Rep. Adam Schiff speaks with reporters on Capitol Hill on March 30 about the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Photo by Yuri Gripas/Reuters

The making of Adam Schiff: Why is this man taking on the president?

This is hardly the first time Adam Schiff has had Russia on his mind.

Years ago, and long before he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, Schiff was a United States Attorney in Los Angeles who led the prosecution of an FBI agent  convicted on spy charges.

“Sex for secrets,” he recalled in a telephone interview with the Jewish Journal last month. “He was seduced by an attractive KGB asset named Svetlana — they’re always named Svetlana. I had to work extensively with the FBI even though it was the first time an FBI agent was ever indicted for espionage. … It’s so odd to be working on a case again involving the bureau and Russia. But it does feel like it’s come full circle.”

Congressman Adam Schiff, 56, is one of 18 Jews serving in the House, and these days, one of the most prominent of the chamber’s 193 Democrats. He’s been everywhere lately — a guest on CNN and MSNBC, a focus of stories in The New York Times and The Washington Post. His Twitter following is growing exponentially. Already, people are suggesting he could become a presidential candidate in 2020.

And all this for one reason: Schiff is the ranking member — the top Democrat — on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, which is investigating whether the Russian government interfered with the 2016 presidential election and whether anyone in the Trump campaign had a role in it.

With Democrats in the minority, Schiff has only so much power in setting the panel’s agenda. Nonetheless, he has emerged as a forceful counterweight to President Donald Trump’s defenders, who insist the current investigations into Russia’s election activities — the Senate and FBI are holding their own probes — are little more than politically motivated witch hunts designed to undermine the Trump presidency.

“The American people do have a strong center of gravity that will constrain [Trump’s] worst impulses, so I’m a believer in our democracy.” — Adam Schiff

Undaunted, Schiff is pressing ahead, an effort that draws together the most salient parts of a life in public service — his Judaism, his law background, four years in the California Senate and his 16-plus years in the House — not to mention his role as a Big Brother to a young African-American boy who Schiff’s father, Ed Schiff, says made Adam “a better person.”

It’s a foundation that also has cemented his confidence in American institutions despite the current chaos of Washington.

“I think our democracy is resilient enough; we’ll get through this, I think, even if the president doesn’t operate within established norms of office,” Schiff said. “The American people do have a strong center of gravity that will constrain his worst impulses, so I’m a believer in our democracy. I think we’ll get through this. But certainly, there are some rough roads ahead.”

Schiff was born in Boston in 1960, a few months before John F. Kennedy was elected president, as the younger of two sons to Ed and Sherri Schiff. Theirs was a mixed marriage: Ed, who now lives in Boca Raton, Fla. — “living the ‘Seinfeld’ life,” his son said — is a Democrat; Sherri, who died around 2009 of complications from Alzheimer’s disease, was a Republican.

Adam Schiff poses during his bar mitzvah in June 1973 at Temple Isaiah in Northern California. Photo courtesy of Ed Schiff

Ed Schiff was a businessman who moved around the country as a regional sales director for Farah, a men’s pants manufacturing company. Sherri, “bored with country club life … went into real estate, where her boss said, ‘You are wasting time writing copy. Why don’t you get into sales?’ ” Ed said.

After a few years of living in Arizona, the Schiffs moved in 1970 to Contra Costa County in the Bay Area, where Ed got out of the “rag business,” as he called it, and purchased a building materials yard.

In those days, Adam was a studious boy who, according to his father, always did his homework, adored his mother and had a friendly sibling rivalry with his older brother, Dan, a relationship Adam would later write about in a screenplay — never produced — called “Common Wall.” Adam became a bar mitzvah at Temple Isaiah, a Reform congregation in Lafayette, Calif., in June 1973.

“I certainly do remember making tape recordings of my [bar mitzvah] practice sessions on cassette tape with a little cassette recorder, and I think I may even have one of those,” Schiff said. “It’s funny to hear your voice back then.”

In 1978, he entered Stanford University. A pre-med student, he also studied political science, and upon graduation, he was unsure if he wanted to pursue law or medicine. He decided on the former and enrolled at Harvard Law School.

After graduating in 1985, he clerked for federal Judge Matthew Byrne, a Los Angeles native who presided over the trial involving Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. Later, Schiff spent six years as an assistant U.S. Attorney in L.A. During that time, he met his wife, Eve Sanderson Schiff — yes, they’re Adam and Eve — and prosecuted Richard Miller, the FBI agent convicted of espionage.

Schiff’s success against Miller, as well as Byrne’s influence, accelerated his interest in politics.

“After Adam convicted the FBI agent of treason, he called me and said, ‘Dad, can you imagine what it’s like to have representatives of the most powerful nation in the world calling you and offering to help you in any way they could? Dad, I will never have another case like that in my life,’ ” Ed recalled his son saying. “ ‘I’m going into politics.’ ”

Twice he ran unsuccessfully for the California Assembly but promised his supporters he would do better next time. In 1996, he was elected to the State Senate.

“Adam takes things in progression, and the learning curve … with each loss made it that much easier the next time,” his father said.

In 2000, Schiff ran for Congress to unseat Republican James Rogan in what was then the most expensive House race of all time. Rogan was a two-term Congressman who had his own national profile, in part, from working to impeach President Bill Clinton. Schiff sought help from his mother, asking if she’d make phone calls to voters on his behalf.

“He said, ‘Mama, I would like you to do something for me. I would like you to call these people and tell them a little about me and ask them to vote for me. She jumped into that for 2 1/2 years like it was eating ice cream,” Ed said. “Her spiel went like this: ‘Good evening. My name is Sherri Schiff. My son Adam is running for Congress in your district. May I tell you a little about him?’ ”

Schiff currently is serving in his ninth two-year term in the House, representing a district that now extends from West Hollywood to the eastern edge of Pasadena and from Echo Park to the Angeles National Forest. He has a reputation as a moderate who works with members of both parties. With a large constituency of Armenians, he has championed legislation that would formalize United States recognition of the Armenian genocide of 1915-17. He once delivered an entire speech on the House floor in Armenian and worked with the Armenian members of a hard-rock band, System of a Down, toward seeking recognition of the genocide.

Regarding Israel, which is never out of the headlines, he said, “I’m deeply concerned with a trend I’ve seen over the last several years, where the U.S.-Israel relationship, which always had been very bipartisan regardless of who was in office in Israel or in the U.S., has been trending toward a situation where you have a GOP-Likud relationship and Democratic relationship with other parties in Israel. I think that’s a very destructive trend.”

In 2015, as Jews became polarized over the Iranian nuclear agreement, Schiff considered both sides, then came out in favor of it. Recently, he expressed concern that in the event Trump believes Iran has violated the agreement by developing a nuclear weapon, the president’s outlandishness on Twitter and elsewhere will undermine his credibility in efforts to galvanize allies into action against Iran.

“I have been so appalled by this president’s conduct. I feel I have to vigorously oppose his efforts to undermine our system.” — Adam Schiff

“If they are cheating and the president calls them out on it and thinks there should be some response to it, will the country believe it?” he asked. “The allies we’d need to participate with us, would they believe us? The intelligence agencies that he’s maligning? This is the reason why presidential credibility is to be treasured and not squandered.”

Like Trump, Schiff uses Twitter to communicate his positions. One of his most shared tweets — more than 43,000 retweets and nearly 83,000 likes — addressed Trump’s tweet aimed at the “so-called judge” who had blocked his executive order barring individuals from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S.:

This ‘so-called’ judge was nominated by a ‘so-called’ President & was confirmed by the ‘so-called’ Senate. Read the ‘so-called’ Constitution.”

Tweets aside, Schiff’s 17-minute opening statement during the Intelligence Committee’s first public hearing on Russia on March 20 was less attack-dog and, befitting his usual public demeanor in television interviews, more lawyerly. He cited events of the presidential campaign that could suggest coordination between Russians and the Trump campaign, improving the Republican’s chance of victory.

“Is it possible that all of these events and reports are completely unrelated and are nothing more than an entirely unhappy coincidence? Yes, it is possible,” Schiff said, addressing FBI Director James Comey and Michael Rogers, director of the National Security Agency. “But it is also possible, maybe more than possible, that they are not coincidental, not disconnected, and not unrelated, and that the Russians used … techniques to corrupt U.S. persons. … We simply don’t know.”

In the interview with the Journal, he said, “I have been so appalled by this president’s conduct. I feel I have to vigorously oppose his efforts to undermine our system, and so, I certainly think there is more than a grain of truth to the idea this is a different kind of role for me.”

Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in West L.A. met Schiff five years ago at a memorial service at Forest Lawn-Hollywood Hills. Wolpe was leading the service, and Schiff said he was impressed with how eloquently and powerfully he spoke. The two struck up a friendship, exchanging book recommendations via email. The first book Schiff recommended to Wolpe reflected Schiff’s earlier involvement with Russia. It was “Eugene Onegin,” a masterpiece by the Russian novelist Alexander Pushkin.

“When he’s in town, we have lunch,” Wolpe said. “I talk a little bit about politics, but we talk a lot about literature and life.”

“When I saw him at AIPAC [in March], I told him how proud I am of how he’s been conducting himself,” Wolpe continued. “He’s in a tricky position. This is a very fraught time and I think he has conducted himself with a great deal of dignity. I am not trying to take political sides; I try my best not to. I think he is a nice, thoughtful, decent, caring and very intelligent man, so I’m impressed with him.”

Schiff’s own rabbi concurs.

“I felt personally very proud that Adam has taken stances on issues that really move him personally, and he hasn’t backed down on that,” said Rabbi Baht Yameem Weiss of Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Md., a suburb of Washington, D.C.

“From where I sit, I think he’s certainly one of the leaders in the Democratic Party right now.” — Ed Schiff, father of Adam Schiff

For all his supporters, not everyone appreciates his approach to the investigation.

“Adam Schiff is a bright guy. He’s a talented legislator, but right now, instead of focusing on the substance of the investigation, he’s focusing on politics and partisanship,” Ken Khachigian, a San Clemente-based Republican strategist and former senior adviser to President Ronald Reagan, told the L.A. Daily News last month.

Schiff and his wife, who is Catholic, are raising their two children, Alexa, 18, and Elijah, 14, Jewish. The family has belonged to Temple Beth Ami since 2010. They formerly belonged to Temple Sinai in Glendale. Alexa is involved with the Hillel at Northwestern University, where she is a freshman. She has traveled to Israel with a Jewish summer camp and will be working as a counselor at the camp this summer, Weiss said.

As a House member, Schiff said he draws on the Jewish tradition of tikkun olam (repairing the world) to influence his work in Congress.

“We have a responsibility to mend the torn fabric of the world,” he said.

For all of his success as a prosecutor, state legislator and congressman, it might have been his experience with a Black kid from Inglewood that has shaped Schiff most. In his mid-20s, fresh out of law school, he volunteered to become a “big brother” through Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Los Angeles. He was paired with David McMillan, a child of a single mother who needed a male role model for her son.

The two hit it off immediately, bonding over “The Big Lebowski,” Billy Joel and the beach. Three decades later, they are still part of each other’s lives. McMillan, now a television writer and playwright living in Los Angeles, was in Schiff’s wedding and recently attended Elijah Schiff’s bar mitzvah. There, Adam’s father approached McMillan and said, “I want to thank you for making Adam a better person.”

“I certainly would like to hope my relationship has had a positive impact, not just in how he conducts politics but also as a human being,” McMillan said.

“My ‘big brother’ is leading the resistance and is emerging as a leader not just of the Democratic Party but of all people who care about our democratic institutions and making sure they just survive.”


Left: In 1986, 25-year-old Adam Schiff gets together with David McMillan, his Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Los Angeles “little brother.” Photo courtesy of David McMillan
Right: Congressman Adam Schiff and David McMillan were paired 30 years ago through Big Brothers Big Sisters. The two would become lifelong friends. Photo courtesy of David McMillan

Speculation over Schiff’s future includes whether he might run for the Senate to succeed Dianne Feinstein, who is 83 and shares the same birthday, June 22, as Schiff. Feinstein, a senator since 1992, has not said whether she intends to seek another six-year term next year, but Schiff running to succeed her is a possibility his father won’t rule out.

“I think it would be a tremendous honor for him to step into the Senate if he wanted it, but I don’t know,” Ed Schiff said. “From where I sit, I think he’s certainly one of the leaders in the Democratic Party right now. And where that goes, how that goes, and so forth, I think it all depends on which way our country is going.”

In March, Schiff gave a speech at the Westwood home of Karl S. Thurmond, a friend of more than 30 years. In his 40-minute talk, Schiff denounced the president and expressed hope for the future of the Democratic Party before taking questions from the audience.

Left: Adam Schiff and his friend and former Harvard Law School classmate Karl Thurmond cross the finish line at the 1990 Los Angeles Marathon. Below: Nearly 30 years after running the marathon, the two appeared together at Thurmond’s Westwood home in March. Schiff spoke before 50 of his supporters and discussed the Trump administration, the future of the Democratic Party and more.

