How Ayanna Pressley shifted her stance on Israel

'When you attack one of us, you attack all of us,' the Boston congresswoman said in 2019, after two Squad members were denied entry to Israel. Last week Pressley voted against Iron Dome funding.

After a bill calling for $1 billion in additional funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system overwhelmingly passed the House of Representatives last week by a vote of 420 to 9, members of the Boston Jewish community are grappling with the fact that Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) — who upon first entering Congress in 2019 was seen as a supporter of the Jewish state — was one of just nine members to vote against the measure. 

Jeremy Burton, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, has known Pressley, who served on the Boston City Council until her election to Congress, for years, and has previously defended her pro-Israel bona fides in the face of attacks from the right. But Burton told Jewish Insider that last week’s vote was a “severe disappointment.”

“It is self-evident to anybody observing her statements and votes that Councilwoman Pressley, congressional candidate Pressley and Congresswoman Pressley in her first six months in office are not the same person, in their perspective and approach to the U.S.-Israel relationship, as Congresswoman Pressley is in the fall of 2021,” Burton said. 

In a statement, Pressley explained her vote against the bill was related to the process, criticizing the speed with which the measure was brought to the House floor. “If we can’t move with urgency on critical domestic spending in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic, there’s no reason we should move this way on military spending,” Pressley said

“It is self-evident to anybody observing her statements and votes that Councilwoman Pressley, congressional candidate Pressley and Congresswoman Pressley in her first six months in office are not the same person, in their perspective and approach to the U.S.-Israel relationship, as Congresswoman Pressley is in the fall of 2021,” Burton said.

And while she stated that she had no objections to the Iron Dome technology, she did not say whether the U.S. should take a role in funding it or supporting it. A spokesperson for Pressley declined to offer additional information about her views on Iron Dome.

“It is Israel’s prerogative to protect its residents through the use of the Iron Dome, I take no issue with that responsibility or sacred task, it is one of the fundamental roles of a sovereign state,” Pressley said in the press release. “But this is not the way Congress should consider an unprecedented $1B in funding above and beyond what’s called for in the 2016 Memorandum of Understanding with Israel.”

Pressley was elected in 2018 after an insurgent primary campaign that unseated 10-term incumbent Rep. Michael Capuano (D-MA). Shortly after her election, Pressley became closely associated with the “Squad,” a group of four left-leaning legislators — all women of color — elected the same year.

But unlike Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), Pressley at first took a more moderate stance on Israel-related issues in the House. Soon after her election, JTA published a story titled “How we got new House Rep. Ayanna Pressley wrong on Israel,” and wrote that “Pressley’s views on Israel differ little from the long-serving Democrat she unseated in the primary.”

When she got to Washington, Pressley stuck to these positions — for a time. In July 2019, she was the only one of the four Squad members to vote to condemn the BDS movement, despite receiving criticism from some on the left. 

“What I heard resounding in [the] community was that voting yes on this resolution affirmed to my constituents raised in the Jewish faith Israel’s right to exist, a view I share as a supporter of a two state solution,” Pressley tweeted at the time. 

Now, it appears to some observers that Pressley would sooner criticize Israel for its treatment of Palestinians than speak of her support for the country. In May, as tensions between Israel and Hamas in Gaza flared during an 11-day conflict, she delivered a fiery speech on the House floor condemning U.S. aid to Israel.

“Many say that ‘conditioning aid’ is not a phrase that I should utter here, but let me be clear. No matter the context, American government dollars always come with conditions,” said Pressley. “The question at hand is should our taxpayer dollars create conditions for justice, healing and repair, or should those dollars create conditions for oppression and apartheid?”

New relationships

What changed between Pressley’s 2019 vote condemning BDS and last week’s vote against Iron Dome funding?

“Only when she arrived in Washington did she enter into a relationship with Palestinian women and expose herself to a different perspective than the one she was coming in with,” said one progressive member of the Boston Jewish community who knows Pressley but asked to remain anonymous to share details of private conversations. Pressley’s 2018 campaign had focused on issues related to vulnerable women and children in Boston.

“Since getting elected, she has chosen to narrow her perspective on who she’s in relationship with and elevate one particular perspective on what it means to stand up for victims of violence that doesn’t allow for a relationship with the Jewish community to inform who she’s giving voice to,” said Burton. 

It was after that July 2019 vote that Pressley met with local progressive Jewish activists who are critical of Israel. 

“We reached out, just expressing some disappointment [about the anti-BDS vote], and she actually responded [by] asking for a meeting,” said Kayla Neumeyer, a volunteer organizer with the Boston chapter of IfNotNow. “The communities that I’m in were also pretty disappointed in the vote. We saw it actually as not necessarily being aligned with her positions on the ability to boycott and free speech.” 

