Congresswoman and former Mayor of Southfield, Brenda Lawrence, expresses commitment to leading a Black Jewish Caucus in Congress.
By Jackie Headapohl
It’s doubtful there are many other non-Jewish members of Congress who’ve eaten as many kosher chicken dinners as Brenda Lawrence has over the years while interacting with the Jewish community — first as a school board member, then as a Southfield City Council member and finally as Southfield mayor for 15 years.
She’s interacted with the ultra-Orthodox community, Reform and Conservative synagogues, Jewish day schools and communal agencies, secular Jews and Jews of all political persuasions.
Lawrence is drawing on that experience to launch the Black Jewish Caucus in the House of Representatives, joined by colleagues John Lewis of Georgia, Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida and Republican David Kustoff of Tennessee.
In a meeting with the JN editorial team, Lawrence said there’s a need for the caucus.
“I am so concerned about the politicization of Israel,” Lawrence said. “Republicans are saying Democrats don’t support Israel. That’s not true. I care about the security of Israel. As a member of the House Appropriations Committee, I want the community to know that I’m very much committed to Israel’s security. Also, I feel strongly that a two-state solution is the answer to solidifying the strength of Israel. I’m not backing away from that.”
Lawrence said that, historically, the black and Jewish communities have often stood together, especially as it relates to social justice and civil rights.
“When I come home and meet with the Jewish community, I find they’re still connected to fighting for civil rights in America. They’re still committed to being a voice.
“Blacks and Jews have something else in common,” Lawrence said. “Stereotypes are placed on both communities.
“I still have some nice senior citizens tell me how ‘well spoken’ I am. I just smile because the expectation is that I am unable to sound educated because I am black.
“Stereotypes of the Jewish community are just as prevalent,” she continued. “Jews are all millionaires or bankers or arrogant. I think about the comment we heard from one of my colleagues about the Jewish community ‘buying’ the democratic process.
“I don’t think my colleagues know how small the population of the Jewish community is or understand the diversity inside of the Jewish community. I tell them you cannot put a label on the Jewish people; and if you have a concern, reach out and talk to someone.
“I also know that anti-Semitic and racist comments hurt all of us,” she added. “That’s not who we are as a country. We’ve got to solidify our relationships. I’m going to start this caucus as my way to keep a focus on that as well as the U.S.- Israel relationship.”
Lawrence said her goal is to bring blacks and Jews together to talk about a variety of issues and topics, including anti-Semitic tropes. She hopes the first meeting will be in June.
Highlights from Lawrence’s Visit
On Counting Michigan Citizens
Most people are predicting that when the 2020 U.S. Census is complete, Michigan will lose a seat in Congress as well as countless federal dollars if there is an under count of the population.
An accurate count depends on getting people to come forward and participate in the census. Certain groups of people, such as those who distrust government or who are afraid of being deported, might not take the survey.
“Dollars allocated from the census have an impact on schools, police, roads and hospitals,” Lawrence said. “We need to get our communities counted to the fullest possible way to maximize those federal dollars. And we must navigate the possibility of having a citizenship question on the census that could suppress participation. I support the challenge to the census’ citizenship question working its way through the Supreme Court.”
Lawrence said local governments and nonprofits will be critical in doing the work necessary to get people to stand up and be counted.
On 2020 Election
Lawrence said she thinks a centrist Democratic candidate, not one too far to the right or the left, has the best chance at defeating Donald Trump in 2020. “Also, someone who exhibits strength, political courage and the tenacity to go up against Trump,” she said. “Trump is a master of messaging. But he’s nasty. He attacks people to diminish them. He does and says what he believes and has no remorse even when what he’s said is proven to be not true. Some people see that as strength. I see it as a character flaw.
“I don’t want a Democrat who acts like Donald Trump. I want this country to find civility again.”
Lawrence said that currently she supports California Sen. Kamala Harris’ candidacy for the Democratic nomination.
On Detroit’s Renaissance
We asked Lawrence what she is telling her colleagues about the “comeback” of the city of Detroit.
“I tell them how excited I am to have been born and raised in the city, to have witnessed its decline and now see it coming back to life. I also tell them as a city, we are confronting some of our greatest challenges.
“Detroit has always taken pride in being a very strong majority African American community. Yet a lot of the success of its rebirth is benefiting a different demographic,” she said.
“Do I want diversity in Detroit? Absolutely. But I also don’t want those who stayed and had pride in the city to be priced out of its rebirth or to be ignored. We need serious conversations about developing the neighborhoods, reducing crime and fixing our schools. Until we fix our schools, you’re going to continue to see an exodus.”
Read More: Highlights from the 2019 Walk for Israel