June 1, 2023
This week, guest host Julie Fishman Rayman, AJC's Senior Director of Policy and Political Affairs, had the honor of connecting with Hakeem Jeffries, the leader of the House Democratic Caucus, after he led a congressional delegation to Israel and Ghana. As we approach the AJC Global Forum 2023 in Tel Aviv, we have the opportunity to listen to the Democratic leader's insights on the trip, the crucial nature of the U.S.-Israel relationship, and the historical and contemporary significance of Black-Jewish relations.
*The views and opinions expressed by guests do not necessarily reflect the views or position of AJC.
- (0:40) Hakeem Jeffries
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Transcript of Interview with Hakeem Jeffries
Manya Brachear Pashman:
This week, Julie Fishman Rayman, AJC’s Senior Director of Policy and Political Affairs, had the honor of connecting with leader of the House Democratic Caucus, Hakeem Jeffries, after he led a group of lawmakers on a recent trip to Israel. Julie, the mic is yours.
Julie Fishman Rayman:
Thanks, Manya. It’s my pleasure to introduce Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, who represents the very diverse 8th congressional district of New York, in Brooklyn, and also serves as the Democratic Leader. He was unanimously elected to that position in November 2022, and in that capacity he is the highest ranking democrat in the US house. He is also the former chair of the democratic caucus, the whip of the congressional black caucus, and previously co-chaired the Democratic Policy and Communications committee. Also, a great friend of AJC and the Jewish community. Leader Jeffries, welcome to People of the Pod.
Wonderful to be on. Thanks so much for having me.
Julie Fishman Rayman:
I want to get started by asking you about Jewish American Heritage Month, which as you know, we celebrate in May. Many listeners may not realize that members in congressional leadership cosponsor very few bills – meaning cosign or add their name to endorse them . In this Congress–correct me if I’m wrong–you’ve cosponsored fewer than a dozen bills and only one resolution–the resolution commemorating Jewish American Heritage Month. Can you speak about this effort and why it was important to you to help lead it?
Well, thank you so much. And that is absolutely correct. The tradition has been that members and leadership sponsor very few bills and even fewer resolutions, just because the enormity of the request is large. And you want to make sure that you're being very discerning in terms of what you want to elevate as a priority. And for me, it was incredibly important to make sure that I co sponsored the resolution that commemorated Jewish American Heritage Month for a variety of reasons, including the fact that I'm privileged to represent a district that has one of the largest Jewish communities in the country. In fact, I represent the ninth most African American district in the country, and the 16th most Jewish. And so I represent, as a good friend of mine, Leon Goldenberg, once said, and I quote, you've got the best of both worlds.
It's an honor, though, to represent the reformed Jewish community, the conservative Jewish community, the Orthodox Jewish community, the modern Orthodox Jewish community, the ultra orthodox Jewish community, and more Russian speaking Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union than any other member of Congress in the country. I mean, Hakeem Jeffries, who knew only in America, but that's Brooklyn, that's New York City and the Jewish community has meant so much to the country, which is why we honor and celebrate and elevate Jewish American Heritage month but particularly has meant so much to the district that I'm privileged to represent to Brooklyn and to the great city of New York.
Julie Fishman Rayman:
The United States has many heritage months that celebrate the various communities that form the mosaic of our country, including Black History Month, Women’s History Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, and more. By celebrating heritage months, we learn about one another, we honor the richness of our diverse nation, and we strengthen the fabric of American society. Some have described JAHM as going on the offensive against rising antisemitism, do you think that’s an appropriate description? Amidst rising antisemitism and hate of all forms, does this change how we think about commemorative months?
Yes, it's a great question. I do think AJC's leadership and certainly the leadership of my former colleague, and good friend, Ted Deutch has been phenomenally important in this area. And your leadership, Julie, of course, and this podcast and communicating information to the American people will continue to be critical. And the fact that the Jewish community is facing a shocking rise in antisemitism and hate crimes is a cause for alarm for all of us. And it does, I think, lead to the important conclusion that we need to rethink how we lean into the celebrations and acknowledgments, such as Jewish American Heritage Month. That is not just simply an opportunity to be able to communicate to the American people about the many accomplishments, the many ways in every field of human endeavor that Jewish Americans have contributed to the growth and development of America as we know it. And that is important, and that is appropriate. And that is a central part of what celebrating Jewish American Heritage Month should be all about.
