'Competence and Experience': U.S. Jewish Groups Thrilled by Biden's Cabinet Picks

Having Jewish men and women in prominent government positions is so standard that it’s barely even a talking point, community leaders tell Haaretz

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Biden cabinet picks Alejandro Mayorkas, left, Janet Yellen and Antony Blinken.
Biden cabinet picks Alejandro Mayorkas, left, Janet Yellen and Antony Blinken.Credit: REUTERS/Joshua Roberts, Daniel ROLAND / AFP, Mark Makela/Getty Images/AFP

NEW YORK – The fact that some of President-elect Joe Biden’s top cabinet picks are Jewish should be a source of pride for the community, especially because such appointments aren’t considered remarkable anymore, say American Jewish leaders.

“These people are being chosen because they’re incredibly competent, because they’re incredibly talented, because they’re incredibly experienced,” Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt told Haaretz in a phone interview. 

Those nominees include Janet Yellen, who’s set to become the first woman to hold the position of treasury secretary; Alejandro Mayorkas, son of a Cuban Jewish father and Romanian Jewish mother, who will head the Department of Homeland Security; and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the stepson of a Holocaust survivor whose stories shaped his worldview and subsequently his policy decisions, including in the Middle East. All of the nominations are subject to Senate confirmation.

Biden also chose Jewish D.C. veteran Ron Klain, who worked with the then-vice president in the Obama administration, as his White House chief of staff. 

“We should all take a measure of pride in the fact that their Jewish identity is tertiary relative to how the world sees them, even if their Jewish identity is primary for how they see the world,” Greenblatt said. He added that the diversity of the group represents the diversity of the American Jewish community at large. 

Secretary of State nominee Antony Blinken speaking after being introduced by President-elect Joe Biden, November 24, 2020.Credit: Mark Makela - AFP

Having Jewish people in prominent positions has become so “normal” that it “hardly matters,” the American Jewish Committee’s chief policy and political affairs officer, Jason Isaacson, told Haaretz. “It’s a testament to the glory of America, of America’s integration of immigrants, of America’s diversity and pluralism,” he said.

“These principles that we have all fought for, for centuries, we are now seeing in 2021 are true, are valid,” he added. 

‘Sense of humanity’

Halie Soifer, executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, said that more than the cabinet picks being Jewish, their “experience and competence is really what is most important.”

She cited the example of President Donald Trump’s senior policy adviser, Stephen Miller – who is largely seen as the architect of the outgoing administration’s immigration policy of family separation at the southern border – as a sign that being Jewish isn’t in and of itself the important factor. “Stephen Miller is Jewish and he has been an ally of white nationalists, so the religion one is born into is not an indicator that they necessarily share our values,” she said.

“We’re just thrilled that these are competent, experienced, values-driven leaders, and that the entirety of the cabinet so far and all of the nominees really represent the diversity that is our strength,” Soifer told Haaretz. “They look like America.”

She added: “That’s a stark contrast from the chaos and inexperience that we’ve seen in the past four years.”

Democratic strategist Ann Lewis said the nominations are testament to “the extent to which American Jews identify with the Democratic Party, are active in it and succeed in it.”

American Jews take their “citizenship seriously,” said Lewis, who was co-chair of Jewish Women for Hillary during Clinton’s 2016 election campaign. “We don’t disregard the opportunities we have in this country to help choose our leaders, to be part of the decision-making” process.

Seeing American Jews in top governmental positions, she added, will “further inspire a younger generation who already have been active participants in the political process.”

Janet Yellen speaking during a panel discussion at an American Economic Association/Allied Social Science Association meeting in Atlanta, Georgia, January 4, 2019.Credit: CHRISTOPHER ALUKA BERRY/REUTER

J Street Chief Operating Officer Jessica Smith, meanwhile, said she was encouraged by the personal and professional experience of the nominees. “Not only do these cabinet candidates have impeccable credentials to serve in these roles, but it’s evident from their lived, professional experiences that each is a true public servant, embodying a Jewish value set – including a strong commitment to justice,” she said.

