On Capitol Hill, King Abdullah II meets with senators to discuss U.S. policy and regional issues

Jordan’s King Abdullah II received a warm welcome on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, as he met with Senate leadership and members of the Senate Armed Services, Foreign Relations and Appropriations Committees to discuss a range of issues related to U.S. policy in the region.

The Jordanian monarch has visited Capitol Hill during previous visits to Washington, and has made a habit of meeting with lawmakers when he’s in town.

“It was very similar to what it’s been before,” Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Jim Inhofe (R-OK) told Jewish Insider. “The king is a very personable guy — more than most. And he expressed his concerns. We all had a pretty free and open discussion.”

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee, echoed Inhofe. “I always enjoy being with King Abdullah,” he said. “I thought he’s always pretty frank and insightful.”

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), also a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said he raised the issue of the U.S.’s longstanding efforts to extradite 2001 Sbarro bombing suspect Ahlam Tamimi from Jordan, and described the ensuing conversation as “productive,” but declined to offer further specifics. The bombing, in a popular Jerusalem pizza shop, killed 15 people — including two Americans — and injured 130.

The issue of Tamimi extradition issue did not come up during the meeting with members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, a source familiar with the discussion told JI, but Iran and the Abraham Accords were raised.

On Iran, during the Foreign Relations Committee meeting, “the king expressed very real concerns about the terrorism that would result from billions of dollars flowing to the Ayatollah [Khamenei], about the risk of ballistic missiles being used to target countries throughout the region,” Cruz said.

Other topics raised in the Foreign Relations Committee meeting included regional relations, Syria, economic issues, climate change and broader geopolitical challenges with Russia and China, senators told JI.

“What a great ally Jordan is to the United States, to Israel, and they’re critical in that region, especially as we try to get a strong coalition to check the aggressive and destabilizing efforts of Iran,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), another Foreign Relations Committee member, told JI following the meeting.

Booker said he praised Jordan during the meeting for accepting a large number of Syrian refugees.

“I myself talked a lot about the incredible work Jordan is doing when it comes to assuming the the burden really of so many Syrian refugees, and what that has done at a time that they’re dealing with such high youth unemployment, and how that affects their request for aid from the United States of America,” Booker said. “They’re a valued ally. And I want to make sure that America is playing a role to keep them in a position where they can really continue their support of, you know, critical humanitarian aid as well as the American agenda in the region.”

The Jordanian monarch will meet with House members on the Hill on Thursday.

Power emphasizes Israeli role in clearing Gaza aid during latest congressional hearings

In consecutive hearings on Wednesday, Samantha Power, the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, emphasized the Israeli government’s role in approving future aid to Gaza.

Power said on multiple occasions across the two hearings, held by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee, that Israel’s department for Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) must approve any materials that are sent through the border crossing into the Gaza Strip, and that grantees, sub-grantees and sub-sub-grantees must pass “the most elaborate set of vetting procedures that [U.S. has] anywhere in the world.”

“Anything that goes into Gaza… goes through that very stringent vetting process that the Israeli government itself presides over. And so we work really closely with the government of Israel on anything that goes in,” Power said at the House hearing.

Power dodged a question from Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) about whether the U.S. is pressuring Israel to ease border restrictions into Gaza and reopen another crossing into the coastal territory.

“You’re right that [U.S. and COGAT procedures] can produce delays, that is something again — in terms of people not getting the resources that they need — that is not in anybody’s interest. But it also should offer some assurance for those who are concerned about assistance not reaching its intended destination that we have systems in place,” Power said in a nod to concerns that materials sent to Gaza could be redirected for terrorist activities.

She also indicated that the Biden administration had been working to convince Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Jim Risch (R-ID) to lift his hold on millions in what she described as humanitarian aid to the Palestinians.

Risch spokesperson Suzanne Wrasse denied that any of the aid Risch is holding is humanitarian aid as described by Power.

