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Summer Lee skips congressional speech by Israel’s president, but says there is no message behind it

Summer Lee at a microphone with campaign signs behind her
Rebecca Droke
Summer Lee campaigning in 2022.

This is WESA Politics, a weekly newsletter by Chris Potter providing analysis about Pittsburgh and state politics. If you want it earlier — we'll deliver it to your inbox on Thursday afternoon — sign up here.

On Wednesday, Congresswoman Summer Lee made the kind of speech that has defined her political career. At a House Oversight Committee hearing called to rake through the ashes of Hunter Biden’s reputation,she made a blistering speech that didn’t defend the Bidens so much as denounce the GOP for griping about a “two-tier system of justice” tilted against Donald Trump.

That phrase, Lee said, referred “to the very real system” of injustice, “which affects Black and brown folks, not powerful former presidents.”

It was the kind of truth-to-power moment that helped get Lee elected last year. But a challenge to her being re-elected in 2024 was also in evidence that day … and it had to do with a statement she arguably tried not to make.

Wednesday was also marked by a speech from Israeli President Isaac Herzog to a joint session of Congress. The speech itself was anodyne: Herzog affirmed the friendship between the two countries while acknowledging there could be criticism of “the imperfections of Israeli democracy.” But well before he spoke, there was controversy about the fact that some of Lee’s progressive allies in Congress decided not to attend — a gesture of protest of Israel’s policies toward Palestinians.

Lee herself had tried to play down speculation about her own plans, telling reporters days before the speech that she’d given no thought to whether she’d attend. Ultimately she didn’t show — though her office insisted there was no message being sent.

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Lee didn’t attend, spokesperson Emilia Rowland said in a statement, because she “was preparing for a particularly contentious Oversight Committee hearing where she had to fight back against MAGA Republicans attacking the President’s family and engaging in other vile conspiracies.”

Lee’s critics likely won’t believe that. But if nothing else, the statement was a marked contrast to how Lee handled a similar address by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi last month. Lee publicly called out Modi then for stifling press freedoms and political dissent, and for encouraging extremist nationalist groups.

“We are not true allies if we cannot push our partners to uphold basic human rights and religious freedoms,” she said.

Before joining Congress, Lee was a state representative — a position that doesn’t often require taking positions on the Middle East peace process or human rights in India. But questions about Israel dogged her 2022 election, based largely on a pair of tweets she’d written objecting to actions by Israeli police, and boosted by a pro-Israel political committee that spent millions attacking her. (Notably, the ads themselves didn’t mention Israel at all, focusing instead on criticism that Lee is too far to the left.)

And the day before Herzog’s speech, House Republicans brought up a resolution voicing total support for Israel. The move followed Washington Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal’s characterization of the country as a “racist state” — a characterization from which she quickly backed away in the face of blistering criticism. That measure passed by a 412-9 vote, with Jayapal herself voting “yes.” Only Lee and a small group of the House’s most left-leaning members voted “no.”

The resolution asserted that Israel “is not a racist or apartheid state,” and that “Congress rejects all forms of antisemitism and xenophobia.” Further, it added, “the United States will always be a staunch partner and supporter of Israel.”

In explaining her vote Tuesday, Lee asserted, “I condemn antisemitism and xenophobia in all its forms.” But a statement from her office accused Republicans — which it referred to as “the party of ‘Jews will not replace us’” — of treating anti-Semitism as “a political football.”

Lee’s statement didn’t offer an opinion on whether Israel is an apartheid state. (When she was asked the question during the campaign last year, she said, “I don't necessarily know that I know the answer to that.”) But it quoted her saying, “We are not true allies if we cannot push our partners to uphold basic human rights and democratic values” — language almost identical to her critique of Modi a month before.

Republicans, the statement charged, were demanding “unconditional support for the Israeli government” at a time when the country’s “future as a democracy depends on pressure and accountability.”

Lee is apparently not the only person to think so: Since winter, Israel itself has been rocked by protests regarding an effort by Herzog’s allies to weaken the court system, with some members of its military joining in.

But that seems unlikely to impress Republicans. James Hayes, a Republican who plans to challenge Lee next year, issued a statement after the vote demanding Lee “leave the political margins and stand against the thinly coded antisemitism of colleagues … who have united in opposition to the only democracy in the Middle East.”

“It’s time she got on the right side of history,” Hayes added, “and stood with a nation whose enemies have sought to eradicate it from the day it was founded.”

In Lee’s solidly blue district, the larger threat would be from a Democratic primary challenger, whose efforts conservative pro-Israel groups could bolster again. That could happen: I reached out to a few representatives of those groups on Wednesday and didn't get a response. But Democratic insiders confirm that representatives of AIPAC, who spearheaded many of the attacks on Lee last year, are prospecting for potential challengers.

Of course, Lee has withstood such attacks before, and she can respond to controversy about Israel by citing her work on behalf of the Jewish community at home. Her office touts, for example, her efforts to secure federal funds to treat trauma from the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, and the trial of the man convicted for it.

Lee is no stranger to struggle: Her rise in politics has been tied to a pledge to work for those who’ve been on the losing end of it. But as with so many conflicts over the Middle East, the debate on Israel feels like the kind of fight in which every battle merely sets the stage for the next.

Updated: July 21, 2023 at 10:36 AM EDT
Clarification: This story was updated at 10:35 a.m. on Friday, July 21, 2023 to attribute some remarks about Lee's vote on a pro-Israel resolution to a statement from her office, rather than Lee herself.
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.