Voices singing “We Shall Overcome” in Hebrew and English rang throughout the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington D.C. as more than 200 members of congress, clergy and lay leaders celebrated the historic launch of the Congressional Caucus on Black-Jewish Relations Oct. 23.
The caucus was formed by the Atlanta Black-Jewish Coalition, a segment of the AJC founded in 1982 in Atlanta by Congressman John Lewis and activist Sherry Frank.
Now, the AJC wants to set a new precedent for black-Jewish relations and build on the work of the past by engaging the next generation. Congresswoman Karen Bass (D-Calif.), who is chair of the congressional black-Jewish caucus, said it was a momentous occasion to have everyone from the House of Representatives come together in solidarity.
“I’m from Los Angeles and grew up in the Jewish community, and when it comes to the relationship between our two communities, it is a bipartisan issue and I’m happy to be a part of it and look forward to seeing the caucus develop,” Bass said.
The initial members of the black-Jewish caucus include Reps. Brenda Lawrence, (D-Mich.), Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.), Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), Will Hurd (R-Texas), and John Lewis (D-Ga). Since its establishment in March, the caucus has elected Bass chair, Congresswoman Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio) first vice chair, Congressman Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) secretary, Congressman A. Donald McEachin (D-Va.) whip; and Congressman Steven Horsford (D-N.V.) parliamentarian.
The mission of the caucus is to build new relationships across black and Jewish communities, raise awareness about racism, bigotry and anti-Semitism in society, and develop leadership for the future. The caucus is the brainchild of Rep. Lawrence, who wanted to form a bipartisan caucus to address black and Jewish shared concerns of anti-Semitism and racism. When she presented the idea at a meeting last year to Dov Wilker, regional director of AJC Atlanta, Wilker said his response was “How can we help?”
“This is the first time in the history of congress there has been a black-Jewish caucus. By bringing together our members specifically around black-Jewish relations, we hope they work for each other. Then we hope that the message will filter down into their districts. It’s not just about what happens to the members themselves, but the people in their offices, between offices, and ultimately down into the districts.”
Every member of the Georgia delegation who is black is a member of the congressional caucus and now the AJC is committed to ensuring every Jewish and black member of Congress in the Southeast is a member of the caucus. Rep. Lucy McBath, (D-Ga.) said being a part of the black-Jewish caucus is just continuing the work of her parents. McBath’s father Lucien Holman served as president of the NAACP of Illinois and was next to Lyndon B. Johnson at the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, along with members of the Jewish community. McBath said being a member of the new caucus is a continuation of her parents’ work and everything she learned as a young woman.
“It’s just deepening my roots and relationship with the Jewish community as we fight side-by-side for the same issues we’ve been fighting for all along, but now collectively we are moving forward to really make a difference,” McBath said. “My hope for the organization is that we can build a stronger foundation and structure so that we will champion the civil and human rights of all communities.”
Even with members such as Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (D-Mich.), who was criticized for anti-Semitic remarks, Wilker hopes her presence will expand the influence of the congressional caucus. He said it’s great she wanted to be a part of it.
“We hope that she’ll learn about anti-Semitism and what is anti-Semitism,” Wilker said. “As a Muslim member of Congress, to be a part of the black-Jewish caucus also shows it’s not just a Jewish-Christian initiative, but that it’s really about blacks and Jews coming together.”