“Despite suggestions to the contrary, Congress cannot hold humanitarian assistance. It’s not even notified. Any and all funds that were notified to meet urgent needs for food and medical necessities have been released. Senator Risch will continue to hold any funds to the Palestinians that could be used for their ‘pay to slay’ program,” Wrasse said. “As long as there is any question that these funds could fall into the hands of terrorists, he will exercise his right to hold. To suggest that the exercise of our most basic oversight responsibility is somehow denying Palestinians access to food vouchers or other humanitarian aid is irresponsible, not to mention wrong.”

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) took multiple shots at Risch, calling the Idaho senator’s decision to halt the disbursement “reckless and wrong.” Van Hollen added that unused fiscal year 2020 funding will become inaccessible on Sept. 30. 

“I just think it would be irresponsible to allow those funds to lapse, and I hope the administration will use all its authorities when it comes to that request that you’ve made,” Van Hollen said.

During the House hearing, Power detailed the status of the implementation of the Middle East Partnership for Peace Act, a program passed into law last year to foster people-to-people partnerships between Israelis and Palestinians.

USAID designated Meghan Doherty, deputy assistant administrator of the Bureau for the Middle East, as the USAID official to oversee the program on a day-to-day basis, Power said, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) picked former Rep. Robert Wexler (D-FL) as the first MEPPA board member. The chair and ranking member of each of the four committees that oversee USAID, as well as the majority and minority leaders of each chamber, must now also select board members.

Once the board is fully constituted, Power continued, she will be able to name its chair, and she predicted that USAID would soon begin providing drafts of a MEPPA charter and board governance rules. USAID cannot begin distributing MEPPA funding until December.

She further discussed ways in which USAID can contribute to U.S. efforts to strengthen and expand the recent normalization agreements between Israel and several Arab states. Power suggested USAID could pursue trilateral international development projects in third countries through the memorandums of understanding USAID has with Israel, Qatar, Tunisia, Jordan, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.

She also highlighted the Middle East Regional Cooperation Program, which brings together professionals from throughout the Middle East to work on development projects such as drought resistant crop research.

Also during the House hearing, Rep. Brian Mast (R-FL) questioned Power on why the Biden administration backs a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, arguing that the U.S. should not support such a plan. His claim puts him at odds with many in his own party, even as an increasing number of Republicans have argued that the U.S. should not endorse a specific resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“If you’re looking to support a second state, what you’re making is a second Iran. A second terror-led state. That’s a fact. It’s a fact that [the Palestinian Authority is] not holding elections because Hamas would win those elections,” Mast said. “I would argue that your support for a two-state solution is wholly misguided. Do you believe that we would see anything other than a second terror-led state akin to Iran?”

Fixsler receives emergency U.S. visa, with help from Schumer

Alta Fixsler, a seriously ill ultra-Orthodox child in the United Kingdom, has obtained a visa to continue treatment in the United States after U.K. doctors and officials decided to take her off life support, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) announced Friday.

The two-year-old Fixsler suffered severe brain damage at birth and has been on life support for her entire life. Doctors, who said she was unable to breathe, eat or drink without medical assistance, sought to take her off life support, a course of action her parents said violated their religious beliefs. In late May, a U.K. court granted the doctors permission to take her off life support, rejecting the parents’ religious objections.

Schumer said on Friday that he had intervened to assist Fixsler in obtaining a visa to bring her to the U.S. Fixsler’s father is an American citizen.

“All the Fixslers want is to follow their faith and get their little girl the best care in the process,” Schumer said in a statement. “The images of little Alta make your heart melt and to know just how much her parents love her inspires us to do all we can to ensure her best chance. Aside from this federal action of securing a visa, I also offer my most fervent prayers to her and her family.” 

The Democratic leader was informed of the Fixsler family’s efforts by Rabbi David Niederman, president of the United Jewish Organization of Williamsburg and North Brooklyn, Schumer spokesperson Angelo Roefaro told JI.

Fixsler’s parents had sought to take her to an Israeli hospital — both her parents have Israeli citizenship — a request the court also denied. Israeli officials had appealed to the U.K. to allow her to be taken out of the country.