Left: Adam Schiff and his friend and former Harvard Law School classmate Karl Thurmond cross the finish line at the 1990 Los Angeles Marathon.
Right: Nearly 30 years after running the marathon, the two appeared together at Thurmond’s Westwood home in March. Schiff spoke before 50 of his supporters and discussed the Trump administration, the future of the Democratic Party and more.

Thurmond is an attorney and member of the Milken Community Schools board of trustees. He and Schiff were classmates in law school and both moved to L.A. after graduation, becoming part of a group that committed to becoming involved with a nonprofit to affect change. It was a pledge that led Schiff to Big Brothers Big Sisters.

They were 30 at the time, and Schiff was living in Venice. Training for the Los Angeles Marathon, he and Thurmond went on runs from Venice to Malibu and back, using the time to discuss career ambitions. Adam confided in Thurmond that he wanted to be president one day, to follow in the footsteps of his idol, John F. Kennedy.

“We would talk about our aspirations in life and one of his biggest from Day One was to run for political office so he could give back. His idol at the time, and I think still is, was President Kennedy,” Thurmond said. “I firmly believe, as he moves up, one day he will be running for president. And I can’t think of a better person to hold that office.”

For his part, Schiff declined to address his future.

“I don’t have much time even to eat lunch,” he said, “let alone think about anything other than what’s going on in the intelligence world.”

The crowd at last year’s AIPAC conference at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images.

AIPAC seeking bipartisan spirit in a polarized capital

Maintaining Iran sanctions, crushing BDS and ensuring aid to Israel are high on the agenda, of course.

But the overarching message at this year’s conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee is, if you want a break from polarization, come join us.

“This is an unprecedented time of political polarization, and we will have a rare bipartisan gathering in Washington,” an official of the lobby told JTA about the March 26-28 confab. “One of the impressive aspects of our speaker program is that we will have the entire bipartisan leadership of Congress.”

That might seem a stretch following two tense years in which AIPAC faced off against the Obama administration – and by extension much of the Democratic congressional delegation – over the Iran nuclear deal.

But check out the roster of conference speakers and you can see the lobby is trying hard.

Among Congress members, for instance, there are the usual suspects, including stalwarts of the U.S.-Israel relationship like Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., the minority whip in the U.S. House of Representatives, and Rep. Ed Royce, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Vice President Mike Pence is speaking, and so are the leaders of each party in both chambers.

But also featured is Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., a freshman who had the backing of Bernie Sanders, the Democratic presidential candidate who had his request for a satellite feed at last year’s conference turned down. Also present this year and absent last year, for the most part: Democrats who backed the Iran deal.

Among the other speakers are Obama administration architects and defenders of the nuclear deal, which traded sanctions relief for a rollback of Iran’s nuclear program.

One striking example is Rob Malley, a National Security Council official who didn’t join President Barack Obama’s team until his second term in part because pro-Israel objections kept him out in the first four years. (Malley, a peace negotiator under President Bill Clinton, had committed the heresy of insisting that both Israelis and Palestinians were to blame for the collapse of talks in 2000.)

If there’s a let-bygones-be-bygones flavor to all this, it results in part from anxieties pervading the Jewish organizational world about polarization in the era of Trump. Jewish groups get their most consequential policy work done lining up backers from both parties.

“We continue to very much believe in the bipartisan model because it is the only way to get things done,” said the official, who like AIPAC officials are wont to do, requested anonymity. “This is the one gathering where D’s and R’s come together for high purpose.”

J Street, the liberal Middle East policy group, demonstrated at its own policy conference last month that it was only too happy to lead the resistance to President Donald Trump, who has appalled the liberal Jewish majority with his broadsides against minorities and his isolationism. J Street’s president, Jeremy Ben-Ami, explicitly said he was ready to step in now where AIPAC would not.

AIPAC is also under fire from the right. Republican Jews who consider the lobby’s bipartisanship a bane rather than a boon were behind the party platform’s retreat last year from explicit endorsement of the two-state solution. More recently, Trump has also marked such a retreat, at least rhetorically.

The Israeli American Council, principally backed by Sheldon Adelson, the casino billionaire who in 2007 fell out with AIPAC in part over its embrace of the two-state outcome, has attempted to position itself as the more conservative-friendly Israel lobby. The right-leaning Christians United for Israel is similarly assuming a higher profile on the Hill.

And so, in forging its legislative agenda, AIPAC is doing its best to find items both parties can get behind. There are three areas:

* Iran: Democrats are still resisting legislation that would undo the nuclear deal, but are ready to countenance more narrowly targeted sanctions. AIPAC is helping to craft bills that would target Iran’s missile testing and its transfer of arms to other hostile actors in the region.

* Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions: AIPAC will back a bill modeled on one introduced in the last congressional session by Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Ben Cardin, D-Md., that would extend to the BDS movement 1970s laws that made it illegal to participate in the Arab League boycott of Israel.

* Foreign assistance: AIPAC activists will lobby the Hill on the final day of the conference with a request to back assistance to Israel (currently at $3.1 billion a year, set to rise next year to $3.8 billion). Support for such aid is a given, despite deep cuts to diplomatic and foreign aid programs in  Trump’s budget proposal.

Also a given will be the activists’ insistence that aid to Israel should not exist in a vacuum and should be accompanied by a robust continuation of U.S. aid to other countries. With a Trump administration pledged to slashing foreign assistance by a third and wiping out whole programs, AIPAC is returning to a posture unfamiliar since the early 1990s, when it stood up to a central plank of a Republican president.

Notably absent from the agenda is any item that robustly declares support for a two-state outcome. AIPAC officials say the longtime U.S. policy remains very much on their agenda, but the lobby’s apparent soft pedaling of the issue is notable at a time when other mainstream groups, including the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League, have been assertive in urging the U.S. and Israeli governments to preserve it.

Melanie Steinhardt comforting Becca Richman at the Jewish Mount Carmel Cemetery in Philadelphia, Feb. 26. Photo by Dominick Reuter/Getty Images.

Poll: 87 percent of Democrats, 53 percent of Republicans say anti-Semitism a ‘serious’ problem

Seventy percent of American voters see anti-Semitism in the country as a “very” or “somewhat serious” problem, up from 49 percent a month ago, according to a new poll.

The responses differed by party identification, with an overwhelming majority of Democrats, 87 percent, seeing anti-Semitism as a “very” or “somewhat serious” problem, and slightly more than half of Republicans, 53 percent, seeing it as such, according to the poll released Thursday.

The survey was was conducted by Quinnipiac University at the beginning of March.

Jewish institutions, including community centers and Anti-Defamation League offices, have been hit with more than 100 bomb threats so far this year, all of them hoaxes. In the past three weeks, Jewish cemeteries were vandalized in Philadelphia,St. Louis, and Rochester, New York.

Respondents were split on President Donald Trump’s response to the bomb threats and vandalism, with 37 percent approving and 38 percent disapproving. Most Republicans, 71 percent, approved of Trump’s response, while most Democrats, 66 percent, disapproved.

The poll also found that 63 percent of American voters think hatred and prejudice has increased since Trump’s election, while two percent say it has decreased and 32 percent say it has stayed the same.

Trump has come under fire for his delayed response to the incidents. Concerning the threats on Jewish establishments, Trump at first deflected questions – and in one instance shouted down a reporter who asked him about it – before calling them “horrible.”

Last month, the president noted the bomb threats and vandalism of cemeteries in his first address to a joint meeting of Congress.

“Recent threats targeting Jewish community centers and vandalism of Jewish cemeteries, as well as last week’s shooting in Kansas City, remind us that while we may be a nation divided on policies, we are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms,” Trump said.

The Kansas City incident occurred after a patron ejected from a bar after hurling racial epithets at two workers from India allegedly returned with a gun and killed one of the men and wounded another.

President Donald Trump in Oxon Hill, Md., on Feb. 24. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Trump reportedly said JCC threats may be trying to ‘make others look bad’

President Donald Trump reportedly said that a wave of threats against Jewish communal institutions may be a false flag.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who is Jewish and a Democrat, described a meeting of state attorney generals and Trump on Tuesday to BuzzFeed.

Trump called the wave of bomb threats in recent weeks forcing the evacuation of nearly 100 Jewish community centers and other institutions countrywide as “reprehensible,” Shapiro said, but added: “Sometimes it’s the reverse, to make people – or to make others – look bad.”

Shapiro said Trump said it was “the reverse” two or three times but did not clarify what he meant.

Earlier the same day Anthony Scaramucci, a top adviser to the Trump transition team who is under consideration for a White House job, advanced a similar argument on Twitter, saying the threats may be aimed at harming Trump.

“It’s not yet clear who the #JCC offenders are,” Scaramucci said. “Don’t forget @TheDemocrats effort to incite violence at Trump rallies.”

There were several incidents of violence at Trump campaign rallies during last year’s election, but no evidence linking the offenders to an organized Democratic Party effort.

Jewish Democratics push back against Canova’s attacks on Wasserman Schultz’s Israel Record

In the final stretch of the competitive primary in Florida’s 23rd congressional district, Jewish Democrats are pushing back against Tim Canova’s attacks on Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s Israel record.

As first  Canova, who is backed by former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, tied himself to top Democrats who voted against the Iran nuclear deal, including two local House members who have endorsed his challenger, the incumbent Congresswoman. “When called upon to protect Israel some legislators step up,” the pamphlet reads, quoting excerpts from statements issued by Reps. Ted Deutch and Lois Frankel and Senator Chuck Schumer against the Iran deal. “Debbie Wasserman Schultz waffled back and forth before voting for the Iran nuclear deal, choosing party and personal political ambition over principle. Tim Canova sides with Deutch, Schumer, and Frankel.”

“As Jewish representatives from South Florida, we are frankly disappointed that Mr. Canova would use us so disingenuously,” Congress members Lois Frankel and Ted Deutch said in a joint statement on Thursday. “We both strongly support Debbie Wasserman Schultz for re-election, in no small part due to her deep commitment to Israel and her tireless advocacy on behalf of the Jewish community in South Florida and around the world. We are calling on Tim Canova to immediately stop using our names and images.”

But despite his harsh attack on Wasserman Schultz, Canova seems to be still conflicted with himself over the nuclear deal. During an event at the Sunny Isles Beach Democratic Club last Monday, Canova said he can’t tell if he would’ve voted for or against the nuclear deal since he wasn’t a member of Congress at the time. He added, “I don’t want to get into a big debate about Iran. I will say that now that the agreement has been adopted, I’m for it. I don’t believe in tearing it up. It should be enforced, it should be strictly implemented.”

In an interview with Jewish Insider, former Congressman Ron Klein accused Canola of playing politics with an issue like Israel just to play to the anti-Iran deal voters in the district while at the same time appeasing the Bernie Sanders side of the party. “I’ve known [Wasserman Schultz since 1992. She is a stalwart pro-Israel person, and there’re very few exceptions to that,” Klein said. “I think him criticizing her about the Iran deal vote, and then himself going back and forth in his own position is a little bit credulous.”

According to Klein, Canola is trying to have it both ways. “He is trying to play to the Bernie Sanders side of the Democratic primary, which supports the Iran deal, and on the other hand, there are a lot of people in the Jewish community who don’t support it,” he said. “It is just hypocritical to call her out on her position when she gave it a lot of thought and has a lifetime record of being pro-Israel. He is playing politics with this issue, and it is not something we should play politics with.”

Wasserman Schultz is heavily favored to keep her seat in the August 30 primary. Just this week, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton endorsed her reelection bid during a campaign swing through South Florida, and President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe bIden announced their support for Wasserman Schultz in March.

Democrats scramble for a unique message that appeals to Jewish millennials

Amanda Renteria, the national political director for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, was running through the campaign’s messages for minorities and women: immigration for Hispanics, land use for Native Americans, various policies for defending children and women.

She didn’t mention Jews in her briefing Tuesday morning for specialty media, and there’s a reason for that: There wasn’t a Clinton issue that was unique to the Jews.

When I asked her to mention some, Renteria looked to Sarah Bard, who directs Jewish outreach for the campaign. Bard acknowledged that targeted messaging was a challenge for Jewish voters, particularly young Jewish voters.

“The Jewish millennial community is tremendously diverse,” Bard said.

Whereas older Jewish Democrats once coalesced around Israel as an issue, that’s a harder sell for younger Jewish Democrats, who increasingly question the actions of its hawkish government.

Hence the Democratic Jewish message relies on Jewish terms for familiar vague themes – Bard cited “kehilla,” or the Hebrew word for community.

“One of the strongest Jewish values is the value of kehilla,” she said before acknowledging “We do have work to do with millennials.”

Bard also spoke to the power of personalities.

“We had Sarah Silverman on the stage last night,” she said, referring to the headline-making moment when the Jewish comedian told staunch Bernie Sanders backers who were disrupting the Democratic National Convention, “You’re being ridiculous.”

Sanders and the following he has acquired among younger Democrats is emblematic of the challenge facing Bard and the Democrats among younger Jews.

Shabbos Kestenbaum, a 17-year-old student at the liberal Orthodox SAR Academy in Riverdale, New York, sported a “Jewish Americans for Bernie” button on Tuesday.

“In light of the recent Debbie Wasserman Schultz scandal, the model for Jewish Democrats should be Bernie Sanders, for transparency and integrity,” he said.

