conversation on January 26, according to Noam Gilboord, the organization’s chief operating officer, and heard back in mid-February. 

“I will tell you that her staff was very easy to deal with,” Gilboord told JI. “Once they had agreed to the interview it was pretty smooth in terms of getting us to the interview date and keeping the date.”

Throughout the conversation, Ocasio-Cortez seemed at ease as she discussed, among other things, her own “sense of spirituality” as well as her belief that social media platforms have allowed antisemitism and other forms of bigotry to flourish online. 

“At its core, hatred, and the radicalization that we are seeing, is directly connected to digital platforms in general and Facebook in particular,” she told Miller. “We really need to make sure that we focus and hold these CEOs responsible for the algorithms that they know — they know, Michael — what they’re doing.”

But on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the congresswoman spoke mostly in broader strokes, and at points sounded less sure of herself. “When we talk about establishing peace, centering people’s humanities, protecting people’s rights, it’s not just about the what and the end goal, which often gets a lot of focus,” she said near the end of the interview, “but I actually think it’s much more about the how and the way that we are coming together and how we interpret that what and how we act in the actions that we take to get to that what — and so what this is really about is that it’s a question, more than anything else, about process.”

“That being said, I think there’s just this one central issue of settlements,” she added, “because if the ‘what,’ if the ‘what’ that has been decided on is two-state, then the action of settlements — it’s not the how to get to that ‘what’ — and so I think that’s a central thing that we need to make sure that we center and that we value Jewish — rather, we value Israeli — we value the safety and the human rights of Israelis, we value the safety and human rights of Palestinians in that process.”

Ocasio-Cortez, who emphasized that she has “done a lot of policy work in this space,” told Miller that it was “important to apply” such principles universally. 

“Just like here in the United States, I don’t believe that children should be detained,” she said, alluding to an oft-repeated charge, particularly popular among some on the far-left, that Israel detains Palestinian minors. “Starting on those basic principles of human rights, I think we can build a path to peace together.”

Despite several potential areas of disagreement, Miller was deferential throughout the 38-minute discussion. “These programs are not debates,” he told JI in an interview on Monday. “What we’re trying to do is elicit from each member their point of view on the issues of the day and the priorities of the Jewish community.”

Ultimately, Miller said he was optimistic that the conversation would serve as a springboard for further discussions with Ocasio-Cortez about issues of concern to the Jewish community.

“The interview has concluded and we still want to continue to engage,” he told JI. “From my perspective, this was an opening.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

Jana Lynne Sanchez (Courtesy)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

Jake Ellzey (Courtesy)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Murray did not respond to a request for comment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

eJewish Philanthropy’s Helen Chernikoff contributed reporting.

Rep. Andy Levin addresses left-wing antisemitism, foreign policy and his own approach to Judaism

Rep. Andy Levin (D-MI) has been in Congress for only two years, but the former union organizer and Michigan labor official has distinguished himself in both the Democratic Party and the Jewish community.

Unlike many of his fellow Jewish lawmakers, Levin argues that antisemitism is not a serious issue on the left, strenuously defends colleagues Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) against accusations of antisemitism and allies himself closely with progressive activist movements.

At home, the congressman radically overhauled his Detroit synagogue to focus on progressive activism and social justice issues, and founded a Jewish activist organization with the goal of reframing Jewish identity in his community. His outspoken advocacy on behalf of Palestinians has put him at odds with some in the Detroit Jewish community.

In a lengthy interview with Jewish Insider last week, the Michigan congressman said that attempts to equate left- and right-wing antisemitism represent a “breathtaking” false equivalence. Levin sought to back up his argument by citing the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, and claims by former President Donald Trump that George Soros was responsible for a range of false conspiracies. 

“I don’t really [think left-wing antisemitism is an issue],” Levin said initially, then continued, “On one level, yes, it’s an issue everywhere. Because antisemitism is so alive in this world. And I think like other forms of bigotry and othering of people — many folks aren’t aware of that, even. It’s not to say there isn’t.”

Accusations of antisemitism against the left, Levin said, are “part of a larger machinery to stoke fear and division and, in particular, to divide progressive forces.” 