Schumer sent a letter last month to the U.K. ambassador to the U.S., notifying her that a visa was in progress for Fixsler and urging the U.K. to pause attempts to take her off life support pending the completion of the visa process.

“I urge that all health decisions that are against the wishes of the family be suspended until the citizenship process is complete and Alta can travel to the U.S. with her U.S. citizen father, Mr. Abraham Fixsler,” Schumer wrote.

A group of Republican senators — Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Mike Lee (R-UT), Ben Sasse (R-NE), Steve Daines (R-MT), James Lankford (R-OK), Josh Hawley (R-MO), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Mike Braun (R-IN), Jim Inhofe (R-OK) and Ted Cruz (R-TX) — also sent a letter to President Joe Biden earlier this month urging him to broach the issue with U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

“It is unconscionable that the British government is usurping the role of parents and disregarding the sincere religious objections of the family. We urge you to advocate to Prime Minister Johnson on behalf of the Fixsler family,” the senators said. “It is unconscionable that the British government is usurping the role of parents and disregarding the sincere religious objections of the family”

Senators advocate funding boost for State Department antisemitism envoy office

With antisemitic incidents on the rise globally, a bipartisan group of senators is calling for a $250,000 funding boost for the office of the State Department’s Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism in 2022, Jewish Insider has learned.

Twenty-eight senators urged Sens. Christopher Coons (D-DE) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) — the two ranking members of the Senate Appropriations State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs subcommittee — to provide a total of $1.25 million for the office in the 2022 budget, up from $1 million in 2021, in a letter sent June 28.

The House Appropriations Committee approved a draft 2022 State and Foreign Operations budget bill Thursday afternoon, including a recommendation for at least $1 million for the office.

The senators point to the recent global rise in antisemitic incidents, as well as the envoy’s elevation to ambassador status last year.

“Providing additional funds in [fiscal year] 2021 will ensure the State Department has the resources to… continue building on United States leadership in combating antisemitism internationally,” the letter reads. “Specifically, these funds would support the Special Envoy’s efforts to improve the safety and security of at-risk Jewish communities, combat online radicalization, ensure public officials and faith leaders condemn anti-Semitic discourse, and strengthen judicial systems in their prosecution of anti-Semitic incidents.”

The letter was led by Sens. Jacky Rosen (D-NV) and Mike Rounds (R-SD). All but two of the signatories — Rounds and Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) — are Democrats.

“We must take action in response to the growing number of horrific antisemitic incidents occurring in the United States and around the world. We can put a stop to these hateful and threatening acts, but we must do so forcefully and with clear resolve,” Rosen said in a statement to JI. “We must ensure that this post is properly funded, and that the United States maintains its leadership role in combating global antisemitism. I am proud to lead my Senate colleagues in this bipartisan effort to fund the fight against antisemitic hate.”

The other Democratic signatories are Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), Tina Smith (D-MN), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Mark Warner (D-VA), Alex Padilla (D-CA), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Raphael Warnock (D-GA), Jack Reed (D-RI), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Bob Casey (D-PA), Ed Markey (D-MA), Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), Gary Peters (D-MI), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Jon Ossoff (D-GA) and Chris Murphy (D-CT).

Lawmakers have been urging the administration to nominate an antisemitism envoy, but the timeline for President Joe Biden’s pick appears unclear. Secretary of State Tony Blinken pledged nearly a month ago that the announcement would be coming “very very soon.”

Murphy urges new Israeli government to be ‘more evenhanded’ with U.S.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), who leads the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee overseeing Middle East issues, is hopeful that the new Israeli government — a patchwork quilt of ideologically diverse parties — will take a different approach to U.S. politics than former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he told Jewish Insider on Tuesday.

“My hope is that they are going to prioritize fixing relations with the United States and being a bit more evenhanded about how they deal with the U.S. political system,” Murphy told JI.

