By Ron Kampeas
(JTA) – A fundraiser for Joe Biden on Monday night was billed as a “Virtual Conversation on Anti-Semitism” with three marquee speakers: Rep. Adam Schiff, the California Democrat who chairs the U.S. House of Representatives Intelligence Committee; Nevada freshman Sen. Jacky Rosen; and Jason Alexander of “Seinfeld” fame.
The conversation, co-organized by the Biden campaign and the Democratic National Committee, included plenty of critique aimed at President Trump, whom liberal Jews accuse of stoking anti-Semitism in the U.S. – but it also veered into poignant territory at times, offering a rare window into the politicians’ personal Jewish identities. Biden did not attend.
Alexander, who moderated the talk, invited Rosen (who last year co-founded the Senate Bipartisan Task Force for Combating Anti-Semitism) and Schiff (who spearheaded Trump’s impeachment proceedings last year) to draw a direct line between Trump’s rhetoric and the rise in antisemitism during his term, evidenced in attacks such as the Pittsburgh Tree of Life and Poway synagogue shootings. Trump’s defenders counter that by saying the president forcefully and unequivocally condemned anti-Semitism after the Tree of Life attack.
“We have to assume that our president has exacerbated the problem. Adam, he typically refers to you as ‘Shifty Schiff,’ so he obviously plays into anti-Semitic tropes and stereotypes,” Alexander said. “How much do you hold him, and frankly the Republicans that echo and abet him, responsible for these increases in the amount of hate activity that we’re seeing?”
Schiff said Trump was ultimately responsible for a rise in bigotry, noting his recent appeal to “suburban housewives” that he would protect their neighborhoods from interlopers.
“The president has a unique capability to set the tone, nationally, and he has set the most ugly, bitter, divisive and sometimes racist tone of any president, certainly in my lifetime,” Schiff said. “And, you know, people follow that.”
Rosen said education was critical to countering antisemitism and referred to the Never Again Act, which funds Holocaust education, and which she helped pass this year. Holocaust survivors were dying off, she said.
“It’s important that we tell those stories, because if we don’t learn from them, if we don’t shine a light to educate, then we’re lost,” Rosen said.
Alexander asked Schiff to comment on the false claim proliferating on the far right that he is in cahoots with the liberal Jewish billionaire, George Soros.
“The main one that’s been circulated is that George Soros and I are related because my sister is married to his son,” he said. “When that first caught on like wildfire, I called my brother and I said ‘Dan I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The good news is we have a sister. Why didn’t Mom tell us? And the even better news is, she married really well.’”
Jewish critics of Trump point to several examples that they say proves he either has a blind spot on antisemitism. Trump has told Jewish donors that he “doesn’t want your money,” has said Jews who vote for Democrats are disloyal to other Jews and posted an ad during the 2016 campaign superimposing Hillary Clinton’s face on a pile of money and a six-pointed star. His first statement on the Holocaust as president omitted any mention of Jews.
Biden rolled out his campaign in April 2019 with a video in which he said he was spurred to run after Trump equivocated in condemning the deadly neo-Nazi violence at a 2017 March in Charlottesville, Virginia. Biden often cites the rise of anti-Semitism.
Alexander asked Schiff and Rosen what he should tell politically conservative Jewish friends who say Trump has been good for Israel. Republicans “paint any criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic,” Rosen said. “We can criticize our own government, we can criticize our spouse or family or kids, it doesn’t mean you don’t love them. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a robust conversation.”
Tickets to the event, made public on Monday by Jewish Insider, were at a minimum $250, although donors could check amounts up to $50,000. About 400 people called in, raising $200,000. (JTA obtained a phone call-in number, so a reporter was able to hear, if not see the proceedings.)
Alexander also asked Schiff and Rosen to personalize their Jewish experience, and that’s when the conversation took a turn.
“Do you know how much your bar or bat mitzvah actually cost, within five thousand dollars?” Alexander asked at one point.
Rosen, a former synagogue president who was bat mitzvahed as an adult, knew but would not tell. Schiff said he did not know, except for the fact that his cost less than his older brother’s did.
Did they remember “even one line” of their haftarah? (No.) “I remember having my voice crack,” Schiff said. Had they ever not fasted on Yom Kippur? (Yes.) Had they ever built a sukkah? “Yes!” said Rosen, sounding surprised she was able to answer in the affirmative. (Schiff was a “no.”)
What was their favorite Chanukah present? “I remember my favorite present when I was a kid,” Schiff said. “It was this self-winding car, you pull back a little lever and it would scoot across the floor.”