But it also provides a vehicle to make sure that the appropriate narrative is in the public domain in a compelling way, as a vehicle to push back against the rise in antisemitism and hate crimes. Because it's an all hands on deck approach. And it is going to require using every tool available to us. The rise in sort of hatred and extremism, and divisive, generally should trouble us all throughout America over the last several years, and particularly, the sharp and dramatic rise, particularly given the history of the Jewish community, over 1000s of years of persecutions, and pogroms and pain and suffering, should alarm us all. And it is exactly the reason why thinking about this month as one of the tools that we can use to push back aggressively against the rise and hatred is an important and appropriate approach.
Julie Fishman Rayman:
In April, during your first congressional delegation trip as Leader, you traveled to Israel. You have been a great supporter, supporting Israel’s right to defense and speaking out against anti-Israel sentiment time and time again. What were your biggest takeaways from this mission? What are the major challenges and opportunities for the U.S.-Israel relationship?
Well, that was my sixth time traveling to Israel, fifth time as a member of Congress. And the first time that I traveled to Israel, I actually was a freshman member of the New York State Legislature as part of a trip sponsored by the JCRC of New York, a wonderful opportunity. Someone said to me recently, wait, wait. You've been to Israel six times. I said, Yes. That's more than any other country you've been to in the world. I said, That would be correct. Is it isn't that a lot? I said, No, not at all. First of all, I'm from New York City, where we consider Jerusalem to be the sixth borough. And I'm just trying to catch up to my constituents.
Every time I go to Israel, it's a wonderful eye opening experience. This particular trip was meaningful to me in that I was able to actually lead a delegation for the first time in this position and choose where I would go to in the world as part of my first congressional trip on foreign soil, as the House Democratic Leader. And I chose to go to Israel and to Ghana, to incredibly meaningful countries to meet personally, to the people that I represent, and, of course, to the relationship that exists between the United States and Israel. And I wanted to do it so that it was timed to the anniversary of the 75th founding of the State of Israel, because I thought that will be meaningful for the members that agreed to travel with me and certainly meaningful to me to say to the world, that we're going to continue, as we've transitioned leadership in the House of Representatives, to stand behind the special relationship between the United States and Israel. And to make it clear that that's a special relationship that we as House Democrats believe, is anchored in our shared values and our shared strategic interests. And it was incredible because of the timing of we were there, both on the day of remembrance was incredibly moving. And I was able to participate in one of the ceremonies that we're held to acknowledge those who have been lost, both to acts of terror, and in the conflicts that Israel has been made to endure throughout the 75 year history.
And then, of course, on the eve of the celebration connected to the 75th anniversary, and we had a very diverse group of members, several prominent Jewish American members of Congress, of course, like Josh Gottheimer and Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Dean Phillips, Sarah Jacobs, who was a new and emerging leader, but also the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. Steve Horsford, the chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Nanette Barragan, the first vice chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, Yvette Clarke, as well as the top Democrat on the foreign affairs committee, Greg Meeks. And so it was a wonderful experience. We had important public policy discussions with Prime Minister Netanyahu, President Herzog, with the Speaker of the Knesset, as well as the opposition leader, Lapid, they were open, they were honest, there were candid discussions about the challenges that our two countries face. But it was all anchored in our clear affirmation of Israel's right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state, and our commitment as House Democrats to continue to lift up and elevate the special relationship between our two countries.
Julie Fishman Rayman:
So important. How's Israel doing at 75?