Over his 12-year tenure, Netanyahu had shored up significant support from Republican legislators, while developing an increasingly antagonistic relationship with the Obama administration and some Washington Democrats critical of his policies.

“It’s obviously a very unique coalition… It’s obviously a very fragmented coalition,” Murphy added. “I think, for me, I want to wait and see what their priorities are and what their agenda is. I hope that there is a real opportunity to work with the coalition.”

Murphy’s comments appear to echo remarks from Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid on Monday in which Lapid called Netanyahu’s approach toward American political partisanship “careless and dangerous.”

Murphy has been outspoken against some Israeli government policies in recent years. During last month’s conflict between Israel and Gaza, he issued an early call for a cease-fire. Last year, he led a Senate effort to raise concerns about potential unilateral annexation of the West Bank.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), who also led the effort to oppose unilateral annexation, told JI Tuesday that “the jury’s still out” on whether the new Israeli government will pursue different policies from the Netanyau government.
Murphy has also been a vocal supporter of a number of policies opposed by the Netanyahu government, including a U.S. reentry into the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and the easing of sanctions on Iran. Murphy also faced criticism in 2020 for meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.

Ben Ray Luján affirms support for Israel amid mounting Democratic tensions

First-term Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-NM) affirmed his support for Israel in an interview with Jewish Insider on Thursday, amid mounting tensions within the Democratic Party over Middle East foreign policy following the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas. “I believe that the United States and Israel share an unbreakable bond, and Israel has been our most important ally in the region,” he told JI in a phone conversation shortly before a floor vote. 

“While I did not agree with Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu, that does not get in the way of my support and love for Israel,” Luján added, referring to Israel’s current leader, who is now at risk of being ousted by a coalition of Israeli opposition parties. “The United States also has a lot of work to do. We just came through four years of President Donald Trump, a president who was the most divisive in our history, and while I have a lot of concerns with President Trump and the way he approached things, that does not take away from my love for the United States of America. I think that’s how so many people feel across the United States, including those I serve with.”

Democratic lawmakers remain overwhelmingly committed to safeguarding the U.S.-Israel relationship, Luján insisted, despite an outspoken contingent of far-left Israel critics within the party.

“Just look at the letters and votes that have already taken place on the House floor, votes that will be coming up in the United States Senate,” Luján said. “As we continue to work on the National Defense Authorization Act and appropriation bills, you will see strong support from Democratic members with providing that support to Israel. So if it’s not been seen already and measured with letters and statements that many of us have made, it will be reflected in the votes that we will soon be casting.”

Luján, who served for 12 years in the House before ascending to the upper chamber last election cycle, is perhaps better equipped than most elected officials to take the Democratic Party’s pulse. The 49-year-old legislator was the highest-ranking Hispanic lawmaker in Congress when he concluded his six-term run as assistant speaker after four years leading the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, where he helped secure a Democratic majority in the House during the 2018 midterm elections. 

As the 2022 midterms appear on the horizon, Luján was eager to discuss broader Democratic campaign strategies, particularly given the findings of a new and somewhat foreboding Democratic report warning that the party is poised to lose critical support from Hispanic voters as well as other communities of color if it does not develop a more coherent economic message and distance itself from Republican attacks.

The Democratic Party lost ground with Latino voters in key states this past election cycle, including in Florida, where two Democratic congresswomen were unseated by Republican opponents. Experts credited those upsets in part to GOP efforts that cast Democrats as socialists.

While Luján seemed to agree with some of the study’s conclusions, he suggested that regardless of the report, Democrats need to take immediate action if they have any hope of increasing Hispanic support next cycle. “You often hear these pundits and these well-paid consultants that pronounce that the Hispanic community is not a monolithic community, but then they don’t do anything to reach out to earn the trust of voters,” he said. “I understand that because of where I come from and who I am. Even in the state of New Mexico, you need to understand that Hispanic voters are not a monolithic community.”