Wasserman Schultz, a Florida congresswoman, was ousted this week from her post as chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee after hacked DNC emails revealed animus by her and her staff to the Sanders campaign.

Kestenbaum was attending a breakfast for the Virginia delegation to the convention to hear about the rollout of a new political action committee, Jews for Progress. Virginia is one of six or seven swing states that Democrats plan to target, where Jewish turnout could make the difference.

By contrast, Brianne Nadeau, 35, a member of the Washington, D.C., municipal council and a Clinton delegate, said Jewish women like herself had looked to Wasserman Schultz for inspiration. She was wary of Sanders-driven talk of dismantling existing structures.

“As a member of the next generation, I want to challenge people who came before me as well as respect them,” Nadeau said.

The Clinton campaign recognizes the challenge. Xochitl Hinojosa, who handles minorities media, noted the campaign’s first major hire from Sanders’ winding-down campaign is Kunoor Ojha, who will be handling campus outreach.

The Jewish campaign also will include a campus component, Bard said, with a staffer headed to Ohio next week to work campuses there.

She and Renteria, the political director, described an intensely active Jewish campaign, with phone banks for rabbis and community leaders who call one another for support and ideas, and then report back to the campaign on successes and setbacks. There are Jewish house parties for Hillary and meetings of Jewish women. Debra Messing, the “Will and Grace” star who was scheduled to speak to the convention Tuesday night, has appeared at campaign sessions with Jewish women.

Going forward, there would be appeals asking Jews in “safe” states to campaign in swing states, including Florida, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Arizona and Colorado.

But the elusiveness of a single unifying message was evident Tuesday afternoon at a Jewish Round Table organized by Bard. Speakers focused on “tikkun olam,” repairing the world, a phrase that has become a catch-all for the Democratic social justice agenda.

“Donald Trump is not a tikkun olam kind of guy,” said Pennsylvania State Sen. Daylin Leach. “He’s more a destroy olam kind of guy.”

In Bard’s opening remarks, it was clear that Israel, a unifying factor for Jews in earlier elections, was not going to cut it anymore.

“We have no greater ally in keeping the world safe than Israel,” she said, using a one-time surefire applause line that this time was met with silence.

Much of the session focused on the threat posed by Trump’s broadsides against minorities and its recent echoes for Jews.

“This is a scary election cycle,” said Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo. “We have a candidate nominated by a major party who retweets quotes from neo-Nazis from Aryan Nation, who uses divisive quotes our people have heard throughout histories.”

Speaking earlier at a J Street session, journalist Peter Beinart, who has written extensively about the drift away from Israel among millennials, said Jewish leaders needed to retool. He said the ethos of facing down threats that motivated earlier generations no longer inspire a generation of Jews distant from the Holocaust and born after Israel’s defining wars of defense.

He lauded J Street, the liberal Middle East lobby, and American Jewish World Service, which fights global poverty and defends LGBTQ rights abroad, for tailoring their missions along lines that could appeal to younger Jews. Their approach, Beinart said, recalls the threats Jews once faced and makes them relevant to a generation that has grown up in relative safety and affluence, and with Israel viewed as a regional power.

“They say to young American Jews, ‘You have been given power and privilege because of what your parents sacrificed. Are you going to use that ethically?’” he said.

Democrats say Trump to blame for growing ‘anti-Semitism’ in Republican Party

Democrats blamed Republican nominee Donald Trump for what they depicted as burgeoning anti-Semitism in his party.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, on Wednesday said the Republican convention had brought to the fore an “anti-Semitic environment that Donald Trump embraces.”

“The anti-Semitism that is threaded throughout the Republican Party of late goes straight to the feet of Donald Trump,” she said.

Wasserman Schultz’s blunt assessment was a clear sign that Democrats intend to include anti-Jewish bias among the offenses they say Trump has made more prominent. On a conference call on the third day of the Republican convention in Cleveland, Wasserman Schultz, who is Jewish, joined Reps. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., and Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio, who is black, in listing a litany of their grievances.

Wasserman Schultz included the controversy over Trump’s use of an image that juxtaposed presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton with wads of cash, corruption charges and a red six-pointed star resembling a Star of David. She also referred to his reluctant disavowal of the support of David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader, and the Republican convention’s shutdown of comments on its YouTube livestream of the convention after anti-Semites flooded it with epithets when Linda Lingle, the Jewish former Hawaiian governor, addressed the hall.

“He shared anti-Semitic images on Twitter,” she said. “There is so much anti-Semitism in the Republican Party that on Monday night while Linda Lingle, the former gov of Hawaii who is Jewish was speaking, they shut down their live chat.”

Trump and his allies have forcefully rejected any charges of anti-Semitism, noting his closeness to his daughter Ivanka, who converted to Orthodox Judaism, and her husband, Jared Kushner, a close campaign adviser.

But Democrats are not ready to let go of Trump’s interactions with anti-Semites on social media.

Tuesday night, Clinton’s campaign chided Paul Ryan, the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, for standing by Trump after repudiating the reality star turned Republican presidential nominee for using the Star of David imagery.

The tweet from the Clinton campaign’s opposition research account, The Briefing, quoted Ryan, R-Wis., earlier this month decrying Trump’s use of the image.

“Look, anti-Semitic images, they’ve got no place in a presidential campaign,” The Briefing quoted Ryan as saying. “Candidates should know that.”

Trump posted the image, which had originated on the extreme right, on his Twitter account and a staffer scrubbed the image within hours, but Trump later said he regretted that action and would have preferred to defend the image – a quote The Briefing juxtaposed next to Ryan’s.

“I said, ‘Too bad, you should’ve left it up,” Trump said in the quote reposted by The Briefing.

“But @SpeakerRyan still endorses Donald Trump for president anyway,” The Briefing said, ending with the official hashtag for this week’s republican convention, #RNCinCLE.

The Briefing tweet went out in the evening, timed just before Ryan’s speech at the convention, on the day he steered the process for formally nominating Trump.

Ryan has endorsed Trump tepidly after wavering for months on his support. He has expressed reservations about Trump’s broadsides against minorities, his chafing rhetorical style and his foreign policy. Like many other speakers this week, Ryan focused his remarks more on what he depicted as the failures of President Barack Obama and Clinton, Obama’s first term secretary of state.

Ryan’s office did not reply to a request for comment.

But @SpeakerRyan still endorses Donald Trump for president anyway.

— The Briefing (@TheBriefing2016) July 20, 2016

Democrats slam J Street’s ‘Pro-Trump’ campaign

Hillary Clinton’s representatives on the Democratic Party’s platform drafting committee refused to negotiate additional language on Israel with Bernie Sanders’ team, James Zogby said on Tuesday.

“Clinton’s envoys to the committee arrived in St. Louis for negotiations with Sanders’ team carrying a precise message: Don’t even try to insert language on Israel’s occupation or settlement activity in the West Bank,” The Jerusalem Post “>launched an online campaign that highlights what they called are anti-Israel voices in the Democratic Party. “Radical Democrat. Stridently anti-Israel. Hand selected to be a Member of the twenty sixteen Democrat Platform Committee,” the narrator says in three separate ads, each highlighting statements made by the three Sanders appointees. “Sadly this isn’t the old Democratic Party. It’s today’s Democratic Party.”

A J Street spokesperson declined to comment.

The Republican Jewish Coalition pounced on the divide within the Democratic Party over the issue. “It’s no secret that Democrats for years have been infighting about Israel. Now as anti-Israel progressive liberals are taking more and more space from moderate Democrats these fights are exploding into the open,” RJC spokesman Mark McNulty told Jewish Insider on Tuesday. “The RJC is proud that the GOP is unapologetically pro-Israel. We will continue to make the case to Jewish voters that now more than ever they have one home and that is with the GOP.”

Sanders flexes muscles as Clinton claims historic victory

Surrounded by energized supporters, Hillary Clinton on Tuesday claimed victory in reaching a milestone of becoming the first woman to head a major U.S. political party ticket after a sluggish year-long primary battle.

“It may be hard to see tonight, but we are all standing under a glass ceiling right now. But don’t worry, we’re not smashing this one,” Clinton told her supporters gathered in the Brooklyn Navy Yard after winning a majority of pledged delegates. “Thanks to you, we’ve reached a milestone – the first time in our nation’s history that a woman will be a major party’s nominee for president of the United States.”


Did Clinton clinch the nomination?

Hillary Clinton has reached the number of delegates needed to capture the Democratic U.S. presidential nomination, according to tallies by two U.S. media outlets, as she and rival Bernie Sanders face off on Tuesday in contests in six states.

A former senator and U.S. secretary of state, Clinton would be the first woman to ever be the presidential candidate of a major political party in the country's history.

But Sanders has vowed to keep up the fight in what has been a long and increasingly antagonistic Democratic primary race.

Sanders, a U.S. senator from Vermont who calls himself a democratic socialist, has commanded huge crowds spilling out of parks and stadiums, galvanizing younger voters with his promises to address economic inequality.

But Clinton has continued to edge out Sanders, particularly among older voters with longer ties to the Democratic party. Her less lofty promises focus on improving upon the policies of her fellow Democrat and former boss, President Barack Obama.


After the Associated Press and NBC on Monday night said Clinton had clinched the number of delegates needed to win her party's nomination, a Sanders campaign spokesman castigated what he said was the media's “rush to judgment.”

Under Democratic National Committee (DNC) rules, most delegates to the party's July 25-28 convention are awarded by popular votes in state-by-state elections.

But the delegate count also includes “superdelegates” – party leaders and elected senators, members of Congress and governors – who can change their mind at any time.

For that reason, the DNC has echoed the Sanders campaign, saying the superdelegates should not be counted until they actually vote at the Philadelphia convention.

But that has not deterred the news media. The AP and NBC reported that Clinton reached the 2,383 delegates needed to become the presumptive Democratic nominee with a decisive weekend victory in Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, and a burst of last-minute support from superdelegates.

“According to the news, we are on the brink of a historic, historic, unprecedented moment,” Clinton told a rally in Long Beach, California, shortly after the AP report.

“But we still have work to do, don't we? We have six elections tomorrow and we're going to fight hard for every single vote, especially right here in California.”

But Michael Briggs, Sanders' spokesman, dismissed the AP and NBC tallies.

“Our job from now until the convention is to convince those superdelegates that Bernie is by far the strongest candidate against Donald Trump,” he said.

On Tuesday, voters will go to the polls in California, New Jersey, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and New Mexico hold nominating contests.

But the outcome in California, the last and largest state to vote, could help shape whether Clinton will gain traction in her efforts to unify the party behind her.

If Sanders, who was trailing in polls in California until recently, roars back to take the state, he may have little incentive to exit the race despite increasing pressure from party luminaries to stand down.

Clinton spent Monday working to turn out Hispanic and African-American voters – demographic groups that have provided a pillar of support for her during the nominating process.

She spent the day in Southern California, first in the heavily Latino city of Lynwood, then later in central Los Angeles, speaking before throngs of black supporters.

Sanders, meanwhile, campaigned in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Sanders' supporters have become increasingly resistant to Clinton in recent months, with fewer than half saying they would vote for her if she becomes the party's nominee, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll in May.

Last month, 41 percent of Sanders' supporters said they would vote for the former secretary of state if she runs against Trump in the Nov. 8 general election. That was down from 50 percent in April, and 52 percent in March.

Those who have decided not to support Clinton are split on what to do if Sanders quits the race. Some may cross party lines and vote for Trump, but many others appear to be interested in a third-party candidate. Some 27 percent of Sanders' supporters said in May that they would vote for neither candidate or another alternative.

One Sanders supporter, Andrew Swetland, 31, an accountant from Long Beach, told Reuters he would not vote for Clinton if she heads the Democratic ticket.

“We're tired of all the things the establishment in the party is trying to force on us,” he said, adding that he would support the Green Party's Jill Stein instead.

The Reuters/Ipsos poll included 2,919 Sanders supporters during the month of May and has a credibility interval, a measure of accuracy, of 2 percentage points.

Corker: Republicans are not more supportive of Israel than Democrats

Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee pushed back against those who are trying to make the U.S.-Israel relationship a wedge issue in the presidential campaign, during an appearance at the AJC Global Forum on Monday.

“I would love to say to the audience that, you know, Republicans are much more supportive of Israel than Democrats are, but that’s not true,” Corker said during a discussion on the U.S.-Israel relationship. “Thankfully, that is not true.”

According to the Senate Foreign Relations Chairman, while there’s an unprecedented “tenseness” that currently exists in the relationship between the Obama administration and the Israeli government, once a new president is elected, “What you are going to see is a return to the norm, regardless who comes out of this cycle.”

“But in Congress, certainly, there is bipartisan support for Israel,” Corker said.

A recent Gallup poll 

An open letter to Bernie Sanders

Dear Bernie Sanders,

You’re right. The Democratic Party has rigged the primary process – for Democrats!

I feel your pain, man. I mean, how corrupt is that? Dems looking out for Dems. What an outrage!

But look, Bernie my brother, since I’m neither a part of the ruling class nor a career politician, perhaps you can tell me, what’s so complicated about the leaders of an organization – any organization – limiting the decision making to members of that particular organization?