The congressman, who was elected in 2018, explained that he believes Jews “can’t win the battle against antisemitism unless we Jews fight against racism against Black people, against Islamophobia, against anti-LGBTQ feelings, against anti-immigrant xenophobia,” adding, “the progressive community is the community that’s leading those fights.”

Levin attempted to address concerns about comments made by progressive activists and legislators by defending Tlaib, the Palestinian-American congresswoman who represents another Detroit-area district.

“I’ve known Rashida since long before either of us thought about running for Congress. And she has been a comrade in the battle for racial and economic justice,” he said. “Rashida is not antisemitic, full stop. Full stop. Rashida has no use for [Nation of Islam founder Louis] Farrakhan, full stop.”

Tlaib published a column on The Final Call, a blog founded by Farrakhan, in 2006, but claims no personal ties to the controversial preacher.

Levin pivoted to Tlaib’s views on Israel, explaining that he does not believe people should “demonize” Tlaib over her support for a one-state solution.

“I think that to have this Jewish boy and Palestinian girl in Congress from Detroit, who can model a relationship of soulfully and authentically representing our communities and having a solid relationship with each other, bodes well for actually achieving a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he said.

Pressed on comments that Omar made prior to taking office — specifically a tweet claiming that “Israel has hypnotized the world,” echoing an antisemitic canard about Jews controlling the world — Levin demurred.

“I don’t know what she said or everything she did back in the day. And I don’t accept somebody saying that at all,” he said. “I’ve talked to her. And I want to build a relationship with her, where I feel like I can help her understand my reality, and she can help me understand her reality. And I think that’s the best way to build support for the Jewish people and build understanding of antisemitism.”

Rep. Andy Levin (D-MI) during a news conference in the Capitol on February 6, 2020. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP)

Levin suggested that some on the left may not even be aware they are employing antisemitic language, explaining that “we all have a lot of learning to do.”

“We have to approach each other with humility and respect and love,” Levin said. “But we have to be clear about what hate speech is, and hate groups are and what they’re not.”

Levin has a long pedigree in Michigan politics. He is the son of former Rep. Sander Levin (D-MI) and the nephew of longtime former Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI). The two-term congressman insists that he has been “super proactive about antisemitism and antisemitic language or tropes that may come up in Congress.” 

In 2019, Levin helped organize a meeting between Jewish and Muslim members of Congress in the wake of divisive comments made by Omar weeks into her first term. The meeting turned sour after a fellow Jewish member of Congress, Rep. Dean Phillips (D-MN), asked Omar to apologize for her past comments — a request Levin said “kind of misread the room.” Levin nevertheless characterized such meetings as effective, noting that he was not aware of similar accusations of antisemitism since then.

***

Levin has sought to distinguish himself as a vocal advocate for both the State of Israel and for Palestinian rights. The congressman, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, praised President Joe Biden and his advisors as strongly placed to make progress, given their foreign policy backgrounds.

Levin laid blame on both sides, claiming that “the Palestinian Authority doesn’t have a lot of legitimacy in the minds of the Palestinian people” and that Israel needs “a government that is a little bit more stable.”

“I hope there can be some new actors on the scene who will be really committed to [solving the conflict],” Levin continued, “because we haven’t always had that on the two sides.”

Levin said that, prior to visiting Israel in 2019, he was concerned that Israeli settlement expansion may have foreclosed a two-state solution. But meetings with both Israeli and Palestinian leaders convinced him that it was not only possible, but critical.

“There are tremendous barriers, but I just don’t think we can achieve the Zionist dream — which I believe in, deeply — of a democratic and safe homeland for the Jewish people in Israel unless we find a way to help the Palestinian people realize their political aspirations of having a Palestinian state that’s actually there.”

Levin — who recently said on an IfNotNow webinar that “unless Palestinian human rights are respected, we cannot fight antisemitism” — called annexation and settlement expansion counterproductive to the peace process.

Under Biden, he added, the U.S. should engage in a multilateral push toward restarting negotiations, rebuilding its relationship with the Palestinians, supporting democracy in both Israel and the Palestinian territories and setting concrete goals for the peace process.

