Henry Waxman announced last week that he will be retiring from the U.S. House of Representatives. When the California Democrat exits, Congress will lose its most senior Jewish member. While Waxman is best known as a congressional leader on health and environmental issues, JTA has also covered his long record of fighting for Jewish causes.
Waxman was first elected to Congress in the post-Watergate election of 1974, which almost doubled the number of Jews in the House.
The next year the liberal congressman from Los Angeles garnered headlines when he was initially refused a visa to enter Saudi Arabia as a member of a congressional mission. He was eventually admitted to the kingdom after he protested and the State Department intervened.
But when he got there, Waxman was not pleased with what Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal had to say, as the freshman congressman noted in a letter to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
Waxman said that when he asked the monarch about his country’s anti-Jewish policies, “he told us openly and publicly that there is no room for a Jewish homeland in the Middle East and that there is no room for Jews, even as visitors, in Saudi Arabia.” Waxman added that “the vehemence of his (Faisal’s) remarks left no doubt in my mind that the distinction he sometimes makes between Jews and Zionists is an academic one so far as Saudi Arabia is concerned.”
In the years that followed, Waxman continued to be outspoken on issues of Jewish concern. He fought for the deportation of Nazi war criminals, advocated for Soviet Jewry, stood up for Holocaust survivors and was a leader on reparations-related issues, combated the Arab boycott against Israel, supported Holocaust remembrance, worked for the repeal of the U.N.’s infamous Zionism-is-racism resolution, and urged that the Al-Aksa Martyrs’ Brigades be designated a terrorist group.
Sometimes these issues hit close to home: In 1982 Waxman asked the Soviet government to allow a cousin of his to emigrate to Israel.
And even when he was advocating for more universal issues like health reform, he could bring a Jewish prism to his work.
In 2010, he said that it was appropriate that the House approved President Obama’s health reform bill a week before Passover. “The meaning of the seder is that no one should be left behind,” Waxman said in a phone call. “It means that everyone should have a seat at the table, that everyone should partake in the afikomen of freedom. On the secular level, that is what the health care bill means to millions of Americans.”