“Now, the analysis that was conducted shows what I’ve been saying all along: Hispanic voters, especially older men, which is what the data shows, they are swing voters,” Luján told JI. “You can’t expect someone just to come and vote for you if you don’t show up and earn their trust and knock on their doors and find out what’s important to them. And you can’t just do that after early voting has begun two weeks away from Election Day. I think that’s a mistake that’s been repeated so many times.”

Luján expressed particular disappointment that several Democratic members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus were defeated in 2020, including in Florida, California and his home state of New Mexico, where Rep. Xochitl Torres Small (D-NM) was unseated by Republican Rep. Yvette Herrell. “In 2018, we won seats across the country with strong, Democratic, Hispanic candidates — unfortunately, several of them that are not back,” the senator said, noting that as chairman of the DCCC from 2015 to 2019 he made a concerted effort to engage Hispanic voters “much earlier than they ever had been before.”

“By February and March of the off year,” he told JI, “I had opened up offices in several communities across America where we were reaching out to Hispanic voters — on their doors, on social media, in their communities, both English, Spanish, and then, as we often say, Spanglish, where you use English and Spanish together in one sentence and it confuses everyone that doesn’t speak that way, including English speakers and Spanish speakers. But if you’re in New Mexico, it rolls off the tongue, and often you’ll hear me do that. That just came from my experience.”

Though he is now in the Senate, Luján said he would still work with his Democratic House colleagues on Hispanic outreach. He suggested that shoring up Hispanic support was more a matter of direct engagement than countering Republican misinformation. 

“When parties and candidates lose support in communities, it’s often because they don’t show up,” Luján argued. “If someone’s not showing up, then you’re not taking the time to show communities that you care about them. You’re not taking time to earn the trust of those voters where it may have been lost. Think about the work that President Biden had to do, where voters that supported President Barack Obama in ’08 and ’12, then voted for Donald Trump in ’16, but then voted for Biden again in 2020. We have to earn their trust back and earn their support and earn their vote. That matters very much. You need to go and you need to engage.”

“But you have to do it meaningfully,” Luján said. “You need to go into those communities. They need to get to know you as much as you need to get to know them, and I would say especially with Hispanic voters.”

“Everyone running these committees needs to understand the shift that we saw in this last election cycle,” he added, “the investment that needs to be made at earning the trust of Hispanic and Latino voters across America, and making sure that there’s a plan put forth for what will be the largest community of color in just a few short years. We’re a young voting bloc right now. There’s millions of Hispanics turning 18 every year, four million that voted in 2020 that were not eligible to vote in 2016.”

Pausing for a brief moment before heading to vote, Luján jokingly concluded: “Not that I’ve thought a lot about this.”

Senators Rosen, Scott and Booker launch new Caucus on Black-Jewish Relations

Sens. Jacky Rosen (D-NV), Tim Scott (R-SC) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) are launching the first-ever Senate Caucus on Black-Jewish Relations to combat racism and antisemitism, the senators announced Wednesday.

The caucus’ leaders seek to build on a long legacy of Black-Jewish collaboration during the civil rights movement, according to a mission statement obtained by Jewish Insider, citing events including the involvement of Jews in the founding of the NAACP, the killings of Jewish and Black Americans during the Freedom Summer of 1964 and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s prominent role alongside Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1965 march in Selma, Ala.

“Now, nearly 53 years after Dr. King’s assassination, Black and Jewish communities find themselves at a crossroads — facing the common evil of hate and bigotry, yet struggling to unite around issues that affect each other’s survival,” the mission statement reads. “Reinvigorating the Black-Jewish coalition is critical to combating racism and rising antisemitism.”

Rosen echoed this goal in a statement on the caucus’ formation.

“In the 20th century, the Black-Jewish partnership helped usher in the birth of the civil rights movement, as Black and Jewish Americans came together to take a stand against bigotry and hate,” Rosen said. “This new, bipartisan caucus is an opportunity to come together and build bridges that connect us, shine a light on our common challenges, and form a coalition where we advocate for one another as we help lift up both the Black and Jewish communities.”

