Elaine Luria was well into a career as a Navy officer in 2013 when she opened a novelty gift shop in Norfolk, Virginia, selling mermaids—small, ceramic, mounted on wood pedestals. As the owner of the building next door, Michael Millard-Lowe watched customers flood into Luria’s Mermaid Factory, vacationers and naval base family visitors who wanted to buy a souvenir representative of a transient coastal place where thousands of temporary military residents come and go. “Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant,” Millard-Lowe said of the Mermaid Factory concept, which Luria started with her husband, who was then also a Navy officer, and later expanded into a second well-trafficked location. Having left the Navy to set down firm roots on land, Luria soon took charge of a different kind of endeavor: Running for Congress against Norfolk’s popular incumbent Republican congressman, a former Navy Seal named Scott Taylor.
With Norfolk and Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District going strong for Trump in 2016, and eight of the last nine district elections won by a Republican, Millard-Lowe was surprised to begin receiving texts from his Virginia Beach clients informing him that they had cast their day’s ballot for Luria, who ran on a campaign platform of tighter gun laws, a minimum wage hike, and higher corporate taxes. “They kept telling me, ‘We voted for your girl,’” Millard-Lowe said, who had gone out to canvass for Luria’s campaign. “And I knew right then that if these kinds of folks in Virginia Beach had voted for Elaine, she was certainly going to win the election.”
Luria won her race in the 2o18 midterms as part of a wave of freshman Democrats, many of them centrists with military backgrounds, who flipped the House of Representatives back to the Democratic Party. Little could she have imagined that she would find herself defending her record of service and even her loyalty to her country in the face of a series of raw anti-Semitic slurs from a fellow House Democratic freshman.
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Exemplary Luria moment: It’s evening in early June 2019, and the Virginia Democratic Party is hosting a peppy, DJed, annual gala, 1,800 donors, politicos and hangers-on in a ballroom filled with tables of drink and food, everyone smiling, slapping backs, snapping photos, group pics, glasses raised, a bunch of big “wow look at us” smiles, as this was the victory lap for flipping a bunch of House seats, Luria’s included. The music is loud. Later in the evening Mayor Pete Buttigieg will give a speech about the greatness of Virginia’s Dems in a weirdly cribbed cadence that borrows so blatantly from Obama that Mayor Pete sounds like an open mic comic testing out impressions. Susan Swecke, VA party chair, is getting crowd hoots, people are standing, shouting as she talks about winning the White House in 2020. There’s a feeling of momentum here, a sense of purpose; the DJ drops Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” for a room full of people feeling good about the future.
“Good evening, I’m Elaine Luria, and I represent the 2nd Congressional District,” Luria says coolly from behind the podium, a slim woman with an almond face, Navy-neat shoulder-length hair, and a stern look across her furrowed slate-blue eyes. She’s not talking as much as talk-shouting. The transition to casual public speaking still a work in progress, she addresses the crowd in the mode of a commander issuing a mission directive to her ensigns. “Two weeks ago yesterday, a gunman entered municipal building two and murdered 12 innocent people and seriously injured four others,” she says, referencing the recent mass shooting in her district. Strenuously enunciating each word, she continues, “Those 12 people went to work Friday morning—serving our community—and were looking forward to one of the first weekends of summer.”
Rather suddenly the room has gone from as loud as 2,000 people on their second drink at an open bar to near-silent as the five or six hundred seated guests realize they should now stop eating the first course salad.
The mass shooting in Virginia Beach had by that night started to recede from the national news cycle. Though there were still some regional headlines and public statements from this or that official on gun laws, and solemn local coverage of the vigils, the community had already accomplished the familiar collective labor, doing their part to inch the eventual tilt in the public-political matrix, when a new legislative sentiment solidifies.
“A summer weekend filled with festivals,” Luria talk-shouts. “Children sporting events. Barbecues, and Sunday worship. But instead, their families spent the weekend planning their funerals,” and now the crowd is awkwardly silent. People do not know where to look.
Luria goes through the names of those murdered, where they were from, what they did, Keith Cox, the account clerk who went back into the building to rescue six coworkers from the shooter’s murderous path.
“Over the last two weeks you may have heard people say, ‘this will not define us.’ That’s the sentiment of a community that wants to tell the nation that we are better than this,” Luria explains.
