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Amid criticism of other speakers, Lee cancels appearance at Muslim civil-rights group fundraiser

Summer Lee speaks to reporters.
Amanda Andrade-Rhoades
U.S. Rep. Summer Lee, D-Pa., speaks to reporters following a news conference at AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Amid a growing chorus of criticism, U.S. Rep. Summer Lee has canceled a planned appearance this weekend at a fundraiser for a Muslim civil-rights advocacy group.

Lee, who is in a contentious Democratic primary fight this spring, had been slated to appear at a Saturday night fundraiser for the Pennsylvania branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. But on Monday, a story in the Jewish Insider reported that other scheduled speakers had a track record of making antisemitic and homophobic statements.

In a statement Tuesday morning, Lee said that until that report appeared she had been unaware of those remarks.

"I do not condone or endorse any of the other speakers' previous comments," she said. "I have and continue to condemn antisemitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, and transphobia everywhere it arises. To prevent the Muslim community from being the target of any more politically-motivated Islamophobia and to ensure my Jewish and LGBTQ+ constituents know their concerns are heard, I will not be attending this event any longer."

The Insider reported that other speakers included a stand-up comedian who appeared to celebrate the Oct. 7 terror attacks on Israel by Hamas, and a spoken-word performer who accused pro-Israel public figures of "chucking and jiving for their Zionist masters." Keynote speaker Yasir Fahmy, meanwhile, said Israel's cause was backed by a "Zionist Israel cult" that had purchased the support of media outlets and elected officials and built up a "cadre of indoctrinated, brainwashed, hysterical followers."

Fahmy also has made remarks about LGBT people that are sharply at odds with Lee's own expressed views. In a half-hour speech viewed by WESA, he characterized homosexuality as a form of self-indulgence, and he complained about "crossdressers" reading books to children — a complaint analogous to many conservative Christian denunciations of drag-queen story hours.

"Why is that the Muslim community has resolved itself to being dissolved in this landscape of liberalism and secularism and progressivism?" he asked.

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Shortly after that roster came to light Monday, Lee's top Democratic rival this spring, Bhavini Patel, called Lee's decision to participate in the event "appalling" and said the congresswoman should withdraw from it.

"Summer Lee needs to cancel this appearance and apologize for agreeing to share a stage with these extremists in the first place," Patel said Monday.

Republicans went even further.

“Summer Lee says she rejects antisemitism but has yet to reject antisemites," said James Hayes, the Republican candidate hoping to challenge for the seat this fall. Lee's willingness to appear at the fundraiser, he said Monday afternoon, proved that her political rise was built on "trading on anger and resentment as her political currency.

"People need to draw their own conclusions about Summer Lee. She is making it disturbingly easy.”

Republican U.S. Senate candidate David McCormick called on her to resign and said his Democratic foe, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, should do likewise. (Democrats, however, noted that McCormick himself recently attended a conservative conference that reportedly attracted white nationalists, though they were not part of the formal event.)

But it wasn't just political foes who expressed misgivings about Lee's participation.

State Rep. Dan Frankel, whose district overlays Lee's and who served with her in the state House of Representatives, joined in a Monday-evening statement with other members of the Pennsylvania Jewish Legislative Caucus. The statement said in part, "Too many of our neighbors are already ... wondering if they must conceal their Jewish faith to be safe and free from harassment. They count on their representatives to lead by example and stand against all forms of hate. We have grave concerns about an elected official joining individuals who have made openly antisemitic comments and praised the actions of Hamas following the attacks of Oct. 7. We urge Rep. Lee to reconsider her participation in this event."

Gov. Josh Shapiro's office did not criticize Lee directly, but said in statement that "in the face of rising hate speech, leaders have a responsibility to speak and act with moral clarity. ... This hateful, antisemitic rhetoric cannot be tolerated — and it should be condemned, not elevated by our political leaders.”

In a race that has so far been dominated by a discussion over Israel, participating in the event was bound to be controversial.

CAIR is arguably the country's organization advocating for Muslim Americans, and it has long played a part in mainstream political discourse. Lee's statement Tuesday alluded to the fact that the fundraiser has been attended by other elected officials "to support our Muslim neighbors ... who are desperate to be heard by their own elected officials and feel supported at a time of rising anti-Muslim hate and violence."

CAIR has also been a lightning rod for criticism, however, and just last week Lee was answering questions about remarks made by its executive director of the Oct. 7 attacks. Nihad Awad said he'd been "happy to see people breaking the siege [to] walk free into their land that they were not allowed to walk in." He later said he'd been referring to civilians rather than perpetrators of the attacks.

Similarly, on Monday, the state chapter of CAIR posted that the remarks of Fahmy and other speakers had been taken out of context. It did not direclty respond to a query from WESA Tuesday morning about what additional context was needed to understand the statements. But in a statement it said Lee was "a friend of the Pennsylvania Muslim community and a vocal advocate of justice for people here and abroad, including Palestinians facing a genocide in Gaza.

“That is the real reason anti-Palestinian and anti-Muslim voices have harassed, bullied, and threatened Rep. Lee and others," it continued, "not concerns about mischaracterized personal remarks some speakers made years ago."

This story is developing and will be updated.

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.