California State Legislature Gets Jewish Caucusby Natalie Jacobs August 26, 2014
The California state legislature’s first ethnic caucus was the Black Caucus which formed in 1967. A handful of years later, in 1973, the Latino Caucus formed. It wasn’t again until 2001 that California received another ethnic caucus, this time for legislators of Asian and Pacific Islander descent. Only a year later, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Caucus was created. The Jewish Caucus, which launched in January of this year, is the newest group on the caucus block and it has already had a lot of work to do.
As a bipartisan group, the Jewish Caucus is hoping to create and maintain a strong Jewish voice in the California legislature. Senator Marty Block, of District 39, which reaches up to Solana Beach, out to San Carlos and down to Coronado, decided to start the Jewish Caucus after he became chair of 2008’s Holocaust Remembrance Ceremony. Serving as the chair mostly means being the chief fundraiser for the large event and the inefficiency of last-minute fundraising made Block think there might be a better way.
“It seemed to me there should be a standard group of people,” Senator Block says, “a standing caucus, something that is there to make sure that the Holocaust Remembrance Ceremony is institutionalized and that we’re ready to do it and are funded to do it every year.”
As there are no caucuses based on religion, Block explains that the Jewish Caucus is based on Jewish-ness as an ethnicity and a common culture. With that, the only qualification to join the Jewish Caucus is that the legislator self-identify as a Jew.
There are currently nine Jewish members and three non-Jewish members (the non-Jewish members come to meetings but cannot vote).
“At present,” Block says, “we have five Jewish senators and four Jewish assembly members. Among the five Jewish senators is included Darrell Steinberg, who is President of the Senate.”
Caucus activities kicked off at January’s Martin Luther King Day celebrations in Sacramento.
“There has been a lot of Jewish involvement in the civil rights movement,” Block explains, “and we [the Jewish Caucus] want to remind people of that.”
In March, the Caucus was invited to the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between California’s Governor Jerry Brown and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In it, the two agree to more cooperation between California and Israel on a variety of issues including biotech, water and security. After it was signed, Block authored, and all Jewish Caucus members signed, a resolution for the legislature, pledging support in the Assembly for the MOU.
“We think this Memorandum of Understanding and the resolution, they tell people you might have these fringe groups that are trying to boycott, there are these groups on campus, but California is firmly stating that we’re open for business with Israel.”
Shortly after the Caucus was formed, it came out that the Rialto School District, located just north of Riverside, Calif., had sanctioned an assignment whereby eighth-grade students were asked to write persuasive essays examining whether or not the Holocaust really occurred. The state senator for the Rialto area, Norma Torres, brought the issue up to Senator Block and the Caucus investigated.
“We found out that it wasn’t just one teacher who was giving an assignment, it was in fact the entire school district, that there was a committee of teachers and administrators that came up with the assignment,” Block says.
The Caucus obtained a copy of the assignment, which asked: “Do you think the Holocaust was real or do you think it was staged by the Jews to gain more money and political power?”
The legislative group then wrote a letter to the school district demanding that it retract the assignment. It had already been assigned to some students, but the school district did eventually cancel the assignment and told students who had not yet completed it that they were no longer required to do so.
“For school districts,” Block explains, “if we the legislature take a position like this, they will pay more attention than just to the ADL or the Museum of Tolerance. … We control the budget of the school district. When a senator and assembly members say this is not acceptable, it carries with it a threat that funding will be cut next year.”
In addition to the letter, the Jewish Caucus helped to coordinate a series of Holocaust education efforts for the Rialto school district with the ADL and the Museum of Tolerance. As part of these efforts, a group of Holocaust survivors spoke at a Rialto School District board meeting and students were sent on a field trip to the Museum of Tolerance. The district also agreed to assign Elie Wiesel’s “Night” to its ninth graders next year.
Senator Block notes that the Jewish Caucus will continue to keep its eyes on these sorts of issues for California. The group is also endorsing candidates in a handful of races around the state. Another big goal of the group is to encourage more Jews to get involved in politics and to run for office.
“The state has been fairly well represented by Jews in terms of Diane Feinstein and Barbara Boxer and Darrell Steinberg being the head of the Senate,” Block says, “but time is running out for all of them. … So we want to encourage more Jews to get involved.”
To do that, Block and the Jewish Caucus will welcome young leadership groups to Sacramento for a behind-the-scenes look at how California’s government works. Starting next year, the group will also host an annual award recognizing outstanding Jewish Californians, as do the other caucuses for their respective constituencies.
“You talk about the LGBT community, so many members of the community being closeted for so many years and now feeling the freedom and speaking out and talking about differences, to some extent, the Jewish community has chosen to be somewhat closeted and now I think we’re seeing people in legislative groups speaking out.”