AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
How an Illinois congressional race has become a circular firing squad with Israel in the center
Three primary contenders have strong and differing views on America’s approach to the Middle East
Illinois’ 3rd congressional district is a grouping of predominantly Catholic neighborhoods in Chicago’s west and southwest suburbs, where this spring’s primary elections are widely seen as a referendum on affordable health care and women’s reproductive rights.
And yet, Israel has become a campaign issue in the district’s Democratic primary. In recent months, challengers to Rep. Dan Lipinski — including Marie Newman, who lost to Lipinski by a razor-thin margin in 2018 — have gone after the eight-term congressman for his support of the Jewish state. Lipinski and Newman, joined by two newcomers, will face off again in the state’s March 17 primary. The winner will potentially go up against Arthur Jones, a former member of the American Nazi party, who ran on the GOP line in 2018 and is again on the ballot.
The way Lipinski tells it, his support for Israel was never a contention point until his opponent, Marie Newman, turned it into one last cycle by reaching out to the large Arab community in the district and weaponizing the topic against him.
Newman emphatically rejects the allegation, insisting that Lipinski is out of touch with constituents, some of whom she says want the Israel-Palestinian conflict addressed, and by her.
“Newman decided, because of my support for Israel, that reaching out to Palestinians was a good way to gain votes in the district, so in doing so she decided to make support for Israel an issue in the election,” Lipinski told Jewish Insider.
“The Arab community came to me and said, ‘Marie how do you feel about this?,” Newman told JI. “The reality is that Dan will take any opportunity to accuse me of anything, so his words are pretty hollow right now,” she said.
Lipinski pointed to comments by Rep. Ilhan Omar, deemed antisemitic by many, and said Newman “continues down the same road.” Newman, Lipinski said, has “embraced every so-called progressive position, and unfortunately in the past year we have seen even more that the progressive position has become anti-Israel to some extent.”
Newman, whose husband is Jewish, shrugged off the allegations and branded his remarks “highly inflammatory and salacious,” adding, “whenever he quotes this stuff I just say ‘poor Dan.’ It’s so sad and desperate.”
A third candidate, Rush Darwish, hopes to champion the district as the first Palestinian-American from Illinois in Congress. He told JI that among the district’s large Palestinian community, the conflict “was always an issue, except Lipinski ignored it — that’s the difference.” Lipinski “turned a blind eye on the Palestinian American community,” Darwish whose family roots stem from the West Bank, said.
A fourth candidate, Charles Hughes, was a late entry to the race and has not garnered significant support.
An issue across the ocean hits close to home
For most voters, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is as geographically far away from the streets of Illinois as it is mentally.
But it is of deep importance to some. A majority of the 110,000 Arab American residents of the district are Palestinian. The Jewish population is tiny, one of the lowest in the region.
Both groups make up a small fraction of the overall demographics where a myriad of ethnicities — mostly of European and Latino descent — coexist.
Israel supporters are watching this race because there is a fear, somewhat inflated according to analysts and community members to whom JI spoke, about the direction the Democratic party is taking. They say that progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s endorsement of Newman brought extra attention to the district.
Additionally, past remarks by Darwish during his time as a radio host and segments of Newman’s position paper on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have made some pro-Israel advocates nervous.
In 2015, Darwish told a guest on his radio show that he sounded “like you are praising the Israeli people and the Jewish civilization as if they are great people.” Darwish told JI his comments were taken out of context and apologized for his choice of words, which he said should have been phrased differently and aren’t reflective of his views.
Newman stressed that all issues need to be agreed upon in negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, and that the U.S. should play a strictly supportive role, not dictate policy. In her position paper, she wrote that Palestinians “whose homes in Israel and the Palestinian territories were lost as a result of the conflict have the right to reside in Israel or Palestine and that the resolution of the conflict should include a fair and just resolution of the rights and aspirations of Palestinian refugees and Palestinians in the diaspora in accordance with UN Security Council resolutions.”
In October, several presidential candidates made waves when they suggested conditioning aid to Israel based on its policies toward the Palestinians, a position Newman backed. “The U.S. has a responsibility to examine how aid to Israel is used and that we should ensure that this aid is not used to support actions and policies that undercut our values.” She said aid should not “support the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Israeli blockade of Gaza.”
In August, Lipinski spoke out against Israel’s decision to not allow Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) to visit last August.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict isn’t the only controversial issue.
In January, Darwish’s camp sent a statement to JI accusing Newman’s campaign chairwoman Shadin Maali of “actively soliciting support from Abbas Hamideh, a known pro-Hezbollah activist…” in Cleveland “in order to consolidate Arab-American constituencies” in Newman’s favor.
Newman’s team dismissed the charge it said was designed “to distract from comments Darwish has made in the past about Jewish people.”
The art of the Iran deal
Darwish and Newman also break from Lipinski on the issue of Iran. Both said they believed in the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal and pledged to support rejoining the agreement if elected. “The decision to withdraw from the JCPOA has made us more likely to go to war, and the Trump administration’s military provocations have brought us to the brink of conflict,” Darwish said. Newman echoed those concerns, calling the decision to pull out of the agreement “dangerous.”
Lipinski said he voted against the nuclear agreement with Tehran because he believes “it wasn’t a way to peace, it was a way to more destabilization by Iran in the region, as we have seen, we gave money and essentially in many ways a green light to Iran to continue its expansionist policy, its terrorism.”
