Nov 6, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Inside the "contentious" push for a congressional Jewish Caucus

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

A group of pro-Israel Jewish Democrats is taking a big step toward establishing a formal congressional Jewish caucus — but the idea is being met with skepticism from some of their more progressive colleagues, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: The effort has generated some discord among Jewish lawmakers at a time when emotions are already high due to the divisive Israel-Hamas war and related legislative fights.

  • "This has been an incredibly tense time, and we're all under a lot of pressure," one Jewish member told Axios.
  • Some Jewish lawmakers feel an official caucus would give them greater representation in leadership decisions, but others think it would be difficult to organize all Jewish Democrats into one group.

Driving the news: Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) filed paperwork to the House Administration Committee to create the caucus on Friday, the day after the House voted on a $14.3 billion military aid package to Israel, according to three sources familiar with the matter.

  • Schultz was one of just five Jewish Democrats who voted for the bill, with 18 others voting against it due to its cuts to IRS funding. Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), who is running for president, did not vote.

What they're saying: "There are Jewish House members working together to form a Jewish caucus that will allow us to approach issues and matters before Congress through a Jewish perspective and to help prioritize issues important to the American Jewish community," Schultz told Axios in a statement.

  • Schultz said the group is "working together to discuss the details and get feedback from all of the Jewish Members," and that it's "increasingly evident that we need a seat at the table on matters that are critical to our communities."
  • Rep. Brad Schneider (D-Ill.), a pro-Israel Democrat who voted against the aid bill, said the caucus is "not about Israel, this is about Jewish members of Congress," citing "anti-Semitic calls and letters" members have received.
  • Schneider and Schultz told Axios the plan is to allow Congress’ two Jewish Republicans to join. “The caucus will be open for all Jewish Members to join,” Schultz said.

What we're hearing: The move was made without consulting the broader Jewish members' group that currently exists in an informal capacity, according to multiple Jewish lawmakers who requested anonymity to discuss sensitive internal dynamics.

  • Some corners of the group viewed the filing as provocative, in part because Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) — as the most senior Jewish House member — is considered the group's leader.
  • In particular, Jewish progressives who don't share Schultz's staunchly pro-Israel politics said their membership is far from guaranteed. "I believe it will become contentious," one progressive said of the push.
  • Schultz told Axios she has had “an enthusiastic response so far, as discussions have begun.”

The backdrop: The Jewish members' group is an informal gathering that meets irregularly, often to speak with visiting Israeli officials, Axios previously reported.

  • In the wake of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel, the group has enjoyed unusual unity, with all two dozen members signing onto statements denouncing the attack and praising President Biden’s leadership in the Middle East.
  • The idea of a formal Jewish caucus has long been debated and discussed, but the group remains far from unified on the issue.
  • One Jewish lawmaker told Axios an official caucus would afford Jewish members a "seat at the leadership table" that the Congressional Black, Hispanic and Asian Pacific Islander caucuses enjoy.

Zoom in: There are many thorny questions that would need to be addressed.

  • The Jewish members span from some of Congress' most progressive Democrats to some of its most moderate, which could make it difficult to issue endorsements or statements on key votes.
  • Congress doesn't have religious caucuses, and some members want to ensure that the group is strictly secular and formed along ethnic or cultural — not religious — lines.

The big picture: The debate over Schultz's move is nothing new given the longstanding and fundamental ideological disagreements among Congress' Jewish members, particularly on Israel.

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