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Two Nice Jewish Boys

Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN)

Steve Cohen (D-TN) and David Kustoff (R-TN) are two nice Jewish boys in Congress, who represent different parts of the same city from opposite ends of any political spectrum. Cohen is the only Jewish Member of Congress representing a majority black district that is most of Memphis. He’s known as one of the most progressive members of the House, and as Chairman of the House Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties within the House Judiciary Committee.

Kustoff represents East Memphis, the suburbs and 14 other counties to the east; one of the most solidly red regions with unfailing support for President Donald Trump. Before he was elected to Congress, Kustoff was the Attorney General for Western Tennessee, and served as local campaign chairman for George W. Bush and Sen. Lamar Alexander. He paid his dues, rising through the local ranks. The polar opposites of these men’s constituencies and agendas represent the vast schism of this country, but also a city with an interesting and complex history. Both men are also members of Temple Israel Congregation, the largest reform Temple in the region.

Memphis is characterized by a fiercely progressive camp, and a deeply entrenched “conservative” political machinery. Their synagogue had a fiercely liberal tradition through the late 1970’s, most notably when Rabbi James A. Wax became involved in mediating the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike of 1968. As president of the Memphis Ministers’ Association, Rabbi Wax became involved in the labor negotiations soon after the strike began. He served as the ex-officio mediator when AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Workers) was seeking to represent the workers, but the City had refused to recognize the workers’ right to bargain or the union’s right to represent them. The day after King was killed, Wax led a march of the ministers to City Hall and had a dramatic confrontation with Mayor Henry Loeb, during which he reminded the Mayor that “the laws of G-d take precedence over the laws of Man.” He then presided over a resolution with the help of an anonymous donor from the Jewish community, who financed the raises for the sanitation workers. After Wax retired, the congregation took a turn to the right under his predecessor, Rabbi Harry K. Danziger, as the seduction of Reaganomics held sway.

Two Nice Jewish Boys

Rep. David Kustoff (R-TN)

In a recent phone interview, Cohen was asked how Jewish values conflict with the Republican agenda as it has evolved under Trump. He replied, “Jewish people have been discriminated against since eternity, and we’ve learned that we can’t make people live their lives like us. The Rights of the Constitution are consistent with the laws of Judaism.” When asked about Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), he said, “They don’t hate the Jews. They were personally thankful to me when I’ve supported them. I don’t like their policies, and I still love Israel. But I recognize that Palestinians, such as Rep. Tlaib, also feel they have right of return. Trump is trying to paint them as the face of the Democratic Party and they are not; Trump wants to Make America White Again. These women don’t hate the Jews. It’s a bad precedent to prevent American citizens and especially Members of Congress from visiting Israel,” Cohen said. “Disrupting anyone’s freedom to travel is troubling, especially citizens who are Members of Congress. Israel would have benefited from allowing them to visit. Now they look repressive. Israel missed an opportunity to show them the joy and vibrancy of Israel. If they’d been allowed to visit the Golan Heights or sensitive security areas on other borders, they would have come away with a better appreciation about why Israel is so concerned about its security.”

Cohen addressed the conflict of Trump’s environmental policies with Jewish values saying, “Judaism is about taking care of what G-d gave you and taking care of others. We learned from our own bondage and the Passover experience. Our holidays honor the land and harvest, and Jews started idea of holidays and festivals around food. We can’t have food without a healthy environment.”

However, Cohen disagrees with the notion that AIPAC has delivered the message that only Republicans truly support Israel noting, “Some AIPAC people are Democrats, and they support Democrats too. However, Trump and Netanyahu are supporting each other and their common agendas. It’s unusual for an American president to become involved in their politics. But this all started when John Boehner invited Netanyahu to address Congress without consulting the White House, as an effort to undermine Obama.”

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While Israel welcomes the support of Evangelical Christians, some are troubled by the motivation for this: To hasten the Dawn of the Apocalypse.

Evangelical support for Israel is a troubling concept for many Jews. While Israel welcomes the support of Evangelical Christians, some are troubled by the motivation for this: To hasten the Dawn of the Apocalypse. On a visceral level, they want to round us up all in one place and get on with their vision of a world without Jews. Cohen said, “An Apocalypse isn’t good for any of us. When Elie Weisel spoke at Temple Israel several years ago, I asked a question related to this and, someone answered that we’ll deal with the Apocalypse or another Holocaust when the time comes.”

My efforts to engage Kustoff in a similar discussion were not realized. His spokesperson had agreed to an interview when I was in Memphis recently, but did not make anyone available. Nor did his office reply to a questionnaire that included challenges about any conflict between Jewish values and the Republican agenda as it has evolved under Trump, and how that agenda demonizes immigrants and dismisses their experiences. In the context of Torah teachings about welcoming the stranger, he was asked to comment on how he supports Trump’s policies to take babies and children from their mothers, incarcerate them in inhumane conditions, and demonize refugees from Central America who are escaping terror in their own countries. Kustoff also did not comment on how he feels about Trump characterizing violent Neo Nazis as “fine people,” or whether Trump dignifies or empowers hate groups. I had hoped to engage him over whether Jared Kushner is an appropriate choice to manage Middle East policy, though he brings no experience. Same for his voting record, approval rating and acceptance of campaign contributions from the NRA. And I intended to ask him about how and where his family came from Europe, and what would have happened of Trump and Stephen Miller had been in charge then.

I posed those questions, and Kustoff’s office responded by not responding. But one can get a pretty good idea from examining his voting record and public statements. Kustoff’s voter approval ratings include 0% from the League of Conservation Voters, 86% from the NRA, 88% from the Heritage Foundation, and 100% for votes supporting President Trump in the current Congress. This includes voting against Establishing Humanitarian Standards for People in the Custody of Customs & Border Protection, on July 24, 2019. Maybe Kustoff’s votes don’t represent Jewish values as does Cohen, but he represents his constituents of the 8th District of Tennessee to their satisfaction. There is a historical context for this.

Jews settled the rural South in considerable numbers beginning in the 18th Century, expanding exponentially after the Civil War. The how and why of this has to do with the mercantile trades. Southern Jews traditionally have laid low, gone along to get along, and assimilated as a defense measure and path to good citizenship. When Rabbi Wax was resolving the 1968 Sanitation Workers’ Strike, a few members of Temple resigned in objection. Mine was the first Bar Mitzvah in the congregation after King had been killed, and I was told it brought a sense of community healing.

When Wax’s successor, Danziger called out Rev. Ed McAteer for saying in a 1989 broadcast that “G-d doesn’t hear the prayers of Jews,” it was a bold statement. But then Danziger honored the SAME Rev. McAteer less than two years later as a “Friend of Israel,” though McAteer had retracted nothing.

Not everyone who voted for Trump is a racist. Many traditional Republicans are painfully conflicted these days, and reluctant to recognize that the party and ideology has evolved away from its “conservative” values. They are troubled by Stephen Miller directing a brutally racist policy against immigrants fleeing violence and their broken countries. And maybe they’re troubled by some of the things Kustoff votes for and against, but they remain loyal supporters.

scott prosterman

So what’s the threshold for abandoning the party or candidate that is no longer “conservative” by any measure? One that conflicts more with Jewish and Christian values with every Presidential tweet? It’s relative to the individual and their tolerance for hypocrisy. “Relativism” is no longer an exclusively squishy “liberal” dynamic. Both sides own it now.

H. Scott Prosterman