On Iran, Levin said the U.S. shoulders significant blame for the current tensions between Washington and Tehran, attributing the frosty relationship to the U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear agreement.

“By all accounts, Iran was doing what it was supposed to do when we left,” Levin said, though Israeli intelligence reports from 2018 dispute that premise.

Biden is “doing a good job” of attempting to balance competing concerns and work toward rapprochement with Iran, Levin continued, hinting at efforts “behind the scenes diplomatically” to “work with our allies and even people who aren’t so much our allies to find a way forward.” He added that he could not discuss those efforts further. Chinese officials said they have spoken with Iran envoy Rob Malley, although the U.S. government did not comment on the call.

While Levin stopped short of directly encouraging Biden to unilaterally roll back U.S. sanctions against Iran, he indicated that he was not entirely opposed to the concept.

“Since we’re the ones who left [the deal], it’s kind of reasonable for other parties that say, ‘Well, if you want to get back in this agreement, get back [into] the agreement, and then we’ll go from there,’” he said. “But they have a little more ambition in what they’re trying to accomplish with Iran. I think that’s a difficult but a laudable position to take.”

***

At the core of Levin’s work is his commitment to social justice. He explained to JI that he sees his progressive ideals and his Judaism as deeply linked. Although his family was “not very observant” when he was young, he faced antisemitic taunts as a child in a neighborhood with few Jewish families; other children targeted him with comments like “You can’t be Jewish, you don’t have horns” and “You’re Jewish, you killed Jesus.”

He later went on to become the president of his local synagogue and serve on its board, as well as found Detroit Jews for Justice, an activist group focusing on social, racial and economic justice in Detroit. He also “re-envisioned” his synagogue — which had a small and aging congregation when he joined — as “the social justice shul.”

“We should reimagine a synagogue as less a place of strict boundaries determined by dues… Instead, we should, the synagogue should be tied to a community fighting for social justice,” Levin explained. “And people could enter through a door of social justice, or they could enter through a door of davening.”

He compared this approach to churches in the Black community, which often prominently incorporate political and social discourse.

“My Judaism is all about justice.”

Senator Gillibrand joins Jewish Insider’s ‘Limited Liability Podcast’

On this week’s episode of Jewish Insider’s “Limited Liability Podcast,” hosts Richard Goldberg and Jarrod Bernstein were joined by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) to discuss her relationship with New York’s Jewish community, the recent allegations against New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, and her take on how to approach Iran’s continued nuclear development.

Community ties: Gillibrand, who represents the largest Jewish population outside of Israel, spoke at length about her ties with New York’s Jewish community. “It’s a very diverse community,” she said. “It’s a community that cares deeply about New York and their fellow citizens. It’s a community that truly believes in the greater good; a lot of the not for profits that are run by Jewish leaders are among the best in the state. So it’s a real joy to spend time and to work with people in the Jewish community across our state.” Still, Gillibrand emphasized the dangers facing the community, which has seen a dramatic increase in targeted hate crimes. Calling antisemitism an “exponential” and “constant growth across the country,” she specifically blamed former President Donald Trump. “When they had the Charlottesville riots and chants were done that were deeply offensive against the Jewish community… President Trump did not stand up to it.”

“What I try to do in the U.S. Senate is be a galvanizer for legislation and policies to fight antisemitism.” Gillibrand — who later named “chutzpah” as her favorite Yiddish word — continued. “I typically lead the legislation and the bills that relate to fighting against antisemitism at the UN, which unfortunately, the Human Rights Council is often used as a platform for antisemitism. I also lead the letters and the funding to fight against antisemitism and to keep our community safe.”

On Cuomo: An early advocate supporting the #MeToo movement, Gillibrand came under pressure this past week to address the sexual harassment claims leveled against New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Calling the allegations “obviously serious” and “deeply concerning,” the Albany native offered her support for the independent investigation requested by New York Attorney General Tish James. “I support her doing that. And I think that is the appropriate next step to allow people to be heard and allow facts to be gathered.”

