Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York Wednesday became the first Black leader of either major political party in Congress. House Democrats voted unanimously for him to succeed Nancy Pelosi as leader of the House Democrats, and Jewish leaders and pro-Israel groups welcomed their choice.
The Democratic Majority for Israel called him “a staunch supporter of the critical relationship between the United States and Israel” and the American Jewish Congress noted that Jeffries “has shown himself to be a determined supporter of the Jewish people — one who has never hesitated to call out antisemitism and all those seeking to harm Jews.”
In a news conference after the caucus vote, Jeffries said Democrats, who will be in the minority beginning in January, will “push back against extremism whenever necessary.”
The ascension of Jeffries, 52, to a top leadership position was swift. Following his election to Congress in 2012, when he defeated an anti-Israel candidate, Jeffries — a lawyer who had represented Brooklyn in the New York State Assembly and worked at the firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison — was immediately deemed a rising star by party leaders.
During that first Congressional campaign, Jeffries was compared to former President Barack Obama, who wowed the Democratic National Convention in 2004 and became president just two years after he won his Senate seat in Illinois.
He was appointed as the whip of the Congressional Black Caucus and forged close relations with Jewish leaders in New York and pro-Israel groups including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. He became chair of the House Democratic Caucus when his party took control of Congress in 2018.
The predominantly Orthodox and Russian Jewish population in the 8th District he represents is estimated at 15% of its constituency.
David Greenfield, CEO of the Met Council and a former city councilman, said he’s known Jeffries since he first ran for Assembly in 2006 and has since become a close friend. “He understands the Jewish community, supports our issues and concerns and is absolutely pro-Israel,” he said, calling him “an exceptional once-in-a-generation leader” who will “literally be the new face of the Democratic party.”
Jeffries visited Israel five times in the last decade and often called Jerusalem, Israel’s capital, New York City’s sixth borough. “When you live in a tough neighborhood Israel should not be made to apologize for its strength,” he said during a rally outside the United Nations during the 2014 war in Gaza.
During the debate over the Iran nuclear deal in 2015, Jeffries held a public listening session hosted by AIPAC and local Orthodox groups, who opposed the deal, though he later announced his support for it. In a panel discussion at AIPAC’s policy conference in 2019, Jeffries described the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement “inherently antisemitic.”
Rep. Ritchie Torres, a pro-Israel progressive from New York, described Jeffries as a “fearless and forceful” leader in his defense of the U.S-Israel alliance and “living proof that bipartisan support for the U.S-Israeli relationship is deep and durable.”
Torres, who was first elected in 2020 and has since become a staunch advocate for Israel, was the first Democrat to publicly back Jeffries for leader following November’s midterm elections. He said Jeffries inspired him and other members of Congress to “follow the standard that he set” for supporting the Jewish state and strengthening the bond between the Black and Jewish communities.
“Pro-Israel advocacy is not for the faint-hearted,” Torres said. “Hakeem is neither faint-hearted nor fair-weather.”
In his reelection campaigns, Jeffries earned the backing of AIPAC, DMFI, Jewish Democratic Council of America and Pro Israel America. The liberal pro-peace J Street PAC didn’t endorse him in the last election cycle, even though they supported House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a longtime AIPAC ally.
When the next Congress convenes in January, both chambers will be led by Democrats from Brooklyn. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer lives in Park Slope; Jeffries is from Crown Heights.
In a pre-election interview, Jeffries said his support for Israel will continue. He said he expected to travel to Israel in the spring of 2023 in celebration of the 75th anniversary of the founding of the modern Israeli state.
Rep. Grace Meng, a Democratic congresswoman from Queens, New York, said Jeffries has been “a consistent pro-Israel voice in Congress” and “a true friend of the Jewish community.” Meng, a longtime friend of Jeffries who seconded his nomination on Wednesday, added that she’s confident that as minority leader “he will continue to be a friend to the community” on issues like Israel and combating antisemitism.