Throughout his long political career, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-7th) has enjoyed a close relationship with the Jewish community of Maryland.
In particular, he is known in the community for the Elijah Cummings Youth Program in Israel (https://www.ecyp.org/), a two-year leadership fellowship program for high school students in the 7th District that promotes ties and dialogue between African-Americans and Jews. Supported by The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore and the Baltimore Jewish Council (with support from the Hoffberger Family Philanthropies), the program was created in 1998 and more than 200 young people have participated.
A Baltimore native, Cummings, 66, has represented the 7th District since 1996 and is the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Jmore recently caught up with Cummings to discuss national politics, the recent rash of anti-Semitic incidents across the nation, and his thoughts on President Donald Trump.
Jmore: Cemetery desecrations, JCC bomb threats, hate literature — what can be done to combat anti-Semitism, and who should do it?
Cummings: Donald Trump — having been a candidate, and now being president — has helped to create a climate where people that have had feelings with regard to anti-Semitism, where they would have been silent before, now they feel a level of comfort and, in many circumstances, acceptance, to say certain things and then to act on them. The other piece is where you have a lot of people who have a large divide between the haves and have-nots, the have-nots begin to blame the haves. They blame somebody else — Jews, blacks, Hispanics. It’s a blame game.
Our congressional delegation recently wrote to the FBI and the U.S. Attorney of Maryland, Rod Rosenstein, asking them to investigate these anti-Semitic incidents and bring these people to justice. These are things our society cannot tolerate. We’ve still got a lot of work to do, but I have faith in government that we can get it done. And there is a role for private citizens. Everybody needs to find a way to adopt the simple words that our children are our living messages that we send to a future we will never see.
This is no dress rehearsal. This is life. Look at a guy like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He was able to change the world. Dr. King said, “Everybody can be great, because anybody can serve.” So each individual has to ask, “How can I be helpful to you to achieve the many things that God meant for you to achieve?”
You’re a Democrat. Now that the president and the majorities in the House and Senate are of the same party, how can this lack of balance of power be addressed?
You have to try to appeal to the better angels of the Republicans. Speak about the things that are very important to them and to us. We’re dealing with the Affordable Care Act. It is estimated that some 24,000 people will die every year if we repeal that act. When Republicans know the full impact of what they’re doing, some of them may be open to compromising. We have to try to engage. I met with President Trump [on March 8th]. Some people were disappointed that I would meet with him, but I thought a meeting was very important. I do believe that if I can get his support on a number of issues, I can get the support of a number of other Republicans. … You have to pick your battles, particularly in this climate now. There are so many issues that we have battles on.
Are there ways to reduce the racial divide?
There’s got to be dialogue. We’ve got to be honest with each other. When we had some racial incidents in Howard County [last November and December], we brought together elected officials, the NAACP, parents and students to learn what was going on. It was clear that people in the audience hadn’t heard that some words were hurtful. When someone wrote the N-word on a locker or on Facebook, these people learned some people would get upset. Dialogue can create an opportunity to create greater understanding, and with that the possibility that you’ll get things resolved.
In District 7, police-community relations are very important. I’ve lived in the same house in the inner city in Baltimore for 35 years. I’ve seen police abuse many times. We want to make sure that there’s dialogue between police offers and the communities they serve, and the police act properly. We want to make sure that there is strict training for police so they can learn how to handle people with different problems.
Can America become more unified?
Yes, but we have to have the will to do so. We have to move beyond common ground to higher ground. We have to figure out what we like about the way we live, about our gladness for democracy, the things that we stand for. To continue to have our way of life, we must protect our democracy with everything we have. In the neighborhoods, in District 7, in our cities, throughout the nation. When you’re trying to resolve issues, we need to get the word out quickly, to put down rumors. Feelings often start with rumors that are not true. And as you know, we live in a climate of “alternative facts,” the social media becomes very important.
What actions are required to improve the quality of life for the low-income residents of Baltimore?
I spend a lot of time talking with young people. They tell me about three major concerns — they want better education; summer jobs to make money for themselves and their family; recreation to have things to do. [The public-private community-building initiative] OneBaltimore takes contributions from other organizations — Johns Hopkins, individuals and corporations — [and] then distributes them in an efficient manner to make things better sooner. All of these efforts are very important because they get to the roots of why people feel the frustrations they feel. Now 8,000 kids get summer jobs. Education is the key to success for upward mobility and for people feeling good about themselves. We are moving to the kinds of opportunities that people need.
But Baltimore schools have suffered a major budget deficit. We need the cooperation of the governor and our citizens to move forward. Mayor [Catherine] Pugh is pushing to get more recreational centers to engage young people where they are safe and, in many instances, have mentors.
What results have you seen from the Elijah Cummings Youth Program in Israel?
All of our young people have graduated from high school, and 99 percent have graduated from college. Some have become lawyers, doctors, millionaires. Some of them are on our board. When they come back from Israel [after a month-long cross-cultural immersion experience,] they have established strong bonds with people in Israel. Many return to Israel to see their friends.
We are helping our children to become more worldly, and at the same time establishing stronger relations between African-Americans and Jews.
Peter Arnold is an Olney-based freelance writer.
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