“Today, as we look back over these two weeks, I want to say, we should let this define us. We should let Keith’s actions define us. Keith is a hero. As the brave police rushed into the building to save lives, Keith was in the building saving lives. So, I do want this moment to define us. I want to be Keith Cox,” Luria says, her eyes scanning a room struggling to reconcile her words to the prevailing theme of jubilant celebration. “We should let this tragedy define us, for in our darkest hour, we see hope, we see that we have more in common than differences. As the nation has moved on to the next big story, I want you to know that I will never stop talking about Keith Cox.”
And that’s it, it’s over—no rousing gun control takeaways, no calling out Trump, or condemnation of the NRA. Just a promise, met with modest, congenial applause. The DJ defaults to his monster truck voice, quickly cranks out Beyonce, ‘say my name/say my name,’ and intros the next speaker. Luria’s four minutes are an anomaly, the thing you’d forget if you could. Yet there was no hint of apology in going off script, no betrayal of missed chance to blast out talking points to the donors scattered about. The pledge, to never stop talking about this man Cox, a back-office clerk, the one whose name even two weeks later is largely absent from Virginia media airwaves is not hollow or sentimental. Luria seems to simply be informing the room of what she decided she would do in response to the tragic event, an identification and memorialization of the person who self-elevated to the role of public servant.
In early June, I spoke with Rep. Luria who was then at the end of a long day in her D.C. office. She maintains a grueling schedule of appearances and meetings between Virginia and Washington, her efforts reflected in a notably high volume of legislative activity for a freshman. Already, she’s sponsored 10 bills across a spectrum of issues, from veteran’s college grants to the further development of a clean national nuclear energy program. The output requires an intensity that when interrupted can sometimes reveal a slight frustration that simmers below the surface as she repeats the same messaging her office has likely just put out in press releases. Some on the Hill thrive on the accumulation of these interactions and seeing their own face in nightly news segments, but Luria betrays a more ambivalent attitude towards the job’s publicity requirements, an unstated reticence that arises, not out of antipathy toward the press, but rather from a different conception of where her duty lies. As Virginia state Sen. Lynnwood Lewis told me of the congresswoman, “Elaine doesn’t spend her time trying to figure out how to get in front of a television camera. She’s much more concerned about getting the job done.”
Squeezing in the conversation well after business hours and with a tiredness in her voice, Rep. Luria’s energy quickly revived once we turned toward what had been at the time, and remains still for her now, the surprise subject of her debut address into the congressional record.
“I never thought, for the first time I spoke on the floor of the House, it’d be to speak out against anti-Semitism,” she told me, as she described “the absurdity of this dual loyalty claim.”
Luria’s comment on dual loyalty was in relation to the second, or third, depending on your method of counting, statement trafficking in anti-Semitic tropes by fellow Democratic freshman Rep. Ilhan Omar. In February, Omar used her Twitter account to suggest that for American politicians who support Israel, “It’s all about the Benjamins,” adding in a follow up statement she was referring specifically to the untoward influence of AIPAC. Widely and swiftly condemned across both sides of the aisle, Omar issued a response that she had been unfamiliar with the anti-Semitic undertones of her Benjamins statement. Explaining that she now understood the slur, Omar said she was “grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of anti-Semitic tropes.” Omar continued: “I unequivocally apologize.” But then promptly equivocated: “At the same time, I reaffirm the problematic role of lobbyists in our politics …”
The unknowing use of a trope followed by a defensive apology with claims of ignorance follows a pattern from a much earlier statement Omar made on her Twitter account in 2012 as tensions escalated then in the Gaza conflict. “Israel has hypnotized the world,” Omar wrote, “may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.” The comment drew renewed scrutiny this past January for its unabashed depiction of Jews and their cunning capacity for secret manipulation. When responding to this fresh criticism, Omar said that, at the time, in 2012, she was unaware she had made use of an anti-Semitic trope in her depiction of Israel. “It’s now apparent to me,” she wrote on Twitter, that she didn’t put enough effort into “disavowing the anti-Semitic trope I unknowingly used, which is unfortunate and offensive.” She then qualified this disavowal of the trope by adding, “With that said, it is important to distinguish between criticizing a military action by a government and attacking a particular people of faith.”
