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The Israel-Hamas war has become a defining issue of Lee-Patel Democratic primary for Congress

Summer Lee, Bhavini Patel and Laurie MacDonald.
Oliver Morrison
90.5 WESA
The three candidates, Summer Lee (right), Bhavini Patel and Laurie MacDonald, met with one of the organizers of the Barbara Daly Danko Political Forum before they squared off on Sunday.

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.

As America braces itself for the 2024 election, the polls will tell you that voters are most concerned about such issues as the economy, immigration, the survival of democracy itself. But in Pittsburgh’s most bitterly contested Democratic primary race, that’s easy to forget.

The campaign in Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District has been dominated by the war in Gaza, as first-term Congresswoman Summer Lee’s criticism of Israel has been attacked repeatedly. It was a defining issue in a candidates forum last month, and Lee’s chief rival, Bhavini Patel, raised it again this week.

Patel’s campaign blasted Lee for accepting a handful of donations from Palestinian activists who’ve drawn fire for remarks on Israel. Lee must “distance herself from these hateful, dangerous individuals by returning their tainted contributions,” Patel said in a statement.

Patel singled out donations from four people, including two leaders of American Muslims for Palestine and two involved in the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Both groups have been criticized by organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League, as have the donors themselves.

Zahra Billoo, who heads a CAIR chapter in California and gave Lee $350, gave a 2021 speech in which she warned about “polite Zioinists [who]t say, ‘let’s just break bread together,’” including Hillel campus groups and the Jewish Federation.

“Just because they are your friend today doesn’t mean that they have your back when it comes to human rights,” she said.

And in a speech a month after Hamas’ brutal Oct. 7 attacks on Israel, CAIR executive director Nihad Awad said he was “happy to see people breaking the siege [to] walk free into their land that they were not allowed to walk in.” Awad, a $500 donor to Lee, said that Palestinians had the right to defend themselves, while Israel, “as an occupying power,” did not.

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CAIR is a prominent longtime advocacy group. But Awad’s remarks brought a stinging rebuke from the Biden administration, which said it “condemn[s] these shocking, antisemitic statements in the strongest terms.”

For Lee to “accept] support from an individual who was condemned by the White House … was a significant break from the party,” said Patel’s campaign. The campaign statement said Lee “must immediately return this money and apologize for her decision to associate with these dangerous individuals.”

Lee didn’t endorse past utterances by donors: “If we say things that are concerning, we have an obligation to explain,” she told me this week. “I think that argument is for him to make.” (Awad has said that his remarks were a celebration not of Hamas’ butchery but of “average Palestinians who briefly walked out of Gaza” to set foot on land beyond the fence. “Some of my words … should have been clearer,” he added.)

But Lee made no apology for criticizing Israel’s conduct of the war, or for standing alongside Palestinians.

“We have talked a lot — and rightfully so — about antisemitism,” she said. But she said the discussion should also address “the impact of the war on Muslim or Palestinian-Americans,” who are losing their homes and loved ones.

She noted that the donations — $4,350 out of roughly $1 million Lee raised late last year — were a minuscule part of her fundraising, and she surmised that Patel’s campaign also had donors whose ideology the candidate doesn’t share.

Patel herself has taken some lumps from left-of-center media outlets for a fundraiser that included donors with ties to nationalist movements in India — coverage she and some supporters called Hinduphobic and “racially tone-deaf.”

Which raises the question: If it’s bigoted to fault Patel for the causes backed by some of her prominent Hindu-American supporters, is it fair to stick Lee with things her donors have said about Israel?

When I asked, Patel’s campaign said, “In the district that’s home to the deadliest antisemitic attack in American history, no one should ever accept support from individuals who amplify fringe, dangerous, antisemitic remarks.” Such statements “do not encourage dialogue” between groups, it said, but “suppress it by spreading fringe, dangerous, antisemitic tropes.”

Lee, for her part, said it is Patel who is “driving a wedge between communities that are grieving and scared, for her own political gain.

“We’re litigating over and over again, one policy difference,” Lee said, when “there are so many issues that impact people right here in Western Pennsylvania.”

Lee’s supporters expect that issue to draw in big pro-Israel groups such as AIPAC, which spent millions trying to defeat Lee two years ago and has suggested it will do so again. And regardless of their positions on Gaza, Democrats generally lament a political system in which huge political spenders can seek to drown out the voices of the community itself.

But the issue is also front and center in this election year for another reason: As Billoo put it in 2021, for many Palestinian activists, “There is no difference between domestic policy and foreign policy when it comes to our human rights.”

All across the country, the war in Gaza has become an issue for federal candidates and local officials alike, entering discussions of reproductive rights and the election of an Allegheny County executive. Even Allegheny County Council, a body not known for its relevance on the global stage, is being urged to back a resolution calling for a ceasefire in the conflict.

That advocacy reflects the existential stakes of this conflict for Palestinians, of course, but it isn’t making any Democrat’s election path easier.

Republicans have been going through a quieter foreign-policy debate of their own when it comes to Ukraine. Polls suggest that GOP voters were at least as enthusiastic as Democrats about helping that country fend off an invasion by Russia. As standard-bearer Donald Trump maintains his fondness for Russia’s authoritarian leadership, however, his base is now far likelier to say we have helped too much already.

But while Republicans seem willing to unite around the idea of turning their back on an ally abroad, the debate about the conflict in Gaza is dividing Democrats at home. And it’s not clear how, or when, it will end.

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.