Most people get that the Television Academy reserves Emmy ballots for its rank and file, rather than members of the Motion Picture Academy, because there’s a separate election for those folks. You know, a little thing called the Oscars.

Similarly, the Baseball Writers’ Association of America limits its annual baseball awards and baseball hall of fame elections to actual baseball writers, keeping football writers at bay. That’s because baseball and football are entirely different animals. The great George Carlin explains.

Yes, the television and baseball elite allow for exceptions. It is possible for a person to work in both the television and motion industries, after all. And there’s nothing that precludes a baseball writer from working as a football writer as well. In each case, the individual merely signs up with both voting bodies, pays the membership dues required by each, and trudges the road of happy destiny in two fields of interest at one time.

While a person may work on both sides of the arts aisle, or in two sports simultaneously, it seems to me that there is a degree of wisdom to the notion that one cannot be both a Republican and a Democrat at the same time. So no, with the exception of the odd state (Washington, for example), you don’t get to vote in two primary contests in the same state during the same year. You have to choose, and when you do, you simply abide by the rules of whichever side you prefer.

As an independent, Senator, you may swing both ways. Just not at the same time.

Enough with the complaining about a rigged primary system already. It’s time to chill. To the extent that the D’s have established rules to the advantage of D’s – not R’s; not I’s – parameters were in place before any particular R or I declared for the 2016 election. It’s nothing personal.

The team which scores the most runs wins the baseball game. The squad with the most points triumphs in football. And the Oscar goes to…drum roll, please…the person with the most votes. What a concept, right?

Or as they say in sports, “scoreboard!”

Howard Cole is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, currently publishing at His work has appeared previously at Rolling Stone, the Guardian, the San Jose Mercury-News, Prevention, the Orange County Register and LA Weekly. He is also the Founding Director of the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America (IBWAA).

The drunken pigeons of Waiheke Island

There’s a bird native to New Zealand called the kereru, a larger than usual pigeon with a green-and-purple head, neck and wings, and a healthy-size white breast, that gets high on its own fumes. In warm weather, it gorges on berries till it can barely move, then sits in the sun to digest the fruit. The berries ferment to alcohol, and the kereru gets plastered. 

Which brings me to Bernie Sanders. 

No offense to the senator’s many devoted fans, but they seem to have gotten more than a bit intoxicated by whatever he’s been feeding them of late.

I had occasion to view a few kereru last week, on Waiheke Island, a short ferry ride from Auckland, and I can tell you they’re an entertaining bunch, quite boisterous and loud and limber, even acrobatic, when they first become inebriated, and getting more so the more soused they become, hanging upside down from tree branches and living dangerously as they fly head on into one another, white feathers hirsute like Bernie’s hair, wings flapping like the senator’s arms when he’s red-faced and excited and issuing commandments like they were on fire sale, giving away free college tuition, single-payer health care, the breaking up of the banks and more equitable distribution of wealth, not to mention 13 million new jobs, 12 weeks of paid family leave, universal child care and prekindergarten, all of which will be achieved by expanding government spending and making rich people pay their fair share of taxes 

Seriously? He says this with a straight face and takes Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton to task for not leveling with the American people? 

Go to, click on the “Issues” link at the top of the page, then scroll down to “How Bernie Pays for his Proposals.” Put simply, his economic plan relies on three fundamental assumptions. First, that if elected president, he can convince the United States Congress to agree to the greatest expansion of government spending since the New Deal. Second, that money for the government spending would be generated after he has persuaded Congress to raise taxes and close loopholes and make CEOs pay taxes at the same rate as their secretaries (free health care for all, for example, would require $1.4 trillion a year for the next 10 years, which Sanders plans to pay for by raising taxes and eliminating current deductions allowed to employers who provide health insurance for their workers). Finally, Sanders claims, this additional government spending will create new jobs and put more money in Americans’ pockets, which means higher tax revenue, which means more money available for government spending.

Never mind that most Democratic economists agree that Sanders has vastly underestimated the cost of his social spending and overestimated the amount of revenue he can raise through taxes and more spending. Never mind that most reasonable people may agree that getting these schemes through our divided Congress is unlikely at best. What Sanders doesn’t tell his voters is that his entire economic plan is based on the assumption that government spending for a limited length of time will indefinitely continue to generate income for the government. That is, 10 years of government spending will lead to infinite years of public spending. Let’s say that starting on Sanders’ first day in office, the government will hire currently unemployed people to work on a government-funded project — building new roads, for example. The newly employed will spend part of their income buying goods and services. This will then generate tax revenue for the government, which will in turn make more spending possible. 

But what happens when the government stops hiring people or infusing money into the economy? Sanders’ economic plan, summarized on his website, proposes up to 10 years of government spending. His assumption, which by far the majority of economists disagree with, is that people will continue to have jobs and to spend long after that decade of spending is over. In fact, the only way his plan would work is if unemployment remains permanently, drastically low — a little more than 3 percent. For context, this has happened in only six of the past 95 years. 

Honestly, people, I want some of the berries Sanders has been eating. 

Bernie Sanders started out as a likable guy with all the right leanings, the truth-telling, if a bit mad, professor who has spent a lifetime screaming from the sideline without really expecting to hear his own voice in the din. 

If you were a Democrat or someone even remotely interested in social justice, you couldn’t help but like him and love his ideas. If you were still fuming, like I am, over the fact that the bankers and charlatans responsible for the financial meltdown have gone unpunished, even been rewarded, for their larceny, you couldn’t help but root for him. As long as he didn’t have a prayer at the presidency, or at being the Democratic candidate — as long as he served as the party’s conscience and shamed its bosses into remembering that they don’t actually work for Goldman Sachs — he could have been forgiven his indulgences in the art of the impossible. At best, he was setting goals the party should aspire to; at worst, he was wasting his breath.

Nowadays, though, he’s lying to his fans and they’re buying it. 

The kereru of Waiheke Island eat and drink and get stoned until they — literally — fall off tree branches onto the ground. When they come to, their brain is still so fogged up they can’t remember where they live or how to get back up on the tree. I don’t begrudge Bernie’s voters their moment of jubilation, or their apparent lack of healthy skepticism (by which I mean gullibility). I just hope that when this is over, we all have a softer landing than New Zealand’s alcoholic pigeons. 

GINA NAHAI’s most recent novel is “The Luminous Heart of Jonah S.”

Liberal Jews plan a summer of opposing Donald Trump

Boycott Trump? Mock Trump? Trump, the musical?

Jewish liberals are ready to sow a summer of Donald Trump discontent in ways that aim both to bludgeon and entertain.

Bend the Arc, an advocacy group, is convening its first national conference here next week aimed in part at finding a strategy to keep the billionaire real estate magnate, who has secured the Republican nomination, from becoming president.

“We have been actively working and campaigning to make sure that Trump is defeated since early fall,” said Stosh Cotler, the CEO of the group, which was formed from the 2011 merger of the New York-based Jewish Funds for Justice and the West Coast-based Progressive Jewish Alliance. “That work will be continued at the conference.

“We’re hoping that this platform of 500 Jews will be an opportunity to get more folks involved in defeating Trump and the movement his candidacy has catalyzed.”

Mik Moore, the social media agitator behind the 2008 pro-Obama effort known as “The Great Schlep,” is planning a narrative series that would lampoon Trump.

Cotler said she would announce plans for a mass action that would involve Jews across the country. She did not provide more details, but pointed to the campaign to have major corporations boycott the Republican convention as a template.

That campaign, joining Bend the Arc with Color of Change, a black advocacy group, and Credo Action, a network of progressive activists, claims responsibility for Coca-Cola’s decision to markedly reduce its participation at this year’s convention, and has targeted others, including Google, Facebook and Apple. (Coca-Cola neither confirms nor denies activists’ pressure led the company to reduce its contributions to the convention, saying only that it is nonpartisan.)

Also speaking at the conference are representatives of Latino, African-American and Muslim advocacy groups, as well as politicians including Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the U.S. House of Representatives minority leader.

Other Bend the Arc actions targeting Trump include launching an online petition last November disguised as a mock “registry” of Jews — a pointed parody of his call for a registry of American Muslims — and a web adthat quoted Trump’s description of incoming Mexicans as “rapists and murderers” set against images of Nazi-era Jews who sought refuge in the United States.

“The ugly anti-immigrant rhetoric of today sounds painfully familiar to American Jews,” the ad said.

Moore’s Jewish Council for Education and Research was behind “The Great Schlep,” which drew on the talents of comedian Sarah Silverman to get young Jewish voters to persuade their grandparents in Florida to vote for Barack Obama. Silverman and actor Samuel Jackson were featured in videos in the 2012 campaign that had a similar message, albeit delivered in more profane terms.

This time around, Moore said the breadth of Trump’s challenge to liberal values demands not just a single video but a narrative series along the lines of “Halal in the Family,” a 2015 web series he helped develop featuring comedian Aasif Mandvi that promoted tolerance for Muslims.

“We’ve been thinking about how to use humor to take on Trump and to explain what his politics means,” Moore said.

“We’ve developing a bigger project, bigger than the ‘Schlep’ or ‘Wake the F— Up’,” he said, referring to Jackson’s 2012 video. “We want to do some storytelling this cycle and create characters people better connect to — better than a single one-off video.”

Moore said it was too early to reveal what shape the Trump series would take.

Jewish groups are grappling with how to confront Trump. His “America First” rhetoric has resonated with white supremacist groups, whose support Trump has been reluctant to forcefully disavow, and some of his proposals, including mass deportation of undocumented immigrants, monitoring mosques and registering Muslims, run afoul of the mainstream groups’ civil rights agenda. But directly targeting a nominee risks casting a tax-exempt group as partisan.

A number of groups, notably the Anti-Defamation League, have not hesitated to name Trump. The ADL told the Forward last week that its criticism of Trump is consistent with its longstanding practice of calling out by name politicians who cross red lines.

Other groups, including the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella public policy group, have chosen to decry the rhetoric while not naming the candidate.

Bend the Arc has an affiliated political action committee through which it channels much – but not all – of its anti-Trump activism. Cotler said the PAC hopes to raise $500,000 this season, which will be used, Bend the Arc spokesman Elliot Levy told JTA, “to promote the election of leaders who champion Bend the Arc’s issues and can move our country in the right direction.”

Cotler said Trump’s candidacy is enough of an affront to Jewish values of tolerance and inclusion that it should supersede anxieties about appearing partisan. Bend the Arc is able to carry out its anti-Trump advocacy through its 501(c)(4) group, Bend the Arc Jewish Action, which under IRS rules may devote a portion of its activities to politics.

“The Jewish community that Bend the Arc believes in is one that values democracy, inclusion and equity that understands that when any other community is singled out and banned, this goes so deeply against our core values,” she said. “This is a values-based election; this is not a partisan issue.”

Jewish Republicans, come home to the Democratic Party!

This is a dismal time to be a Jewish Republican. Unless he’s struck by lightning or attacked by a swarm of killer bees, Donald Trump will be the Republican Party candidate for president.

(If you are an enthusiastic, die-hard Trump-ette, you can stop reading this. You are beyond reasoning with.)

To briefly recapitulate just some of the reasons Trump is so awful, and unimaginable as president:

• Trump encourages his followers to beat up protesters.
• He promises to torture terrorists, and kill their wives and children.
• He has to be prodded and berated to unenthusiastically repudiate the support of white supremacists and neo-Nazis.
• He mocks and denigrates women and the physically handicapped, among others.
• On his foreign policy advisors: “I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things.”
• He admires strongmen and dictators like Vladimir Putin and Kim Jung-Un.
• He’s “neutral” on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, then Israel’s best friend, and who knows what next week.
• He has no fixed principles in either domestic or foreign policy, no allegiance to truthfulness, and no ethical or moral standards.

When “Is he more like Juan Perón or Benito Mussolini?” is a genuine question about your candidate, your political party is in more trouble than a convention of radical feminists in Saudi Arabia.

Nevertheless, millions of people have voted for Trump. Republican leaders who earlier rated him lower than bubonic plague now endorse him. He could indeed become the next president, particularly since a dispiriting quantity of Berniacs swear that they’ll vote for Trump rather than Hillary Clinton in November.

Where does that leave a rational Jewish Republican? Many current Jewish Republicans are former Democrats who checked out because the party shifted too far from the political center. As Dennis Prager has said, “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party; the party left me.”

But the GOP has been boarded and captured by people who prefer David Duke and Patrick Buchanan to William F. Buckley and Mitt Romney. Under Trump, the Republican Party is no longer a place for any self-respecting moderate voter, which most Jewish Republicans are. And that means supporting Clinton, maybe even rejoining the Democratic Party.

Now, Hillary is a flawed candidate. That’s another way of saying she isn’t a perfect candidate. Is there ever a perfect candidate? Does she hold precisely the positions on, for example, Israel, we would like? Probably not, depending on who “we” are. But she is the most consistently pro-Israel—and generally the most sensible—candidate on the ballot. Republicans are in the habit of demonizing Clinton as a radical, but the Huffington Post recently ran a piece titled, “There Is a Moderate Republican in This Race, But She’s Running as a Democrat.” That’s how the illiberal Left understands Clinton, which should reassure moderate Republicans.

