Will Black Lawmakers' Anger Over Benjamin Netanyahu Speech Hurt Support for Israel?

Congressional Caucus Upset at Snub of First Black President

Together as One: John Lewis (D-Ga.) gives fist bump to John Conyers (D-Mi.) at the ceremonial swearing-in of members of the Congressional Black Caucus.
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Together as One: John Lewis (D-Ga.) gives fist bump to John Conyers (D-Mi.) at the ceremonial swearing-in of members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

By Nathan Guttman

Published February 19, 2015, issue of February 27, 2015.

In fewer than 140 characters, U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel of New York summed up the feelings of many African-American lawmakers toward Israel’s leader these days.

“Bibi:” the 23-term representative tweeted, “If you have a problem with our POTUS’s foreign policy meet me at AIPAC but not on the House floor.”

Rangel, a frequent attendee of the annual dinners held by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, kept it short by using a common Washington acronym for President of the United States. But to ensure his message got across, he attached a photo of himself glaring down in what his critics on social media described as a “tough guy look.”

Rangel, a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus, has many Jews in his district, which covers Harlem and Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He has also long worked closely with the New York Jewish community on Israel and other issues. Nevertheless, he is just one of a notable number of African-American lawmakers who have announced that they plan to sit out Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s March 3 speech to a joint meeting of Congress. The list includes, among others, Rep. G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina, who is chairman of the CBC, and the iconic civil rights leader John Lewis of Georgia, who has long been close to the Jewish community. The only two Muslim members of Congress, African Americans Keith Ellison of Minnesota and Andre Carson of Indiana, have also announced they plan to sit out Netanyahu’s address.

Like many Democrats, these lawmakers are deeply angered at what they view as a partisan pact between Netanyahu and House Speaker John Boehner. The House speaker, they note, revealed the plan to bring the Israeli leader to Congress without consultating with either the White House or his Democratic counterparts, in violation of normal protocol. His January 21 disclosure of the plan, moreover, came just one day after Obama told Congress in his State of the Union address that he would veto legislation, backed by Israel, to slap new, tougher sanctions against Iran while negotiations are ongoing to restrain that country’s development of nuclear capabilities.

The lead role taken by these black lawmakers on the issue was in part a product of their sense that America’s first African-American president was being treated by a foreign leader and by the House speaker in a way none of his white predecessors had ever been treated. The stands taken by Rangel, Lewis and several others attracted notice because for many years they had easily found their place on the list of safe votes for Israel in Congress.

Yet for all this, many Jewish activists evinced little concern that the overall close cooperation between black and Jewish lawmakers on Capitol Hill — including on Israel — was in any danger of falling apart.

“I don’t think this will diminish support within the Congressional Black Caucus for Israel, but I do think the caucus feels this is an insult for the president,” said Rabbi Steve Gutow, president and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

A Jewish congressional aide involved in work with the CBC seconded this view, stressing that disagreements are not spilling over to any other field of cooperation between the black and Jewish lawmakers. And several members of the CBC themselves agreed.

“The ultimate question that I’ve been asked is: What will it do to black-Jewish relations?” Florida Democrat Alcee Hastings told the Forward. “Nothing. It will do absolutely nothing.” Hastings, a member of the CBC who plans to attend Netanyahu’s March 3 speech, rejected the notion he’d been put in a situation of having to choose between supporting Israel and backing an African-American president.

“It almost offends me that that thought is present,” Hastings said. “Bibi is using this as a political tool, and you know, I do things political, and last time I looked so does everyone else in politics.”

As of two weeks before the scheduled speech, 22 House members and three senators have announced their intention to boycott Netanyahu’s appearance. More than half of the House members — 13 — are members of the CBC. But a closer look at the list finds different motivations behind the decision to sit out on the Israeli leader’s address.

Some CBC members, such as Barbara Lee of California, are strongly aligned with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party and have been consistent critics of Israel’s policies. Others stated their collective offense, as African-American elected officials, at Netanyahu and Boehner slighting Obama.

“I think it’s an affront to the president and the State Department what the speaker did,” Lewis told the Associated Press. But a spokesperson for Lewis made it clear that his decision not to attend Netanyahu’s speech was a personal move and not part of an organized boycott. As a hero of the civil rights movement, Lewis is revered both in the African-American community and among generations of Jewish activists who supported the struggle. “John Lewis is a big deal,” a Slate article noted. “He is the most respected member of Congress.”

Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) has been known as a strong supporter of Israel.
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Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) has been known as a strong supporter of Israel.

Still, a majority of the 46-member CBC have chosen, at least for now, not to stay away, including many who represent major Jewish communities or who hold close ties with the pro-Israel community. Among these are Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey; Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, whose congressional district includes parts of Brooklyn and Queens in New York; fellow New Yorker Yvette Clarke, whose district includes Crown Heights in Brooklyn, and Florida’s Frederica Wilson and Hastings.

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