(January 21, 2020 / JNS) Democratic Rep. Josh Gottheimer has been in Congress since Jan. 3, 2017, serving New Jersey’s 5th Congressional District.
Previously, he worked in the Clinton administration, joining in 1998 as a speechwriter at the age of 23. He has worked on numerous Democratic presidential campaigns.
Gottheimer, 44, also worked for the Ford Motor Company, was executive vice president at a public-relations firm, and held jobs at the Federal Communications Commission and Microsoft.
During his time in office, Gottheimer has been unafraid to work with both sides of the political aisle and censure his own party, especially when a Democrat makes anti-Semitic remarks.
Gottheimer, who is Jewish, and his wife, Marla, have two children.
JNS talked with Gottheimer in person on Jan. 8 before members of Congress received a classified briefing over the Jan. 3 U.S. killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: How do your Jewish values influence what you do in Congress?
A: I’m an American, so my first and foremost commitment is to the Constitution and protecting the American people. I’m sure faith plays into who you are as a person, and what your values are and what you have for others and in taking responsibility. I think they’re all part of the impact my Jewish faith had on me, similar to what faith has on all members of Congress.
Q: What is your reaction to the growing wave of anti-Semitism in America?
A: In the end-of-the year spending package, a critical step we took was with the Nonprofit Security Grant Program (NPSG), which is something I’ve worked very closely with our religious institutions and parochial schools in New Jersey. We’ve been successful in clawing these grants to New Jersey to protect our institutions. I’ve supported additional resources. We should be doing more than.
Speaking out in one voice against anti-Semitism and interfaith denunciation is important. The administration has spoken out against anti-Semitism. I was at the signing of the executive order last month addressing anti-Semitism. It was a critical step. It mirrors the legislation that I co-sponsored last Congress with Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.).
It will be helpful given the massive wave of anti-Semitism on college campuses. The BDS movement is out of control on a lot of our campuses. I’ve worked hard to insert language before Hanukkah on no conditions to U.S. assistance to Israel.
One of the misperceptions out there is about my side of the aisle standing up for the U.S.-Israel relationship. That’s wrong. You’ve got pockets that are vocal. And some of our presidential candidates have the wrong views on these issues. As we saw with the House anti-BDS resolution, we lost 16 Democrats, which is better than what people had perceived.
Q: Recipients of the Nonprofit Security Grant Program can use up to 50 percent of funds for armed personnel. If they want to use more, they need a waiver from FEMA. Should Congress allow recipients to use up to 100 percent of the money towards such a purpose? Would you propose an amendment to a future bill to allow this?
A: One of the largest costs for synagogues is their security officers and also for other religious institutions as well. I have to think about such an amendment. It’s a positive change to allow recipients to use the money to hire armed security because there are places you can harden in a synagogue, such as windows. You can have cameras. These costs are very high, and especially with the increased threat level, there’s a growing need unfortunately to have more coverage, more security. It’s an unfortunate reality and a high cost.
Q: You were one of a handful of Democrats at last month’s signing of the executive order related to anti-Semitism in the federal government and on college campuses. What role did you play ahead of that? Were you in constant contact with the White House in giving your input?
A: I was speaking to the White House and senior adviser to the president Jared Kushner. This was a really important step and will be helpful in combating anti-Semitism on college campuses, which I think is essential.
Anti-Semitism is rearing its ugly head in other ways—not just in temples, but in communities, and in local governments and schools, where we’ve had in the last three months six swastikas found in middle schools in my district, not to mention on campaign signs. Not only on mine, but on other candidates in northern New Jersey. This is a significant problem. It’s not a left-right issue; it’s both. You have white supremacists that have increased their activities, but we’re also seeing comments being made by others on the left. We’ve got to educate. We’ve got to keep investing to protect people. You’ve got a lot of people who are rightly concerned because they want to know what we’re doing and what’s available to them. It’s why these grants are so important, but also what we say publicly is critically important.
Q: What was your reaction to the Jan. 7 Iranian attacks on Iraqi bases where U.S. troops are stationed? Did you believe that this was an act of war?
A: He was a terrorist, and we were responding to years of action by Iran.
Q: You gave a measured response to the death of Soleimani. What’s your response to your Democratic colleagues who criticized the president for the strike without seeking authorization from Congress?
A: I won’t speak for others, but I know what I said. There’s lots of different opinions. I know what I believe: We killed a terrorist. The key is to understand the intelligence that led to that decision-making.
Q: Do we need a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) as it pertains to Iran? Would you support that?
A: If the president comes back and says long-term, we need to invest in additional resources for the region, and we’re going to send additional servicemen and women, his responsibility is to come to Congress. I hope we haven’t gotten to this point of mistrust that we can’t put aside partisanship and put country first, and talk to one another about issues of this nature. It’s very important that our leadership is coordinated. We shouldn’t do anything to prevent the commander-in-chief from responding to imminent threats in existential circumstances; however, a decision to be involved long-term involves a responsibility to come to Congress.
Q: Do you agree with the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran?
A: I was against the Iran deal. Iran has continued to be a bad actor in the region, especially on the terror front. One of my initial concerns with the Iran deal is that it didn’t address the elephant in the room, which is their support for terror. By leaving that out, they’ve continued to do it. It’s important that we keep up the pressure, and I’ve agreed with the administration’s decision to really tighten the screws with economic sanctions. That’s been an important step given their behavior, given their continued actions. It’s also essential that we engage our allies more.
Q: What can the administration do differently?
A: I worked in a White House. You wouldn’t write up your classified plans and release them to the public. It’s important that you explain to the American people what the thinking is, why this is a threat, why we need to take certain action. It’s important that the president brief the country and Congress, and that we have a responsibility to see the acts, to see the classified materials that led to the decision-making and understand our longer-term strategy. I don’t reflexively second-guess, and it’s important we understand that, constitutionally, we have a commander-in-chief for a reason.
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