Jewish Republicans, come back to the Democratic Party. At least organize a chapter of “Republicans for Clinton.” Anything to keep Trump out of the White House.

Paul Kujawsky is an Executive Board member and former President of Democrats for Israel, Los Angeles. The opinions expressed here are his own.

5 things to look out for at the AIPAC confab

Here are five things to watch for at this year’s annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which is taking place here March 19-22:

It’s Yoooooooooge.

Organizers are excepting 18,000 activists, 3,000 more than last year, the largest number ever.

So large, for the first time, plenary sessions are moving out of the Washington Convention Center to the Verizon Center, a sports arena a few blocks away.

Factors fueling interest: The perception that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel is making inroads; the unhappiness among AIPAC activists with the Iran nuclear deal; and the election season – the chance to see presidential candidates make their case to the pro-Israel crowd.

Forget the kosher dinner statistics – AIPAC’s not even going to go there, serving no mass dinner this year. But for the first time all food stands within the convention center are kosher only.

What will Donald say?

Donald Trump, the Republican front-runner, will address the conference. His three rivals for the party’s presidential nomination — Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Ohio Gov. John Kasich — are more firmly in the pro-Israel camp but are less likely to attend (although watch for video messages) because they are out on the trail, struggling to catch up with him.

AIPAC insiders are looking for two things from Trump: a repudiation once and for all of his pledge of neutrality when it comes to Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, and a more substantive outline of his plans for the U.S.-Israel relationship. Boasts about his Jewish grandkids and his 2004 appearance as a grand marshal at a Salute to Israel Parade in New York City just ain’t gonna cut it.

The Reform movement leadership has promised to “engage” with Trump over what it calls his “hate speech” targeting Mexicans and Muslims, among others. What does that mean? I asked Lauren Theodore, the Union for Reform Judaism’s spokeswoman, and she basically told me to wait and see.

How will Hillary say it?

Hillary Clinton has plenty of goodwill shored up in the AIPAC precincts of the pro-Israel community stemming from her days as the senator from New York, when she routinely appeared at conferences on Tuesday morning firing up believers before they headed to Capitol Hill. She was the first of the candidates to confirm her appearance.

She’s been running a presidential campaign, however, that casts her in every way as the second incarnation of Barack Obama – a way of distinguishing Clinton from her surprisingly resilient Democratic rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who has criticized Obama on domestic policies, particularly regarding the financial sector.

Obama II won’t play well with this crowd. Prior to the launch of the actual primaries, Clinton was more willing to distance herself from Obama, in subtle ways, on pro-Israel issues. She thought it was a mistake to make settlements such a charged issue, for instance, in Obama’s first term, when she was secretary of state. Clinton simultaneously takes credit for helping to shape the Iran nuclear deal, but also has suggested she would implement it with greater skepticism than the current administration.

Does she risk losing the Obama-loving primary voters who have kept her well ahead of Sanders in order to pivot back toward AIPAC?

Does Bernie Sanders say anything?

AIPAC has invited all contenders, but as noted above, Trump’s three Republican rivals likely will not show because they will be working hard to catch up in Arizona, Utah and Idaho, which go to the polls on March 22.

Democrats in Arizona and Utah also vote next week, and it’s not yet clear if Sanders would rather be working those states to the max or facing off against Hillary at AIPAC.

What kind of reception should Sanders expect? A polite one, according to folks I’ve spoken with. Enthusiastic? Well …

Sanders hews closer to Trump than to Clinton or any of the other Republicans on Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, telling Arab Americans recently that he would “level” the playing field among Arabs and Israelis when it comes to U.S. mediation, and counting J Street and the Arab American Institute among go-to outlets for Middle East policy advice. He also not only endorses the Iran deal, he wants to launch“normalization” with the country. There’s a petition from AIPAC critics calling on him not to speak.

On the other hand, Sanders is also the first Jewish presidential candidate to win primary contests, and over the years he has routinely made the “roll call,” the Monday night highlight when AIPAC lay and professional leaders list all the lawmakers showing up at the conference. AIPAC activists in Vermont say he gives them a fair hearing, and the video of Sanders shouting down pro-Palestinian activists at a 2014 town hall meeting in Cabot, Vermont, has become iconic in pro-Israel circles.

We love Democrats! Honestly, we do! But let’s talk Iran.

AIPAC suffered a painful split with much of the Democratic caucus last year over the Iran nuclear deal. The day it was clear that Democrats in the Senate would block a vote on whether to scotch the deal, there were emotional scenes in congressional offices.

AIPAC insiders insist that’s behind them. Democrats in Congress have been pushing hard on comity, particularly when it comes to bipartisan legislation targeting BDS and in increasing military assistance to Israel.

Except: Until late last week, the only Democrats in Congress who were slated to appear were from among the minority (28 in the House and four in the Senate) who opposed the Iran deal. On Thursday, a single Iran deal backer, Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., the minority whip in the House, said he would appear, presumably to reprise his annual pro-Israel version of Punch and Judy in which he and a top Republican disagree on just about anything except the US.-Israel alliance.

That’s one pro-deal lawmaker, two if you count Vice President Joe Biden, who casts tiebreakers in the Senate, and three if Bernie Sanders speaks. Missing from the roster – at least of this writing – are past regulars such as Reps. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the minority leader; Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee; Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., who claims to have the largest Jewish constituency in the county; and Elijah Cummings, D-Md., who established a program that sends a dozen leading African-American students in his Baltimore area district each year to bolster ties between African Americans and Israel.

No one is saying who was invited and declined and who simply was not invited. But the Iran tensions are not about to dissipate. The Obama administration has made it clear that the deal is done, and it will not look kindly on attempts to upend it – an outlook that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has respected, which accounts for some of the goodwill that has accrued between the two leaders since last year.

For AIPAC, it’s not so clear. An official said the lobby would support the reauthorization of the Iran Sanctions Act and other sanctions bills, but had yet to settle on specific bills they would back. There are multiple bills under consideration. Some would leave wiggle room for the president to ignore provisions, others seek to force his hand and suspend the agreement. Which does AIPAC back? Even Democrats who last year opposed the deal now say it’s time to move on and live with the it, while placing the agreement under intense scrutiny.

Also on the agenda:

— Netanyahu will speak via live video link. He opted not to attend in person, not wanting to be caught up in a divisive election.

— AIPAC, an official told JTA, will back renewing the U.S.-Israel defense assistance memorandum of understanding, which must be done by 2018. Specifics, though, are sparse. The Obama administration reportedly wants to bring funding up from $3 billion to $4 billion annually, while Netanyahu is holding out for an amount closer to $5 billion, saying Israel needs a boost in the post-Iran deal environment.

— Also, the AIPAC official told me, expect backing for congressional action condemning any bid by the Palestinians to seek statehood recognition outside the framework of negotiations. That includes demands for a continued U.S. veto of any bids through the U.N. Security Council.

A 2016 election column that doesn’t mention Donald Trump

The 2016 presidential campaign is a real doozy and not only because of colorful personalities and bitterly fought primaries. It is nothing less than a test of the strength of two competing visions of America grappling with a wide range of issues that have been sucked into what increasingly seems a zero-sum game.

If 2008 was a big step, 2016 is the other shoe dropping, and we don’t know if that second shoe will be on the left or the right foot.

Everything else is noise.

The historic 2008 election was a turning point, when a reshaped Democratic coalition backing Barack Obama came to power. With Obama’s election, the Democratic coalition was transformed by a new multiracial and younger party base quite different from the 1990s party that had backed Bill Clinton. This new coalition won two presidential majorities for Democrats, a rarity since Franklin D. Roosevelt. And it made a profound difference in government.

The Affordable Care Act was the biggest expansion of medical coverage since Medicare passed in 1965. Diplomatic agreements with Cuba and Iran have changed the calculus of world politics. A new global agreement on climate change has created the possibility of a unified human response to the greatest threat the species has faced. New executive orders moved immigration reform forward.

Obama’s election set off a profound reaction on the conservative side that implicated everything about people’s view of themselves and of America. The conflict is about the role of government, but also about identity — about whose America this is. The stakes of winning and losing keep getting higher. It’s no coincidence that there is a “hope gap” in the polls and in political rhetoric. Older white voters are the most pessimistic about the country’s direction, while Latinos are among the most optimistic.

Who will prevail in 2016 — the vision of change that Obama presented and, to a significant degree, accomplished and on which he was re-elected in 2012, or the dream of rolling back those changes that prevailed in the off-year elections of 2010 and 2014? The final nominees from the two parties will completely disagree about whether these changes should stand or be rolled back.

With the sudden death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the stakes got even higher. A 5-4 conservative majority has become a 4-4 split, and the battle over whether Obama can name the ninth justice has occupied Washington. If a new 5-4 liberal majority emerges, a host of decisions made by the conservative court, including the campaign finance ruling known as Citizens United, might be overturned. What had seemed to necessitate a constitutional amendment is now within reach. Conversely, a renewed conservative majority on the Court will last a generation, and Roe v. Wade might be overturned.

In fact, the next president will be able either to consolidate the direction charted by Obama and take it further, or conversely, go beyond eliminating what Obama did and push in the other direction. A Democratic president might be able to appoint a new Supreme Court majority, or extend the health care law and environmental regulations. Based on the experience of states controlled by Republicans, a Republican president and Congress might pass a national voter ID law that would drastically reduce Democratic voting, or pursue legislation to limit collective bargaining by unions.

There was a time when an election to succeed a two-term president was not about everything. We could assume that some things would change and some would stay the same, no matter who won. Those days are gone.

It does not matter who wins the Republican nomination, whether one of the four in the field, or one of those watching from the sidelines and waiting for the call of his party. While each Republican will come from a different place in the party, with a unique style, each will be pledged to undo the policies of the last eight years. If, as seems likely, Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee, she will be pledged to protect Obama’s policies and “finish the job” (in the words of Vice President Joe Biden).

Despite all the turmoil in the Republican Party today and the divisions over who will be the nominee, Republicans are likely to be highly unified and mobilized around the direction they want the country to go. Democrats are different, struggling to connect with their own grass roots and not quite able to explain to undecided or reluctant voters the stakes of the election in a way that will resonate. Republicans have invested in their vision of stopping and reversing Obama’s presidency, while Democrats have been struggling to paint a picture of a mountain climb that requires the nation to keep ascending against great resistance, portraying change as a marathon, not a sprint.

Behind this consequential battle, one that has largely been overlooked in the daily, personality-driven media coverage of this campaign, is a potential tipping point in American democracy.

Juan José Linz, a Yale political scientist and sociologist who died in 2013, has been getting some attention lately. When I was a Yale graduate student in the early 1970s, I took his course “Why Democracies Fail.” It was a remarkable and at times alarming class as we saw how democracies have fallen (and, at times, risen again). In his later work on “presidentialism,” Linz argued that the United States was the only nation with a separation of powers between president and Congress that had survived. He believed that our presidential system had survived because the parties were not fully cohesive in the way of parliamentary parties, but instead were filled with diverse and contradictory ideological forces. Now, as each party becomes more ideologically cohesive than ever before, we could be headed for a crackup. With Democrats doing well in presidential elections and Republicans dominating midterms, we have competing legitimacies.

Republicans have taken the lead in transforming our system of a separation of powers into a quasi-parliamentary model, at least for Democratic presidents. In other words, they have tried to prevent Democratic presidents from governing when Republicans hold one or both houses of Congress on the grounds that congressional legitimacy is equal to that of the president. This was the basis for the famous meeting held by Republicans on Capitol Hill in 2009 right after Obama’s victory, and it is evident again in their current refusal to consider an Obama nominee for the Supreme Court vacancy. There is reason to think that if the Republicans hold onto the Senate in the upcoming election, they would not confirm a Hillary Clinton appointee to the high court by arguing they have the electoral legitimacy to refuse. 

Given this, Democratic presidents will succeed only by putting public pressure on Republicans or by solving their colossal and increasing problem of low voter turnout in midterm elections magnified by rampant voter suppression. They have to explain to their own supporters why change is so agonizingly slow. The Republican strategy has the political virtue of demoralizing Democratic voters who expected change to happen much more quickly.

I will definitely be watching and enjoying the presidential race with all of its drama, its personalities and down-low fun. I’m no prude about this stuff. But I am also keeping my eye on the actual stakes of the election and on the prospects for a successful American democracy. 

Raphael J. Sonenshein is the executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State L.A.

Trump beats Republicans, not Clinton, in one-on-one matchups

Donald Trump would win a hypothetical head-to-head contest against either of his two closest Republican U.S. presidential rivals, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, but he would fall short of beating Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton if the election were held today, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll on Monday.

If the Republican primary featured a face-off between Trump and Cruz, a Texas senator, Trump would win the support of 41 percent of Republican and independent voters, the poll showed. Cruz would take 31 percent, while 28 percent said they would not vote in a Cruz-Trump contest.

If Rubio, a Florida senator, were pitted against Trump, the billionaire real-estate mogul would take 40 percent support of Republican and independent voters to Rubio's 34 percent, according to the poll. Twenty-seven percent said they would not vote. In this matchup, Trump's lead over Rubio is within the survey's credibility interval.

