In the hours after Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, murdering and taking hostage Israeli civilians, 24 Jewish Democrats in the House of Representatives put out a joint statement declaring, “We support Israel’s right to defend itself—to protect its people and communities—and will do all we can to ensure Israel has the ability and capacity to restore and maintain its security and the safety of all its citizens.” Even those who had previously supported protesters of the current Israeli government signed on to the statement.
And in the two weeks since, as Israel has responded to Hamas’s attack by aerial bombardment, and reports of a planned ground invasion and thousands of dead Palestinians civilians emerge, Jewish members of Congress have remained united in that essential stance: Israel has a right to defend itself.
There is variety and difference of opinion within that, of course, and some of it is quite significant. Representatives Josh Gottheimer and Jared Moskowitz co-led a letter asking President Biden to “bolster Israel’s security.” Representative Brad Sherman introduced a bill to enhance sanctions enforcement against those who use civilians as human shields, while Representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland stated that Hamas’s use of human shields “imposes an obligation of extra care not to kill civilians who are being used in this way.” Over in the Senate, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, calling himself the “highest-ranking Jewish leader in American history,” stressed that he’s “doing everything in my power to ensure the Senate delivers the support Israel needs.”
The notable exception was Bernie Sanders, who put out a statement last week saying, “These unspeakable crimes must stop now. The bombs and missiles from both sides must end, massive humanitarian aid must be rushed to Gaza, and the hostages must be returned to their families.” But even he stopped short of using the term “cease-fire.” The closest any Jewish member of Congress has come, it seems, is when Representatives Jerry Nadler, Dan Goldman, and Jan Schakowsky declared support this week for a “humanitarian pause” to allow for aid to be delivered.
That is not true, however, of progressive Jewish staffers on the Hill. Some of them described to me the pain and frustration of watching Jewish members make statements invoking their Jewish identity that the staffers don’t see as reflections of their own Jewish values.
“Pretending the Jewish community is a monolith or members trying to act in the name of all Jews is … I don’t think helpful or appropriate right now, especially as people are still grieving, dealing with a lot of emotions and feelings and thoughts about what happened in Israel and what’s still happening in Gaza,” said one Jewish staffer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “To me it feels inappropriate to pretend that supporting billions of dollars for open-ended weapons sales is Jewish.”
The staffer was one of the over 400 Muslim and Jewish staffers on the Hill behind an October 19 open letter calling for a cease-fire. (The offices of Jacobs, Schakowsky, Raskin, Schumer, and Cardin did not offer comment on the letter or on the idea of a cease-fire more generally.) “Cease-fire now” was also the demand of a protest a day earlier on Capitol Hill that was led by two leftist Jewish groups, Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow.
“Many have asked me ‘who is Jewish Voice for Peace?’” Representative Jerry Nadler tweeted that day. “Their website says they are ‘proud to be a part of the global, Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement,’ which, by its founder’s admission & tenets, seeks to end Israel as a Jewish & democratic state.” Nadler had previously, on Instagram, implored his colleagues to consider not extremes or slogans but what he called the American Jewish “mainstream.” (In fairness, Raskin came out to defend the protesters against comparisons to the January 6 insurrectionists.)
“Whatever you want to say about IfNotNow or JVP—they are Jewish,” the staffer said, adding, “I think it’s frustrating because I work in the building. I also think it’s frustrating to a lot of Jews. Stop weaponizing the pain we’re in right now.”
At least one Jewish staffer pushed back on the idea that it wasn’t Jewish to call for a cease-fire.
“As a Jew, this is deeply offensive,” Emilia Winter Rowland, communications director and senior adviser for Representative Summer Lee (who supports a cease-fire), tweeted of a Fox News segment that dismissed the protesters. “To say Jews have no right to protest for peace or against human rights violations in a place that’s supposed to be our refuge?”
Another Jewish staffer who signed on to the letter said their Jewish values motivated them not to support Israel but to call for a cease-fire.
“As a Jew, we’re a faith that’s really centered around social justice. That was a big part of my upbringing. The temple I belonged to growing up was very civic-centered,” the staffer said. “Calling for a cease-fire is consistent with the goal of a peaceful world, and so I think that’s something that I guess I would hope all people want, especially the community I belong to,” they said, adding that many of the members come from “a different generation” and so see the conflict differently.
And while it is true that the member is the one who was elected and whose name is on the door, there is a sense that it is the staffers whose labor makes Congress function. And “I do feel a sense of complicity” in the support for Israel’s war coming from Congress, the staffer said. And so they pushed in the way they could.
“As staff, you know that the members will take positions that you may or may not agree with. That’s their role, and that’s their job,” said another Jewish staffer. But the staffer doesn’t see this issue as a policy difference. “You’re looking to see who is recognizing the humanity of Palestinians. And who is recognizing Arab and Muslim humanity in the U.S. It is a Jewish value to do that.”
The staffer pointed to family members of hostages and victims who have spoken out against Israeli attacks on Gaza. “They’re the people closest to that pain, and they’re able to have a more nuanced conversation about it than we can have in Congress,” the staffer said.
“I understand that a lot of these older Jews who do have very intense generational trauma [are] unable to focus on anything but Jewish Israeli deaths,” another Jewish staffer said. “I can understand that, but I can also want them to be better and be able to open themselves up a little bit and broaden their compassion.”
“Our religion overwhelmingly teaches peace and compassion and empathy,” the staffer said. “These are the principles that I learned. Why do they not apply to Gaza and the West Bank is my question to anyone who’s Jewish, honestly.”
There’s also a sense of frustration that elected officials are abandoning what they know to be true in order to stand with the Israeli government.
“Six months ago, a lot of politicians in Washington were really uncomfortable with the way Netanyahu was running Israel,” one Jewish staffer who works in a Democratic senator’s office said. “It’s really frustrating that has gone out the window.” The security failures that led to Hamas’s attack are at least in part because of this Israeli government, the staffer said. And yet the far-right government is able to use a security failure to bolster international support.
Thus far, however, the members have not changed their position.
On October 20, 131 Democrats, including every Jewish House Democrat and led by Nadler, Raskin, and Goldman, wrote to Biden to thank him for “steadfast support for our ally Israel in a moment of need and horror.”