“Many survivors, men and women, who have endured sexual violence, sexual harassment in the workplace, when they told the authorities what happened to them, they were disbelieved. And so the investigation never took place. So justice had no possibility of ever being done,” Gillibrand continued.“That’s why we have things like the [Equal Employment Opportunity Commision], and we have other systems to guarantee that we fight against antisemitism, that we fight against racism, [that we] fight against sexism, that we fight against harassment in the workplace. And so what I do is work on a bipartisan basis to change the way we deal with these cases.”

On Iran: Gillibrand reiterated her opposition to the U.S. leaving the 2015 Iran deal under Trump, explaining that her support for the deal fit with the evidence presented to Congress. “I sit on the Armed Services Committee, I now also sit on the Intelligence Committee, and at that time, our national security experts — our CIA, our Department of Defense — all said that the deal made such a better position for America in terms of national security,” she explained, “because we would gain all the knowledge of the minds, the mills, the centrifuges, the production, and we’d have hands on eyes on each production facility and and that they believed was the kind of intelligence that could not be passed up for any future conflict that might be necessary if Iran did breach…So that’s why I supported it. If we’re going to enter into it again, we need to have the same national security priorities”

Asked about [International Atomic Energy Agency] reports of undeclared Iranian sites, Gillibrand mentioned a trip to Vienna before the pandemic to meet with IAEA officials on the issue. “I certainly hope as soon as COVID is under control that we can take another trip out there and to not only meet with the IAEA again, but meet with our partners in the region, to assess the credibility of the review and where and how the US should stand with the world community against Iran,” she continued.

Lightning Round: Favorite Yiddish word? Chutzpah. Books she’s currently reading: Presidents of War: The Epic Story, from 1807 to Modern Times by Michael Beschloss and Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (with her son). Favorite upstate New York delicacy? Apples, especially Honeycrisp and McIntosh, and Stewart’s ice cream. Most admired New York politician past or present? Former Senators Hillary Clinton and Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

Alex Lasry’s full-court press for the U. S. Senate

By all accounts, Alex Lasry was instrumental in convincing the Democratic National Convention to pick Milwaukee as its host city in 2020. But as he embarks on his first bid for the U.S. Senate, Lasry, senior vice president of the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks, is now assuming the more challenging task of selling himself to voters across Wisconsin — a pivotal swing state that went for Trump in 2016 but helped President Joe Biden claim the presidency in November. 

Lasry, who announced his candidacy in mid-February, is hoping he can ride that momentum into 2022. He is planning to challenge Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), who has not yet indicated whether he will seek a third term. Though he is launching his first campaign for public office, Lasry, 33, enters the field with deep ties in Democratic politics. The New York native recently served as finance chair of the DNC’s host committee and previously worked in the Obama White House as an aide to senior advisor Valerie Jarrett. It doesn’t hurt that his father, Marc Lasry, the billionaire hedge fund manager and Bucks co-owner, is a prominent Democratic bundler. 

In an interview with Jewish Insider late last week, Lasry downplayed his family’s wealth and connections, claiming that his candidacy would be built from the bottom up. “I’m not going to self-fund, but I will invest,” he claimed. “The most important thing that we’re trying to do is we’re going to build a grassroots campaign.”

The interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Jewish Insider: Why are you running for Senate now?

Alex Lasry: I think what we need is a change. For the last 10 years, we’ve had a senator who’s had no interest in representing the people of Wisconsin, but has rather been peddling in conspiracy theories and lies. So what I think we need is someone who’s going to think differently, bring a fresh perspective and who also has a record of getting things done. You know, we’re not just talking about a $15 minimum wage; we’re paying it in our arena. We’re not just talking about creating union jobs; we’ve created thousands of them. And we’re not just talking about racial and social justice; we’ve actually been on the front lines doing things like the Equity League that helps give access to capital for minority-owned venture funds.

JI: What’s your campaign strategy?

Lasry: The way we’re going to differentiate ourselves — and I think the way we have — is by giving a fresh perspective, coming up with some new ideas, and a record of results across the state. You’ve seen it already, our early support that we’ve got across the state of Wisconsin with people that I’ve worked with on getting things done — they know that I can go to Washington and make sure that I’m representing and being a voice for the people of Wisconsin.

JI: You moved to Milwaukee from New York about seven years ago. Do you feel like you’ve spent enough time in Wisconsin to understand the most pressing issues in the state and, moreover, garner widespread support there?