Cruz and Rubio currently sit in second and fourth place of all Republican candidates, respectively, in the run-up to the November 2016 presidential election, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll on Friday.

Despite months of leading the Republican polls, Trump would fall short in a general election competition held today against Clinton, the poll showed. In a one-on-one match-up, the former secretary of state would take 40 percent support of all voters to real estate mogul Trump's 29 percent.

Eight percent of respondents said they did not know which candidate they would support in a Clinton-Trump competition. Fourteen percent said they would not vote for either one, and another 9 percent said they would not vote at all.

The survey of 1,627 likely voters from all parties was conducted between Dec. 16 and Dec. 21, with a credibility interval of 2.8 to 3.7 percentage points.

For whom the polls toll

The horserace polls dominating today’s political news are worse than misleading – they’re bad for democracy. They’re as corrosive of America’s self-image as the news industry’s obsession with murder and disaster, a black hole wildly unwarranted by actual crime and catastrophe. They’re as toxic to our spirit as the advertising industry’s brilliant cultivation of loneliness and desire, a yearning it persuades us to slake by spending money. Worse, once the nominees are chosen, the point of poll coverage will be that, unless you live in a handful of zip codes, your vote for president is irrelevant. How’s that for civic uplift?

It’s more instructive to look at the people being polled than to look at the candidates. This cycle, despite a race on the Democratic side, it’s the Republican electorate – specifically, likely Republican primary and caucus voters – whose enthusiasm for Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina et al has so disproportionately affected the nation’s sense of its psyche. Who are these 120,000 Hawkeyes, these quarter-million Granite Staters, these engaged Republicans in a small number of states whom pollsters have repeatedly surveyed in batches of a thousand? How representative are they of you or me or people we know? According to a “>quiz here: “>11, “>five or just “>decided by a crowd that wouldn’t fill the Rose Bowl. Though there will be some effort to pump up the turnout of the base, most advertising buying, ground game spending and candidate scheduling will be driven by the pursuit of those undecided voters.

Next fall, if you want to know what winning the White House is about, ignore the liberal or conservative tribes. The data most worth knowing will describe people who will have spent the past two years ignoring pretty much everything that Democrats and Republicans say they stand for and will do. These Americans will be unlike you, but the difference will not be ideological. It will be the difference between being passionate about a leader who shares your beliefs, and being uninformed, disengaged, alienated, indifferent.

Just like you, they’ll have only one vote to cast. But theirs will actually make a difference.

Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear professor of entertainment, media and society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Reach him at

No, there are still two pro-Israel parties

Last week, Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) head Matthew Brooks told The Hill, “We as a Jewish community have to take a long, hard step back and acknowledge the reality … that today there is one pro-Israel party and that is the Republican Party.”

What a boneheaded thing to say – both because it isn’t true, and because it’s a sure-fire way to hurt Israel. 

(Full disclosure: I’m a proud RJC member.)

Let’s look at some of the ways we know the Democrats continue to support Israel:

• In a survey last December (, nearly three times as many Democrats said they want US policy to lean toward Israel than those who want the country to support the Palestinians.

• CNN found that Democrats were more likely to feel that Israel’s actions in Gaza last summer were justified than unjustified.

• In fact, 40 out of 55 Democrats in the U.S. Senate voted for a resolution offering strong support for Israel in its conflict with Hamas. None of the rest voted against. 

• There are many powerful voices within the Democratic Party taking Israel’s side even on hot-button and mostly partisan issues, such as the four Senators who voted against the Iran nuclear deal. One of them is widely expected to lead the entire Democratic caucus after next year’s election – Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

• All of the Democratic presidential candidates are on the record supporting Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state and defend itself against attack. Each has visited Israel at least three times.

Granted, a lot of those numbers are better, even much better, when the statistics regarding Republican Party are examined. But the question is not which party is best for Israel. Brooks says the GOP is the only pro-Israel party, and his claim is plainly not true.

In fact, at least some of the Democratic drift from Israel can be fairly laid at our own party’s feet. Every time we have treated support for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s conservative policies as a litmus test for supporting Israel as a whole, it was entirely predictable that support for Israel among liberals would diminish. In the last few years, our party (mostly with an eye on pro-Israel Evangelicals) has sought to make Israel a partisan issue, such as when it invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak to Congress in a manner disrespectful to Democrats.

I would of course love all my fellow Jews to vote Republican (you should hear my conversations at various Shabbat tables and family events). But within today’s Jewish community, proclaiming the GOP the only pro-Israel Party is more likely to hurt Israel than to hurt the Democrats. The “social justice” mantra and irrational phobia about conservative Christians entrenched among American Jews means that given the choice, liberal Jewish Democrats will turn against a Likud-led Israel much more quickly than against a Clinton- and Obama-led Democratic Party.

Worse than being unwise, though, the triumphalist language is completely unnecessary. 

Let’s say Israel, God forbid, once again had to enter Gaza to stop rocket attacks, and prominent Democrats began to press Israel to withdraw. The RJC should put aside partisanship and say something like this:

“The Republican Jewish Coalition wishes to express its concern about the voices in the Democratic Party urging Israel to put the lives of its citizens in danger. We are glad to be allied with the seven Democratic Senators and 38 Democratic Congressmen who are on record against this move, and we encourage other Democrats to return to their party’s historic roots in supporting the only democracy in the Middle East, which is one of America’s greatest friends anywhere.”

Even if someday Democratic support for Israel really does dry up, Republicans still mustn’t trumpet that change, because Israel needs support from both parties. The fact is, sometimes the Democrats do control one or more branches of government, and when that happens, Israel supporters need to find an open door and a willingness to listen.

Certainly, if Matthew Brooks and the rest of the leadership of the Republican Jewish Coalition are more interested in GOP electoral success than the safety of Israel, they can continue declaring themselves the only pro-Israel party. But doing so shows American Jewry that they put political self-interest over defending Israel – which couldn’t be more off-message.

David Benkof is Senior Political Analyst at the Daily Caller, where this essay first appeared. Follow him on Twitter (@DavidBenkof) or E-mail him at

The enemy of my enemy is my candidate

“End this notion that the enemy is the other party. End this notion that it is naïve to think we can speak well of the other party. What is naïve is to think it is remotely possible to govern this country unless we can.”

The speaker was Joe Biden. Along with other Jimmy Carter administration alumni, I was listening to him at a “>announce that he wouldn’t run for president. But that night, I bet few of us doubted that his paean to speaking well of the other party was a zinger aimed at Hillary Clinton.

The week before, at the debate in Las Vegas, she was asked which enemies she was proudest of making. “Well,” she said, “in addition to the NRA, the health insurance companies, the drug companies, the Iranians … probably the Republicans.” Biden’s reproof: “I don’t think my chief enemy is the Republican Party. This is a matter of making things work.” He later said on “60 Minutes” that he was talking about all of Washington, not singling out Clinton. You decide.

As Biden appealed for bipartisanship, I thought about the journey taken by his boss, President Barack Obama. He came to national attention summoning us to transcend the Red State-Blue State divide. He built on Republican policies — Romneycare and cap-and-trade — to frame his own health care and climate change proposals. He gave Republicans leading roles in his cabinet and at his White House summit on health care, and he traveled to Baltimore to be grilled by the GOP House Issues Conference. He negotiated a grand bargain on entitlement cuts with John Boehner. And in return for extending an open hand across the partisan divide, he was played, betrayed, rolled, stiffed, stymied and stung.

At best, he was seen as a bad poker player; at worst, he was revealed as a political naïf singing “Kumbaya” to a nest of vipers. It is arguable that after the Democrats’ stunning loss of the House in 2010, it was Obama’s late realization that Republicans really were his enemy, and that anything he wanted to do would need to be done without them, that has accounted for virtually all his subsequent accomplishments.

If Hillary Clinton is elected president, there is a very slim chance that Democrats will win the Senate, but it would require a miracle to also take back the House. Don’t get me wrong: “>Pew Research Center poll last year. Ninety-two percent of Republicans are to the right of the median Democrat, and 94 percent of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican. Highly negative views of the opposing party have more than doubled since 1994, when the House and Senate were wrested from Bill Clinton’s party.

Two-thirds of consistently Republican Americans, and half of consistently Democratic Americans, think that the other party’s policies “are so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.” Though half the country believes that elected Republicans and Democrats should compromise in the middle, that half is “off the edges of the playing field, distant and disengaged.”

Active citizens — primary voters, letter writers, volunteers, donors — are the people least willing to see the parties meet halfway. More than half of consistent conservatives think Republican leaders should get two-thirds of what they want when they negotiate with Democrats, and nearly a quarter of them think Republicans should get 90 percent or more.   Almost two-thirds of consistent liberals say Obama should get two-thirds of what he wants, and 16 percent of them think he should get 90 percent or more.

That’s the message that will be ringing in the ears of the new speaker of the House, and it will also be the message that the next president, of either party, will hear most loudly. I’m not sure that’s so wrong.

Unlike half the country, I don’t think there’s any particular virtue in 50-50 compromises.

What’s the middle ground with Donald Trump on immigration — deporting half of the nation’s 12 million undocumented immigrants? Building half a wall? What’s 50-50 with Ben Carson on “>wrote in reply, “do not torture, nor do they encourage others to do so, nor do they defend the practice by lying about what it really is. Decent men do not oversee the outing of covert CIA agents. Decent men do not help deceive their country into a war and then walk away with the profits. Decent men do not shoot their friends in the face and go for the Scotch bottle before they go for the cops.”

I say this with great respect and admiration for our vice president: Dick Cheney is indeed my enemy. And the enemy of my enemy is, I hope, my next president.

Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear professor of entertainment, media and society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Reach him at

At Politicon, diversity and polarity make for entertaining (and loud) political fare

Partisan, political theater was on full display mid-afternoon on Oct. 10 at the Los Angeles Convention Center, as two of the panels at the inaugural Politicon conference overlapped.

In “Independence Hall,” a panel included Democratic strategists David Axelrod, James Carville and former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, while next door in “Freedom Hall,” right-wing firebrand Ann Coulter debated Cenk Uyger, a left-wing activist and commentator.

Some of the louder Democrats in the crowd chortled as Gingrich talked economics, and whooped when Axelrod defended President Obama’s economic record. Meanwhile it seemed Uyger and the standing-room only crowd next door couldn’t quite tell whether Coulter was serious when she said it would have been better had the United States dropped a nuclear weapon on Iraq instead of toppling Saddam Hussein and then withdrawing.

“ISIS, when they put somebody in a cage and burned him alive, we thought they were the worst monsters on earth. You say you’d like to do that on a grand scale, because that’s what a nuclear weapon does,” Uyger said to Coulter, to large applause. 

“In response to 9/11, yes,” Colter responded, “we should not have sent ground troops. We should have dropped…in retrospect, now that we know we’re in a country that can elect Barack Obama, instead of bothering to create a democracy in Iraq, which we did, and which was working beautifully,” she said, to boos. “Are we getting back to immigration, the topic of my book, and technically the topic of this panel?”

The two-day conference, which ran Oct. 9-10, attracted about 9,000 attendees, according to event organizers, and brought together some of the nation’s most recognizable figures in politics, media and entertainment, including “The Daily Show” host, Trevor Noah, who performed a stand-up routine followed up by a conversation with Carville, the political commentator who helped Bill Clinton win the presidency, as well as Paul Begala, former Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), John Avlon, editor in chief of the Daily Beast, with Edward Snowden, who became famous for leaking classified information from the NSA, appearing via live video from Russia.

Modeled after the wildly popular Comic-Con, Politicon’s first run was a sort of cholent for the political mind. There was the good – former Obama speechwriter, Jon Favreau, and Jay Leno-monologue writer and Democratic political consultant, Jon Macks on speechwriting; conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, broadcasting his show live and interviewing, via telephone, Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina. There was the bad – a woman who screamed out “bulls**t!” to one of Gingrich’s points and then bragged about it after the panel. And there was the weird – ranging from the “Beats, Rhymes and Justice” slam poetry session to the cleverly and thematically cosplay-dressed attendees who got in for free.

In “Democracy Village,” the physical proximity of booths from different organizations, despite their stark ideological contrasts, created a bit of a compromising, kumbaya feel. Local conservative radio station KRLA, for example, bumped shoulders with the LGBT Republican Log Cabin Republicans, while just a few feet away were a Teamsters Local Union booth, and one for the Los Angeles County Young Democrats.

“This is really the intersection of politics and entertainment,” said Macks, who, in addition to his comedy writing, has also done debate preparation sessions with Obama, Bill Clinton, Joe Biden, John Kerry, and has done speechwriting for Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and others. “When politics is entertainment, when 24 million people are watching Donald Trump debate, this is a chance for everyone from your political junkies to political nerds to your issue-oriented people to everyday citizens who are just interested in finding out and having some fun.”

Did Politicon, with its variety and diversity, change minds or create some ground for compromise? Probably not, but that wasn’t really its purpose. Like any convention – whether for comic books, fashion, politics or entertainment – many, maybe even most of the attendees, were those already passionate about, and probably set in, their political and ideological beliefs. But with commentators on opposite sides of the spectrum sharing a stage, and with activists from the left and the right schmoozing and working only a few feet apart, Politicon did deliver on its slogan, “Entertain Democracy.”

