The 116th U.S. Congress, which took power in Washington last week, is a little more Jewish, a little more Muslim and a little less Christian than the previous session of the country’s legislative branch.
That is the finding of a new survey, “Faith on the Hill: The Religious Composition of the 116th Congress,” conducted by the Pew Research Center.
And the 116th Congress, which is more religiously and ethnically diverse and likely more politically progressive than any previous session, might cause worry for some members of the Jewish community. Especially supporters of Israel.
That’s the opinion of some Jewish observers interviewed last week. According to them, the religious make-up of the new Congress, while not significantly different than that of the 115th, indicates a growing presence of the progressive, so-called Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party. That’s especially true of many of the 97 first-time members of the House and Senate, the majority of them Democrats, who were sworn in last week. That party took power in the House following midterm elections in November, in which the Democrats gained 40 seats.
“The needle has not moved that far” in terms of representatives’ religious affiliations, and it is too early to determine what impact their religion will have, said Martin Raffel, former longtime senior vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. (This session of Congress has 34 Jewish members, four more than in the previous one, but as a small minority in Congress, they are deemed less important in shaping legislation affecting the Jewish community than members of other faiths.)
Raffel cited the election of two Muslim women to the House — Rashida Tlaib, from Michigan, and Ilhan Omar, from Minnesota, both Democrats and both outspoken in their criticism of Israel — as a cause for possible concern among supporters of Israel.
The two women, as freshmen members of Congress, will wield little influence in shaping foreign policy issues. But as history makers — the first two Muslim women elected to Congress — who attracted major amounts of media attention during their campaigns, they will probably remain in the spotlight and be able to play a disproportionate role in Middle East debates in wider U.S. society, and in their party’s 2020 national convention platform, Raffel said.
The “influence” of representatives’ anti-Israel attitudes are “certainly a worrisome phenomenon,” said Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. “There is a concern that the left wing of the Democratic Party is not only anti-Israel,” but can be “easily moved into areas” bordering on outright anti-Semitism.
Sarna said the slight decrease in the number of Christian-affiliated members of Congress, who are largely supportive of Israel, from 485 to 471, might mean a decrease in support for financial aid to parochial schools, an issue of Jewish interest primarily in Orthodox circles.
“There will certainly be challenges and opportunities for pro-Israel advocacy in the new Congress, and experience has proven that, once elected, members sometimes speak and vote differently from the rhetoric they employ during campaigns,” said Julie Fishman Rayman, the American Jewish Committee’s director of political outreach. “While we should confront those who espouse ideas that challenge our values, we should do so in a manner that engenders conversation rather than [that which] stifles it.”
Raffel called the younger composition of the 116th Congress, typically aligned with the intersectionality agenda that puts support for Palestinians among other progressive issues, potentially more important than representatives’ religious backgrounds.