Lasry: Look, Wisconsin’s a place that I’ve made my home. I’ve chosen to make this my home. It’s where my wife and I are starting our family. Our daughter is going to be born and raised here. There’s no one denying my love for Milwaukee and Wisconsin. What we’ve been able to do with the Bucks and then also with the DNC convention was really travel the state. One of our biggest things was making sure that the Bucks was a statewide brand and that as we were passing the arena deal that we talked to the entire state about how that was going to work. And then, especially with the convention, traveling around the state to ensure that people knew and talked about how great this was going to be for not just Milwaukee, but all of Wisconsin. 

But I think the most important thing we’re going to be doing in this campaign is making sure that we’re going to places that have been neglected not just by Democrats, but Republicans as well. Our first two virtual campaign stops were in [rural] Rusk County and Barron County, where we were talking to people about real issues, like how are we going to create access to broadband across the state, how are we going to make sure that we’re bringing more healthcare facilities across the state, how are we going to raise wages and bring jobs and investment back to Wisconsin? Those are the issues that voters are talking about.

JI: Have you developed a good rapport with Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) during your time living in Milwaukee?

Lasry: Tammy and I get along great. What’s made her so special, I think, is her ability to actually effect change and be a voice for people who feel like government’s not working for them.

JI: Are there any senators, Democrats or Republicans, you regard as potential allies?

Lasry: Obviously, Tammy Baldwin is someone that I think is one of our best senators. People like Sherrod Brown [D-OH], Tammy Duckworth [D-IL]. There are a number of senators, and that’s just to name a few. I’m willing to work with anyone who wants to work on issues that are going to benefit Wisconsin.

JI: Do you take any inspiration from Jon Ossoff’s recent Senate campaign? Like you, he was a young, Jewish Senate candidate running in a swing state. 

Lasry: I haven’t spoken to Senator Ossoff. But I very much admired his campaign and thought that he ran a campaign that, I think, appealed to and was inspiring not only a lot of young people but to a broad, diverse coalition. He ran a great race, and hopefully, that’s one that we can emulate.

JI: Can you talk about some of your previous experience beyond the Bucks that will help inform your approach to this campaign and, if you’re elected, to governing?

Lasry: I worked in the Obama White House as an aide to [senior advisor] Valerie Jarrett for the first two years of the administration. It gave me a sense of how Washington works but also, I think, a sense of what we can do differently. When I look at my experience there and couple it with my experience with the Bucks and bringing the convention here, I think there’s a broad experience of knowing how the system works but also knowing how to bring people together to achieve results.

JI: What’s your fundraising strategy? Your father is a well-known bundler for the Democratic Party. Will he be helping you out at all? And are you planning to self-fund?

Lasry: I’m not going to self-fund, but I will invest. But the most important thing that we’re trying to do is we’re going to build a grassroots campaign. The best campaigns that I’ve seen, and the ones that have been the most successful, are ones that are built from the bottom up. When you’re able to bring a broad coalition of people together, whether they’re giving $1, $5 or their time, that’s how you build the strongest campaign. That being said, we’re going to make sure we have the resources to compete. Republicans are going to throw everything they can at this race. This is one of the most, if not the most, important races in the country in 2022.

JI: In late January you were on the receiving end of some negative press for being vaccinated even before the governor of Wisconsin was able to get the shot. What did you make of that blowback?

Lasry: As I said, my wife got a call, and there were extra doses, and we made a decision in the moment to follow state guidelines and what medical ethicists and doctors have all said, which is we can’t let any doses go to waste — and made a call in the moment to protect my daughter and my family and make sure, most importantly, that no doses go to waste. But I think the most important thing that we need to think about, again, is, with Ron Johnson, that’s a vote against money to expand production and ensure that we’re able to get past this pandemic. And I think that’s one of the most dangerous things.

Milwaukee Bucks senior vice president Alex Lasry, left, and then-Bucks guard George Hill walk through a Milwaukee neighborhood during a voter canvassing effort in October 2020. (Steve Megargee/AP)

JI: You were involved in some of the protests against the Jacob Blake shooting in Kenosha over the summer, when the Bucks sat out a playoff game in protest. Can you talk about that period and describe any lessons you drew from it? 