Congress moves on spending bill as shutdown deadline looms

The U.S. Congress moved on Monday to rush legislation to President Barack Obama that avoids a government shutdown on Thursday as the new fiscal year starts while setting aside a bitter Republican feud over money for Planned Parenthood.

The Senate kicked off the effort by advancing a measure to extend all previous agency funding levels until Dec. 11, in a bipartisan 77-19 procedural vote.

That clears the way for the Senate to pass the spending bill by early Wednesday, sending it to the House of Representatives for passage just in time to beat a midnight Wednesday deadline.

The stop-gap spending measure is aimed at buying time for negotiators to reach a longer-term budget agreement that lasts through September 2016.

Republican House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who declared his candidacy on Monday to succeed House Speaker John Boehner, vowed to avoid another shutdown threat in December when the stop-gap funding ends and a federal debt ceiling limit is needed.

“We've got to stop these,” McCarthy told Fox News when asked if there would be a December funding crisis. “We need to join together, not just in our ideas but in a media plan. So those in America need to join with us. If we are to be successful, we need to be able to fight and win.”

Boehner is leaving at the end of October after facing repeated ouster threats from hard-line conservatives who demanded that Congress use the spending extension to cut off federal funds for Planned Parenthood to punish the women's health care group over allegations it sold fetal tissue harvested from abortions.

The group, which gets around $550 million annually from the government, has denied any wrongdoing.

Faced with a veto threat from Obama and mixed support among Republicans for a strategy that would likely lead to a shutdown, Boehner said on Sunday the House would pass a funding bill without the Planned Parenthood provisions.

But Boehner's successor will likely face similar demands from hard-line conservatives over the December deadlines.

Senator Ted Cruz on Monday made a last-ditch effort to try to stop the funding measure and restore the Planned Parenthood provisions. The Republican presidential candidate slammed Republicans leaders for “surrendering” to Obama and Democrats over the issue.

Obama “simply has to utter the word shutdown and Republican leadership runs to the hills,” Cruz said.

Why we lost the debate to kill the Iran deal, and how we could ultimately win

Early on in February of this year, as the President and his Secretary of State were starting to leak information on the  negotiations around the proposed deal with Iran, the world looked on and assumed like so many attempts before it, the prospects of success where slim – they would fail.  But the Israeli government took them seriously, they went into high gear, sending out messages through government operatives, generals and eventually the Prime Minister. This culminated in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s grand performance before congress. 

Mistake number #1.  No sitting president wants to be upstaged, nor embarrassed.   And no Democratic member of congress wanted to be part of a political maneuver that was staged not just by the Republican majority, but was blatantly used to manipulate the elections in Israel.  With that move, so began the slippery slope of alienating the key members of congress, the key democratic constituencies that could have turned the tide and killed what is arguably a “poor deal with Iran”.   

Then after the Netanyahu grandstanding, negotiations began to heat up as deadlines approached.  And Israel turned up the heat with its propaganda machine.  Leaking information on the Iranian nuclear program, placing editorials in newspapers, sending operatives from the Israeli lobby in the U.S. to media and events like congressional hearings. 

Mistake number #2 – Its not all about Israel — Its about the spread of terrorism and the importance of keeping sanctions.   As the elements of the deal leaked out in earnest in late April early May, the Israeli lobby began to attack the deal without any substance.  “We know this will be a bad deal for Israel.” stated a email from AIPAC.  “We cannot trust the Iranian's to keep their word” stated another one.  

Mistake number #3  While the Israeli lobby did the inside the beltway dance and shuffle, all the while the President and his people were out working the world stage putting pressure on our strongest allies to support a deal that they themselves had concerns about.  And setting in place U.S. based support with key Democratic constituencies.

Next up, the deal is getting done, the Iranians were close to walking away according to sources in the talks.  They did not want an extension.  We could have killed the deal right then and there.  But instead pro-Israel forces and members of the Israeli government chose a different path.  They focused their efforts on stirring up their base, sending out fundraising letters and attacking the wrong folks – the important Democrats that they were going to need in the coming months. 

Mistake number #4.  While the pro-Israel forces focused on attacking Democrats and let their Republican allies carry the message, the President and Secretary of State John Kerry were traveling the world, further pushing our allies into supporting the deal, and meeting regularly with the Democratic leadership to prepare for the eventual rollout of a flawed deal.  They knew it was flawed, yet they continued to think as they do today that this is the best deal we can get. 

Mistake number #5.  Already behind the eight-ball only weeks before the final announcement of the deal, finally the pro-Israel lobby meets in secret meetings in DC to plan what to do about a deal.    What do they do – they hire a Republican PR firm and Republican operatives to oversee the campaign, while leaking their strategy to the conservative media.   Not a great strategy, when you have to convince 30+ Democratic House members and a dozen or more Democratic Senators to oppose a flawed deal.   And in a typical inside baseball strategy they start running ads in national publications and doing TV advertising to an audience that has not been contacted in months as to their position, and has little connection to what is now become a partisan battle. 

Mistake number #6.  Panicked and playing catch up, they put into place a last minute attempt to lobby members of congress during the recess.  The big problem —  they have no base of support, the constituents that would make the most impact to members are already either neutral or are not going to go up against the President.  Having been worked for months by the administration, the supporters have convincingly framed the debate, and the Israeli government having counted the votes now knows they need to be careful for fear of a increased Obama backlash. 

Is it too late?

So where are we today, the pro-Israel groups for the last 40 days have been desperately trying to work constituencies that have no skin in the game, and are more concerned about the last two years of an Obama presidency and important members of Congress that will be critical to their issues in the coming years.  Throw on top of this members being lobbied by the leadership to tow the line or else they may end up in the smallest office, working on the subcommittee on Post Office operations. 

And so we have a misguided plan, late execution, a lost moral high ground, and many pro-Israel supporters like myself left confused and disappointed.

So can we win this? Probably not.  But we could inflict enough damage and pain that the administration and the world will listen- – implementation is still yet to be determined.    How can we achieve this.  We need to enlist the Obama coalition – go grassroots, and capture the debate by shifting the narrative away from Israel and back to terrorism and protecting the Homeland. 

We cannot re-write the history of the last 6 months.  We cannot undo the Netanyahu speech, or even bring together members of the Democratic caucus to rally behind their most trusted allies – the Jewish community.  Nor can you take back the millions wasted on national media campaigns and robo calls to staff members who have more to loose in bucking the leadership.  

Opportunity number #1.  What we could do and what we should have done is to reach out to the traditional Democratic base, the coalitions of minorities, women and seniors, labor and others that have stood side by side with the American Jewish community for decades.  Fighting for human rights, civil rights and personal freedoms.   We should have utilized this most powerful of coalitions to push back on our friends in the Democratic establishment to support what is right and what is important.   There is nothing more persuasive than a local constituent or large contributor calling or writing a member of congress to say.  “Please think before you cast this vote….”   Staff members catch on when calls come in from individuals that don't even know whom they are talking to – pushed through by eager political operatives that are making big bucks, while the President and his team count favorable votes.

Over and over again, our community falls into the same trap.  We take for granted that the communities we have been so closely aligned with, will be there when we need them. 

Opportunity number #2. So moving forward as a community, lets cast off the traditional playbook, put energy into local third-party Democratic and independent groups and focus on the importance of protecting the USA.    We as a Jewish community need to dig deep into our strong alliances with groups that have for decades relied on our support to achieve personal justice – we need them now, and they should be with us.  We need to ask them to reach key Democratic leaders and tell them its important that this deal not be implemented without the support of the community it will impact.  

That is where we should be, that is where we need to be – unfortunately, we are weeks away from approval of this deal, while continuing to  watch ads that point fingers and talk down to the same people that we need to support us.

Cory Booker among three more senators to back Iran deal

Three more U.S. senators have thrown their support behind the Iran deal, bringing President Barack Obama to within four votes of blocking a congressional vote of disapproval on the nuclear agreement.

The three additional senators were Cory Booker of New Jersey, Mark Warner of Virginia and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota. All are Democrats.

Obama already has enough votes in the Senate to sustain a presidential veto of any congressional disapproval of the nuclear agreement. With four more votes of support, Senate Democrats would have the 41 senators necessary to filibuster and thereby block a disapproval resolution from even coming to a vote.

So far, only two Senate Democrats have come out against the deal: Chuck Schumer of New York and Robert Menendez of New Jersey. All the Senate’s Republicans are against the deal.

The nuclear deal reached July 14 will provide Iran with relief from certain sanctions in exchange for limits on Iran’s nuclear program.

Courting Adelson is not Jewish outreach

This weekend, a collection of GOP presidential candidates will arrive in Las Vegas for a meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition. But don’t allow yourself to be fooled into thinking that these candidates are making a real attempt to appeal to American Jewish voters. Their presence is all about winning over a single Jewish donor: Sheldon Adelson.
Obviously, these candidates are familiar with how Adelson’s largesse almost single-handedly kept Newt Gingrich’s campaign alive in 2012. But the casino magnate does not speak for the American Jewish community, and the GOP candidates’ courting of an Adelson-funded super PAC should not be mistaken for genuine outreach.
There is a reason that more than twice as many American Jews identify as Democrats than as Republicans. The Democratic Party is the party of inclusion, empowerment, justice and opportunity. These are values that are closely aligned with the values that define our Jewish faith.
Growing up, my parents taught me that tikkun olam – repairing the world – is a central tenet and one of the most important outward expressions of our faith. As Jews and as active citizens, it was our responsibility to help and advocate for others. As I grew up, I also sought to exemplify other Jewish values like tzedakah and gemilut hasadim. Like many other American Jews compelled to stand up and speak out for the causes of justice, equality and righteousness in public policy debates, I found a natural home within the Democratic Party.
It is Democrats who seek to right injustice, promote tolerance and constantly strive to move our nation toward a more perfect union. Jews overwhelmingly support women’s rights, workers’ rights, gay rights and civil rights for all Americans. We know that when we help those around us, our community and our country are stronger as a whole. We understand the importance of America as a place of new opportunities, and believe in immigration reform that will pave the path toward a better future that welcomed our ancestors when they arrived on America’s shores. These are values for which Democrats have fought and Republicans have not.
Instead of changing their positions on the issues that matter to American Jews, Republicans have chosen the dangerous strategy of politicizing Israel’s security as their strategy to win over Jewish voters. This strategy is not good for Israel or for the long-term relationship between our two great nations.
And to be clear, this strategy to try to convert Jewish Democrats to vote Republican has not worked. Democrats are proud of America’s bipartisan support for Israel, and the GOP’s attempt to undermine that relationship for political gain has backfired.
As a Jewish woman, a member of Congress and as chair of the Democratic National Committee, I am proud of the efforts made by the Obama administration to solidify the relationship with one of our nation’s closest friends and strongest allies. Under President Obama, the United States and Israel have had unprecedented military and intelligence cooperation and strong economic collaboration. President Obama continues to fight for the issues that the Jewish community prioritizes – millions of Americans have gained access to health care and he is fighting every day to secure a fair and living wage so that those who work hard are able to support themselves and make a better life for their children.
When I think of the future I want for my three beautiful children and for our country, it’s one centered on those core Jewish values that defined my childhood. I know that all Americans understand these values and wish the same for their families. As American Jews, we understand how our values demand correcting income inequality and expanding opportunity for those fighting to get into the middle class.
Unfortunately, Republicans are light years away from where we stand. When their presidential candidates court a single big Jewish donor while attempting to attract voters through fear mongering, we see straight through that. Until Republicans are prepared to change more than just their rhetoric, Jewish voters will continue to overwhelmingly support Democratic candidates and policies.
(U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz represents Florida’s 23rd District in Congress and serves as the chair of the Democratic National Committee.)

Netanyahu facing challenges, criticism from Jewish liberals

With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu facing escalating criticism and pressure from the White House, he could use some help from Israel’s erstwhile allies in the American Jewish community — especially those with sway in liberal and Democratic circles.

But several leading Jewish liberal critics of Netanyahu are working to rally American Jewish opinion against him by stepping up their condemnations of the prime minister and calling on the United States to ratchet up the pressure on Israel.

The epicenter of this liberal Jewish push is the annual J Street conference in Washington, where in a speech on Saturday night to 3,000 attendees, the group’s executive director, Jeremy Ben-Ami, accused Netanyahu of harming the U.S.-Israel relationship through “partisan gamesmanship” and called on the Obama administration to put forth the parameters for a resolution to the conflict at the U.N. Security Council.

Ben Ami’s remarks came days after another harsh Netanyahu critic, Peter Beinart, called for the Obama administration to “punish” Israel on several fronts — including by backing Palestinian “bids” at the United Nations and denying visas to and freezing the assets of Israeli settler leaders. Beinart also urged American Jews to ensure that Netanyahu and members of his Cabinet are met with protesters at Jewish events.

While more establishment liberal and centrist Jewish organizations show no signs of writing off the prime minister or endorsing such aggressive steps, some have expressed concerns about Netanyahu’s 11th-hour campaign tactics — specifically his vow that no Palestinian state would be established on his watch and his urging supporters to counter the “droves” of Arabs coming out to vote.

