With 2020 in the rearview mirror, it is a good opportunity to look at what 2021 holds politically for American Jews.
2020 saw the (current) best chance for a Jewish president fizzle out in March, when Bernie Sanders suffered primary losses to Joe Biden. But 2021 is still managing to bring a fresh Jewish perspective into the executive branch: President Joe Biden has a Jewish son-in-law and Kamala Harris’ husband, Doug Emhoff, will be the first Jewish spouse of the vice president. While they will have the ear of the president and vice president respectively, if they so wish, they are unlikely to influence policy or hold official roles.
Donald Trump’s White House did have its connections to the Jewish faith. Ivanka Trump, the former president’s daughter, converted to Judaism when she married her husband, Jarred Kushner, both of whom were advisors to the president. They did not, however, represent the majority of American Jewish political thought, which is overwhelmingly in support of both the Democratic party and their policies.
Not to be outdone by the first Jewish second spouse, the 117th Congress will see Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer of New York become the highest ever elected Jewish American official when he becomes senate majority leader–a role he will achieve thanks in part to Jon Ossoff, the newly elected Jewish Democratic senator from the former GOP stronghold of Georgia. Ossoff’s (along with fellow new Georgian senator Reverend Raphael Warnock’s) win is seen as a harbinger of the “New South,” a movement away from the Republican party and towards the politics of the surging minority groups, including Jews and African Americans. Ossoff offers a young face for the future, as he is the Senate’s youngest member, at 33, since Joe Biden won in 1972 at age 29. (He would turn 30 before his term began).
Congress, though, will actually see a net loss of Jewish members as Democratic New York Congressmen Elliot Engel and Max Rose both lost. Engel lost in a contentious primary challenge to progressive Jamaal Bowman while Rose lost to Republican Nicole Malliotakis in the general election.
Partially offset by the arrival of Ossoff, Jewish representation remains higher than the proportion of Jews in the country. About 2% of the country is Jewish, compared to 6% of the federal legislature. Party representation is not in line though, there are no Republican Jewish senators and only two Repubican Jews in the House, Lee Zedlin of New York and David Kutsoff of Tennessee.
Those Jewish members of Congress, thanks to the new Democratic majority in the Senate, will be among the most powerful in Jewish American political history. Bernie Sanders is set to chair (lead) the Senate Budget Committee and Ron Wyden of Oregon is expected to chair the finance committee, both of which have enormous power to set the fiscal policy of the country and divert money to government departments and initiatives.
In the House of Representatives, also under Democratic control, the powerful Judiciary committee is set to remain in the hands of Jerry Nadler of New York while John Yarmuth of Kentucky will remain as the budget committee chair.
In both the House and the Senate, the remaining Jewish members will act as members on various committees, offering their expertise and working to craft bills that reflect the will of their constituents.
How the power Jewish populations find themselves with will impact American Jews is hard to say. Most proposals under consideration from the Democratic majority may not directly impact or explicitly offend most Republican Jews, and they will obviously be in alignment with the two thirds of Jews who voted for them.
Socially, the country is likely to move in a direction with which a vast majority of Jews agree, as evidenced by Pew research polls in which 81% of Jews believe that gay marriage should be legal (higher than all religions except Buddhism) and 82% believe that homosexuality should be accepted (higher than all religions surveyed).
One area that might have a direct impact on Jews is the calmer and more tolerant rhetoric from the highest office in the country, from which Donald Trump gave tacit approval of white nationalists by repeatedly broadcasting the message of white power on twitter and by commenting that there were “ very fine people on both sides” after the events of Charlotsville. Polling of American Jews confirms that a majority believe that anti-semitism is spurred by the rhetoric of Donald Trump and the Republican Party: 61% of Jews feel that the GOP has total or majority responsibility for the increase, 62% strongly disapprove of the way President Trump handled anti-semitism, and 78% of Jews feel that right-wing extremism represents a significant anti-semtic threat. That number is higher than both Jews who are moderately or seriously worried about left-wing extermist anti-semitism, which is at 36%, or even Islamic extermist anti-semtism, which is at 54%.
The feeling of increased anti-semitism is not one born of increased media focus on anti-semitism, but of a genuine rise in hate crimes across the country. Anti-semtic incidents alone hit an all time high in 2019, according to the Anti-Defamation League. That the former president’s words have an effect on hate crime numbers is an increasingly credible conclusion.
Thus, just by virtue of Trump leaving office, this trend is likely to reverse itself. In collaboration with a Biden administration focused on improving racial relations and healing the nation there very well may be a dramatic decrease in hate crimes and openly anti-semitic rhetoric.
2021 brings hopes of an improved year for American Jews, as the country rebounds from a pandemic, Jews are welcomed into higher political office, and America’s anti-semitic demons are beat back.