(March 16, 2020 / JNS) Democratic Rep. Brad Sherman has been in Congress since 1997, currently serving California’s 30th Congressional District.
Previously, Sherman, 65, represented the state’s 27th and 24th Congressional Districts before they were redrawn.
Sherman, who is Jewish, and his wife, Lisa, have three children.
JNS talked with Sherman by phone on Feb. 20. 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 studied Jewish religion and Hebrew at the Alhambra Synagogue Center. We moved down to Orange County, where my father helped found and was president of Bat Yam, which is now a synagogue. I began my career as a CPA. My friends insisted I find an occupation held “in lower public esteem,” so I went to Harvard Law School. Ten years of practice. My friends told me that politics was not low enough, but California had an elected revenue commission in which I was elected in 1990 and became simultaneously a politician. The first issue I faced was the new California snack tax on potato chips, corn chips and crackers, which raised for the first time in the history of taxation the question of whether or not matzah is a cracker.
Q: How do your Jewish values influence what you do in Congress?
A: It’s hard to untangle who you are as a person and which of your values are Jewish—what constantly focuses on tikkun olam. But I think that if you ask the question who you would be if you weren’t Jewish, I wouldn’t be. There might be someone else taking up that space, but that wouldn’t be me. It’s certainly a dedication to the poor, to peace, to freedom, to science, to argument and to thought.
Q: What are the biggest issues facing the Jewish community in your constituency?
A: Like so many, we have been hit with anti-Semitic acts, and this creates a certain fear, but also determination.
Q: Why were you opposed to the Trump administration withdrawing the United States from the 2015 Iran deal?
A: I opposed the deal.
I thought I had a better strategy to deal with Iran, and that was when [U.S. Secretary of State John] Kerry was before the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, in response to my question, said even if we enter this deal we can still sanction Iran in proportion to their non-nuclear wrongdoing.
And I thought there was sufficient non-nuclear wrongdoing from Tehran to justify every sanction I could think of, and I’ve been thinking of new ones since. So I thought the best approach would be to tell the Iranians, “We’re going to sanction the hell out of you until a peace conference that you ask for. We’re going to sanction the hell out of you and you’re subject to the Iran deal.”
I’m not opposed to sanctioning Iran. I’m just opposed to letting Iran escape from significant restrictions imposed on them by the JCPOA.
Q: Do you agree with any part of the Trump administration’s Iran policy?
A: I agree with sanctions. We need to sanction Iran because Iran is responsible—more than any other nation—for blood and the many hundreds of thousands of people the Ayatollah has gassed, and the millions of people he has driven into internal or external exile.
Q: Given the rise in anti-Semitic sentiment and attacks, do you feel that the government is doing enough to confront this challenge?
A: Trump has created a mood in the country that has liberated and encouraged far-right anti-Semitism. I wouldn’t call him an anti-Semite. His comments about Charlottesville, Va., and the Nazis there was ill-advised. When one has a Muslim ban, when one calls Mexicans “rapists” and “murderers,” and that there were good people in Charlottesville, that creates an atmosphere for anti-Semitism. Jews face anti-Semitism all around the world from the extremists on the left, on the right and from those influenced from Islamic extremism. It’s never been easy to be a Jew.
Q: Jewish organizations have expressed concerns about the lack of funding to cover numerous institutions. Does Congress just address that through increased spending?
A: The Nonprofit Security Grant Program is a program I’ve advocated increased funding for. The best way to prevent the terrorists is to prevent them from carrying the act to begin with.
Q: How does that get accomplished? Through more spending?
A: It’s everything from our foreign policy through our homeland security through our police departments, right down to security measures at landmark institutions and Jewish institutions. I can’t just tell you, “Oh, if we put up a wall on the outside of these particular buildings, that solves the terrorist problem.”
Q: What was your reaction to the Trump administration’s “Peace to Prosperity” Mideast peace plan? Do you agree with any of its components?
A: It seems to be Bibi Netanyahu’s Middle East peace plan, and it was. It’s a reasonable opening position for the Israeli government in peace negotiations, and we ought to be starting serious peace negotiations as soon as possible. It’s now up to the Arab side to put forth a reasonable opening position for them. Opening positions for negotiations are rarely the final and just conclusion. The Arab side has put forward what is a reasonable bargaining position for them to take, except for the words they put in about the so-called right of return or “the right to refugees.”
If you read what the Arab side is saying, it is that they are in favor of a two-state solution as long as there are two Palestinian states. Anyone who speaks Arabic and claims that even one of their distant ancestors lived in Israel—and it’s just a claim because there are no records—go to Istanbul and see how many records you have of families living in Israel 150 years ago. There are no records. So it means that an Arabic-speaking person has a right to move to Israel. If you say it that plainly, then it’s clear that their bargaining position is unreasonable.
That’s the chief problem we have. They look reasonable because they don’t say in plain English or plainly in any other language that they want two Palestinian states, and that that’s their definition of a two-state solution. Whatever their opening bargaining position is, the Israeli opening bargaining position is the Trump-Kushner-Netanyahu plan and that ought to be laid on the table. They can lay theirs on the table. It’s time to start talking peace.
I’ve been a pro-Israel activist for more than 50 years. The position has always been that we want the parties to negotiate final-status issues. We don’t want outsiders trying to impose solutions. The pro-Israel community ought to return to its position that issues are to be negotiated between the parties. We should regard the document that was issued from the White House as, in effect, the current bargaining position of the Israeli government and be regarded as an Israeli plan.
Q: Who have you endorsed for president?
A: Serving in Congress has given me a front row seat to Joe Biden’s ability to bring about real and tangible solutions for working families across the country. I saw up close how he helped make the goals of the Obama-Biden administration a reality. Things like the Affordable Care Act, the Recovery and Reinvestment, and the Paris Climate Accords. His experience sets him apart and I know on day one Joe will immediately get to work to improve the lives of working families and restore our standing on the international stage. His leadership and wisdom will unite and heal this country. Having served over 23 years on the Foreign Affairs Committee, I know that Joe Biden will have Israel’s back. He will work tirelessly for a safe and secure Israel, living in peace with its Palestinian neighbors. I’m proud to endorse Joe Biden for president.
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