The recurring theme, which the 24 senators who attended and the Jewish leaders both raised, was a measure of the anxiety aroused by recent reports of attacks on European Jews, according to participants at the meeting, held on July 23.
“There was almost more energy around anti-Semitism than around Gaza,” said a participant who spoke on condition of anonymity because the meeting in the Capitol’s stately Mansfield Room was off the record.
JTA spoke to eight meeting participants from Jewish groups. Some spoke on the record to describe their own statements, which was allowed under the meeting’s rules.
The dialogue, which went 15 minutes over its allotted time of an hour, touched on the range of issues typical to these discussions, which have taken place every year since early in the administration of President George W. Bush: Israel, with a focus on the Gaza war; Iran; women’s rights; immigration and religious freedoms.
Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the majority leader who convened the meeting, set the tone with his opening remarks, which referred to a return to “old-fashioned anti-Semitism” on the continent. He specifically mentioned anxieties in Hungary.
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) also spoke at length about the topic, with Cardin noting that he had this week convened a hearing on the issue as the chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission.
Participants said such awareness was important because of the influence that senators have both within the United States and overseas.
“We spoke about doing public messaging on it,” said Nathan Diament, the Washington director of the Orthodox Union.
The O.U. delegation attending the meeting with Democratic senators also met that day with GOP lawmakers, including Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), as well as administration officials. In all the meetings, the outbreak of anti-Semitism was a lead issue, Diament said.
“There are things that senators can do to shine a light on how unacceptable it is,” in meetings with constituents, diplomats and when they travel abroad, he said. “We talked about how disturbing it is and how the anti-Semitic feature seems to be getting obscured by virtue of the conflict between Israel and Hamas.”
Leaders from another Orthodox group, Agudath Israel of America, also attended the meeting. Additionally, a delegation of 30 Agudath Israel activists held meetings the same day with lawmakers of both parties.
“There is obviously reason for concern that a vicious storm is brewing for acheinu bnei Yisroel, one that poses more than just an imminent physical threat — but a threat to the long term stability of Jewish communities across the globe,” said a statement from the Agudah, using the Hebrew for “our Jewish brethren.”
At the session with the senators, Daniel Mariaschin, the executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International, outlined a litany of recent events including the firebombing of a synagogue in Sarcelles in France, German and Dutch pro-Palestinian demonstrations where protesters shouted threats against Jews and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s likening of Israel to the Nazis.
“We asked them to use diplomatic and parliamentary contacts to raise the issue and urge European officials to crack down on anti-Semitic incidents,” he said.
Jewish leaders who had other agenda items departed from prepared remarks to refer to the phenomenon.
“I raised the issue of anti-Semitism in Europe, as well as religious freedom issues for Christians in the Middle East who have been under attack,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, the director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, whose focus otherwise was RAC’s support for legislative efforts to counteract a recent Supreme Court ruling that watered down a contraceptives coverage mandate.
“There was a good deal of discussion; a couple of senators came back on that issue who were deeply concerned about the anti-Semitism,” Saperstein said.
Other topics addressed included Israel’s war with Hamas, with Bob Cohen, the president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), and Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of J Street, each beginning their remarks with expressions of regret for the casualties on both sides.
Cohen squarely blamed Hamas for the conflict, while Ben-Ami backed U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s bid for an immediate cease-fire.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) asked the Jewish leaders whether the views of Israel’s newly inaugurated president, Reuven Rivlin, an opponent of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, would adversely affect U.S. efforts to advance the peace process. The National Jewish Democratic Council’s chairman, Greg Rosenbaum, said Rivlin, like other politicians, would likely moderate his views in office.
Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), a former comedian and “Saturday Night Live” regular, noted his continuing popularity as a campus speaker and said he would use that platform to push back against the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, which he called “pernicious.”
Cohen of AIPAC said the lobbying group did not oppose the extension of nuclear talks between Iran and major world powers, although earlier in the week AIPAC had said it was “deeply disappointed” in the agreement governing the four-month extension to Nov. 24. He said the group would oppose any deal that would allow Iran to advance to a nuclear weapon.
Cohen said AIPAC would back new Iran sanctions at the “appropriate time,” according to sources.
The previous effort foundered earlier this year when Democrats in the Senate quashed the legislation, heeding protests from President Obama, who said the new sanctions could scuttle the talks. AIPAC, while maintaining its support for such legislation, has backed away from pressing for a vote on the issue.
Other topics raised at the meeting included the immigration crisis. Mark Hetfield, the president of HIAS, the Jewish immigrant advocacy and aid group, called for funds to assist the tens of thousands of undocumented Central American children who have arrived at the border and to hire more judges to hear their cases.
Other speakers at the meeting backed passage of bills that would enhance law enforcement capabilities in combating violence against women and that would reverse a recent Supreme Court decision that struck down parts of the Voting Rights Act.