It was within this context that Omar made an appearance at a Washington, D.C., bookstore on Feb. 27, explaining to the crowd that those who’ve identified her use of anti-Semitic tropes were, in their focus on her, one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress, part of a larger effort to quell any American public debate about Israeli policy.
“I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country,” Omar said, evoking again a long-established anti-Semitic trope, this time the charge of dual loyalty used for centuries for ill and deadly effect to justify Jewish persecution.
Addressing this last unqualified slur, Luria wore the same furrowed expression from her speech at the Virginia Democratic Party gala. The resolution about which she spoke, though it did not name Rep. Omar by name, explicitly condemns political campaigns and media that make use of the myth “that Jews control the United States Government or seek global, political, and financial domination and that Jews are obsessed with money.”
“I’m a Jewish American woman who served for 20 years in uniform and continue to serve in the United States Congress” Luria told the House speaker. “At the age of 17, when I entered the United States Naval Academy, I first took the oath to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”
“I subsequently repeated that oath six times—at every promotion in rank and most recently when I had the honor to become a member of Congress. Is that not enough to prove my loyalty to our nation?” Noting her deployment on six ships, some during combat, and the years away from home, she asks, finally, “Is that not enough to prove my loyalty to our nation?”
“I believe that I speak clearly, for all fellow Jewish veterans, that this echoes of language that has been used to marginalize and persecute the Jewish people for centuries. The recent accusations of dual loyalty call into question the equal footing of Jewish members in elected office and, by extension, all Jews living in America.”
Yet while the Democratic-sponsored House resolution had initially been written to condemn the use of anti-Semitic tropes, it soon became a document with a more opaque purpose, condemning a wide panoply of bigotry—against Native Americans, African Americans, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Pacific Islanders, and immigrants–suggesting that perhaps raw anti-Semitism was only one of a multitude of sins and not worthy of any unique or specific condemnation. “I agree that it’s important we stand up against all forms of bigotry,” Luria told me. “But I was disappointed that the resolution became watered down. The goal had been to stand up against anti-Semitism.”
“It’s unfortunate that this has gained a voice,” Luria added. “It’s a small number of people, and it’s in a social media bubble where this gets amplified. That’s one thing I’ve seen in office, that what’s said on Twitter or Facebook doesn’t represent the views of my community.”
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Elaine Luria, 43, was born in 1975 and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, near where both sides of her family had settled, after coming to the United States at the turn of the century, from Germany and Eastern Europe. Her father ran a prosperous scrap metal business while her mother, first as a longtime volunteer, then as an employee, became a fixture of the Birmingham Museum of Art. Tagging along, Luria befriended the exhibit staff and art handlers and began nurturing an interest to one day become a curator. In the community around Temple Emanu-El in Birmingham, Luria’s mother was an active event organizer for Hadassah and the local Jewish Federation chapter. When Luria was 11, her mother curated a speaker series that highlighted what were then, for Alabama in the mid-1980s, unusual careers women should consider as available to them, including doctors and astronauts.
At the Indian Springs School, a boarding school near Birmingham, Luria was a precocious student of science as well as the humanities, broadening her interest in art history with a careful study of the classics and Latin grammar. She’d eventually win state and national level grammar competitions, which expanded her horizons for college to the Ivy League. Drawn to Columbia University’s focus on the classics as part of their core curriculum, Luria initially thought she’d go away to study in New York. But at a summer science camp hosted by the Naval Academy before her senior year, she found herself enamored with the intricacies of engineering, a sort of real world application of the complex rules and interdependencies of Latin syntax. She was taken, as well, with the worldliness of the camp’s midshipmen who had led what seemed to a teenage Luria like a life of adventure on ships traveling to exotic ports. Returning home, Luria only sent off one college application, to the Naval Academy, where at the age of 17 she took an oath as part of the freshman class in Annapolis.
Before Luria graduated the academy in 1997, the Navy began for the first time to permit women to both serve and lead combat ships, which opened up a new kind of career path for young, female ensigns with ambitions for a career at sea. After an initial tour on a destroyer managing a crew of more than a dozen and an array of Tomahawk missiles, while enforcing sanctions against oil smugglers in the Middle East, Luria quickly rose up the Navy’s ranks. By 2000, she was an officer and one of the first women enrolled in the highly competitive US Naval Nuclear Power School.
