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New Jewish-minorities liaison in D.C.

WASHINGTON, Oct. 9 (JTA) — There’s a new kid on Capitol Hill, and he’s trying to make sure everyone gets along. The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding opened a Washington office last week, with the goal of improving relations between minority delegations in Congress. It will focus on the Jewish delegation and their black and Hispanic peers in Congress. The New York-based foundation is known for its relationships with non-traditional leaders of the black community, including the Rev. Al Sharpton, now a Democratic presidential candidate, and hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons. Rabbi Marc Schneier, the group’s founder and president, says it is in American Jewry’s best interests to build bridges in Washington. The growing proportions of Hispanics and blacks in Congress make it imperative to take these minority groups more seriously, he said. Instead of just seeking black and Hispanic support for Jewish priorities, such as aid to Israel, Jewish leaders must learn to reciprocate. “I’m concerned about a certain arrogance on the part of Jewish leaders,” Schneier said. “You can’t make demands about Israel but be insensitive to the ‘Israel issue’ of a major ethnic community.” Those issues are affirmative action for the black community and immigration for the Latino community — initiatives that Jewish lawmakers and communal leaders have not consistently supported, he said. Jewish officials dismiss Schneier’s charges. “They come in here wanting to save,” said one official about the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding. “We don’t need saving, we have good relations.” Jewish groups say they have been working for years to foster dialogue and cooperation with minority communities and their representatives in Washington. Several groups have brought Latino and Jewish lawmakers together in the last year, but relations with members of the Congressional Black Caucus have been fractious recently. Some Black Caucus members were upset about the pro-Israel money that fueled the defeat of two black lawmakers last year: Rep. Earl Hilliard (D-Ala.) and Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.). The fact that the Jewish-backed candidates — who won — were also black did little to assuage anger at what was perceived as outsider interference. Jewish leaders say they continue to reach out to black lawmakers when there are opportunities for partnership. Schneier says lawmakers are excited about the new venture, which has the backing of the World Jewish Congress. He calls other Jewish groups “department stores” and his Washington office a “boutique” — one wholly dedicated to nurturing ties with minorities. “In our own small way, we’re trying to put this issue of demographic shifts on the Jewish community agenda,” he said. That goal that drew support from minority leaders who attended the foundation’s opening on Oct. 2. Hilary Shelton, Washington bureau chief for the NAACP, suggested that blacks and Jews could work together on “natural issues” of agreement, such as legislation against racial profiling and hate crimes, health care equity and funding of public education. Rep. Shelia Jackson-Lee (D-Texas) said the groups could find common ground in dealing with international conflicts. “The very fact that they’re talking about ethnic understanding gives them a platform to speak to many, many issues and to provide insight into different perspectives on international conflict in the Middle East — as a prime example, Africa and the Iraq war,” she said. The office’s first battle will probably be against an effort in the House of Representatives to eliminate formal ethnic caucuses. The Jewish delegation in Congress does not have an official caucus, but many of the Foundation’s partners — including the Black Caucus, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus — are registered and receive funding from the government. Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) wants to end the registration of minority caucuses, calling it an institutionalization of racial divisiveness. “I find it somewhat hypocritical that this Congress continues to extol the virtues of a colorblind society while officially sanctioning caucuses that are based solely on race,” Tancredo said in a letter earlier this month to Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), chair of the House Administration Committee. “I believe — as I think most Americans do — that the best way to remedy the ills of discrimination is not with policies that encourage us to highlight racial and ethnic differences.” Schneier said he hopes the foundation’s Washington office, which will have two full-time staffers, will be able to respond to such initiatives with a rapid-response communications network. Washington Jewish Week staff writer Eric Fingerhut contributed to this report.