“I have always been a strong supporter of Israel,” Lipinski said. “I have never backed down from my support because I believe supporting Israel, supporting the strengthening of the U.S.-Israel relationship is good not just for Israel, it’s good for the Middle East and it’s good for the United States and so as long as that is the case I will continue to do so,” he added.
In 2018, the race was viewed within some circles as a symbolic confrontation between two pro-Israel groups — AIPAC and J Street — with different approaches to Israeli policy because of the main contenders’ positions and supporter groups.
Tensions came to a head after a Newman commercial. “Her campaign created a video that directly went after me, attacked me for opposing BDS,” Lipinski said. “I have helped introduce legislation to oppose BDS. The video talked about outside interest groups putting money into races and named AIPAC right after that. About a week after Newman put that video up, her campaign took it down and edited out some of those parts in there,” Lipinski said.
Newman, who was endorsed by the liberal group J Street, said she wasn’t aware of the content before it aired and ordered it be taken down and edited because she “felt it was wrong and inflammatory” as soon as she learned of it. “I do not support the global BDS movement period,” Newman said, adding she does support the right of an individual to engage in it if they choose.
AIPAC as an institution does not endorse candidates.
Observers said the clip ruffled feathers and prompted some voters to back Lipinski.
Darwish wasn’t part of that melee. But he unequivocally supports a boycott of Israel. “I support BDS because as an American, I believe in equal rights. I believe that Palestinians in the region should enjoy the same rights as their Israeli counterparts,” he said.
Progressives vs. moderates
Social issues, both on the local and national levels, remain the focus of this race.
Lipinski, who assumed office in 2005 after replacing his father, longtime Rep. William Lipinski, on the ballot, voted against Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act and more recently, as a strong pro-life advocate, joined some Republicans seeking the Supreme Court revisit the landmark Roe vs. Wade decision that legalized abortion in 1973.
“Ultimately that is a sign as to how disconnected Dan Lipinski is from his own party,” Darwish said. “I absolutely support the women’s right to choose,” he said.
Newman said she is “a hundred percent pro-choice” and “in alignment” with residents of the third district. “They are real Democrats that want a real Democrat with a real plan. People are desperate to have support for working-class families and the middle class and that is what I plan to do,” she said.
Lipinski says he is a proud Democrat and “commonsense problem solver.” He brushes off the criticism, saying his beliefs are well-known and widely representative of the values held by many in his district.
“I am not a rubber stamp in Congress. So, it depends on the issues,” he said. “I have been willing to stand apart, and my constituents throughout my career have rewarded me and appreciate the fact I have been someone who will focus on them and the good of the country first,” he said.
John Mark Hansen, professor of political science at the University of Chicago, explained that Lipinski is a traditional Democrat of the type common a few decades ago, but which have declined in numbers as the party and society have changed.
He said that in today’s climate, Lipinski “is very much on the right-hand side of the party and is one of the people who votes least often with the House leadership.”
Newman’s campaign has “capitalized on the way the party is changing, on the notion of Lipinski’s position on social issues,” Hansen said, pointing out that the district is more conservative-leaning than many of the urban districts represented by Democrats.
He said disputes between and within the parties about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict reflect similar differences among political factions in Israel and debates within the wider Jewish community.
Hansen said the “close embrace” between the current U.S. and Israeli governments means that “Palestinians are looking and seeing there is a friendlier alternative” in Democratic candidates.
General election showdown
Regardless of the outcome of the March 17 primary, it is unlikely that voters in the district will turn out en masse to support Arthur Jones, the Republican congressional candidate aligned with the American Nazi movement who, after a failed attempt in 2018, is again running to be on the ballot in November.
The composition of IL-03 — Democrats make up roughly 60 percent of voters — makes it likely that the district will remain blue, which is one of the reasons Jones ran unchallenged in 2018. This year, he is competing with two others for the nod.
“Clearly there has been across the board, universal condemnation of Arthur Jones,” Republican Jewish Coalition Executive Director Matt Brooks told JI, noting that the RJC, the Republican National Committee and the Illinois Republican Party had all condemned Jones. “There should be no question about where we stand or the party stands with regards to Jones. He is antithetical and repugnant to the very values, the core values of the Republican Party and we categorically denounce his candidacy.”
In the past few days, a website identifying as Jones’s campaign indicated he will be entering the fray against Lipinski on issues relating to Israel. The site’s messaging focuses on foreign aid to Israel as well as Christian life in the Middle East, and appears to target Catholic voters in the district.
Jones’ run in 2018 horrified the Jewish community and embarrassed GOP leaders who strongly condemned the white supremacist and called on the public not to vote for him. He garnered some 27 percent of the vote that year.
“The good news is he lost. The bad news is he still got 56,000 votes,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which worked to generate awareness about Jones. “Arthur Jones will go to his deathbed an absolute Jew-hater and Holocaust denier,” Rabbi Cooper said.
With just under two months to go until the primary, it’s still unclear how much of an impact Israel as a campaign issue will have in this race.
“Even though Jewish and Muslim voters are smaller components of the electorate in this district, these issues are – of course – very, very important to many of them. And I actually think it is a strength of the American political system that every group – no matter how big or small in numbers – has the opportunity to advocate for their positions,” said Sean Tenner, a Chicago-based Democratic political consultant not aligned with any of the district’s primary campaigns.
“The media often looks for any hint of controversy on issues related to Israel. But most congressional races in the United States are not, in the aggregate, fought around these types of issues,” he said, adding that most focus more on local matters. “What we really have here is a complicated matrix of views and values that voters will take into the polling booth on election day.”
“It can make politics maddening but that is also what makes it endlessly interesting and exciting,” Tenner said.