“We were expecting a conversation with her staffers, which I think would have been great. We just wanted to be in more communication with her office. But [Pressley] did come to the meeting, and actually she stayed for a long time,” said Neumeyer. Pressley “hadn’t heard from everybody and she really wanted to listen to us.”

This meeting appeared to be significant for Pressley, who began attending IfNotNow events in Boston shortly thereafter. She spoke at a 2019 Hanukkah party the group hosted at a brewery in Jamaica Plain and called herself a “sister in solidarity” with IfNotNow activists. “Really every vote since that 2019 bill has been in support of Palestinian rights,” Neumeyer said. 

L-R: NAACP President and CEO, Derrick Johnson, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, political strategist & CNN political commentator Angela Rye, Rep. Ayanna Pressley, Rep. Ilhan Omar, and NAACP Chairman Leon W. Russell, pose for a photo after the NAACP town hall during the Congressional Black Caucus Foundations (CBCF) 49th Annual Legislative Conference (ALC), addressing the 2020 census, voting rights, and the upcoming presidential election. (Photo by Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

“She publicly aligned herself with our movement, so I think it was a pretty transformative relationship,” Neumeyer added. “For us, it was really amazing seeing her commitment to listening to her constituents and expressing views that were aligned with her other positions on human rights, including her focus on racial justice and civil rights struggles.”

Even when Pressley was first campaigning, she offered a hint that she would not stick to all the same policies as her then-opponent. As a candidate, she said she supported a bill from Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) that would regulate U.S. aid to Israel to ensure that it not be used for the “detention and mistreatment of Palestinian children.” Capuano had opposed the bill, saying he did not think it “presents a balanced account of the continuing tragedy of the Israel-Palestinian conflict.” 

Pressley’s views at the time were largely aligned with those of J Street, although J Street’s affiliated political action committee never endorsed Pressley. Her campaign website in 2018 delineated her positions on other Israel-related issues. She expressed support for a “two-state solution that will safeguard Israel’s future as a Jewish and Democratic state, and establish a sovereign and independent Palestinian [state],” and described herself as opposed to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. Her current campaign website does not mention Israel at all. 

Her vote against the supplemental Iron Dome funding last week seemed to place Pressley to the left of J Street, which supported the measure. But J Street’s Vice President of Communications Logan Bayroff told JI that the organization respects Pressley’s vote, and pointed out that she voted to advance $3.3 billion in funding to Israel earlier this year.

“While we have a different view than Rep. Pressley on this, we respect that she and a number of her colleagues have legitimate concerns about the process and rationale behind the request to appropriate this large amount of additional money for Iron Dome at this time,” Bayroff said. “We are appalled by hyperbolic attacks that seek to present Rep. Pressley and her colleagues who did not vote for this supplementary appropriation as anti-Israel or somehow sympathetic to terror.”

Pressley spoke at J Street’s virtual conference in April, telling participants, “J Street, I am grateful. I’m grateful for you. I’m grateful for your partnership and for your advocacy for the Biden administration to embrace a foreign policy doctrine that centers the humanity and dignity of all people.”

Sticking with the Squad

Around the time of her meeting with IfNotNow, Pressley was beginning to show signs that she was moving toward the other Squad members’ positions on Israel.

In August 2019, weeks after her vote condemning BDS, Pressley was outraged when Omar and Tlaib were barred from entering Israel by then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Former President Donald Trump urged Netanyahu to shut down their visit, and Netanyahu obliged, arguing that Omar and Tlaib’s support for boycotting Israel meant they should not be allowed in the country. 

“When you attack one of us, you attack all of us. Netanyahu is stoking division and punishing dissent just like the occupant of the White House,” Pressley said in a statement at the time. “We should reevaluate our relationships with any country who seeks to ban Americans and threatens the safety of anyone, including government officials.” 

“I think that did have an impact,” Neumeyer argued. “It definitely showed the orientation of the Israeli government towards members of Congress. And I think that those are her colleagues and she stands with them, and she thought that was a pretty big blunder.”

In December 2019, the House voted on a resolution reaffirming American support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Pressley joined Omar, Ocasio-Cortez and Tlaib in voting against it — the only Democrats to oppose the measure. 

On multiple occasions in 2020, Pressley spoke about her opposition to potential Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank, and in August of last year she co-sponsored a bill that would stop U.S. aid to any Israeli areas of the West Bank annexed by the Israeli government. IfNotNow commented on her actions at the time, praising her evolution on the issue.  

