Pennsylvania State Rep. Summer Lee made her case at an April 4 town hall meeting sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Community Relations Council why the Pittsburgh Jewish community should help send her to Washington, D.C.
Lee hopes to win the Democratic nomination for Pennsylvania’s newly created 12th Congressional District. Much of the district is now represented by Mike Doyle, a congressman since 1995, in the 18th District. The new 12th district was redrawn after the 2020 U.S. Census and is comprised of the city of Pittsburgh as well as some eastern and southern suburbs, including parts of Westmoreland County.
Jerry Dickinson, Steve Irwin, William Parker and Jeff Woodard also seek the Democratic nomination to fill the new seat.
Lee talked about her background, fielded questions about infrastructure, gas prices, the war in Ukraine and spoke at length about Israel, antisemitism, race and other issues of concern to Jewish voters at the meeting, moderated by Laura Cherner, director of the CRC, and held at Lee’s campaign headquarters in Swissvale.
Lee spoke of growing up in the Mon Valley and of the historic roots of racism and poverty in the region, including redlining, predatory lending, underfunded schools and food, and medical and transportation deserts.
The congressional hopeful said she decided to go to law school to be a champion for people like her.
“When I looked toward leadership, I never saw leaders that looked like me,” she said. “There were no Black women represented at any level of government beyond school boards.”
In 2018, Lee won the seat in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives 34th district.
Cherner questioned Lee about her views on Israel, including whether she thought that Israel had a right to exist as a Jewish Democratic state. Lee said she did.
“I also understand and truly believe the need that we have for Jewish folks globally to have a safe haven, to have refuge and a place to be safe,” Lee said. “I think our role has to be in how we are ensuring the safety of all folks over there right now.”
But Lee said she didn’t know if Israel was an apartheid state.
“I don’t necessarily know the answer to that,” she said. “I don’t know that I am as well-versed in the intricacies of this.”
Cherner questioned Lee about two tweets she posted on May 14, 2021, in the midst of fighting in Israel and the Gaza Strip.
“When I hear American pols use the refrain ‘Israel has the right to defend itself’ in response to undeniable atrocities on a marginalized pop, I can’t help but think of how the west has always justified indiscriminate & disproportionate force & power on weakened & marginalized ppl.”
She also tweeted: “The US has nvr shown leadership in safeguarding human rights of folks its othered But as we fight against injustice here in the mvmnt for Blk lives, we must stand against injustice everywhere. Inhumanities against the Palestinian ppl cannot be tolerated or justified.”
Lee said that, “placed in context,” her tweets were her response as a Black woman to an event that took place in Israel.
“That was, I believe, a year ago, also during Ramadan where we saw a mosque being raided,” Lee said. “Those were folks who are in their most vulnerable point, in their holy month, praying and breaking fast. That was an internationally recognized event that happened; that was an escalation of what we had seen.”
Lee said she believed American politicians should have spoken out on behalf of the Palestinians.
“That would have cost us nothing,” she said. “Instead, I saw American politicians rushing to use the phrase, ‘Israel has a right to defend itself,’” she said. “The question was, what were they defending themselves against at that moment? What that tweet was talking about is, when we are saying that a powerful entity has a right to defend itself when no one has done anything needing defense?”
She said she saw a parallel between the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman and Israel’s actions against the Palestinians last year.
On May 7, 2021, according to the Associated Press, after evening prayers on the Temple Mount, some Palestinian worshippers began throwing stockpiled rocks and other objects at Israeli police officers. Police fired stun grenades into the mosque and into a field clinic in response. By the time Lee tweeted on May 14, Hamas had fired more than 850 rockets at Israel and had inflicted multiple casualties, including a 5-year-old.
Asked if she supported the continued funding of the Iron Dome, Lee said it was important to fund our allies and legitimate defense mechanisms, but she added that aid to Israel should be conditioned on progress for peace with the Palestinians.
“I do believe that aid should be conditioned for all of our allies,” she said. “I think it’s important that we are centering human rights and, as we are party to this movement, to ensure we have a peaceful resolution.”
U.S. aid should be tied to ensuring Israel doesn’t annex Palestinian land, Lee said, “or the demolition of Palestinian homes, expansion and settlements. We have to ensure against the tension of children. I think those are reasonable things.”
While Lee said she is not involved with the BDS movement against Israel, she is concerned by efforts to “criminalize a tactic that is rooted in peaceful protest.”
Noting that there has been a 400% increase in antisemitism in the United States, Cherner asked Lee about the balance between free speech and the need to protect marginalized communities.
Lee linked antisemitism and white nationalism, racism and xenophobia, saying they are ideologies “we have to rise up against.”
Lee said that the Democratic Party must be reflective of the region and the country. She also stressed that increased federal support for infrastructure was vital and that the government has a role in working to decrease gas prices.
“We found very quickly that oil and gas companies were just raising prices,” she said. “What is happening right now is that the cost per barrel has dropped, the price of gasoline has not. So, what we’re dealing with is corporate greed at this point.”
In addition to combating rising prices, Lee said, wages, which have remained stagnant since 2007, need to be raised.
Pittsburgh resident Mark Fichman said he attended all three of the CRC’s Coffee and Conversations — the other two were with Democratic hopefuls Steve Irwin and Jerry Dickinson — and liked what he heard from Lee.
“I thought she did an excellent job,” he said.
Stuart Pavilack said some areas of concern arose during the conversation with Lee.
“I didn’t think she knew a lot about the situation,” Pavilack said. “She didn’t have an opinion on whether Israel was an apartheid state and on BDS. She didn’t know the subject adequately.”
Pavilack, who attended and commented as an individual and not in his role as executive director of the Zionist Organization of America: Pittsburgh, said he was concerned about some of Lee’s views on domestic issues, like reasons for the rise in the price of gasoline.
Cherner said that the town hall events were a good opportunity to put the three lead Democratic candidates in front of the Jewish community.
“Each candidate is running for the same party,” she said. “A lot of them espouse the same progressive values, so being able to directly ask them about issues that are of key importance to the Jewish community and hearing each candidate’s unique response, I think, is really helpful to inform voters when making a decision.” PJC
David Rullo can be reached at email@example.com.