QJL: A large part of your Congressional District is now considered a coronavirus hot spot. Many of us feel that the Jewish community has been portrayed unfairly as a result. What is your reaction?
Cong. Grace Meng: In May, I introduced the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act to combat the rise in discriminatory attacks during the coronavirus pandemic, including anti-Asian sentiment and anti-Semitic incidents against the Jewish community.
I’ve experienced how one community can be singled out and unjustly blamed for COVID-19. Bigotry and violence have been directed toward the Asian American community, and we need to prevent that hate from continuing to spread toward my constituents in the Jewish community in Queens. That begins by not blaming COVID-19 transmission on any one group of people, but instead on a set of behaviors.
New Yorkers know the havoc that COVID-19 has wreaked on our city. We have lost loved ones, been forced out of our homes, been laid off from jobs, had to close our businesses, and lost precious time with our friends and family. We all must take this virus seriously to keep transmission rates down.
My constituents in the Jewish community, and many throughout our region, are doing their utmost to follow the rules to keep our city safe. The actions of those not following the rules, amplified by news reports, should not be conflated with the actions of the many who are following the rules. The recent violence and violating of public health guidelines is unacceptable. But there should never be blanket discrimination against the entire Jewish population of New York.
Our standards must be consistent across the city. Everyone must adhere to the rules: no mass indoor gatherings, no large groups inside houses of worship, wear masks, practice social distancing, and encourage testing in our communities.
If we all follow these guidelines, we will get through this together and keep our city safe.
QJL: COVID has exacerbated hunger issues across the city but particularly for those who observe kashrus. How are you helping?
CGM: My heart is with families who have lost loved ones or their livelihoods, and those who are relying on food banks – some for the first time. I have worked hand in hand with Met Council to advocate to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) that they should not prioritize boxes of food from farms that combine dairy and meat, and should consider the specific needs of those who observe kashrus. I have also worked to make sure that New York is eligible for Pandemic EBT, which provides money for families who were receiving free or reduced lunch through their schools, regardless of whether they are religious or public. In addition, I have long advocated for programs providing kosher meals in New York schools, and continue to support providing kosher grab-and-go meals.
QJL: You have been courageous in leading the way in support of Israel even when many Democrats wavered. Why have you been so strong in your support of Israel?
CGM: Israel is one of America’s strongest allies. A safe, a secure, and a strong Israel benefits all of us around the globe. The United States and Israel have had a strong partnership based on shared ideals, a commitment to democracy, and a desire for peace. Israel continues to amaze me with its achievements in the sciences, breakthroughs in technology, and expertise in disaster relief that is used to help countries around the world.
When I traveled to Israel in 2013, I visited a playground in Sderot, by the border with Gaza. I thought about how my young sons would love to play in this beautiful park – until I noticed the bomb shelters all around me. It was in that moment that I realized the burden that even the youngest Israelis face as a consequence of terrorism. This confirmed my commitment to use my position in Congress to protect the US-Israel relationship and the lives of Israelis.
QJL: How has your commitment to the US-Israel relationship impacted your votes in Congress, whether regarding Israel or Iran?
CGM: Throughout its history, and to this day, Israel continues to face threats to its very existence. We must not lose sight of Israel’s security concerns, which is why, as a member of the House Appropriations Committee, I have secured billions of dollars, year after year, for US-Israel defense cooperation programs, including for Iron Dome and David’s Sling, and have worked to fully fund the ten-year Memorandum of Understanding agreed to by the US and Israel. I also supported and helped pass in the House the recent $3.3 billion in foreign military assistance to Israel.
I had serious concerns with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the “Iran Deal”) when the US entered it originally, and I was the first New York Democratic Member of Congress to announce that I would vote against it. I was concerned about the inspections procedures, the sunset clauses, and the absence of human rights protections. This wasn’t a popular decision with my colleagues at the time, but it’s one that I stand by.
QJL: Do you believe that aid to Israel should be used as leverage to pressure Israel into making concessions?
CGM: By next year, I will be the second most senior member of the Appropriations Subcommittee that determines foreign aid to Israel. As long as I have this role, I will oppose the conditioning of aid to Israel. The role of the United States is to encourage both Israeli and Palestinian leadership to come to the table in search of a two-state solution and to continue to seek new ways to incentivize the bold steps needed to make peace. It will be up to the Palestinian and Israeli leadership to decide all final status issues.
QJL: How has your leadership on security funding for non-profits and religious institutions benefited the local community?
CGM: The scourge of hate crimes, particularly against those perceived as being Jewish, is affecting our whole community and it cannot be ignored.
It is for this reason that I have helped to increase, by millions, the amount of money for Nonprofit Homeland Security Grants, which are needed to ensure the protection of houses of worship and religious organizations – synagogues, Jewish schools and Jewish nonprofits – from those who seek to harm them. This year, a record 16 synagogues and Jewish facilities in my district in Queens received a total of $1.6 million to protect and fortify their properties. And as a member of the Homeland Security Subcommittee that funds this program, I continue to increase the amount of money available for houses of worship across the nation – this year I’m working to make sure that this number almost quadruples to $369 million. Nothing is more important than keeping my constituents safe.
QJL: What are you doing to support our yeshivahs?
CGM: I know well the benefits that Jewish schools, including yeshivahs, play in this community and in training the next generation of Jewish leaders. As part of the upcoming debate over the Higher Education Reauthorization Act, I have advocated for:
- Increasing the lifetime limit on Pell grants for non-traditional students and longer programs, from 12 semesters to 18 semesters. This would allow five-year BA candidates at a number of yeshivahs to qualify.
• Ensuring accurate graduation data to include non-traditional students.
• Restoring the Ability to Benefit program, meaning that students who have not received a traditional diploma or a GED were still considered eligible for Pell grants if they could prove “ability to benefit” from college. This program should be restored, or the new Career Pathways program should be clarified to include students enrolled in programs offered by yeshivahs.
QJL: What are some of the other issues you have been championing on behalf of Israel and the Jewish community?
CGM: There have been so many critical initiatives that I have been proud to lead on in these areas. Just to name a few: passing measures into law directing the Secretary of State to ensure that the Office of the Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues and the Office to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism are provided with sufficient funding and resources; calling for the restoration of proposed cuts to the US Holocaust Museum; working to expand the Global Entry Program to Israel; working to get other nations to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization; and many other issues.
QJL: With hurricane season upon us, many of us are reminded about the fight you led to make houses of worship eligible for disaster aid.
CGM: Pushing FEMA to allow houses of worship to receive federal disaster funds was among the first issues I championed in Congress, and in 2018, this change became law. Now, houses of worship, including synagogues, are eligible for disaster aid so that they can repair and rebuild from damage caused by natural disasters. After Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc on our region, I learned that entities such as zoos and performing arts centers qualified for disaster assistance but houses of worship did not. I thought that was ridiculous and decided that I was going to try to change this misguided policy after I was elected to the House. This change remains incredibly important – since COVID-19 has been declared a disaster, houses of worship are eligible for FEMA grants that they otherwise would not have been. I am proud to have succeeded in doing that and doing it in a bipartisan manner.
By Manny Behar