“We had the piano bench,” Rosen said. “That’s what that’s where all the Chanukah presents were, so I just remember always going under… opening presents under the piano.”
After recalling how he set a favorite Gumby doll’s head alight with a menorah flame, Alexander then asked how their Jewishness led them into public service. Neither answer had anything to do with Israel or with religious learning.
Rosen recalled her grandmother discussing the “old country” and the sense of want she attached to it, and how her “bubbe” inculcated in her the idea that she should always reserve something for those less fortunate. For Schiff, it was education.
“My father, who is 92 and is watching us this evening, telling me how, the one thing they can’t take away from you is your education,” he said.
Alexander also asked them to describe personal experiences of antisemitism. Both their answers typified the experience of their generation – Rosen is 63 and Schiff is 60.
“I don’t have an actual memory of it but a memory of a story,” Rosen said.
Her parents “took me to Florida I think must have been about 1960 or so, and we were swimming in a pool, and somebody came up to my mom and said she had to take her daughter out of the pool,” Rosen said. “‘She’s a dirty Jew, you have to get out of the pool’.”
Schiff described the experience of a pastor’s candid antisemitism, expressed because the pastor did not realize Schiff was Jewish. “Look at the Jews, they don’t have their spiritual house in order, and they say ‘never again’ but if they don’t get their spiritual house in order, it will happen again,” Schiff quoted the pastor as saying.
“It gave me a window into how much antisemitism there is,” he said, adding that he informed the pastor he was speaking to a Jew.
ELECTION 2020: Short takes
Trump holds fundraiser at NJ home of late Syrian-Jewish leader
(JNS) U.S. President Donald Trump is scheduled to attend a private fundraiser at the New Jersey home of Syrian-Jewish leader Stanley Chera on Aug. 9. Chera, a real estate developer and friend of the president, died in April at the age of 77 due to complications from coronavirus. According to Yeshiva World News, which first reported the fundraiser, the cost to attend the event in Deal, N.J., starts at $5,600. It will cost $250,000 to meet the president at a roundtable, and $35,000 for photo opportunities and to attend a reception. Chera’s home hosted a fundraiser with Trump in 2016 when he was running for president. The fundraiser is not being backed by any official Jewish organization. The Trump Victory Committee is hosting the event, which will include Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, RNC co-chairman Tommy Hicks Jr., RNC finance chairman Todd Ricketts and Trump Victory Finance Committee national chair Kimberly Guilfoyle.
BDS supporter Cori Bush defeats longtime congressman in Missouri primary
(JTA) – Cori Bush, a civil rights activist who has expressed support for the boycott Israel movement, defeated a longtime pro-Israel incumbent in a Democratic congressional primary in St. Louis. Bush defeated Lacy Gray by three percentage points, 48.6% to 45.5% in the primary Tuesday. In a now-deleted page on her campaign website, first uncovered by Jewish Insider, Bush expressed support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel, or BDS.
“In these times, it is important to be specific with our language and direct in the actions we take. In our current geopolitical economy, money talks far louder than speech alone,” the website said. “This is why nonviolent actions like the BDS movement are so important–and why the effort to mischaracterize and demonize the BDS movement by its opponents is so urgent.”
If Bush still holds these views, she is set to become the third BDS supporter in Congress; Missouri’s 1st District is solidly Democratic. The two incumbent BDS supporters, like Bush, are Democrats: Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Detroit (who defeated challenger Brenda Jones in her Michigan district’s Democratic primary on August 4) and Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minneapolis (who is facing a strong challenge in her primary bid on August 11). Tlaib, a Palestinian American, favors a binational state as an outcome of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Bush was backed by the party’s left, including the Justice Democrats group and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. She failed in her first attempt to oust Clay in 2018.
Clay has been a congressman since 2001 and was preceded by his father, Bill Clay, a founder of the Congressional Black Caucus. Clay who voted to condemn the BDS movement in a nonbonding vote last year.
Rashida Tlaib, who supports BDS and a one-state solution, wins in Michigan
(JTA) – Rashida Tlaib, one of two Congress members (with Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar) to support the boycott Israel movement, defeated a challenger in her Michigan district’s Democratic primary as she bids for a second term. Tlaib was declared the winner against Brenda Jones, who had preceded her in representing the Detroit-area district. Tlaib, a Palestinian American, favors a binational state as an outcome of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Main Photo: From left: Sen. Jacky Rosen, Jason Alexander and Rep. Adam Schiff. (Credit: Getty Images)