Jewish lawmakers from the California Assembly and State Senate have created a formal caucus to focus on Israel-related legislation and other matters of interest to Jewish Californians.
California State Senator Marty Block (D – San Diego) is chair of the new caucus, which includes nine Jewish legislators, and will be led in the lower house by Assemblymember Marc Levine (D-San Rafael). While full voting members must be "self-identified Jews," the group also includes somewhere between three and five “associate members” who are not themselves Jewish, but who have attended caucus events. That group includes Assembly Speaker John Perez (D – Los Angeles).
“We see this as an ethnic caucus, definitely a secular caucus,” Block told the Journal on Jan. 24. “Not that we reject the Jewish religion, but for the most part, the members are pretty secular.”
The caucus will, Block said, attempt to advance legislation of interest to Jews, focusing on matters including the apparent rise of anti-Israel sentiment on the campuses of California’s public universities and colleges. Last week, Block said, the caucus brought up the topic in an informal meeting University of California President Janet Napolitano.
“We decided it was in our interests, where we could, to come together to defend against any actions that we see as anti-Israel,” Block said of the reasons to form the caucus. “We haven’t seen anything in the legislature yet, but it’s certainly been percolating out there.”
The caucus will also take on other activities, including planning of the Capitol’s commemoration of Holocaust Remembrance Day in April. After a formal launch planned for March, Block said the members of the caucus will also attempt to recruit candidates for office – Jews and non-Jews alike – who are sympathetic to their views.
The caucus, which today only includes Democrats, is open to Republicans as well; Linda Halderman, the physician who declined to seek reelection to the Assembly in 2012, and Jeff Miller, who lost a State Senate bid that year, would both have been members, Block said.
Block, who was elected to Assembly in 2008, began convening Jews in Sacramento in 2010, when he held the first meeting of the Capitol Knesset, a monthly lunchtime gathering of Jewish legislators, staffers and lobbyists. Meetings typically attract about 75 people, Block said, and discussions focus on matters relating to Israel and on issues of interest to Jews in the state capital.
Block, who won his seat in the Senate in 2012, said that Ryan Pessah, a young staffer now working for Assemblymember Roger Hernandez, had been “invaluable” in organizing politically involved Jews in Sacramento. Pessah, who helped convene the Capitol Knesset, also co-founded the California Young Democrats Jewish Caucus at the party’s convention in April 2013.