Waxman reflects on a Jewish life in U.S. politics

FAREWELL: Retiring U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman is a member of the Conservative Adas Israel synagogue in Washington. Though he has grandchildren living in Israel, he said he could be a good Zionist living in the U.S.

FAREWELL: Retiring U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman is a member of the Conservative Adas Israel synagogue in Washington. Though he has grandchildren living in Israel, he said he could be a good Zionist living in the U.S.

By Tamar Willis, Editor-in-Chief

Standing five-foot-five with a bald head and a thick mustache, U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman may not look intimidating or powerful—but his legislative record and reputation as “one of the most accomplished legislators of his or any era,” as President Obama said when Waxman announced his retirement Jan. 30, proves otherwise.

Despite this praise, Rep. Waxman told The Boiling Point in a phone interview after his announcement that he doesn’t think he’s all that powerful.

“I don’t think that I would consider myself one of the most powerful Jews in history or even in the present time,” Rep. Waxman said. “I feel my Judaism very strongly and I’m honored to be a representative for a district that has so many Jews, and to fight for the U.S.-Israel relationship …

“But power is a strange word, because people could think you’re powerful and then find out that you’re not as powerful as they think, so I just try to do my job and not think too much about it.”

Currently serving his 20th term in office, the lifelong Democrat is retiring from Congress at the end of this year. Having served as Chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and also the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Rep. Waxman is perhaps best known for his sponsorship of the Clean Air Act of 1990, the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act of 2009, and the Affordable Care Act of 2010.

His district, which doesn’t include Shalhevet but covers Beverly Hills, Westwood and Santa Monica, where many Shalhevet families live, has been a base of Jewish power in the U.S. for as long as he’s represented the area.

Eric C. Bauman, vice president of the Caifornia Democratic party, said that losing Rep. Waxman means “Israel supporters will be losing one of its staunchest allies in Washington.”

“Although he was a tough partisan, Waxman was respected by both Democrats and old school Republicans,” said Mr. Bauman during a visit to Shalhevet March 5.

“Whoever comes in [for him] will be starting from square one, and so it will be a true loss for the party.”

The Boiling Point tried multiple times to reach Senator Barbara Boxer, Senator Dianne Feinstein, County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and Representative Adam Schiff, all of whom have worked with Rep. Waxman for many years, for comment about his advocacy of Israel.  None returned calls, though Rep. Schiff, who represents the Pasadena-Burbank area, sent an official statement.

Rep. Waxman, Rep. Schiff said, was a prolific lawmaker, and will “leave behind an unfillable void in the House.”

“Henry Waxman will go down as one of the giants of Congress – smart, strategically savvy, dogged at oversight and a power to be reckoned with – his hand can be seen in almost every domestic achievement of the last few decades,” Rep. Schiff’s statement said. “Along with the departure of Howard Berman last year, California and indeed the whole Congress have lost two of the strongest pillars of policy-making in the domestic and foreign policy realms.”

According to math and science teacher Mr. Christopher Buckley, who coaches the Model Congress team, Rep. Waxman’s absence will not affect Congress much because his party does not wield much power currently.

“To be honest, the loss of Waxman would be a bigger deal if the Democrats had a majority in Congress or if they were able to regain the majority soon, because last time they were the majority he was the chairman of his committee,” Mr. Buckley said.  “So he would almost for sure get his chairmanship back and have more power because of seniority.

“He might have retired anyway, but I think when someone like him retires it means he doesn’t think the majority is coming back any time soon.”

In his Boiling Point interview, Rep. Waxman described highlights of his career, how Judaism has influenced his policies as a lawmaker, and how and why students should step into their roles as citizens.

He said students should get involved now, by backing a candidate whose views they agree with.

“I think that a lot of people expect someone else to do it,” Rep. Waxman said, “but a democracy can’t really work if people aren’t participating it, and at the minimum young people, when the time comes, should be registered and voting.

“Young people should recognize that being involved in our community at the neighborhood level, or the city or state or national level, is an important way to accomplish Jewish values.”

Balancing Jewish observance with a demanding career is possible if one establishes priorities, he said. Henry Waxman is one of 23 Jews in the 113th Congress, and a member of the Conservative Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C.

His voting record shows that he participated in the votes on the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act that occurred on Rosh Hashanah of 2008.

“I do think you can be an observant Jew and member of the society in which we live,” he said, “and be active and fight for what I think are Jewish values, and important values, that we share as Americans.”

Rep. Waxman fondly remembered being present in Israel when Egyptian president Anwar Sadat arrived there, and also when Ethiopian Jews were airlifted into Israel back in the 1980s.

He also takes pride in the fact that his daughter and grandchildren live in Neve Ilan, a moshav adjacent to Jerusalem, and that two of his five grandchildren are currently serving in the Israeli army.  Although he has family there, he said he would not make aliyah himself.

“I would like to visit Israel and I support Israel and its relationship with the United States, but this is my home,” he said.   “I even told my daughter that I’m proud she’s there but that she could be a good Zionist living in United States.

“I know that doesn’t quite fit with orthodox Zionist views, but I think that we in the U.S. have a crucial role to play to continue to be sure that the U.S. stands with Israel, so that Israel doesn’t face its existential threat from Iran and the Arab countries that would like to eliminate it.”

According to Modern Middle East teacher Mr. Jason Feld, apart from health and environmental issues, Rep. Waxman has also been instrumental in maintaining the American-Israel relationship, and considers Israel America’s most important ally.

Mr. Feld said that though he does not necessarily share the same political views as the Democratic congressman, he respects him as a politician and appreciates what he’s done for the American-Israeli relationship.

“The main thing that we’re losing isn’t the vote, but the leadership,” Mr. Feld said.  “A lot of issues are resolved and concensuses built when you have more seasoned politicians who can understand the Israeli position and the domestic American political considerations that go into policy.

“Having someone that is so fluent in both political systems and really has his heart and brains in the right place is difficult to replace because that comes with experience and from being really appreciative of what Israel has to offer America.”

While America will be losing a big supporter of the American-Israeli relationship, Mr. Feld does not think Waxman’s retirement will have a major effect because other politicians will step up.

“Certainly it’s easier to communicate these complicated issues when talking to someone who you know understands the issues, the motives behind the issues, and is a voice that you can trust, who is sensible,” Mr. Feld said. “So I don’t think it’s a big setback, it just makes things a little harder.”

Overall, Rep. Waxman credits his motivation to legislate laws that will protect and improve society to the ethics and values he’s learned from Judaism.

“Judaism has given me the outlook that we have to try to make this a better world, and be mindful of the needs of people who are struggling,” Rep. Waxman said.  “All individuals are made in God’s image and we have to respect the dignity that each one of us has.

“The government is a way to act collectively in the community to carry on some of these important roles.  The Jewish tradition tells us that we have to try to make this a fairer and more just society.”

He said he’s incorporated “Jewish ethics and values” into all his work. “I would say that my most important contribution has been the fact that I think being in public office and Jewish in America, and really a Jew anywhere, is that we look at ethical dimensions of actions,” Rep. Waxman said. “I try to live up to a very high standard.”

As for how students should start getting involved, he suggested supporting a candidate. The congressman said he himself got started in high school, going door-to-door urging people to vote for the Democrats.

It should be easy now, he said, because there will be many running to fill his seat in California’s 33rd Congressional district.