Lasry: The fight for racial and social justice and equality is one of the central tenets of this campaign. It was in our launch video, and it’s something we need to make sure that we’re solving. What we saw this summer was, this was a really difficult time in our history, and it bubbled up, I think, a lot of things that we’ve known to be at stake, and that now we’re hopefully finally able to start working towards solving. This is one of the things that I’ve been most proud about in my work with the Bucks, our work on racial justice. And not just this summer, but over the last six, seven years, our work on racial and social justice has been a central tenet of our Bucks community efforts, and it’s also now going to be a central tenet of my campaign. What gave me hope, though, was when we saw the protests and all the people in the streets and all the people who are working on this issue — it’s Black, white, people of all colors, ages, races coming together to talk about and protest and demand change. That’s something that I’m going to make sure that that I’m not just fighting for but actually getting results on.

JI: What were your thoughts on the recent non-prosecution of the officer who shot Jacob Blake?

Lasry: When you look at the video, it’s pretty clear what happened. This was a shooting of an unarmed African American, something that’s been happening all too often in this country. So I was disappointed. I was very disappointed in that ruling. But what we’re going to continue to do is fight to make sure that this type of stuff doesn’t happen again, and if there is another unfortunate incident, that consequences are going to take place.

JI: Let’s pivot to foreign policy. Have you been to Israel?

Lasry: A number of times. Most recently, I did a Basketball Without Borders [trip] with the NBA, where they sent a delegation to Israel to tour the country, meet with government officials and businesses. Every time I go to Israel, it’s a powerful and very emotional time. Israel is a place that is dear to my heart, especially growing up fairly religious. It’s going to the Wailing Wall and everything, especially being in Jerusalem and visiting Yad Vashem. It’s just a really incredible place — and a great place to feel that history and really feel my Judaism.

JI: Do you hope to play any active role in the peace process over there if you’re elected?

Lasry: I would definitely hope to make sure that we are encouraging the Biden administration to figure out a two-state solution — and make sure that everyone is recognizing Israel’s right to exist and that Israel is protected and able to defend itself. We have to be one of Israel’s strongest allies. So I will definitely be a strong supporter and proponent of Israel in encouraging and pushing to ensure that we’re able to create a peace process.

JI: What’s your stance on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement? Do you believe it is antisemitic, as some critics have alleged?

Lasry: I definitely think that movement is based on, and has a lot of ties to, antisemitism. It’s not something that I’m for. When I hear that, it does worry me. Israel is one of our strongest allies. We need to be able to talk to them and tell them when they’re doing stuff wrong. But that doesn’t mean that we’re punishing Israel or that we’re pulling funding or anything like that. What we need to make sure we’re doing is using our leadership to, hopefully, move Israel in a better direction if we think they are going off course, but also understanding that they’re a strong ally, and we can never desert them. 

JI: What are your thoughts on the Abraham Accords? Do you think the normalization agreements between Israel and Middle Eastern countries like Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Morocco represented a significant foreign policy achievement for the Trump administration?

Lasry: I do think that some of these normalization deals, like the one with Morocco, are ones that we need to continue to pursue. We need to make sure that we’re encouraging all of Israel’s neighbors to recognize Israel’s right to exist and be part of the international community, because that is, I think, our best way to a safer and more prosperous Middle East. And so that is something that I think the Biden administration is going to continue to pursue.

JI: You mentioned Morocco. Do you have any special connection with the country because your father was born there?

Lasry: Yeah, I mean, we’ve been back a few times. We visited my dad’s home there and I’ve been able to walk around the Jewish quarter and see the country. So I thought it was really great to see Israel and Morocco be able to form that kind of deal. There was definitely a nice little personal link with my Judaism and my Jewish heritage and my father’s home country.

JI: One aspect of that deal was that the Trump administration recognized Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara in defiance of the U.N. line. What is your take on that?

Lasry: I’m against that. I think that that kind of side deal is not something that — it goes against what the U.N. said, and I think that’s not something that we should have been recognizing.

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.