By Lee Chottiner
Rep. John Yarmuth has been a supporter of Israel during his 15 years in Congress, though he hasn’t always walked in lockstep with its leaders.
He has condemned former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for using violence to quell demonstrations but has reaffirmed Israel’s right to defend itself.
He has assailed rocket attacks on Jerusalem and southern Israel by Hamas but has endorsed the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran despite Israel’s opposition.
He favors a two-state solution but opposes forced evictions of Arab residents from the East Jerusalem.
In other words, the Louisville Democrat, a descendant of Russian and Austrian Jews, backs Israel on his terms.
That will end on Jan. 3, 2023.
Yarmuth, 73, announced Tuesday that he will not seek re-election next year, setting the stage for a wide open, nationally watched campaign that could leave someone less supportive of Israel representing the Kentucky 3rd congressional district.
Yarmuth, who met the press Wednesday at Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport, said he debated his decision for months. After all, Congress is a tough habit to quit.
“I’ve been saying for some time, if I ever wrote a book about my experience, I would call it House Arrest,” Yarmuth said. “Because once you get there, it’s very difficult to leave. There is an addictive quality to it.”
Despite disagreements over the years, Matt Goldberg, director of the Louisville Jewish Community Relations Council said Israel can always count on Yarmuth’s support when it counts.
“His commitment to the security of the State of Israel is rock solid,” Goldberg said. “Even his criticism of Israeli actions, which we haven’t always agreed with, is born of that affinity for Israel.”
It’s not clear whether his successor will have the same affinity.
So far, two candidates have announced they will run for Yarmuth’s seat; Kentucky State Sen. Morgan McGarvey and State Rep. Attica Scott.
Appearing at a pro-Palestinian rally in May, Scott told the crowd, “We are anti-war, anti-oppression and anti-apartheid,” the Courier Journal reported. Her remarks have irked Jewish residents.
But political observers, including University of Louisville Political Science Professor Dewey M. Clayton, think “kitchen table issues” – not Israel – will dominate next year’s campaign.
“It may very well come up as an issue, but I don’t think it’s going to be a huge factor given the other problems were dealing with,” Clayton said.
Yarmuth agreed. “In terms of what voters in the Third District will base their vote on, I would doubt that’s in the top 10.”
A Louisville native and graduate of Yale University, Yarmuth cut his teeth in politics as a legislative aid for then-U.S. Sen. Marlow Cook, a Kentucky Republican, from 1971 to 74.
In 1976, Yarmuth ventured into journalism, founding Louisville Today and then the Louisville Eccentric Observer (LEO) in 1990, which is still publishing.
In 2006, Yarmuth ran against and defeated the incumbent congresswoman from Louisville, Anne Northup, a Republican.
He has since moved into leadership, currently serving as chairman of House Budget Committee.
Arguably, Yarmuth is one Jewish congressman who need not depend on the Jewish vote to get elected. Approximately 8,000 Jews live in his district, which is home to about 700,000 people.
Still, Yarmuth’s connection to the Jewish community has remained strong throughout the years. A member of The Temple, the largest synagogue in the city, he frequently speaks at community events and Men’s Club functions. He also likes to mention how he learned to play basketball at the Jewish Community Center.
“Meeting with him and his staff … has always been a pleasure,” the JCRC’s Goldberg said. “He has legislatively prioritized many of the issues that we care about so much, such as increasing funding to social safety net programs.”
Yarmuth may not be the only Jewish congressman pondering retirement. During his briefing Wednesday, he mentioned that his colleague and close friend, Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tennessee, is facing the same decision.
“He’s agonizing over whether to run right now,” Yarmuth said. “He said, ‘I’m losing my best friend.’ And that’s kind of how many of us feel.”
But Yarmuth left open the possibility that another Jew could get in the race next year: His son, Aaron Yarmuth.
“If Aaron gets in the race,” he said, “I’m going to be 100 percent for him.”