Reform Jewish Movement Comes Out Against Jeff Sessions Nomination

Movement's Religious Action Center regularly examines cabinet nominations, but this is the first time it publicly opposed one since 2004. Sessions' testimony 'failed to show clear departure' from his civil rights record, statement says.

Attorney General-designate, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. smile as he testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017, at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Alex Brandon/AP

The Reform Jewish Movement came out against the nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) to the position of U.S. Attorney General on Thursday, after two days of a contentious Senate hearing during which Sessions tried to push back against accusations of racism.

Sessions' testimony failed to show a clear departure from his record of "insufficient commitment to voting rights, criminal justice reform, LGBTQ equality, women’s rights, immigration reform and church-state separation," the Movement's Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism said in a statment.

"Senator Sessions’ record and testimony causes us to believe that, as Attorney General, he would stand in the way of the Justice Department’s mandate to enforce and protect these fundamental rights."

The political and legislative arm of the Reform Movement, the center examines cabinet and judicial appointments regularly, but Sessions is the first cabinet pick to be officially opposed by it in at least a decade. In a statement attributed to the center's director, Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, the movement urged the Senate to reject the nomination, describing Sessions as posing a threat to the Reform Movement's fundamental concerns. 

In recent weeks, the Religious Action Center has encouraged Reform Jews across the U.S. to submit questions to President-elect Trump's key nominees, from cabinet members to White House staff members, through a website called "Ask the Nominees." The questions accumulated through the website were later submitted to the relevant committees in Congress. "This is a process we do every four years, and also for Supreme Court judges," says Barbara Weinstein, the Center's associate director, in a conversation with Haaretz. "We're the only denomination that speaks on these appointments. We understand that the people who fill these positions shape the policies we care about – Attorney General probably more than most." In Sessions' case, says Weinstein, "most of the questions we received had to do with his record on civil rights." 

The Anti Defamation League also addressed Sessions' nomination earlier this week. In a public letter sent to Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), the chair of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, and Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), the committee's ranking member, the ADL urged to "closely examine Senator Sessions' views on the role of the Attorney General and the Justice Department in interpreting and enforcing provisions of the U.S. Constitution and federal law that guarantee and protect fundamental civil rights and individual liberties." 

The letter specifically highlighted seven areas that the ADL defined as deserving the committee's special attention: hate crimes prevention and persecution; separation of church and state; voting rights; criminal justice reform; LGBT equality; Immigration; and reproductive rights. Some of these issues were at the heart of Sessions' confirmation hearing this week, especially voting rights and racial injustice. 

Sessions was criticized on these issues by prominent Democratic politicians, including Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), Rep. John Lewis (R-GA) and Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-LA), the head of the congressional Black Caucus. Leaders of major civil rights organizations also spoke out against Sessions. During the hearing, Sessions was praised by former U.S. Attorney General Michal Mukasey (who served under the George W. Bush administration) and former deputy U.S. attorney general Larry Thompson, who said he has known Sessions for 30 years and applauded his "strong record of bipartisan accomplishment." Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) also praised Sessions and said: "I support Senator Sessions for attorney general for the very reason that many vehemently oppose him. Namely, I – and they -- know that Sessions will enforce the law."