The announcement comes as lawmakers on Capitol Hill have offered a range of proposals to address a recent spike in antisemitism in the wake of last month’s conflict between Israel and Hamas.

“The Black community understands the pain of discrimination that our Jewish friends have faced both here and abroad,” Scott said in a statement. “With anti-Semitism on the rise, it’s increasingly important that we stand united.”

The caucus will formally launch next week during the American Jewish Committee’s Global Forum, and follows in the model of a House caucus founded in 2019 by Reps. Brenda Lawrence (D-MI), Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) and Lee Zeldin (R-NY); former Rep. Will Hurd (R-TX); and the late Rep. John Lewis (D-GA). 

“The African-American and Jewish communities have historically shared common struggles, and from those struggles, we have formed an undeniable bond,” Booker said in a statement. “Our two communities have a long history of working together and standing against hate and bigotry. I am proud to join my colleagues in launching the Senate Caucus on Black-Jewish Relations to strengthen the ties of our communities and work towards our common goals of promoting civil rights, standing up against hate, and building a more just and caring world.”

The caucus will seek to “raise awareness of each community’s challenges and needs” inside and outside of Congress; use legislation, education and dialogue to eliminate racism, antisemitism and bigotry; and “[provide] resources to members of Congress to empower them to bring African American and Jewish communities together,” according to the mission statement.

Schumer calls on Biden to address broader range of issues in Iran talks

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) called on the Biden administration on Thursday to address a range of issues in addition to Iran’s nuclear program in its negotiations with Tehran during a virtual event with the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York.

Schumer emphasized that he opposed both the 2015 nuclear deal when it was signed as well as the Trump administration’s withdrawal from it three years later, which he said “isolated the U.S., instead of Iran.” 

“Today Iran has a greater ability — they’re closer to producing a nuclear weapon — than they were the day Trump pulled out of the agreement or the day Obama signed the agreement,” Schumer said.

The longtime New York senator indicated that he would like to see a broader deal with Iran addressing a range of issues including terrorism, ballistic missiles, human rights and hostage-taking, rather than focusing on the nuclear issue alone.

“I understand why the current administration is in negotiations and I don’t have any problem with them sitting down and talking, but I also believe… we have to follow through on all of these issues,” Schumer said. “It’s not that we shouldn’t sit down, because if we don’t sit down, Iran could just go forward and produce a nuclear weapon… but when we do sit down we have to make sure there are a lot of issues on the table.”

The Senate majority leader also said he plans to push for $360 million in funding for the Nonprofit Security Grant Program (NSGP) for fiscal year 2022. In 2020, the House approved $360 million in funding, while the Senate only approved $90 million; the chambers compromised at $180 million.

“I wanted $360 [million]. I was only minority leader in December. I got it doubled to $180 [million], now we’re going to try to get the full $360 [million] a year, which is very much needed and has broad support, so I’m very optimistic,” Schumer said.

Last week, a group of House members — roughly one-third of the legislative body — expressed support for $360 million in NSGP funding for 2022, which is also the target amount for a number of Jewish community organizations lobbying on the issue.

In recent weeks, however, several senators who had been vocal supporters of the NSGP program declined to provide to JI a specific target level for 2022 NSGP funding.

Earlier on Thursday, Schumer paid a shiva call to the family of Pinchas Menachem Knoblowitz, who died in the stampede at a Lag B’Omer gathering at Israel’s Mount Meron last weekend that killed 45 people. Schumer told the family he has “a deep faith in Hashem. 

“I have a Jewish heart — a neshamah,” Schumer said. “I have a deep faith in God. If I didn’t I wouldn’t be in this job.”

Also Thursday, the New York senator stopped by Junior’s in Times Square, digging into a slice of the restaurant’s famous cheesecake, to celebrate the location’s reopening.

“If there’s an iconic place on the planet that tells the toil of COVID, it’s Times Square,” Schumer said. “All of Times Square is coming back. And we’re here to say now that in Times Square there is light, there is liveliness, and there is cheesecake.”

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.

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.

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