“Intellectually, I don’t think there’s a sharper crowd in the Navy than the nuclear power trained officers,” said Michael Ott, a commodore who served with Luria during her final assignment. “They take only the smartest officers that the Navy can send them, and even after that, many officers who might have been academically successful as undergraduates, they still find the training too demanding.”
While attending to her ship’s nuclear reactor systems, Luria also kept up an active participation in Jewish life. Rarely at sea with a Jewish chaplain on board, she took on the role of lay leader for Passover Seders. On one deployment she read from a Haggadah in the ship’s library while a few feet above her head the jet engines rumbled the flight deck.
In 2005, Luria married Navy Commander Robert Blondin. They called Norfolk home but the duty to serve at sea superseded the initial development of a domestic routine; she and Blondin spent much of the first three years of their marriage apart while on separate deployments.
During the summer of 2006, while on board the USS Enterprise, a ship 1,100 feet long with 66 war planes, Luria trained 700 nuclear operators on a system of eight nuclear reactors. Deployed in the Middle East as part of Operation Enduring Freedom—the official name given to the global war 0n terrorism—Luria managed the nuclear power system as the ship sent its planes up in the air for more than 4,200 flight hours, supporting ground forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2013, Luria was second in command on USS Anzio; the following year, in what would be her final assignment on active duty, she took command of 400 sailors in Assault Craft Unit Two.
By then a mother of a daughter, Luria was part of a generation of women officers creating the path for other women to command combat ships. “The women like Elaine held themselves to a higher standard, to carry the baton passed to them by the first generation of women on combat ships, and the standard she held for herself became a model for both the men and the women, as someone you wanted to follow into combat,” said Luria’s Navy colleague, Ott.
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In the current moment of anxiety and uncertainty for American Jews, and in the absence of a strong, national Jewish figure willing or capable to lead the effort, Luria–who didn’t highlight her Jewishness during her campaign–has moved to the forefront of the fight against anti-Semitism within her party and the larger political sphere. “I think that’s who Elaine is, stepping up like that,” Joe Lindsey, a delegate in Virginia, told me. “She’s not one of those people who uses her religion as a platform, but she is a person who is rooted in her faith and in her moral conviction, and that dictates in many respects the position she adopts, to get it right and be right.”
Before the dual loyalty episode, Luria was already at work on a public letter with Josh Gottheimer, the representative of New Jersey’s 5th District, condemning the normative creep of anti-Semitism. “Josh and I came together with the idea that we needed to speak up,” Luria said. “We needed to say something, and we didn’t know when the right time would be, or the right vehicle, or the right tone, so we kept working through it with this letter.” Luria and Gottheimer had wanted the letter to include endorsements from all 25 Jewish members of the Democratic caucus, and over the course of several weeks they refined what they hoped would be a strong, forceful rebuke.
It was when Omar’s comment about Jews and money hit the media in early February, Luria said to Gottheimer, “We can’t sit on this letter, we’re not going to make it perfect, we just have to put it out there,” she told me, and the next morning, before House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House leadership had gathered themselves together for their response to Omar, the letter was released, urging Pelosi to unequivocally denounce the anti-Semitism in the party.
“As Jewish Members of Congress, we are deeply alarmed by recent rhetoric from certain members within our Caucus, including just last night, that has disparaged us and called into question our loyalty to our nation,” the letter stated. “We cannot remain silent in the face of hateful speech or actions. We know what happens in our communities when leaders ignore or embrace unacceptable rhetoric. That is why we have an obligation to speak out against anti-Semitism and to vigorously confront, challenge, and defeat those who traffic in these harmful tropes and smears.”
Yet the statement that Luria and Gottheimer hoped that their party would make didn’t exactly happen.
Some six months after Luria and Gottheimer drafted their initial letter, on a rainy Monday morning in early July, I visited Felician University, a Franciscan college of a few thousand undergrads in the northern New Jersey town of Lodi. There, in a dim, yellow-walled, linoleum-floor cafeteria, I watched Gottheimer stand in as the master of ceremonies for the fourth gathering of Hometown Heros, a semiannual event. In a navy suit and red tie, Gottheimer, 44, has a boyish propensity for exuberance.