I think Israel, it's a miracle, as has been described, that we've gotten to 75 years. And it's a testament to the strength, and the resilience and the ability, the heart, the soul, the love the intellect, of the Jewish people, and the people of the State of Israel. And I'm confident that through the challenges that we all face in Israel, the best is yet to come. You had an interesting discussion, because of the judicial reform, issues that are underway. And we've got challenges that we're working through here in the United States of America, certainly, as it relates to the Supreme Court, and what is the right, you know, balance in terms of our three branches of government. And we've got to work through that here. Many of us have been troubled by recent developments coming out of the Supreme Court, and Israel's working through trying to figure out what that right balance is, in terms of the rule of law, and the independence of the judiciary, and how that works together. I think what has been clear to me, in terms of Israel as a robust democracy, that will continue to be a robust democracy is not the challenge is that it's working through to find common ground. And those talks are being led, of course, by President Herzog. But most significantly, the fact that hundreds of 1000s of Israelis have been in the streets, exercising their right, their freedom of expression, their freedom of speech, their freedom of assembly, the right to peaceably gather and petition your government that is at the hallmark of a democratic society. And that's what we've seen, and not a single shot fired, probably nowhere else in the Middle East, would that have occurred other than in Israel, and it's an affirmation of Israel's democratic character.
Julie Fishman Rayman:
In just a few weeks, AJC will hold our annual Global Forum in Tel Aviv. What is one piece of advice you’d give the 1000 or so people coming from around the world to Israel at this time?
Well, I do think that every time I've gone to Israel, what has been a wonderful aspect of the trip was talking to the full range of people in Israeli society, to get the perspectives on the ground in terms of their views related to the challenges that Israel confront, and the opportunities that exists to continue to thrive into the future. And those are particularly relevant conversations to have now that Israel has hit this incredible milestone of 75 years in what still remains one of the toughest, if not the toughest neighborhoods in the world. And one of the reasons why sustained dialogue, sustained opportunity to engage in wonderful that AJC is hosting this forum in the next month, is that the challenges are always unique whenever one arrives in Israel.
You know, it could be Hamas, it could be Hezbollah, it could be uncertainty in terms of the Iranian malign activity in Syria. It's always, you know, Iran's efforts to try to secure a nuclear weapon and we're gonna make sure that Iran never becomes nuclear capable in Gaza. There are different moments in time, where particular concern meets a level of urgency, but it's always consistently within the frame of Israel living in a very tough neighborhood, which is what I, you know, we reiterated as House Democrats directly to Prime Minister Netanyahu, our commitment to ensuring Israel maintains its qualitative military edge. My view on this thing has always been, and I grew up in central Brooklyn, came of age in the mid to late 80s, early 90s. I kind of know from tough neighborhoods. That was a tough neighborhood. I grew up in Israel, Hamas, Hezbollah, Gaza, chaos in Syria, in Iraq, Iran with nuclear aspirations, dangerous situation in the Sinai. That's a tough neighborhood. And in a tough neighborhood. The one constant, as I've consistently said, is strength. You can achieve peace, you can achieve stability, but you can only achieve it through the lens of strength. And I think, part of the dialogue that we all should continue to have and will be important for AJC to continue to have is, you know, what are the severe threats that Israel currently confronts? And how can we continue to ensure that Israel has the strength to defend itself and to provide a foundation for lasting peace moving forward building upon things like the Abraham accords?
Julie Fishman Rayman:
Prior to Israel, you and the members of congress who traveled with you to Israel went to Ghana, one of America’s closest allies in West Africa and a nation that still bears the painful scars of the transatlantic slave trade. At AJC’s 2019 Global Forum, you became the first member of the congressional Caucus on Black-Jewish Relations, I think less than an hour after it was officially launched. Did your back to back trips to Ghana and then Israel spark any insights as we continue–collectively–to try to bring Blacks and Jews closer together? Especially because Blacks and Jews were really strongly represented in your delegation?
