As President-elect Joe Biden forms his leadership team and announces candidates for Senate approval, his cabinet could be historically Jewish, with all of his currently announced cabinet secretaries being Jewish, as well as his chief of staff and pick for director of national intelligence.
The Jewish nominees include Tony Blinken, for secretary of state; Janet Yellen, for secretary of the treasury; Alejandro Mayorkas, for secretary of homeland security; and Avril Haines, for director of national intelligence. Also Jewish are Biden’s Chief of Staff Ron Klain; and Jared Bernstein, whom Biden expects to appoint to the Council of Economic Advisers.
Biden’s picks will most likely be noted for their otherwise historical notations, as The New York Times reported that Yellen is the first female secretary of the treasury; Mayorkas, the first Latino to lead his department; and Haines, the first woman to serve as DNI. While other cabinet level picks have been announced, only the three secretary nominees have been announced, and these alone would represent one of the highest level of concurrent Jewish cabinet secretaries. The highest is believed to be the four cabinet secretaries between 1996 and 1997 under the Clinton administration.
All four nominees have previously served in high-level government positions, with Blinken and Mayorkas having served as deputy-secretaries for their respective departments; Yellen having been the chair of the Federal Reserve from 2014 to 2018; and Haines having previously been deputy-director of the CIA. All four will face Senate confirmations, although none of them are expected to be particularly contentious.
Klain is thought to become the fifth Jewish chief of staff, following Rahm Emanuel under President Barack Obama. Klain was born to a Jewish family in Indianapolis, where he became a bar mitzvah at a Conservative/Reconstructionist synagogue. He has raised his children Jewish, although his wife is Christian and they put up a Christmas tree, albeit after his mother visits the family in December.
Klain has worked in politics in Washington for decades. He graduated from Georgetown University and Harvard Law School and clerked for a Supreme Court justice. Klain has worked closely with Biden, serving first as his chief of staff between 2008 and 2011, and then as the Ebola czar under the Obama-Biden administration in 2014.
Blinken has a long history with the president-elect, having served as Biden’s foreign policy advisor when he was on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the 1990s. Blinken has deep Jewish roots and acknowledged them in his speech accepting the nomination. He mentioned the role of the United States as the “best last hope” for his grandfather emigrating to the United States in response to pogroms in Russia, as well as his stepfather escaping the Holocaust after four years in concentration camps and getting to America. If confirmed, Blinken is believed to be the second Jewish secretary of state, with the first being Henry Kissinger.
Yellen is seen by many as one of the leading economists in the United States. Her appointment as secretary of the treasury would be historic for her gender and because she’s thought the seventh Jewish person in the role. Yellen’s parents were both Jewish, although “not particularly observant,” and while living in Berkeley with her Jewish Nobel Prize-winning husband George Akerlof, the pair attended a Reform synagogue, according to the Forward. But beyond that, their involvement with Judaism, if any, is not noted much publicly.
Mayorkas was born in Havana and came to the United States before his first birthday. His father was a Cuban native of Sephardi heritage and his mother was a Romanian Jew who fled during the Holocaust. Mayorkas first visited Israel in 1977 and has visited multiple times since, as well as helping to initiate a data-security sharing program between the United States and Israel during his time as deputy secretary of homeland security. Mayorkas noted his concern about anti-Semitism in 2016, saying that among subjects that keep him up at night are the threats to “my community,” the Jewish community.
Haines will help lead Biden’s intelligence community team. Some Israel advocates have attacked her for joining onto a letter advocating for a stronger stance on Israel and the Palestinian conflict in the DNC platform, but she will nonetheless be one of the highest ranking Jewish voices in the Biden administration.
Some might argue there is a seventh high-ranking Jewish official announced for the Biden administration in John Kerry, appointed special presidential envoy for climate. Kerry discovered in 2003 that his paternal grandfather was born Jewish but converted to Roman Catholicism, and when he immigrated to the United States in 1903, he had changed his last name from Kohn to Kerry. No matter how many Jewish officials end up in the Biden administration, the choices so far will put many in high-ranking positions.