WASHINGTON (JTA) – From 31 in 2009 to a likely 19 in January, the unofficial Jewish caucus in the US House of Representatives is shrinking fast.
Jewish lawmakers have traditionally been the first stop for Jewish lobbyists seeking inroads for their issues, including Israel, preserving the social safety net, and keeping church and state separate.
Additionally, lawmakers generally seek guidance from colleagues most invested in an issue.
Fewer Jewish lawmakers means the community could lose influence in areas where its voice has been preeminent.
“The Jewish community is going to have to work harder,” said one veteran official who has worked both as a professional in the Jewish community and a staffer for a Jewish lawmaker.
The 31 figure was the highest Jewish representation ever in the House, matched only in the early 1990s. The numbers dropped in part because of victories by the Tea Party wave of conservative Republicans in 2010 and a spate of retirements by veteran lawmakers elected in the 1970s and ’80s.
“We’ve lost a lot of seniority,” said the congressional staffer who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue, noting in particular the retirement this year of Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the senior Democrat on the Energy Committee, elected in 1974 and the dean of the unofficial Jewish caucus.
The lower profile of Jewish lawmakers is seen as well in the context of shifts in how Democrats — traditionally the redoubt of Jewish voters — are treating Israel. These have been exacerbated by tensions between the administrations of President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“You saw that article in the New Yorker that said ‘Bibi has a Republican view of the world,’ ” one Jewish Democratic insider said, referring to a recent story on shifting perceptions of the AIPAC pro-Israel lobby that roiled the professional Jewish community in Washington.
“That resonated,” said the insider, who also spoke anonymously because of the sensitivity of the issue.
But Jewish lawmakers likely to be re-elected told JTA that a smaller Jewish caucus should not be cause for alarm.
“Jewish representation is still strong in Congress, and we are serving in positions of influence,” Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY), the senior Democrat on the powerful Appropriations Committee, told JTA in an email.
Lowey also insisted that Jewish values would continue to be represented by House Democrats, who are pushing such issues as “access to quality education, college affordability, sensible gun safety measures to keep our communities safe, access to affordable health care, and addressing climate change.”
In addition to Lowey, Jewish leaders in the House include Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), the senior Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, and Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Mich.), the senior Democrat on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee.
Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) said 19 members — 4 percent of the body — was still about twice the estimated Jewish representation in the population. In addition, Jews have constituted 10 percent of the Senate, a proportion not likely to shift after the midterms in November.
“We still, compared to other religious and ethnic minorities, have far beyond our percentage in the population,” she said in an interview.
Waxman said Jews in Congress, in both parties, made valuable contributions both on their community’s behalf and to the country. “For the most part, Jewish members in Congress have lived up to what Hillel had to say when he said that if I am not for myself, who will be for me, and if I am not for others, who am I,” he told JTA.
“We care about issues of particular Jewish concern such as Israel, anti-Semitism, our Jewish brethren in other countries, the fight for Soviet Jews to be able to emigrate to Israel or anywhere else. But there are other issues I consider Jewish issues as well, which is to fight for a more just society for everyone to succeed to the extent their abilities will take them, that every child should have health care and education and not have impediments such as as an inability to move from class to the other.”
Other leaders who have left the stage in recent years include Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the House majority leader felled by a Tea Party-associated challenger in a primary earlier this year and the sole Jewish Republican in Congress; Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), the Holocaust survivor who was the body’s preeminent voice on human rights, who died in 2008; Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), the one-time chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee who lost an election in 2012; and Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY), who until he retired in 2012 was the top Democrat on the Middle East subcommittee.
A measure of the shrinking caucus is that it’s not at all clear yet which member will succeed Waxman in convening occasional informal meetings of Jewish members, according to congressional insiders.
A number of younger Jewish members are rising through the ranks — Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) succeeded Ackerman in helming Democrats on the Middle East subcommittee.
“We need to encourage more Jews to run,” Schakowsky acknowledged.
Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), one of the lead Israel champions in the House, said support for Israel was undiminished. He noted the overwhelming vote last month to add $225 million to existing funding for Iron Dome, the anti-missile system that protected Israelis during the recent Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip.
“Look at the Iron Dome vote,” he said. “Four Republicans and four Democrats voted against. Support for Israel is at a very high level.”
Nonetheless, pro-Israel groups have noted the tendency among Democrats in particular — and Jewish Democrats among them — to criticize Israel in tougher tones than was imaginable a decade ago.
During the recent Gaza war, Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), who is Jewish, told MSNBC, “I fail to see what an Israeli incursion into Gaza, how that’s going to solve the long-term problem. Gaza is itself a problem and the Palestinians are essentially quarantined there; that’s the polite word.”
In that July 26 broadcast, he called the civilian deaths in Gaza a “tragedy of enormous proportions.”
Even among Jewish lawmakers not known for directly challenging Israel, there has been a change in tone. Last week, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) met with Yair Lapid, the Israeli finance minister who has been critical of Netanyahu’s recent settlement expansion bid, and on Twitter aligned himself with Lapid — and by implication Obama.
“Agree w/Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid on need to return to negotiations & being against any swift changes in the West Bank right now,” Nadler tweeted.
Yarmuth, in an interview with JTA , said support for Israel – including his own – was unassailable but more “nuanced,” in part because of support for members by J Street, the Jewish lobbying group that forcefully backs US involvement in bringing about a two-state solution.
“American Jewry has become more nuanced in its opinions on the Middle East with regards to opinions on Israel and the Palestinians,” Yarmuth told JTA. “J Street reflects that diversity.”
How best to pitch Israel to liberals and Democrats has been the focus of pro-Israel groups in recent months. Most recently, Frank Luntz, a Republican political consultant and pollster who has worked with centrist pro-Israel groups, last week addressed a monthly meeting of Jewish professionals and noted with alarm what other pollsters have found: Israel is hemorrhaging support among traditional Democratic constituencies, including women and minorities.
In a Powerpoint presentation obtained by JTA, Luntz — famous for shaping the language that brought Republicans to congressional power in 1994 — suggested progressive-friendly phrases when making Israel’s case. Among “words to use,” he suggested “mutual understanding and mutual respect.” Among “words to lose,” he derided “Israel is not stalling” and “Peace takes two.”
Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), another lawmaker endorsed by J Street, said the long-range view on Israel among Jewish lawmakers was the same, regardless of whether they were more ideologically aligned with AIPAC or J Street.
If Jewish members are divided, he said, it is over “different ideas over how to make Israel viable for eternity.”