(February 12, 2020 / JNS) Democratic Rep. Brad Schneider has been in Congress, serving Illinois’s 10th Congressional District since Jan. 3, 2017, when he returned after winning back his seat the previous November.
Prior to that, he served as a congressman for the district between 2013 and 2015.
Schneider, 58, was the managing principal of a life-insurance firm for six years until becoming the director of the strategic-services group at Blackman Kallick, followed by starting his own consulting firm in 2008.
Schneider, who is Jewish, and his wife, Julie, have two children.
JNS talked with Schneider in person on Feb. 7. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: As a Jewish member of Congress, do you mind giving our readers a quick overview of what it was like growing up?
A: I had a blessed childhood. I grew up in a loving family. My family is from Denver. Two of my grandparents grew up in Denver in a tight-knit Jewish community. My paternal grandfather was one of the founders of the Orthodox-Conservadox synagogues in Denver. My family was one of the first families to join a Reform synagogue.
Part of why I am comfortable in any community—Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Orthodox or otherwise—is because that’s the family I have. Big family on my mom’s side. She’s one of six kids. My generation has 18 cousins, all very close.
Q: How do your Jewish values influence what you do in Congress?
A: I see everything through the lens of my Jewish upbringing, my Jewish values. I grew up in a home that took our Judaism seriously. I had my bar mitzvah, confirmation, lived in Israel for a year after college. Seeing the world from the perspective of tikkun olam, we have a responsibility to repair the world. In my office at home, I have a papercut of Hillel’s famous quote: “If I’m not for myself, who will be? If I’m not for myself, what am I? If not now, when?”
The appreciation for the U.S.-Israel relationship. I don’t remember the Six-Day War in June of 1967; I was just 5 years old. But I remember the aftermath, conversations in my home with a book called The Six-Day War. It was a critical turning point for our community. I vividly remember the Yom Kippur War and being in the backseat of the car, leaving Yom Kippur services and the hush in the car as we listened to the radio and understanding the gravity.
You jump ahead to the First Lebanon War, and I was in college. I lived in Israel in 1983-84.
Q: What did you do during your year in Israel?
A: I was on a post-college program. I studied Hebrew and worked in a kibbutz wiring factory as an industrial engineer.
Q: What are the biggest issues facing the Jewish community in your constituency?
A: I don’t know that there’s one or even a short list. From all my years working in the community—whether it was the Federation, American Jewish Committee, other organizations—the importance of Jewish continuity, from generation to generation, is crucial.
At the same time, for the American Jewish community, in particular, we’re part of the fabric of American life. Obviously, sitting here and talking to you in my office in the United States House of Representatives is a reflection of that. But it’s our involvement in not just leadership roles, civic life in the broader community, but understanding that we have a place we’re going to stay, building bridges with other groups. I spent four years as the chairman of the Alliance of Latinos & Jews in Chicago.
I think [what’s] paramount in people’s concerns at home and globally is the rise in anti-Semitism. I’m part of the Bipartisan Task Force for Combating Anti-Semitism. I had my bill this summer on fighting BDS. The tensions for Israel and prospects of peace for Israel’s security are a paramount concern to my community.
Q: What is your view on Iranian aggression and threats towards Israel? Do you agree with the Trump administration’s approach in terms of the May 2018 withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal and the imposition of harsh economic sanctions?
A: There are three existential threats in the context of the U.S.-Israel relationship and the global Jewish community.
The first threat is Iran in all of its forms. Iran can never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon. That’s why, when I first got to Congress, I said that it is imperative that we not just block Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon, but we permanently close any and all paths they might have.
But it’s beyond that. It’s their ballistic-missile program, their involvement in supporting terrorist groups in the region, their interference in the region right now. They are entrenched not just in Lebanon with Hezbollah, but they’re establishing permanent bases in Syria, creating traffic lanes for weapons to Syria and Lebanon through Iraq, and obviously, Yemen.
The second thing I talk about is that support for Israel has to be bipartisan.
The third is the connection between the Israel and the Jewish community in the Diaspora.
We need to put pressure on Iran in conjunction with our allies. We need the support of the Europeans, in particular, the three European countries that were part of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—Germany, France and the United Kingdom—but also Russia and China.
We need to continue to put maximum pressure on Iran. I did not agree with the president’s decision to pull out of the JCPOA at the moment in the way he did. It was the best tool we had to continue to put that pressure on Iran. We should have been strengthening our alliances, strengthening our toolbox to push back on Iran. If you look at where Iran is today, they’ve established a greater presence in the region and they are closer to a nuclear weapon than they were two years ago.
Q: You mention “maximum pressure.” The Trump administration says it is instituting such a campaign. Do you agree with it?
