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Israel emerges as issue in Pennsylvania's 12th Congressional District race

Patrick Crow, center with flag, and his brother Andrew, left, of Pittsburgh, attend a peace vigil in support of Israel at the Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh, in Pittsburgh, Friday, May 21, 2021.
Gene J. Puskar
Patrick Crow, center with flag, and his brother Andrew, left, of Pittsburgh, attend a peace vigil in support of Israel at the Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh, in Pittsburgh, Friday, May 21, 2021.

They say all politics is local. But in the Democratic contest to replace retiring Congressman Mike Doyle — a race in which candidates often seem to differ more in terms of their biographies than in their policies – a debate regarding Israel looms larger than foreign policy questions typically have. And it reflects tensions for Democrats nationwide.

Locally, the seeds for that tension were planted months before Doyle opened up the race by announcing his retirement last fall. In May 2021, as another round of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians was underway, state Rep. Summer Lee posted a pair of tweets that drew parallels between Israel’s policies on Palestine and George Zimmerman’s justification for fatally shooting unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012.

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“When I hear American pols use the refrain ‘Israel has the right to defend itself’ in response to undeniable atrocities on a marginalized pop,” she posted, “I can't help but think of how the west has always justified indiscriminate & disproportionate force & power on weakened & marginalized people.”

Now, Lee has emerged as one of the top candidates in the race to replace Doyle; polling by an allied group has her as a front-runner. But such statements were bound to attract notice in the 12th Congressional District, which includes Pittsburgh's longtime Jewish community hub of Squirrel Hill. The tweets surfaced last fall in a Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle interview with rival candidate Steve Irwin, who is Jewish and has been active in groups such as the Anti-Defamation League.

The Chronicle story asserted that Lee's Tweets "have been understood by some as anti-Zionist and antisemitic."

Lee has noted that the tweets were the only ones she posted about Israel, and she has said they were in response to a confrontation between Israeli police and Palestinians at the al-Aqsa Mosque during a 2021 uprising after the eviction of Palestinians from their homes. Police used water cannons and crowd-control munitions after a ceremonial meal to mark the end of Ramadan: Palestinians accused Israel of a “sinful” storming of a holy site, while Israel said rocks had been thrown at police.

The Chronicle story didn't identify anyone who felt Lee's tweets were anti-Jewish, and even some Irwin supporters seem wary of accusing Lee of antisemitism.

Attorney Jeffrey Letwin, who has long been active in both the Jewish committee and in Pittsburgh civic leadership, is backing Irwin in the race. He said support for Israel is a key issue for him, ranking only behind voting rights as his biggest concern.

Even so, he said, “There’s no basis for accusing [Lee] of anti-Semitism,” he said. “The concern is if she is our representative, Israel would be faced with someone who is not as friendly as Steve would be.”

Beyond the tweets, Letwin and others say they worry that, if elected, Lee would align herself with “the Squad” — a group of high-profile female House members who have brought a newly progressive voice to the Democratic caucus. The group includes Congress’ only Palestinian-American member, Rashida Tlaib; she and Ilhan Omar were the first Muslim women to be elected to the body. Lee’s tweets last May echoed pleas by Squad members to consider the plight of Palestinians in last spring’s conflicts.

At a Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh forum earlier this month, a moderator questioned Lee about how closely she agrees with some Squad beliefs, such as Tlaib’s contention that Israel is an “apartheid regime” — one in which one ethnic group maintains power by oppressing another.

Lee said she "absolutely" supports Israel’s right to exist and favors continued U.S. aid to the country. But she said that such aid “should be conditioned for all of our allies” as part of the effort to export democratic ideals abroad.

“We have to ensure that we protect against illegal annexation of Palestinian lands [and] the demolition of Palestinian homes" among other actions, she said.

Asked by the moderator whether Israel was an apartheid state, Lee showed a rare moment of uncertainty: “I don't necessarily know that I know the answer to that,” she responded. She said she hoped to be a “listening partner, somebody who doesn't have a personal stake but has friends and community members who have personal stakes” on both sides of the issue.

The Irwin campaign seized on those remarks. "Under no circumstances can we condition aid that jeopardizes Israel's fundamental right to exist,” his campaign said in a statement to WESA. “We can't allow that kind of reckless disregard for our allies and the lives of their citizens into Congress."

'People walk on eggshells'

The shifting political dynamic reflects changing views of the Middle East among the electorate. Polling suggests that while Americans still have a positive view of Israel — its principal ally in the Middle East and a robust democracy — sympathy for Palestinians is rising among Democrats in particular. Voices like that of advocacy group J Street, which argues thatsupport for Israel should do more to take into account the condition of Palestine, now square off with longstanding pro-Israel hardliners such as the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, which holds that U.S. support for Israel must be “ironclad.”

In a campaign-finance report filed last week, Irwin reported that he raised nearly $269,000 from individuals whose support was bundled together by and contributed through AIPAC. That’s nearly half of the $615,000 Irwin raised in the first quarter of 2022. And it accounts for much of his fundraising advantage over Lee, who raised $302,000 in support between January and March.

A spokesman for AIPAC’s political arm said the group backs Irwin “Because of his strong commitment to advance the U.S.-Israel relationship as a Member of Congress.”

J Street, meanwhile, has given its stamp approval to Lee, hailing her as "a strong supporter of 'a diplomacy-first approach to foreign policy, centering human rights,'" and quoting her support for “the special relationship between Israel and the United States, particularly as Israel became the expression of Jewish people seeking safety and self-determination."

J Street also backed University of Pittsburgh law professor Jerry Dickinson, who was first to enter the race. The organization’s political committee hailed Dickinson for urging the U.S. to “play an even-handed and unbiased role in the resolution of the Israeli and Palestinian conflict.” It hailed his own position as similarly balanced, saying both that he was “concerned by the expansion of Israeli settlements” into Palestinian areas while opposed to allowing Iran to developing nuclear weapons — a crucial concern for Israel.

And not all Jewish voters see Israel the same way. Danni Klein, for one, said that if anything, he wished Lee had been more supportive of Palestinians in her Federation remarks.

“There's nothing antisemitic about calling on a government to respect the human rights of people living under its control, regardless of their race or religion,” said Klein, who has been active in the local chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace. Closer to home, he said, Lee “recognizes that the real threat to everyone in this district — especially minorities like Jews and Black folks — is white supremacy.”

Klein noted that despite fears of the Squad’s influence, little has changed to slow down the flow of aid to Israel, or to reverse decisions such as former President Donald Trump’s relocation of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.

“Nothing a member of Congress has done is going to impact those things, unfortunately,” Klein said. At most, he said, Lee “will be one of a few emerging voices that are asking us to take a closer look at our policy. And from my perspective, that's necessary.”

“Any time anybody speaks about Israel, people walk on eggshells,” said Karen Hochberg, who has long been active in Jewish community groups and chairs the 14th Ward Independent Democratic Committee. “But I have never found Summer Lee to be antisemitic, and I don’t believe she is somebody the Jewish community couldn’t approach to hear their point of view.”

The 14th Ward group, which is separate from the local Democratic Party apparatus and whose membership centers on Squirrel Hill, endorsed Lee. Hochberg herself said she backs Dickinson in the race, “but it’s not because of Israel.” She said economic fairness issues — such as raising wages — are paramount, as is the need to diversify representation in Congress. And intra-party attacks don’t help, she said.

“Democrats undermining Democrats,” she said, “is not going to save democracy.”

Corrected: April 20, 2022 at 9:15 AM EDT
This story was updated to note that Summer Lee and Jerry Dickinson are both supported by J Street.
Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.