“We’re very proud of her position in this letter!” said a tweet from IfNotNow in June 2020, after Pressley signed onto a letter addressed to then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo from Ocasio-Cortez warning Israel against annexation. “We’ve been grateful to have developed a relationship with Congresswoman Pressley (she came to our Hannukah party). She comes from community of activists and understands how our struggles are tied together.”

In May 2021, when Pressley gave a speech on the House floor condemning Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, IfNotNow circulated an open letter defending her, signed by close to 200 members of groups including Never Again Action, a Jewish group that protests Immigrations and Custom Enforcement, and the anti-Zionist Jewish Voice for Peace. 

Community ties

For many of Pressley’s backers in the Boston pro-Israel community, last week’s vote on Iron Dome funding was an especially painful blow. 

After the vote, the Boston JCRC released a statement with eight other local JCRCs (the first time, in Burton’s memory, that any JCRCs have released a joint statement) praising Congress for passing Iron Dome funding. The locations of the nine JCRCs to sign on corresponded to the districts of the nine members who voted against the bill.

“We want to make sure that members who really took a terrible vote [last week] did not pretend that some of their communities were less upset than others,” Burton noted. “There was truly wall-to-wall — in our community — clarity about the importance of a vote in favor of this funding.”

“Why on earth would this issue emerge in the midst of, every other day headlines on the Uyghurs, or headlines on the [Rohingya] in Myanmar,” Shrage questioned. “Why would this emerge, of all the different problems in the world?”

Andrew Tarsy, a social impact consultant and supporter of Pressley’s who served as executive director of the Anti-Defamation League’s New England office until 2008, said the congresswoman’s vote against the Iron Dome funding did not concern him, noting that she expressed her support for Iron Dome even when she voted against it.

“I don’t see the vote this week as an ideological issue that has to do with Israel. I see it as a responsible member of Congress finding her feet and finding her voice about an ad hoc vote to spend a lot of money on something that she’s already been supportive of,” Tarsy said, who argued that she should not be expected to align herself entirely with the Jewish community.

Pressley “doesn’t have to be thinking about [Israel] the way the Jewish federations think about it,” Tarsy noted. “She has a very broad constituency. She has her own mind and her own access to experts, and she has a different opinion than some people in the Jewish community. Why is that such a controversial thing?”

But Barry Shrage, who led Combined Jewish Philanthropies in Boston, the city’s federation, for three decades, views Pressley’s singling out of Israel among other foreign policy issues as concerning. 

“Why on earth would this issue emerge in the midst of, every other day headlines on the Uyghurs, or headlines on the [Rohingya] in Myanmar,” Shrage questioned. “Why would this emerge, of all the different problems in the world?”

Pressley’s 2018 candidacy did not garner major endorsements from within the Boston Jewish community, perhaps because she was taking on an entrenched incumbent and did not appear to have a chance of winning. No Democrat ran against her in the 2020 primary, and she won 86% of the vote in the 2020 general election. 

Sam Strong, Secretary of the Red Lake Nation (L), hands out tobacco to Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO), Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), and State Sen. Mary Kunesh (D-MN) near the headwaters of the Mississippi River where the Line 3 Pipeline is being constructed on September 4, 2021 in Park Rapids, Minnesota. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

“No one I know in the Jewish community was involved in her race at all,” said Shrage, who added that “there were people who were hopeful” about her campaign.

One of Pressley’s close advisors in her first campaign was Alex Goldstein, a Democratic strategist who runs a Boston-based communications firm called 90 West. After her vote last week, Goldstein tweeted that he did not speak to her about the Iron Dome issue and that the pair had last spoken several weeks ago when she attended his father’s shiva. (When reached by JI, Goldstein declined to comment.)

Burton also has not spoken to Pressley since the vote, but said he has talked to a number of her supporters in the Jewish community.  

“There are people in our community who have been supporters and friends of hers, throughout her career, who have in the last 24 hours exclusively expressed disappointment to me and, I believe, are communicating that disappointment to her,” Burton said last week. 

Still, he acknowledged that his organization, which works on a range of local issues including poverty reduction, public education and refugee resettlement, will continue to work with public officials regardless of their approach on Israel.

“Nine members of Congress voted to align themselves with those who demonize Israel and deny Israel’s right to defend its civilians from terrorist attacks. That has to impact anyone’s understanding of how we relate to those members,” Burton explained. “That does not mean that we stop caring about a whole range of other issues, and that we don’t care about our relationship with all of our public and civic leaders.”

Nevertheless, Burton cautioned that the Jewish community’s reserves of tolerance are not limitless when a member of Congress votes against pro-Israel policies.

“We have to have some self-respect in how we approach public officials who don’t show us a lot of respect.”

Subscribe now to
the Daily Kickoff

The politics and business news you need to stay up to date, delivered daily in a must-read newsletter.