Squad members face new vulnerability over anti-Israel activism
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Squad members face new vulnerability over anti-Israel activism

Three left-wing Democratic lawmakers are facing renewed primary competition after equivocating over Hamas terrorism

State Rep. Summer Lee talks to the press outside her polling station at the Paulson Recreation Center after voting with Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey on May 17, 2022 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)
State Rep. Summer Lee talks to the press outside her polling station at the Paulson Recreation Center after voting with Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey on May 17, 2022 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

This article was first published on Jewish Insider.

Bhavini Patel, a borough councilwoman in the Pittsburgh area who recently launched a House campaign with backing from Jewish and pro-Israel activists, is drawing sharp contrasts on Middle East policy as she seeks to knock off Rep. Summer Lee (D-PA), a freshman Squad member and Democratic socialist.

In Minneapolis, Don Samuels, a former city councilman, is preparing to announce a rematch against Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), an outspoken progressive whose fierce criticism of Israel he plans to highlight in the lead-up to next year’s primary.

And as he weighs a challenge to Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY), whose increasingly hostile positions on Israel have faced backlash in his heavily Jewish district in the northern suburbs of New York City, George Latimer, the Westchester County executive, has indicated that he could mount what would likely be a robust challenge as soon as next month.

In the wake of Hamas’ bloody rampage in Israel — and the equivocating reactions to it by the far-left flank of the Democratic Party — some of the most prominent members of the Squad are facing the biggest backlash they’ve seen in their political careers.

“This is a scarlet letter that far-left candidates will have to wear,” Jake Dilemani, a Democratic strategist in New York, told Jewish Insider last week. “There is a 100% chance that members of the Squad are going to be tagged with these far-left positions that are out of sync with the mainstream of the party and the general public.”

Multiple recent polls have shown a dramatic spike in Democratic support for Israel following Hamas’ incursion last week, though younger activists on the left remain broadly sympathetic to the Palestinians, reflecting a generational divide within the party.

Meanwhile, Democratic lawmakers have largely been unified in echoing President Joe Biden’s unwavering commitment to Israel, even as far-left House members have expressed concern over his approach while issuing statements that have downplayed Hamas’ atrocities, called for ending U.S. military aid to the Jewish state or pressed for de-escalation, among other things.

In an unusually critical rebuke last week, Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, disavowed the Squad’s comments as “wrong,” “repugnant” and “disgraceful,” marking a rare instance in which the Biden administration has publicly pushed back against the party’s far-left wing — which, until recently, had been gaining some traction in its efforts to bring scrutiny to the U.S.-Israel alliance.

“From our conversations on the Hill and work on social media, it’s clear that the center of gravity in the party and the country has moved in a pro-Israel direction,” Mark Mellman, a veteran Democratic pollster and the president of Democratic Majority for Israel, told JI on Friday. “People who were attacking Israel last week are speaking at pro-Israel rallies this week.”

At a pro-Israel demonstration in Boston last Monday, for example, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), a leading progressive critic of Israel, was seen holding back tears as she expressed solidarity with the Jewish state and “unequivocally” declared that “there is no justification for terrorism ever.” During the same rally, Sen. Ed. Markey (D-MA), by contrast, was booed while urging de-escalation between Israel and Hamas.

Recent interviews with Democratic strategists indicate that the nascent shift in public sentiment toward Israel may end up shaping the upcoming primary cycle, especially in races where far-left House incumbents have made controversial or insensitive statements as the conflict has unfolded.

Jon Reinish, a Democratic strategist in New York, suggested that some Squad members could face newfound vulnerability for opposing the Biden administration and being seen as soft on Hamas’ terrorism. “The direction comes right from the top,” he said, referring to Biden’s strong support for Israel. “Far-left members have either equivocated, stayed on the sidelines or continued to stand with hate organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America,” which has drawn widespread backlash for supporting Hamas in the wake of the attacks.

The war between Israel and Hamas is resonating in Pittsburgh, where Patel, the local councilwoman who launched her campaign two weeks ago, has already gone on the offensive. In a statement to JI last week, she slammed Lee’s initial comments on the conflict, which condemned Hamas’ “horrifying attack on children and innocent civilians” while pressing for “urgent de-escalation” and “an end to the occupation.”

“Our member of Congress waited to speak out, and then offered qualified remarks,” Patel said. “It’s not enough. Western PA’s historic Jewish population deserves a champion who doesn’t hedge against mass killings and unthinkable violence. Her belated statement fell short on unequivocally condemning Hamas’s terrorist attack on innocent Israeli citizens, suggesting they not be allowed to defend themselves. Israel has a right to defend itself.”

As community members in the Pittsburgh area “came together” after the attack “to mourn the ongoing tragedy and to strongly stand with our ally, Israel, Rep. Lee could not bring herself to show up for her community and was absent from the event,” Patel claimed. “To weakly ask ‘Can’t we all get along?’ when hostages are actively being held,” she concluded, “is callous and out of touch.”

“It takes a breathtaking level of cynicism to leverage the death and suffering of Israelis and Palestinians to score cheap political points,” Lee fired back in a sharply worded statement shared with JI last Thursday. “There are innocent lives in the balance. It is time to come together and focus on how to save innocent people in the region, not a time to be divisive.”

The congresswoman vowed that she has “been hard at work with the State Department helping families evacuate safely home from Israel,” adding that her office has been “in the process of helping multiple families from Pittsburgh — including a family with a toddler — return safely back home to the United States.”

A local Jewish activist involved in efforts to bring constituents back to Pittsburgh confirmed that the congresswoman’s office has been helpful with a handful of “passport cases” in recent days. But the activist said that Lee has not been present at any community gatherings since the attacks, including a rally organized by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and attended by several elected officials.

