What Do the Numbers of Jews in Congress Mean? Not Much

By | Nov 13, 2018
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Some look at the results of Tuesday’s midterm elections and see a surge in minority representation. Others will analyze the failure of incumbents or the Republican loss of suburban voters. Many view the 2018 midterms as the year of the long-awaited surge in women’s representation. We, however, count Jews.

For all its political sophistication and savviness, the Jewish community still takes great interest in the bottom line: How many Jews got in? Did the Jews win? This quantitive measure does not answer the gentries-old question “is it good for the Jews?” but satisfies the need to take pride in communal prominence, in knowing that the few have prevailed. And for that matter, 2018 provided some good news: Jews will not only continue to be the most over-represented faith group in Congress, but the numbers have actually increased significantly.

All Jewish incumbents seeking reelection held on to their seats, most of them without breaking a sweat. Three have chosen to leave Congress (Sander Levin for retirement, Jacky Rosen for a successful Senate bid, and Jared Polis won the race for governor of Colorado.) In addition, eight new Jewish members, all Democrats, were elected to the House. The two sitting Republican Jews kept their seats. The new Jewish faces coming to Capitol Hill are as diverse in their background as the rest of the Democratic freshman class: women, military veterans, professionals who had no previous political engagement, and, of course, a local Jewish federation lay leader.

Not all Jewish candidates emerged successful from election day. Among them were Democrat Kathy Maning, former chair of Jewish Federations of North America, who lost in a tight race in North Carolina, and Republican Lena Epstein, a staunch Trump supporter who got into trouble after inviting a Messianic rabbi to speak at a rally after the Pittsburgh massacre, who was unsuccessful in her bid for a Michigan congressional seat.

What do these numbers mean? Not much.

Apart from a source of pride in the success of Jewish Americans, third and fourth generation to the massive immigration wave now filling positions of power their great-grandparents could hardly dream of, there are rarely any “Jewish” issues or causes that unite these lawmakers and turn the impressive numbers into a political bloc.

Jews in Congress do not caucus, at least not formally. At most, there was an unofficial Jewish caucus of House Democrats, which was led by Henry Waxman until his retirement, but this was no more than a symbolic group, gathering once in a while over bagels for some friendly schmooze. Jewish members of Congress do not discuss policy as a group, and while they have traditionally taken leadership roles on issues relating to anti-Semitism and, to a certain extent, to Israel, they have done so as individuals, or as Democrats, not as a Jewish group. In the outgoing House, the bipartisan task force on anti-Semitism is co-chaired by five non-Jewish members and three Jews.

Clearly, advancing resolutions relating to concerns of the Jewish community, such as Department of Homeland Security grants for fortifying houses of worship, or actions to counter anti-Semitism worldwide by, for instance, urging President Trump to fill the vacant position of special envoy to counter anti-Semitism, find more resonance in the offices of Jewish lawmakers. But those who care about these issues have no real problem finding support among non-Jewish members.

When it comes to Israel, there is no more of a consensus among Jewish Democrats about actions of the Netanyahu government than there is among non-Jewish members. In fact, it was the Jewish members in both chambers who had called out the Israeli government in the past year for actions seen as undemocratic or as undermining non-Orthodox denominations. Getting more Jewish elected officials would hardly make Netanyahu’s life any easier when it comes to these issues, or to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As for the main issue up to Congress—foreign aid to Israel—here Jewish and most non-Jewish members alike are on board with continuing to provide Israel $3.8 billion a year in military assistance.

So where does the number of Jewish lawmakers come into play?

Mainly in the work of groups representing Jewish and pro-Israel interests. For them, finding a friendly face, knowing that an office will always take your call and that the member is likely to attend your fundraising dinner, goes a long way. Jewish members of Congress are not the ultimate goal of Jewish lobbying, simply because their numbers, impressive as the may be, are still small. But they can be the first stop for the wide array of Jewish cause lobbying efforts, from Israel to social justice, and at times, it’s the first door to open that makes the difference.

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