Two political advocacy organizations — each identifying as pro-Israel — are in the midst of a tussle over the 2024 congressional race for Pennsylvania’s 12th district, which includes Squirrel Hill.
At the heart of the row between AIPAC and J Street is the reelection campaign of first-term Rep. Summer Lee, who last month was one of only nine House members voting against a resolution declaring Israel “is not a racist or apartheid state.”
Lee, along with “Squad” members Cori Bush, Jamal Bowman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, also skipped Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s address to a joint session of Congress on July 19. In May, she was one of 17 co-sponsors of proposed legislation that would restrict aid to Israel and, in April, Lee voted against a resolution marking Israel’s 75th anniversary, heralding the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship and urging the expansion of the Abraham Accords.
Lee continues to be endorsed by JStreetPAC, and members of J Street Pittsburgh are hosting a fundraiser on her behalf on Aug. 29.
In an email to J Street supporters, Nancy Bernstein, a cohost of the fundraiser, wrote, “During her time in office, Rep. Lee has been a champion of J Street’s core values and vision for justice, equality, peace, and democracy both at home and abroad. As a result of her leadership and outspokenness, she has become a top target for AIPAC’s vicious attacks claiming that she is anti-Israel and anti-America.
“This event will show Congresswoman Lee that the J Street and Pittsburgh community has her back.”
AIPAC fired back on the social media platform X (formerly Twitter) last week: “Summer Lee boycotted Israel’s president, calls to condition lifesaving security aid, and aligns with Israel’s loudest critics. Now J Street is hosting fundraisers for her as ‘a champion of J Street’s core values.’”
In response to that post, Lee accused AIPAC of targeting her because she is Black and because of her progressive views. She wrote on X: “This is a right-wing bully group that supports actual insurrection, white supremacists…. They spend even more money insisting that anyone who doesn’t agree [with] their extreme right-wing views is a bigot.”
In another post, Lee wrote: “That’s the real reason they target and abuse me. Because the truth is they’re just an extremely wealthy white org that operates like so many others: they hate progressive, Black, and poor folks fighting for themselves, who they can’t control.”
She added: “To point out the obvious power dynamic gets us labeled antisemitic. It makes us targets of dangerous and incredibly disingenuous attacks. It chills speech.”
Lee did not respond to the Chronicle’s request for comment.
AIPAC spokesperson Marshall Wittman told the Chronicle that Lee’s accusations are baseless.
“Summer Lee is outrageously attempting to distract attention from her consistently hostile record against Israel by making unfounded and scurrilous attacks against us,” Wittman said. “In fact, we proudly support pro-Israel progressives, including over half of the Congressional Black Caucus and Hispanic Caucus and almost half of the Progressive Caucus. We will continue to speak out and stay involved in the democratic process, and we will not be deterred from our efforts to strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship by anti-Israel forces.”
To be endorsed by JStreetPAC, a candidate must meet certain criteria, including “An Ironclad Commitment to Israel’s Security,” according to its website.
Tali deGroot, J Street’s national political director, did not respond to the Chronicle’s questions as to whether Lee’s votes on specific measures concerning Israel conformed to JStreetPAC’s endorsement criteria, or whether Lee’s absence from Herzog’s speech was aligned with that criteria. Instead, she referred the Chronicle to J Street’s FAQ section on its website and commented: “Congresswoman Lee is a JStreetPAC endorsee and meets our endorsement criteria. We’re proud to support her once again in the 2024 election cycle.”
Bernstein said she continues to support Lee because “she is a fierce advocate for democratic values, both here and in Israel. And, you know, we don’t always agree on everything, but those values are the things that actually help us to choose candidates.”
Speaking on her own behalf, and not for JStreetPAC, Bernstein said Lee is “an advocate for Israeli peace and security.”
Bernstein cited Lee’s “commitment to better the district she serves,” and her “deep values related to democracy, human and civil rights.” She said she and Lee share similar values, such as “the idea that addressing poverty inequality actually can address the root causes of racism and antisemitism, because when people feel insecure, they’re more susceptible to messages that offer ‘simple’ answers to their predicament. So, of course educating people also about the persistence of racism and antisemitism, and how they show up in our society, is also hugely important.”
Bernstein also stressed Lee’s support for the Tree of Life rebuilding project, and her efforts to secure federal funding for that project and for the 10.27 Healing Partnership.
Patrick Dorton, a spokesperson for the United Democracy Project — the AIPAC-affiliate — said that while UDP has not made any decisions yet about endorsements for the 2024 races, “we look at all the races where there are vehement anti-Israel candidates like Summer Lee very closely.”
“Summer Lee has established herself very quickly as a leading anti-Israel member of Congress and we think that’s counter to the views of most Democrats and President Biden,” Dorton added. “This is very much about policy. In nearly all the races that UDP was involved with in the last election cycle, we helped elect pro-Israel progressive women or candidates of color to Congress.”
Earlier this month, Jewish Insider reported that Bhavini Patel, an Edgewood councilmember, is planning to challenge Lee in the primary.
Patel declined to comment on her plans.
“Right now, my energy is dedicated to amplifying the voices and aspirations of our diverse community,” she told the Chronicle. “As a woman of color and the child of immigrants, ensuring that everyone is seen, heard, and valued is my driving force. My involvement spans addressing urgent concerns like gun violence and collaborating with communities, as seen in my engagement with the Indian American community at the Hindu Jain Temple.
“My commitment lies in uniting people, fostering support and creating positive change,” she continued. “From infrastructure improvements to policies that boost the economy, my goal is to uplift the working individuals in our region. I am deeply passionate about representing the interests of our district’s residents and standing up for their needs.” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.