(March 4, 2020 / JNS) Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin has been in Congress since Jan. 3, 2017, serving Maryland’s 8th Congressional District. Previously, he was a Maryland state senator and eventually was named the state senate’s majority whip.
As a member of the House Judiciary and Rules Committees, Raskin, 57, played a public role in the impeachment of U.S. President Donald Trump.
Raskin, who is Jewish, is married to Sarah Bloom, who served as U.S. Deputy Treasury Secretary under President Barack Obama. They have three children.
JNS talked with Raskin by phone on Feb. 18. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: As a Jewish member of Congress, do you mind giving readers a quick overview of what it was like growing up?
A: My maternal grandfather was a very important Jewish influence in my life. He was in law and politics in Minnesota and the first Jewish person ever elected to the Minnesota legislature at a time of intense anti-Semitism there. My mom grew up in Minneapolis. I saw in him as a role model for politics because he showed that a person in public service is someone who wants to serve other people and help them solve their problems. He was a pillar in the Jewish community in St. Louis Park and was active in the Democratic-Farm-Labor Party.
He also was a very strong Zionist and felt that the creation of Israel was necessary for the survival of the Jewish people. We were given Israeli Defense Bonds for our birthdays every year from him and my grandmother. My grandmother was also active in the Jewish community. She was the president of Hadassah in Minnesota and actually served in that capacity with Bob Dylan’s mother, [Beatty] Zimmerman.
I grew up as Reform Jewish and with a strong sense of Jewish values. I was very moved when I heard for the first time what Hillel said: “If I’m not for myself, who will be? If I’m not for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” My family belongs to Temple Sinai in Washington, D.C. That where our kids had their bar and bat mitzvahs.
Q: How do your Reform Jewish values influence what you do in Congress?
A: It’s an interesting question because I’m a staunch supporter of the separation of church and state, and our First Amendment. On the other hand, everybody brings his or her own moral and spiritual values with them to analyze public-policy problems.
For me, Judaism has always been about tikkun olam—about improving a broken world, and promoting justice and fairness for people who have been downtrodden and left behind. That’s a key moral purpose for me.
Q: What are the biggest issues facing your constituency and the local Jewish community?
A: The essential issues for our time include gun violence, which is a nationwide nightmare, and the problem of climate change, which is a civilizational emergency. I’ve been fighting for universal criminal and mental-health background checks, which we passed and sent to the Senate last February, as well as a ban on high-capacity magazines and assault weapons. I have been working for an end to subsidies for carbon energy, and for passage of a Green New Deal and a carbon pricing mechanism.
The rise of anti-Semitism, racism and extremist violence presents other critical problems crucial to the people in my community.
Obviously, people in the Jewish community pay special attention to the peace and security of Israel and other countries in the Middle East.
Q: You opposed the Trump administration withdrawing America from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Is there any part of the administration’s Iran policy you agree with?
A: I was definitely opposed to withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement, which has turned out to be a disaster, and we have only seen things degenerate since then. We need to stop Iranian support for terrorist activity by Hamas and Hezbollah, and oppression of the Iranian people. We should be advocating for human rights for people in Iran. To the extent that the administration supports human rights in Iran, and equality and religious freedom for its people, that would be something I could work with them on.
Q: What steps should we be taking to address the situation in Iran?
A: We should be working through the United Nations, and mechanisms of international law and order, to promote human rights in Iran.
I have a resolution with Congressman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) to call for the release of religious prisoners, in addition to an end to blasphemy laws and religious persecution in Iran, Saudi Arabia and in nations all over the world. I would hope that the administration would try to work to defend human rights against religious authoritarianism.
Q: Given the rise in anti-Semitic sentiment and attacks, do you feel that the government is doing enough to confront this challenge?
A: Not really. I had a series of hearings about that in the Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, which I chair. When we began those hearings, the administration simply had no policy for trying to confront the rise of white-supremacist terror—the kind that we’ve seen at the Tree of Life Synagogue [in Pittsburgh] or in the AME Church in Charleston, S.C., or the Walmart in El Paso, Texas.
We’re still waiting for a comprehensive law enforcement and public education strategy from the administration to address the rise of violent white supremacy, which has proven to be as great a threat to public safety as the threat of Islamist terror in the years since the catastrophic 9/11 attacks.
Q: Jewish organizations have expressed concerns about the lack of funding to cover security for their institutions. Can Congress address that through increased spending?
A: We need a collaborative effort among federal, state, county, local law-enforcement grants and private institutions. Obviously, we can’t set up a program that just targets religious institutions, so it has to be for nonprofit institutions, generally. All of the synagogues in my district are spending a lot of their resources just on security in trying to defend themselves against this new wave of violent domestic terror.
Q: You signed onto a letter to U.S. President Donald Trump to express disapproval of the Mideast peace plan. Do you agree with any of its components?
A: The major problem with the plan is that it is so one-sided that it is guaranteed not to move the peace process forward in any way.
Q: What’s your reaction to the Palestinians rejecting it?
A: It’s totally predictable on everybody’s part. I’m sure that it was the response the administration anticipated and hoped for.
You would think if they’ve been working on this grand bargain for several years, the key actors in the conflict would be aware of where they were in their planning. It’s hard to say that this reaction would come as a surprise to anyone.
The real issue is that there is a move to annex the land in the West Bank. That annexation policy without a comprehensive peace agreement and a settling of all the issues is not going to work.
Q: What’s your reaction to your fellow Democrats and critics who say that anti-BDS legislation, like the one that passed the Senate last year, goes against free speech?
A: Our House resolution, which I advocated, does not go against freedom of speech. It is a statement of congressional sentiment. We oppose BDS precisely because it is counterproductive to the peace process, to a two-state solution and to a constructive resolution of all the problems between Israel and the Palestinians. There are anti-BDS laws that have violated the First Amendment and have been struck down in court, and I definitely oppose those.
The First Amendment gives people the right to engage in boycotts. The Supreme Court elucidated that principle in a decision called Claiborne Hardware—a boycott is a decision not to patronize a particular establishment and then using speech to promote that decision. So the Supreme Court has upheld it for that reason; it is about protected rights of speech and association. People have a right to boycott, but Congress also has a right to state that it opposes a particular boycott.
Personally, I’ve been opposed to the BDS movement since I’ve been a law professor at American University Washington College of Law for a quarter-century. We have a program in Haifa which promotes international human-rights law, and it has helped to build up the human-rights bar in Israel. So when they told us we should be boycotting Israel, I said I thought that was ridiculous, and that it is not a way forward for Israel or any other country. What we need is more engagement and discourse in order to make progress.
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