“We are all here for you,” Gottheimer says. “This is our chance to say thank you. To celebrate our unsung heroes. To celebrate those who fight fires or crime, or run a small business, or help with their church, synagogue or mosque, or run a small business. And put people over pettiness. And there is nothing partisan or Democratic or Republican about being a hometown hero, and take a step back and say thank you to those who do good in their community.”
For the next hour and a half, Gottheimer slowly works his way through an 89-page script that has taken his staff weeks to assemble, a carefully cross-checked set of biographical sketches, quotes from appreciative friends and colleagues, and narratives that pay homage to the dozens who will come stand beside the congressman, accept his hugs and handshakes and a plaque to a room of applause, and return to their seats after they’ve been thanked for their efforts as school aids, or for bringing leadership to the firehouse, or organizing a town’s nascent LGBTQ rights group. It’s a moment of civic boosterism that, if one squinted from the back of the cafeteria, might look like archival footage from 1965 or 1987, when this kind of thing could earn local paper coverage, and maybe even a TV camera or two.
Yet there is no discernible media presence here, and it is a slog of an affair, the cafeteria maintenance crew in the back leaning with supreme boredom against the soda fridge that buzzes in a loud, broken rhythm. As the crowd starts to fade around the hour mark, the complimentary sugar cookies long since metabolized in the bloodstream, Gottheimer’s energy picks up with each new person coming to the stage. His ceaseless interest in trying to impart a sense of appreciation is itself oddly interesting, like watching someone explain their favorite song while playing it over and over. After another 45 minutes taking pictures with the guests and their families, Gottheimer sat with me at a lunch room table and recalled how he’d first spoke to Luria.
“We’d both shared the belief then of the importance of the U.S. and Israel relationship, and why that strong relationship is key for national security, to keep democracy in the Middle East,” Gottheimer recalled. “And we were very concerned, just as we are today, about this misinformation, if it’s the BDS movement, or about dual loyalty, or hypnotic trances, or about the Benjamins, the Jewish people and money—these are tropes that go back for generations.”
As the episodes of anti-Semitism continued, Gottheimer remembers talking with Luria, “No one is calling on us, who cares who does it, it’s what we do that matters,” he said. “This was a cancer in the Democratic caucus, a very small cancer, but it was growing. I thought it was really important that we stand together to stop it, before it spread.”
After defeating the seven-time Republican incumbent, Scott Garrett, in the 2016 race for the 5th District, Gottheimer encountered the anti-Semitic vandalism that had been on the rise since Trump’s election during his second campaign in 2018, when the lawn signs of his supporters were defaced with slurs and one home had been spray-painted with swastikas. His 2018 campaign and the sustained uptick in anti-Semitic sentiment this year has solidified Gottheimer’s conviction for the need to combat misinformation circulating in the public sphere. “That’s why whenever I see a resolution on the floor condemning anti-Semitism, or BDS, I support it—and you get attacked for it, with these character assassinations,” he told me.
“When they compare the awful, heart-wrenching crisis situation at the southern border to concentration camps. That’s very painful, because as horrific as that situation is, there’s no need to apply the language used for the mass murder of 6 million people,” he added.
Gottheimer attributes the rise in anti-Semitic sentiment and misunderstood nuance of criticizing Israel and the Jewish people to the current media environment shaped less by reliable news sources than by social media mobs. “It’s easy to sell a false narrative now, and then people just repeat it,” he said. “They’re traded online, and they spread, and now it’s happening in the halls of Congress, too.”
Before I left, Gottheimer explained the crux of the task as he saw it. “If it’s a false claim, you have to address it. That’s what’s essential, “ he said. It brought to mind something Luria had told me about the small but vocal minority of those in the Democratic Party who criticize Israel unconditionally, with no context of what Israel means to the stability of the Middle East region.
On the whole, “the Democratic caucus is not representative of [that view],” Luria told me. “My perception is that the support for Israel is actually quite strong.”
A few weeks later, ahead of the House’s vote on a resolution condemning the BDS movement, Luria was confident the Democratic caucus would come together to “reaffirm its close bond with Israel, America’s friend and ally,” she said. Later that day, the House gave its overwhelming backing to the resolution, with 398 members voting against the movement.
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Sean P. Cooper is a staff writer at Tablet and the author of The Shooter at Midnight: Murder, Corruption, and a Farming Town Divided, forthcoming from Penguin.