“This bodes so well for our next executive branch: returning not only smarts and efficacy, but also a sense of humanity that has been so desperately lacking these last four years,” said Smith, whose organization calls itself the “political home of pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans.”

Political refugee

Treasury pick Yellen, who was born to Polish Jewish parents and grew up in Brooklyn, began her career in academia before joining the board of governors of the Federal Reserve (the central bank that controls monetary policy) in 1994. She worked for President Bill Clinton as a member of the Council of Economic Advisers in the late 1990s. Then in 2004, the Bay Area resident became president of the Fed’s San Francisco branch.

President Barack Obama appointed her as vice chair of the Federal Reserve in 2010, before elevating her to chair in 2013. While she and her husband lived in Berkeley, they were members of a local Reform synagogue, Congregation Beth El.

Homeland Security nominee Mayorkas, whose Romanian-born mother was a Holocaust survivor, arrived in the United States as a political refugee from Cuba in the ’60s.

The former federal prosecutor served as deputy secretary at the DHS under Obama when Biden was vice president. As deputy secretary, he worked closely with Jewish groups and spoke often about the specific threats facing American Jews. He will be the first immigrant to serve as head of Homeland Security.

In Blinken’s secretary of state acceptance speech on Tuesday, he vividly and movingly described his stepfather’s Holocaust-era rescue by American GIs and noted other Jewish ancestors who were refugees. And as soon as it became apparent that he was going to be Biden’s pick for the top foreign policy job in the White House, plaudits quickly poured in from Jewish organizations. 

World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder called Blinken a friend and “a man of profound integrity, unflinching moral clarity, and deep command of the complex challenges facing our nation on the global stage.

“He particularly understands the poison of antisemitism and will fight it with determination and focus,” Lauder added.

Then-Vice President Joe Biden delivering remarks at a roundtable on countering violent extremism, with Amy Pope and Alejandro Mayorkas, February 2015.Credit: Gary Cameron/REUTERS

The American Jewish Committee also welcomed the selection, stating that Blinken “has the breadth and depth of experience to ably oversee the implementation of U.S. foreign policy under President Biden.”

The committee’s CEO, David Harris, who has met with Blinken on numerous occasions, said the secretary of state nominee is “intimately familiar with the full scope of the president-elect’s foreign policy views, as well as the issues of utmost concern to the Jewish community.”

Fighting antisemitism

American Jewish Congress President Jack Rosen, meanwhile, called Blinken’s nomination an “excellent choice” by the Biden administration. “We have worked closely with Tony over the years on multiple issues, from advancing peace and security for Israel to confronting Iran’s destabilizing behavior in the Middle East to combating antisemitism and all forms of hate,” he said in a statement.

The American Jewish Committee’s Isaacson saw it as an important development that the nominees are “proud American Jews who have demonstrated over the years their sensitivity to the concerns of the community, to the fight against antisemitism and to broader issues of America’s place in the world and the fight to protect universal human rights or the fight against racial injustice.”

He noted that all of these issues “really speak to the heart of the Jewish community’s concerns. These are individuals who have a track record, and it is so encouraging.”

At a time when antisemitism attacks have reached their highest level in the United States since the ADL began keeping records some 40 years ago, its CEO, Greenblatt, believes it’s “a good thing that senior members of the Biden administration are personally familiar with this issue and will be sensitive to the concerns of Jewish constituents.”

But, he said, “With antisemitism often come more forms of bigotry – so it’s not just a Jewish issue. They are Americans, and I think they’re going to realize this is an American issue, not just a Jewish issue.

“From the Oval Office, to the vice president’s office, to the chief of staff’s office, to members of the cabinet, we’re going to have people who understand the American Jewish experience in many important positions,” Greenblatt said. 

For Lewis, who was born to a Jewish family in New Jersey in 1937 and whose brother is the former Democratic congressman Rep. Barney Frank, the nominations are further proof that the matter will not be ignored. “We will have partners throughout this administration who take antisemitism seriously, who understand it is both a law enforcement and a cultural issue, and will work with the community to combat it,’’ she said.  

Reuters and JTA contributed to this report.

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