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Her family saw the horrors of the Holocaust. Now Rep. Becca Balint seeks to ‘hold this space’

Her calls for a cease-fire in Gaza elicited a ‘powerful’ reaction, Vermont Democrat says

Rep. Becca Balint says she grew up hearing, “We have to be absolutely vigilant not to dehumanize people.” Above, she speaks at an April 12 news conference in support of LGBTQ+ youth.
Rep. Becca Balint says she grew up hearing, “We have to be absolutely vigilant not to dehumanize people.” Above, she speaks at an April 12 news conference in support of LGBTQ+ youth. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Like many descendants of Holocaust survivors, Becca Balint can’t pinpoint the first time she learned about her family’s story, but it’s something she’s carried with her throughout her life. 

Balint is one of just a handful of descendants currently serving in Congress. And last fall she became the first Jewish member of Congress to call for a cease-fire to end Israel’s war in Gaza. 

“From October to now has been the hardest, most challenging time of my political life,” the Vermont Democrat said in an interview this month. 

Balint’s grandfather was killed in the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria toward the end of the war. As the Nazis began marching prisoners out of the camps on “death marches” to prevent their liberation, her grandfather was shot after staying back to help someone who had fallen behind. 

“I certainly grew up with a sense that people do horrible things to each other, and we have to be absolutely vigilant not to dehumanize people. Holocaust experiences in a family impact generations within that family,” Balint said.  

All but two of the House’s roughly two dozen Jewish members are Democrats, and there are currently no Jewish Republicans in the Senate. Despite that party cohesion, Jewish lawmakers are divided over what position to take on the war in Gaza — a trend reflected among American Jews. 

Though 93 percent of Jewish Americans say the way that Hamas carried out its Oct. 7 attack was unacceptable, younger and older people disagree on Israel’s conduct in the war, according to a February 2024 survey by Pew Research Center. When asked whether Israel’s response was acceptable, only 52 percent of Jewish American adults under age 35 said yes, compared with 68 percent of those 50 and older. 

For Balint, the past several months have seen a series of tough votes on the House floor, along with some uneasy interactions. Her family’s history in the Holocaust is often on her mind.

“As I think about what happened in Europe and the fact that Jews literally had nowhere to go to be safe, and believing deeply in my heart that we need to have a sovereign Jewish state so that there’s always a safe home — [I am] holding that, while at the same time understanding that I cannot sit idly by while thousands of people are being killed in Gaza,” she said. 

That has sometimes put her in a lonely spot, but Balint said she has found community among a small group of progressive Jewish members of Congress, as well as with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, another descendant of Holocaust survivors.

Balint was one of 37 House Democrats to vote against the supplemental measure for Israel in April that aimed to provide a total of $26.4 billion in emergency aid, $16.6 billion of which was designated for defense and security funding. 

Last month she also voted against a bill that would elevate a definition of antisemitism used by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. Critics say that definition wrongly conflates disapproval of Zionism or the state of Israel with antisemitism.

“Addressing rising antisemitism requires serious action — not performative bills that attempt to score political points instead of confronting the clear and present threats to Jewish Americans,” Balint said in a press release after the bill passed in the House, 320-91. 

Between votes like those, there have been some tense moments. At a recent campaign event, someone came up to her and began to praise some of her stances, but it quickly “veered into antisemitic rhetoric.” 

“I could feel the heat creeping up the back of my neck and my heart racing. And I just said, ‘I’ve got to stop you right there. You are crossing a boundary here,’” she said. 

The encounter has stayed with her. “If you think that because I am demanding that this horrific war end, that gives you license to spit antisemitic tropes at me, then we’ve got problems.” 

Balint first called for a “true negotiated cease-fire” in a November 2023 op-ed in VTDigger, more than a month after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack. The response was immediate, she said. “I didn’t anticipate how powerful their reaction would be, I didn’t. I was really writing that op-ed for me and my constituents just in Vermont. But it really struck a chord with progressive Jews across the country and people who they saw themselves reflected in my words.”

In the op-ed, she cites her family history in the Holocaust as part of her “deep emotional connection” to Israel. At the time, only a few dozen members of Congress had publicly called for a cease-fire, and she was the first Jewish member to do so.

“I still get harassed down the hall by people that have cameras in my face, saying I’m not doing enough, I’m not saying enough,” she said. “And also there are times when I feel like I’m getting it from both sides right now, and there’s certainly been people who don’t feel like I have been a strong enough supporter of Israel.”

The need for both a Jewish state and an end to the devastation in Gaza requires rejecting “all or nothing” thinking, Balint said. A U.S.-backed proposal put a cease-fire deal on the table in recent weeks, but the Israel-Hamas war continues with no clear end in sight. 

“I’ve always been a politician and a leader who believes in holding nuance and complexity because that is essentially what the Middle East is,” Balint said. “And I have to be able to look myself in the mirror every day, and that’s why I continue to hold this space.”

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