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Pittsburgh Jewish leaders call on Summer Lee to 'exercise better leadership' on Israel

State Rep. Summer Lee, who is seeking the Democratic Party nomination for Pennsylvania's 12th District U.S. Congressional district, speaks to supporters before being endorsed by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., during a campaign stop in Pittsburgh, Thursday, May 12, 2022.
Rebecca Droke
FR171725 AP
Summer Lee speaks to supporters in a campaign appearance in May 2022.

More than three dozen Jewish religious leaders issued a public letter Tuesday expressing “frustration and anger” stemming from U.S. Rep. Summer Lee’s position on Israel’s response to Oct. 7 terror attacks by the Palestinian group Hamas.

“We call on Rep. Lee to exercise better leadership and join her colleagues in upholding the moral obligation for Israel to protect its citizens against Hamas,” said the letter.

It faults her specifically for two actions she’s taken in the U.S. House of Representatives in recent days: On Oct. 25, she cast one of just 10 votes against a bill that asserted the House “stands with Israel as it defends itself against the barbaric war launched by Hamas and other terrorists.”

Prior to that, she joined with a number of other progressive House Democrats to support a resolution calling for a ceasefire in Gaza — a resolution, the letter asserted, that “does not mention Hamas terrorism … and asserts a false equivalence between victims of savage terrorist butchery and the tragic deaths of those Palestinians whom Hamas uses as human shields."

The letter’s 40 signatories include rabbis and cantors from the city and suburbs, and they represent a cross-section of Jewish movements, ranging from Orthodox congregations to more liberal Reform communities. They conclude the letter by saying they “welcome the opportunity to speak with Rep. Lee.”

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Lee’s office said Tuesday that she planned to participate in such a meeting. And while she didn’t offer a formal response Tuesday, Lee has previously sought to explain the actions criticized in the letter.

In a statement after the Oct. 25 vote, she faulted the resolution in support of Israel not for what it said but for what it didn’t say: “This resolution does not acknowledge the overwhelming loss of life and humanity of Palestinians, which move us further from — not closer to — a just and lasting peace.”

The ceasefire resolution does not mention Hamas by name, observing only that “armed violence has claimed the lives” of both Palestinians and Israelis, as well as of Americans. But Lee herself has decried the actions of the group, asserting that “the violence Hamas unleashed in Israel, particularly the horrific kidnapping and killing of over a thousand innocent civilians and children, is horrifying, unjustifiable, and must be condemned.” She previously called for Hamas to release hostages it held “and end the violence against civilians once and for all.”

Lee’s Congressional district includes Squirrel Hill, home to one of the state’s largest and most prominent Jewish communities. Questions about her position on Israel have dogged her career from the early days of her 2022 run for Congress.

Lee’s ties to fellow House progressives have previously drawn the ire of AIPAC, a political committee that staunchly defends Israel from critics. And although she fended off millions of dollars in attack ads from the group last year, the issue has surfaced repeatedly during her term.

In July, Lee did not attend a speech by Israeli President Isaac Herzog and also spurned an earlier resolution voicing unqualified support for Israel: She cited concerns about Israeli policies that are also hotly debated within Israel itself.

Lee already has a rival for the 2024 Democratic nomination in Bhavini Patel — a race that has drawn national media attention as the conflict in Israel has brought such issues to the fore.

Patel has criticized a social media post in which Lee originally circulated claims that Israel struck a Palestinian hospital — claims that U.S. intelligence agencies have since disputed. Lee later acknowledged the claim was in doubt, but Patel said Lee had “recklessly chosen to spread disinformation."

While Lee has questioned Israel’s actions in the Middle East, she has expressed solidarity with Jewish constituents in her district. On Tuesday, she responded to an outbreak of antisemitic graffiti in Squirrel Hill with a statement in which she said, “I condemn these actions in the strongest possible terms” and pledged “to fight back against hate and ensure our Jewish community feels safe and protected.”

And she offered a resolution of her own earlier this week, regarding the Oct. 27, 2018, Pittsburgh synagogue shooting that was the worst act of antisemitic violence in U.S. history.

“The use of antisemitic language, conspiracy theories, and hatred has increased,” it reads, adding, “the rise in antisemitism is part of a growing trend in hate-fueled violence against marginalized communities."

Corrected: November 1, 2023 at 9:44 AM EDT
This story was updated at 9:45 a.m. to correct the number of signatories on a public letter to U.S. Rep. Summer Lee.
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.