by Mitchell Plitnick
The American Jewish Committee (AJC) made headlines by unveiling its latest project, the Congressional Black-Jewish Caucus. It sounds like a terrific idea, and certainly AJC is claiming to have done a lot to lay the groundwork for it. These two communities—which overlap a lot more than many people realize—have a long and complicated history, marked by periods of great mutual support but also of mistrust and hostility. A caucus in Congress to help inform policy that would be beneficial to both communities should be welcome.
But this is one of those eras where mistrust abounds, aggravated recently by the focus of the Jewish community on Black thought leaders who are sympathetic to the Palestinian side of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Accusations of disproportionate hostility toward Israel, accompanied by both indirect and direct accusations of anti-Semitism have tenderized already fraught community relations, where too many Jews and Black people feel that the other bears them ill will. These tensions are particularly hard on Black Jews and other Jews of Color, members of both communities who must contend with this friction in the most personal way.
All of this should make the caucus even more welcome. But the inclusion of Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY) in the new Black-Jewish Congressional Caucus inevitably raises significant questions about its intent. Zeldin represents New York’s First District, a swath of Long Island that includes the wealthy Hamptons, but also some working-class towns on Long Island and middle-class areas. The district went for Barack Obama twice, but went to Donald Trump in 2016, and has generally been a battleground district, with eventual winners enjoying narrow victories.
Zeldin defeated Democratic Tim Bishop, a six-time Democratic incumbent, in 2014 by campaigning as a moderate Republican, but his stances quickly veered sharply right, as they mostly had during his time in the New York state Senate. He was an early supporter of Donald Trump and has been a vocal defender of the president since his election. More recently, Zeldin led the Republican charge against Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), charging her with anti-Semitism, and sustaining attacks on her in provocative fashion. For example, Zeldin recorded a violently anti-Semitic voicemail he received and asked if Omar agreed with it.
The new caucus should be bipartisan and should represent the scope and breadth of the Black and Jewish communities. Ideally, it should reach out to the growing number of Americans who are part of both communities for help and leadership in bridging the gaps. Republican and Democrat, conservative and liberal alike should be included and heard. But that acceptance cannot reasonably extend to normalizing stances offensive to both groups. No doubt, some will wonder about Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s trustworthiness, given her involvement in dissembling about a floor vote that restored a plank to the Democratic platform calling Jerusalem Israel’s capital, and her involvement in emails that showed that the Democratic establishment had tilted against Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primary race.
But there is simply no comparison between Wasserman Schultz’s involvement and that of Zeldin. Just as Rep. Will Hurd (R-TX), another member of this caucus, may represent a minority of the Black community as a conservative, so does Zeldin in the Jewish community. That’s not the problem, as a wide range of community representation is desirable. Yet if any member’s dedication to combating anti-Semitism were questionable, they would not be an appropriate choice for this caucus. And this is the problem with Lee Zeldin.
Zeldin’s long history of troubling stances and remarks make him unsuitable for a role in this new caucus, and his history of controversial statements make him unrepresentative of a Jewish community seeking to strengthen its relationship with the Black community in the United States. Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka, both headliners at Zeldin fundraisers, have ties to alt-right movements that reflect both racism and anti-Semitism. Any congressman supported by such forces has no place in a Black-Jewish caucus.
One activist, Phyllis Hartmann, with the progressive Jewish group, Bend the Arc, said of Zeldin in 2017:
It’s incredibly disheartening and disappointing to see Rep. Zeldin continually align with and refuse to question [President] Trump’s agenda, especially as a Jewish member of Congress. We’re demanding that Zeldin reject President Trump and his white supremacist allies and join those—including people of faith and conscience in his district—who oppose hatred and bigotry.
Zeldin has repeatedly met with The Oath Keepers, a far-right militia group who confronted the protesters in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 after the police shooting of Michael Brown. The Southern Poverty Law Center classifies the Oath Keepers as an extremist group.
Zeldin demonstrated no inclination toward conciliation during the controversies involving Rep. Ilhan Omar, one of the first two Muslim women in Congress. Instead, he chose repeatedly to aggravate the situation by attacking her, including comparing her to Robert Bowers, the mass murderer who carried out the attack on a synagogue in Pittsburgh.
Why did the AJC invite this sort of view into a caucus meant to bring the Black and Jewish communities together? AJC’s assistant executive director, Avi Mayer, went quickly on the attack against Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour when she raised many of these same points. Mayer absurdly said that Sarsour was “panicked” at the idea of Black and Jewish communities coming together, even though her complaints against Zeldin were precisely that he has long worked to drive the two groups apart.
This is a question that goes beyond this caucus. Zeldin is taking a leading role in defending Donald Trump’s radically accelerated program of crushing the Palestinians to implement permanent Israeli control over the West Bank. Despite his marginal status in the House of Representatives, Zeldin is also leading the way in weaponizing accusations of anti-Semitism against critics of Israel, as he displayed so clearly with Ilhan Omar.
The AJC is a generally moderate Jewish organization that, under president David Harris, has come to extremely hawkish positions on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Supporting Zeldin as a founding member of a caucus ostensibly dedicated to bringing Black and Jewish communities together will certainly help him in his ongoing attacks on Black thought leaders expressing sympathy for the Palestinian cause. Despite white supremacists perpetrating some of the most horrific attacks on Jews in U.S. history, Zeldin has not set his sights on countering this particular threat. Although the caucus specifically names white supremacist groups as a nemesis, Zeldin’s track record suggests that he has other priorities.
A caucus like this new one must include the widest possible scope of legitimate views, but Zeldin’s history reflects views that fall outside the scope of legitimacy. His presence in this caucus is fundamentally incompatible with a stance opposing white nationalism, anti-Semitism, and racism. Moreover, the association of this caucus with Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) will undoubtedly give Zeldin cover for more attacks on people of color over the issue of Palestine. If the caucus is to have legitimacy, Zeldin cannot be a part of it.