A: I agree with parts of it. We have to put maximum pressure on Iran, but I think the administration can do a better job working with our allies to keep that pressure globally. And we have to have a long-term strategy not just on Iran. Some of the issues I see is a lack of strategy from this administration, but I believe the strategy has to be to block Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon, block them further away from that nuclear weapon, and then to work with our allies to build our tools and resources, in our own case, to permanently close Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon.
Q: Which parts of the administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign do you agree with?
A: The intentions of putting pressure, the use of sanctions. I’ve always supported sanctions. I disagreed with the administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA. I felt that we had more ability to squeeze pressure on Iran and working with our allies. I think the administration prematurely withdrew from the JCPOA.
Q: Given the rise in anti-Semitic sentiment and attacks, do you feel that the government doing enough to confront this challenge?
A: We have to be doing more. Anti-Semitism is rising not just in the United States, but across the globe. We saw it in the attack at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh; we saw it in the attack in Poway, Calif. We’ve seen it this past Hanukkah, where you saw a series of attacks in New York.
Anti-Semitism comes from many corners; it’s not a single-point source. We have it from the far-right, from the far-left and from international Islamist organizations and supporters of those organizations.
It is not new. I’ve often said that it is one of the oldest hatreds and we’ve seen its effects play out in many places across centuries. Most recently, last month, we commemorated the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. I went on a trip with House Speaker Pelosi to Auschwitz in Poland and then to Israel for a ceremony at Yad Vashem. We need to speak out against it anywhere and everywhere. We need to establish an absolute intolerance, and we need to make sure that those who are trafficking in anti-Semitism are identified, are thwarted and, where appropriate, are punished.
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: I’ll leave it to FEMA to address that. It’s important that organizations that are using federal dollars are doing it in a responsible way, and it’s important that federal dollars are made available to Jewish communal organizations, and they have for a long time. At home, Solomon Schechter Day School, where my kids went, benefited from that, in addition to our Jewish communities and congregations.
Q: Jewish organizations have expressed concerns about the lack of funding to cover numerous institutions. Does Congress just address that through increased spending?
A: It’s not just a matter of increased spending. Part of it is making sure we have the resources available to provide security for not just Jewish community organizations, but all community organizations facing the threat of attack. It’s also a step in trying to mitigate and eliminate these threats.
One of the things I introduced this year is the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act, and we’re in the process of building support for that from members of the House. In this case, the Department of Justice, the FBI, Department of Homeland Security would track and monitor the groups that are a threat, report to Congress twice a year and then, based on the assessment, prioritize the resources.
Q: You expressed concerns about the president’s Mideast peace plan. Do you agree with any of its components?
A: I put out a statement and was very clear on this: The principle of two states for two peoples, to ensure that Israel is forever a democratic Jewish state living in security, peace and prosperity with its neighbors. It’s a principle I have long advocated and strongly support. The idea that Jerusalem will be unified and Israel will have control of its security. The idea that the Palestinians should have the ability to control their own destiny.
There were principles that were laid out in the plan that were articulated by the administration and embraced by both major political parties in Israel.
There are concerns I have about the plan. In particular, the contiguity of the proposed Palestinian state, but also I want to make sure that any Palestinian state doesn’t have the capacity or ability to threaten the security and future of the Jewish state.
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: I appreciate and share concerns on all matters about protections of civil liberties, including freedom of speech, articulated in our First Amendment. I’m proud of the fact that in Illinois, we were the first state to pass and implement anti-BDS legislation, and that has stood through the test of time because it respects and is protective of free speech. There are bills in other states that have raised concerns. I don’t have that concern about the bills that have been presented in the House, and I’ve been a co-sponsor of legislation similar to what passed the Senate.
Q: You mentioned going to Poland with Speaker Pelosi. What stood out the most from that experience?
A: It’s a personal experience that I have to link 30 years prior. I went to Poland and Israel with the Jewish Federations of North America. There were about three buses. At Auschwitz, we got to be with Holocaust survivors. There was a gentleman named Naftali Lavie, who shared his personal story about how, when his father was separated by the Nazis, his father looked to Naftali, who was then 15, and gave two instructions: One was to protect his brother, who was 7 at the time; and two, continue the line of 38 generations of rabbis. Naftali protected his brother, and they survived the Holocaust and made it to Israel. Naftali became active in Jewish services in the community, but his brother grew up to be the chief rabbi of Israel.
In 2020, I followed the same steps. We went to Auschwitz and then we went to Israel to a ceremony at Yad Vashem: 39 delegations came, 41 heads of state. Only a select few had the chance to speak: the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France and Germany. There was one survivor who told his story: former Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, Naftali Lavie’s brother.
I had a chance to meet both of them. Personally, it was very important to be able to do that on my second trip as a Jewish member of the United States House of Representatives, representing my country. It’s an experience I’ll always remember.
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