“The community seemed to very much notice and resent her absence,” the activist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive issue, told JI.

The issue is particularly sensitive in Pittsburgh, where next week Jewish community members will be marking the five-year anniversary of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting — the worst antisemitic attack in American history.

“We’re going to be dealing with a lot of anxiety and emotions around that,” Patel said in an interview with JI last week. “Ultimately, I think it comes down to being present in the district and being present in the community. That is what I feel people want to see.”

Patel ran a short-lived campaign for the seat before dropping out last cycle and then mounting an unsuccessful bid for state legislature. Lee, who won a crowded and bitterly contested race for the nomination in 2022, is not expected to draw any other Democratic challengers as she seeks a second term, according to local political insiders who spoke with JI.

In Minneapolis, Samuels, the former city councilman, is now making preparations to mount a second challenge to Omar, whom he came close to defeating in last year’s primary. He is likely to announce his campaign in mid-November after the municipal elections have concluded, according to a Democratic operative working on the launch.

The operative, who was granted anonymity to discuss private deliberations, said that Samuels is planning to intensify his focus on Omar’s foreign policy record as the war in Israel takes center stage — in contrast with the previous race, where he largely emphasized public safety concerns.

The evolving conflict could have a “huge impact” in local politics, the operative told JI. The war “erupted in a way where there’s sort of a good guy and bad guy,” the operative said. “That brings attention to the issue. Ilhan, generally speaking, is probably not on the right side of that.”

Meanwhile, Sarah Gad, a left-wing challenger to Omar who launched her campaign in July, is drawing contrasts on Israel as the three-term congresswoman has seized on the conflict to renew calls for conditioning military aid to the Jewish state, among other things.

“The horrific attacks suffered by the people of Israel in recent days make it clear that Israel needs to be able to defend itself and try to end this conflict as quickly as possible,” Gad said in a statement shared with JI, adding that “divisive rhetoric serves no useful purpose other than to inflame the situation.”

In a sharply worded statement to JI last week, Alexandra Rojas, the executive director of Justice Democrats, a progressive group that has helped elect far-left House members in recent cycles, defended the Squad’s approach to the war and questioned why other congressional lawmakers are not “being called on to also denounce the atrocities the far-right Israeli government is committing now and before against innocent Palestinians in Gaza.”

Bowman, who defeated a pro-Israel incumbent in 2020 with backing from Justice Democrats, is facing a credible primary threat from Latimer, the Westchester County executive and AIPAC favorite. While Latimer has indicated that he will make a decision about running next month, his recent comments on the war in Israel suggest he could be moving toward a challenge.

In a statement shared with JI last week, for instance, the veteran Democrat condemned a controversial pro-Hamas rally in Times Square that was endorsed by the New York City chapter of the DSA. Notably, his comments came shortly before Bowman himself weighed in on the demonstration, declaring that he was “shocked and disgusted by the rally” celebrating Hamas’ incursion. “We must proceed on the basis of recognizing our shared humanity.”

Bowman, a long-standing DSA ally who represents a large Jewish community in Westchester County, had been facing behind-the-scenes pressure to distance himself from the Times Square rally. The local branch of the American Jewish Committee had been in contact with his team as he remained silent in the days after the demonstration, according to a Jewish community activist who spoke anonymously to protect his privacy.

The activist, who had also urged a staffer on Bowman’s campaign to weigh in on the rally, said the congressman’s team had shared a version of the statement before it was published online early on Tuesday afternoon. The advance version, which was reviewed by JI, made a passing reference to the rally but was not as strongly worded as Bowman’s public comments.

“We need open discussion of the root causes of this conflict to eradicate violence once and for all,” the congressman wrote in the draft statement. “We need to acknowledge hard truths about how the occupation and blockade only aid oppression and violence. But if anyone is celebrating death or attacks on civilians, whether at yesterday’s NYC rally or elsewhere, I condemn that in the strongest possible terms.”

Bowman let his membership with the DSA lapse last year, according to a spokesperson for his office, even as a House staffer had privately made efforts to reassure the organization’s leadership that the congressman remained broadly aligned with its approach to Middle East policy. The weekend rally, however, appears to have been a breaking point with the DSA, which supported Bowman’s first campaign in 2020 but has more recently been at odds with the congressman over his positions on Israel.

Since condemning the pro-Hamas rally, Bowman has also denounced a racial justice group for endorsing Hamas and circulated text messages offering help to constituents with friends or family who are “stuck in Israel.” But Jewish community activists in his district say they are disappointed with how he has handled the conflict in Israel. The congressman is among a small group of Democrats, including other Squad members, who have refused to co-sponsor a bipartisan resolution expressing support for Israel and condemning Hamas’ attacks.

“As usual, he has shown tremendous insensitivity to his Jewish constituents and his constituents who are supporters of Israel,” said Justin Brasch, the Democratic president of the White Plains Common Council, who is among a group of Jewish activists interested in recruiting a viable primary challenger.

Brasch told JI that community members are “urging” Latimer to enter the primary, which recently drew a second Democratic challenger.

Latimer, who is planning to visit Israel next month with a delegation of elected officials sponsored by the Westchester Jewish Council, said in a text message to JI on Friday that he is “charting a steady course” as the “pot continues to boil” in Bowman’s district.

“I’ve run 17 times for five offices over the last 36 years. I know what’s involved. I’m no ingenue,” Latimer, a former state legislator, explained. “I’m mindful of the speculation that swirls about me and the parameters of what a race would mean. Others are jumping in. But whenever and whatever I’ve decided to do, I’ll do it full force.”

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