A month into the raging war between Israel and Hamas, Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland was facing a moral dilemma.

As a Jewish lawmaker, he did not support Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib’s use of the pro-Palestinian chant “from the river to the sea” and had told her that. But as a former constitutional law professor — and fellow member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus — he deeply believed in her right to free speech.

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries asked Raskin to represent the Democratic caucus in defending Tlaib on the House floor against a GOP-led effort to censure the congresswoman, and in the end, Raskin’s allegiance to the Constitution won out.

“If I can’t stand up for somebody’s right to just express themselves in Congress without being censured, then I have lost my way constitutionally,” Raskin said.

Privately, Raskin received praise for his defense of Tlaib on the House floor, even from House Speaker Mike Johnson who voted to censure Tlaib, but told Raskin that his framing of the First Amendment was an approach he would consider using under different circumstances, two sources familiar with the conversation told CNN. But publicly, the backlash Raskin has faced for his support of Tlaib and more broadly for his positions on the war both in his district and from some of his colleagues has been intense.

“This whole period for me has been about blowback,” he said.

Being a progressive Jewish lawmaker has become an increasingly lonely club on Capitol Hill. As the war in the Middle East continues, many Jews and progressives have increasingly found themselves at odds with each other over Israel’s handling of the war and President Joe Biden’s positions on it, only to expose painful underlying divisions by some over whether Israel even has the right to exist.

Raskin is part of a unique group of House lawmakers including Democratic Reps. Becca Balint of Vermont, Sara Jacobs of California and Jan Schakowsky of Illinois who are using their ties to both groups to try and find nuance and middle ground. They have all leaned on each other as they’ve tried to navigate what their Jewish and progressive identities mean to them in this moment. Part of an active group chat with other Jewish colleagues, these four often huddle together to discuss how to navigate issues where they don’t neatly align with other pro-Israel Democrats or their other progressive colleagues.

The four lawmakers, like some of their other colleagues, are facing heat from all sides. There are those in the progressive movement who think they are not sufficiently calling for a ceasefire, even though all of them have at this point, and more centrist Jews who do not believe they are being pro-Israel enough when they join the growing international community in criticizing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s tactics that have killed tens of thousands of innocent Palestinians. They have faced protests both on Capitol Hill and in their districts. And aside from each other, they often feel isolated.

“In San Diego, I’ve been protested by people who think that I’m not sufficiently calling for a ceasefire and those who think I’m not doing enough for Israel — some of whom I’ve known my entire life,” Jacobs said. “It’s really turned into two separate camps. The more you try and carve out a middle, the more neither camp really feels like home.”

While discourse around the war is increasingly polarized, these four Jewish Democrats know that answers to the decades of division and strife lie somewhere in the middle, and say they rely on their Jewish values to guide them. Raskin recounted his first memory of Jewish Sunday school where he learned the famous saying of a Jewish religious elder, Rabbi Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I? And if not now, when?”

That perspective is reflected in how they interact with their close friend Tlaib, the only Palestinian member of Congress, even when they disagree.

The day after Hamas’ brutal surprise attack on Israel in October, the first colleague to call Jacobs to see if her family in Israel was okay was Tlaib, a source familiar with the call told CNN.

When GOP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia went after Tlaib for her comments critical of Israel and in support of Palestinians, Balint took it upon herself to file a censure resolution against Greene for her previous antisemitic comments.

And Schakowsky was the first Jewish member to appear at a ceasefire news conference at the Capitol with Tlaib.

Tlaib declined to comment for this story.

The emotional toll

In December, Balint hit a breaking point.

Two months into the war, and the barrage of protestors following her in the hallways of Congress and in her district were at an all-time high. Her office was flooded with phone calls. It felt like every hour there was a new letter or resolution to sign onto often with high stakes competing messages.

“We’re just humans. We are. You can only handle so much,” Balint said.

But it was the doom scrolling on X where she was confronted with extreme antisemitic rhetoric and graphic threats of sexual violence against Israeli women and children that sent her over the edge.

“I think it’s important for me to pull back the curtain on what it is to try to wrestle with this issue right now. I really hit like a wall in December,” Balint said. “I had to do a reset.”

She recounted repeatedly seeing rhetoric going further than any of her actual conversations including calls to eradicate Israelis by any means necessary, through rape and murder, and posts denying the truth of the October 7 attack by Hamas.

“That’s when I felt like we were losing our humanity,” she said. “Like we can even disagree on whether Israel should exist. But if we can’t agree that murdering babies is wrong. If we can’t agree on that basic fact, then what work can I do here?”

Even while recounting the dark emotions she felt during that time, in the same breath, Balint pointed out the rampant Islamophobia that has also exploded because of the war. It was in her district where three Palestinian college students were shot. Her struggle comes, she says, when she tries to address the antisemitism she sees and what other Jewish lawmakers have shared with her.

“If you want to protest Israel, Israeli policy, absolutely, I’m right there with you,” she said. “If you’re going to picket a synagogue or vandalize a synagogue, or chase Jewish members down the street when they’re coming from services, that is not around Israeli policy. That is simply attacking Jews for being Jews. And I feel like it’s very lonely right now, to try to point that out.”

Her recent trip to Israel with a select group of House Democrats where both Israelis and Palestinians conveyed their desire to stop the cycle of violence felt reassuring that she was on the right path in both supporting Israel’s right to exist while also calling out Netanyahu for his right-wing policies that have left Palestinians defenseless.

Balint has not been the only Jewish progressive Democrat struggling.

“I’m in my 25th year of Congress. This is the worst in so many ways,” Schakowsky said. “It gets really personal when you talk about this war.”

But in these moments, this small group of progressive Jewish lawmakers in the House have relied on each other. Balint has also turned to the senior senator from her state, Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose progressive values and Jewish identity have been a strong source of comfort.

Broader divisions among Jewish Democrats

Since the war began, Jewish Democrats have tried to find points of unity but have often found themselves at odds.

They were split on supporting Johnson’s bill to provide Israel with more military aid. While pro-Israel Democrats like Reps. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, Josh Gottheimer, Jared Moskowitz and Brad Schneider supported it, progressive Jewish Democrats wanted to see a broader package that also addressed humanitarian aid to Gaza and Ukraine in its war against Russia. The lawmakers were also split on whether to censure Tlaib.

But, regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum, Jewish Democrats have made a point to talk regularly with each other.

Democratic Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York has been holding meetings for Jewish lawmakers to attend with a range of guests. The group even recently went to the White House to meet with second gentleman Doug Emhoff to discuss the administration’s national strategy to counter antisemitism where there was a “robust discussion” about the question of anti-Zionism versus antisemitism, according to one of the participants.

Sometimes the meetings with Jewish lawmakers have gotten heated, according to multiple sources who attend them, but ultimately lawmakers find common ground based on their desire to have a safe and secure Israel and acknowledge there are different strategies on how to get there.

“They’re not especially antagonistic,” Schakowsky shared. “It’s expected that we’re going to have different opinions. I go to as many of those as I can.”

Raskin views those differences of opinions as essential: “The only way to get through this nightmare is if we hear from everybody from the extreme right to the extreme left to everything in between. We need people to be able to speak.”

For progressive Jewish lawmakers, that effort to find common ground amid a debate where conflicting positions have only seemed to harden is even more challenging, yet they remain hopeful.

“I trust her when she says to me, what I want in the future is for both of us to be able to walk together in a safe and secure Israel and a safe and secure Palestine,” Balint said of her conversations with Tlaib.

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