Yes, you know, AJC's effort in terms of forming the black Jewish caucus was a wonderful thing, a great foundation. And in many ways, the trip to Ghana and to Israel is in that same tradition. And as you pointed out, Julie, there were a lot of African American members of Congress who on the trip and a lot of Jewish men from the members of Congress who were on the trip who visited both countries. And, you know, we were able to involve Ghana, and in Israel and Ghana, visit the Cape Coast slave castles, which were central to the horrific transatlantic slave trade. And we also were able to visit Yad Vashem and I was able to lay a wreath and make it clear that we would never forget and never again, allow the Horus of what was seen during the Holocaust to occur. And it was important that in addition to, in Ghana, for instance, meeting with President Akufo Addo, to visit the site, for a lot of the activity of the transatlantic slave trade, and, of course, the ties that then connect to the African American community in the United States of America, and to visit the door of no return. But also to make sure that, in the time that we were in Israel, almost every time that I've been there, we've always made it a point to make sure that we visited Yad Vashem, it's always a very powerful, moving experience.
And it was the same and to be able to do it together with black members of Congress and Jewish members of Congress, and leaders, who were not black and Jewish, but were on the trip with us, was really a powerful experience, I think, for everyone involved. And I think it's important for us to continue to try to lean in to strengthening the relationships between the black and Jewish community. It's something that because of the district that I represent, has always been central to my time and public service. And I do you know, I am moved by the fact that at least part of the district that I represent, and that told this story during the Democratic caucus celebration of Jewish American Heritage Month, but I tried to tell it whenever I get the opportunity that I do represent a district that was once represented in part by a manual seller. And a manual seller was the longest certain Congress person in the history of the country. He served for 50 years, first elected in 1922. And served through 1972. He was a staunch ally and advocate for the special relationship between the United States and Israel from the very beginning. He was there, I believe, with Truman, when the United States first recognized Israel, and was there to support the special relationship every step of the way throughout the time that he was in Congress.
But what also is little known about Manny seller, as he was affectionately known in Brooklyn, is that during the 1960s, he was also the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, which meant that he played an important role, legislatively, and making sure that the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, became the law of the land, to crush Jim Crow, and crushed the effort to oppress the ability of African Americans, particularly in the south to participate fully in our democracy. And then you go to civil rights museums across the country, and whenever there have been exhibits, even here in the Library of Congress, usually always an acknowledgement of the role that Manny Celler played. And I'm proud of the fact that I can represent a district that someone who was such an important link between the black and Jewish community and actually played a meaningful role in helping to advance legislation to change the course of America, in supporting the efforts and leadership of Dr. King and others, is an important thing. That's a tradition that I look forward to continuing to build upon and at the same time, to be able to represent a district as I mentioned earlier, where I serve more Russian speaking Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union than anyone else. And to know that Dr. King took time out from his days of leading the civil rights movement, to speak to Jewish leaders and rabbinical leaders across the country famously anchored in his guiding principle, that injustice anywhere is a justice everywhere, and it was great injustice, being directed at the Jewish community that was behind the Iron Curtain during the days of the Soviet Union, and to use his voice to speak up on behalf of what he appropriately viewed as his Jewish brothers and sisters who are facing oppression. That example that was set by Dr. King, that example that was set by Congressman Judiciary Committee Chair Manny Celler, who wasn't just focused on strengthening the relationship between the United States and Israel, but also dealt with the injustices directed at African Americans throughout the United States. That's a powerful heritage for us in Congress, or us as leaders, as AJC has promoted, to continue to build upon.
Julie Fishman Rayman:
Thank you so much, you've provided us with such a sweeping understanding not just of the history-everything from Manny Celler to Dr. King to Yad Vashem. But also a vision for where we can all go collectively. Whether it's in May, during Jewish American Heritage Month, or Black History Month, or every day, trying to honor the legacy of Americans from all facets who lift up our great nation and make it what it is today. Leader Jeffries, thank you for your leadership and thank you for being with us.
Thank you so much, what an honor Julie to be on and all the best to you and look forward to continuing to work closely with Ted, with AJC, on behalf of the issues that we all care about, particularly as it relates to the well being of the Jewish community here in the United States of America and throughout the world.
Manya Brachear Pashman:
If you missed last week’s episode, be sure to tune in for my conversation with the Jewish bluegrass duo Nefesh Mountain, featuring not one but two live musical performances, a wonderful way to wrap up our month-long series of shows honoring Jewish American Heritage.