Al Franken is a Jewish senator, but is he a senator for the Jews?
The comedian-turned-commentator-turned-politician first became known as one of the Jewish writers for Saturday Night Live’s original cast, later performing in the sketch “Jew, Not a Jew” and developing the character of Stuart Smalley, a nervous self-help guru.
Since then, as his career has shifted from comedy to politics, Franken has continued to emphasize his commitment to Jewish issues — though not necessarily through his actions on the Senate floor. Now that the midterm elections have added another Jewish senator, Democrat Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, to the upper chamber, it’s an apt time to look at the record Franken has established since his election in 2008 on issues relating to Jews and Israel.
In recent months, Franken has shown support for Israel in his dealings with the Obama administration, signing three letters — two to the president and one to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — advocating for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and affirming support for Israel. He also met with Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren this summer and, according to his office, regularly attends meetings of the Congressional Jewish Caucus. “I am a strong supporter of Israel, and of a two-state solution,” Franken told the Forward in a statement. “I admire President Obama’s commitment to helping resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict.”
Franken has long been a defender of the Democratic Party, the political home of a large majority of Jewish voters. Two years ago — after a delayed win in the Minnesota election — he gave the Democrats a 60-seat supermajority in the Senate as the body’s 15th Jewish senator. In addition, in a 2009 interview with Los Angeles’s Jewish Journal, he said that “I basically agree” with George Bush’s pro-Israel policies, and he spoke at a pro-Israel rally in Minnesota the same year.
On the Senate floor, however, Franken has been less active on issues relating to the Jewish community and Israel. He did not co-sponsor any of six recent bills in support of Israel, including one “calling for the immediate and unconditional release” of Gilad Shalit (Resolution 571) and another opposing the Arab League trade boycott of Israel (Bill 1671). He also did not cosponsor Bill 3821, protecting Jewish students from discrimination on the ground of religion under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act — which has not yet come to a vote. Franken’s official website also does not mention Israel or anti-Jewish discrimination, and does not include a section on Israel or anti-Semitism. This may be because most of his focus in his first two years has been directed toward issues relating directly to Minnesotans. Franken, for example, lists “Agriculture and Rural Issues” at the top of his agenda on his official website.
Franken has, however, cosponsored several bills opposing policies of the current government of Iran, including its nuclear program — which the U.S. government sees as a threat to Israel. Most notably, Franken cosponsored the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act, which would place severe sanctions on the Islamic Republic as long as it continues its quest for a nuclear weapon. Franken has also cosponsored three bills urging Iran to free three American hikers recently taken into Iranian custody.
Most of his activity in the Senate, however, has related to domestic issues. He serves on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, the Committee on Indian Affairs, the Judiciary Committee and the Special Committee on Aging. Recently, Franken has spoken out against anti-LGBT discrimination, calling for an end to anti-gay bullying and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.
This dedication to civil liberties — a traditional interest of Jewish liberals — may be one way Franken expresses his religion’s values in the Senate. He cosponsored Bill 339, the Student Nondiscrimination Act of 2010, which protects LGBT students from hate. His wife, whom he calls a “fallen Catholic,” and he do not belong to a synagogue, but his religious beliefs have more to do with treating others well. In the Jewish Journal interview, Franken said that when he was a child, “we were taught that there was a certain ethical base to our religion that was the essence of our Judaism, and I think my kids have grown up with that.”