Leaders of the two largest religious streams in American Judaism, the Reform and Conservative movements, both issued statements last week condemning Netanyahu’s comments about Arab-Israeli voters.

“Because we proudly and unreservedly continue our unflagging support for the State of Israel, its citizens and its values, we must condemn the prime minister’s statement, singling out Arab citizens for exercising their legitimate right to vote,” the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly said in a statement Thursday. “It is incumbent upon Jews around the world to denounce the prime minister’s divisive and undemocratic statement and we do so here.”

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, called the statement “disheartening” and a “naked appeal to his hard-right base’s fears rather than their hopes.”

For his part, Netanyahu moved quickly post-election to contain the damage from his pre-election remarks, holding interviews with several U.S. media outlets in which he insisted that he remains committed to a two-state solution but circumstances do not allow for one because of Palestinian intransigence and ongoing turmoil across the region.

Netanyahu said his Election Day appeal was meant not to suppress Arab voters, who he claimed were being mobilized by a “foreign funded” get-out-the-vote operation, but only to inspire his own supporters.

In a sign that Netanyahu was seeking to send the word out beyond his conservative base, the prime minister not only did an interview with Fox News, but talked with two leading liberal media outlets, MSNBC and NPR.

Several mainstream centrist organizations — including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the Anti-Defamation League — were quick to embrace Netanyahu’s post-election insistence. AIPAC criticized the Obama administration for having “rebuffed” the prime minister’s efforts to put relations with the United States back on track.

“Unfortunately, administration spokespersons rebuffed the prime minister’s efforts to improve the understandings between Israel and the U.S.,” AIPAC said. “In contrast to their comments, we urge the administration to further strengthen ties with America’s most reliable and only truly democratic ally in the Middle East.”

Such statements signaled strong support for the prime minister, but they also underscored the extent to which influential American Jewish groups see support for a two-state solution as a key strategy for calming U.S.-Israeli tensions. Israel’s support for two states has served as a central rhetorical point for mainstream pro-Israel groups that have long argued that Israel is more willing to sacrifice for peace than its Arab counterparts.

Yet even as Netanyahu sought to defuse the controversy over his remarks, reports suggested that the makeup of his emerging coalition could keep U.S.-Israeli tensions boiling on several fronts.

The first party he invited into the government was Jewish Home, which rejects a Palestinian state. Another likely coalition partner, Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, who recently said that disloyal Arab-Israelis should be beheaded. The coalition government is also likely to include include haredi Orthodox parties, whose rejection of non-Orthodox streams has been a cause of tension with U.S. Jews for decades.

Netanyahu’s outgoing government, in place since January 2013, was the first in decades to keep haredi parties in the opposition. Tensions had been higher between Israel and the U.S. Jewish leadership during Netanyahu’s previous term, from 2009 to 2013, due to concerns over treatment of women by haredi government officials and the non-recognition of non-Orthodox movements.

Unless Netanyahu attempts to forge a national unity government — something both he and the opposition Zionist Union have already counted out — he will need the 14 seats of two haredi parties to secure a safe majority. If history is any indication, the haredi parties will vigorously oppose the introduction of civil marriage and increased recognition of and funding for the Reform and Conservative streams.

Netanyahu declines Democrats’ invitation for meeting during visit

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declined on Tuesday an invitation to meet with U.S. Senate Democrats during his trip to Washington next week.

“Though I greatly appreciate your kind invitation to meet with Democratic Senators, I believe that doing so at this time could compound the misperception of partisanship regarding my upcoming visit,” Netanyahu wrote in a letter to Senators Richard Durbin and Dianne Feinstein obtained by Reuters.

Durbin and Feinstein, two senior Senate Democrats, invited Netanyahu to a closed-door meeting with Democratic senators in a letter on Monday, warning that making U.S.-Israeli relations a partisan political issue could have “lasting repercussions.”

Republican congressional leaders broke diplomatic protocol by consulting neither the White House nor Democrats in Congress before inviting Netanyahu to address a joint meeting of the House of Representatives and Senate.

Netanyahu has faced criticism at home and abroad for his decision to address the U.S. Congress two weeks before Israeli elections and at a sensitive point in international negotiations on Iran's nuclear program.

In his letter, Netanyahu said he agreed “wholeheartedly” that strong ties between the United States and Israel have been built on bipartisan support. “I also fully understand the importance of bipartisan support for ensuring that our alliance remains strong in the future,” he wrote.

He expressed appreciation for the opportunity to address lawmakers from both parties on Tuesday and said he regretted that the invitation has been perceived by some as partisan.

“I can assure you my sole intention in accepting it was to voice Israel's grave concerns about a potential nuclear agreement with Iran that could threaten the survival of my country,” Netanyahu wrote.

He said he would be glad to address a bipartisan meeting of senators during a future visit to Washington.

Spokesmen for Durbin and Feinstein could not immediately be reached for comment.

With Biden opting out, partisan row over Netanyahu speech intensifies

In a blow to Israel’s efforts to contain the controversy over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s upcoming speech to Congress, Vice President Joe Biden announced that he would not attend the address.

Biden’s office informed the media on Friday that the vice president would be out of the country and would not fill his role as the president of the Senate during the joint meeting of Congress on March 3.

The announcement came as leading black and Hispanic Democrats indicated that they also would not attend. A Jewish lawmaker, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), told JTA that blacks in his district were asking him not to attend because they saw the speech as disrespecting President Barack Obama.

Meanwhile, Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, in an interview with the Forward on Friday urged Netanyahu not to follow through with his plans to address Congress, saying the fracas had devolved into a “circus.” Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, made the same call in an interview with the paper.

Administration officials had already said that the president and other senior officials would not meet with Netanyahu, ostensibly because the March 3 speech is just two weeks before the Israeli election. But until Friday it was not clear whether Biden would abjure his role of presiding over the Senate during the session.

Congressional Democrats say the speech is unacceptable because Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), the House of Representatives speaker, invited Netanyahu to rebut Obama’s continued backing of nuclear talks between the major powers and Iran. Netanyahu, like most Republicans, believes the talks are headed for a bad deal that will leave Iran on the threshold of a nuclear weapon.

Netanyahu has phoned senior Democrats and Ambassador Ron Dermer has met with many of the rank-and-file in an effort to smooth over their differences. Netanyahu and Dermer have said the speech will emphasize bipartisan support for Israel and praise Obama for his backing of the country at critical times. They also said that Netanyahu is determined to keep the date because he believes he must urgently convey his warning about a nuclear Iran ahead of a March 24 deadline on achieving the outline of a deal.

Democrats, however, have grown more adamant in opposing the speech, with a growing number of prominent minority Democrats saying they will stay away. Party leaders in both chambers say they will attend but are warning that the speech might backfire.

Among the black lawmakers, Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, the third-ranked House Democrat, joined Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a civil rights hero, and Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, in saying he will not attend. The Hill newspaper has also reported that Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), a prominent Hispanic lawmaker and the chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, will not attend.

Jewish lawmakers have met with Dermer and expressed their displeasure with the timing of the speech. Cohen, who is circulating a letter among colleagues urging Boehner to postpone the speech until after Israeli elections and congressional votes on an Iran sanctions bill, told Dermer on Thursday that African-American leaders in his Memphis district were asking him not to attend.

“It’s become less and less attractive” to attend, Cohen told JTA after the meeting. “My district is majority African-American and a lot of people see this as dismissive of the first African-American president.”

Cohen said Dermer told him that Netanyahu is determined to go ahead with the speech.

Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Tzachi Hanegbi, suggested that Boehner misled the Israelis about the invitation, which Boehner said was made in the name of both parties. Within hours of Boehner announcing the invitation on Jan. 21, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the House minority leader, and the White House said they had been kept out of the loop.

“It appears that the speaker of Congress made a move in which we trusted, but which it ultimately became clear was a one-sided move and not a move by both sides,” Reuters quoted Hanegbi as saying Friday on an Israeli radio station.

A slate of 48 GOP House members signed on to a letter countering the one circulated by Cohen asking for a speech delay. The GOP letter, initiated by Reps. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.) and Leonard Lance (R-N.J.), thanked Boehner for organizing the speech, saying “it is necessary now for Congress to hear from Prime Minister Netanyahu, and welcome his expertise on Iran’s regional designs.”

Matt Brooks, the director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, suggested on Twitter that his party would use the issue against Democrats in elections.

“Dems have a choice — stand w/PM Netanyahu and the Jewish com against Iran or w/Pres Obama,” he said. The RJC “will make sure people know what they choose.”

After Scalise debacle, more hardball expected in the fight for minority vote

A recent revelation that a top Republican addressed a white supremacist group is reviving an age-old Washington debate: How important are false steps from the past in evaluating a party today?

Not very, say Republicans, in the case of Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), the majority whip in the U.S. House of Representatives sworn in on Tuesday. In 2002, when he was a state legislator, Scalise spoke to a group affiliated with the white nationalist David Duke.

Not so fast, counter Democrats, who say the speech, while not indicting Scalise as a racist, underscores what they claim is the GOP’s propensity to flirt with extremists.

Aaron Keyak, a consultant to Democrats and Jewish groups, says the issue is potent and serious enough to merit continued attention as both sides bid for the votes of Jews, blacks, Hispanics and women ahead of the 2016 presidential election.

“There will be increased scrutiny of the schedule of Congressman Scalise and other Republicans,” said Keyak, who until last year was a senior adviser to Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.).

He added: “There is a whole litany of reasons the Republican Party is out of step with the Jewish community, and this is only one symptom of how out of touch they are.”

Jewish Republicans say they would prefer that the past remain the past – but they are prepared to give as good as they get.

“You’re referencing a meeting that took place a dozen years ago,” said Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.), the sole Jewish Republican in the incoming Congress. “The next person may be concerned about the president meeting with Al Sharpton 82 times in the White House.”

Sharpton, a civil rights activist who is known for his fiery rhetoric about Jews during the 1991 Crown Heights riots, has visited the Obama White House 72 times, the majority for large events, according to a recent Washington Post report.

Scalise has said he regrets the 2002 speech and was not aware that the group had been founded by Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard.

The Anti-Defamation League said that Scalise’s statement puts the matter to rest for now, but also that the threat posed by Duke and other white supremacists should not be minimized.

A number of recent profiles of Scalise noted that as an ambitious Louisiana pol, he cultivated friendships and alliances with black leaders. However, he also looked to the base that had propelled Duke to prominence in Louisiana state politics in the 1990s, when Duke served as a state legislator and ran for several other offices.

Kenny Knight, a longtime Duke adviser, donated $1,000 to Scalise’s congressional campaign in 2008. And Scalise voted twice in the State Legislature against making Martin Luther King Day a holiday.

“It’s part of a narrative, a steady drip of policy announcements and appearances at events that seem to suggest a deaf ear to Jewish sensitivities and to minorities’ sensitivities,” said Greg Rosenbaum, the chairman of the National Jewish Democratic Council.

Ann Lewis, who headed communications in the Clinton White House, says the controversy is reminiscent of remarks made during the 2012 campaign by Todd Akin, a GOP candidate in Missouri for the U.S. Senate who suggested that rape could not lead to pregnancy in arguing against a rape exemption to any abortion ban.

Lewis, who also advised Hillary Rodham Clinton during her 2008 presidential run, says the GOP showed discipline in the 2014 elections in controlling such problematic statements, but charges that the policies underpinning the statements persisted.

“Candidates understood why 2012 was a problem,” she said. “That doesn’t mean we’re going to see any better support for women’s health issues.”

Lewis notes a concerted national campaign by the state Republican parties to add abortion restrictions through state legislative bids.

“Do you take this kind of behavior seriously, do you understand the signal you send?” she said. “With Scalise, what I hear from the Republican leadership is they are the victims because they are getting criticized.”

News of Scalise’s speech comes as Republicans are making a concerted effort to appeal to minorities and women, playing up the election to the House of Zeldin and Mia Love, a black woman from Utah.

But controversies over past political moves are hardly the domain of a single political party, says Matt Brooks, the director of the Republican Jewish Coalition.

“On both sides of the aisle there’s a lot of this gotcha politics that goes on,” he said. Whether charges would stick, he says, depended “on the totality of the individual and the circumstance.”

Scalise will survive, Brooks says, in part because the incident is in the past and some Democrats are defending him now.

Zeldin says Republicans will appeal to minorities by focusing on bread-and-butter issues that trumped identity politics.

“When the debate is focused so much on budgets and job creation and improving the business climate, it becomes much more of a strategic advantage for Republicans to improve on that outreach with groups that have been primarily voting Democrat in the past,” he said.

Rabbi Jack Moline, who until November directed the NJDC, says Democrats should pitch their fight on an issues level and not focus on bad past decisions.

“What we needed to demand from Rep. Scalise was an explanation and we got it,” he said.

He cites issues where Republicans would easily lose Jews, including rolling back the social safety net, opposition to immigration reform bills and the growing wing within the GOP that opposes a robust U.S. role overseas.

“Those are things we ought to be debating, not whether or not someone who grew up in Louisiana has been exposed to bigotry,” Moline said.