A Look at the Franken Files

By Ben Sales

  • Print
  • Share Share

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.”

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Richard Blumenthal, Al Franken

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.