Pocan pokes Israel — but where are his constituents?

Pocan’s constituents have noticed the Wisconsin congressman has, in recent months, wagered a significant share of his political capital on Middle East issues

Last May, as mounting tensions over Israel reached a climax within the Democratic Party, Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI), the veteran lawmaker who had recently concluded a two-term run co-chairing the Congressional Progressive Caucus, stepped into the fray as an unofficial ringleader among the vocal contingent of high-profile House members who have forcefully criticized the Jewish state.

With competing factions of mainstream and far-left lawmakers poised to address the escalating conflict between Israel and Hamas in a series of unusually acrimonious floor speeches, Pocan took action to ensure his side would not be outdone as he organized an hour-long special session that would amount to an extraordinary rebuke of America’s closest ally in the Middle East.

“No one should have to face the reality of missiles shot at them,” Pocan said in his introductory comments before yielding the microphone to 10 House Democrats who took turns castigating Israel’s actions. “Hamas is causing great danger to the very people it purports to want to protect in Gaza by doing so, and those missile attacks should be condemned.”

Having dispensed with such concessions, he moved on to his central thesis. “But that doesn’t make it a both-sides issue,” Pocan declared, decrying Israeli government policies that he described — echoing a sentiment voiced by several hard-left colleagues — as reminiscent of apartheid South Africa. “We must acknowledge and condemn the disproportionate discrimination and treatment that Palestinians face versus others in this region.”

Back in his home district, which includes the state capital of Madison as well as its surrounding suburbs, Jordan Loeb, a criminal defense attorney and local Jewish community activist who has previously helped raise money for Pocan’s campaign, watched with dismay as the congressman delivered his assessment.

“I just remember it was this really passing reference to the minimum standards that people shouldn’t be blowing up pizza parlors and whatnot and an awful lot of acknowledgment of the Palestinian right to self-determination, which I wholeheartedly support, but no sober assessment of what that actually means,” Loeb said in an interview with Jewish Insider last month. “Then, quick in the condemnation of Israel.”

The hour-long floor session was a “wake-up point” for Loeb, who says he has grown wary of Pocan’s combative posture toward Israel, even as they are otherwise in agreement on a host of progressive causes. “I always try, when I hear criticisms of Israel, to be disciplined enough that, before I react, I ask myself, is it bothering me because somebody outside of the tribe is saying it and I don’t trust that it’s coming from the right place, or is the content itself problematic?” he mused. “I’ve realized that my reaction to Pocan goes along the lines of a little bit of both.”

Following Pocan’s demonstration this past spring, Loeb found himself grappling with a nagging question that remains unresolved, not least because of what he described as a “generalized discomfort” with political headwinds that suggest even balanced support for Israel is now largely unwelcome in progressive circles. “I’m like, ‘Alright, Mark, so what’s your policy here,’” Loeb recalled wondering at the time, “‘or are you just trying out for one of the seats that’s adjacent to the Squad?’”

Loeb isn’t alone among Pocan’s constituents in noticing that the congressman has, in recent months, wagered a significant share of his political capital on Middle East issues as he forms alliances with such prominent Israel critics as Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and others who make up the tight-knit coalition of powerful lawmakers on the left that is informally known as the Squad.

But while his profile has risen on the national stage, Pocan’s investment in the conflict is garnering mixed reactions at the local level as he risks alienating some Jewish community members who have either supported him or sought engagement in the past but now suspect that his political allegiances have led him astray on Israel and the Middle East.

“It is a very fraught subject, I would say, and an important one, because Mark seems to be key to that left progressive group in the Democratic Party,” David Kopstein, a retired rabbi in Madison, said in an interview with JI. Over the past few years, Kopstein has, on occasion, written emails to Pocan’s office regarding such issues, which he says have gone unreturned. He stopped voting for Pocan in 2020, he said, because of the congressman’s association with some House members who, among other things, have called for boycotting the Jewish state.

Richard Landay, a flavor chemist for Kerry Ingredients who lives in the congressman’s district, said he appreciates Pocan’s advocacy on a range of issues, including that the congressman, who is gay, has positioned himself as a strong supporter of LGBT equality. “But I don’t like his approach with Israel,” he said. “I’m surprised that Pocan, as smart as he is and as caring as he is — because I get the sense that he cares about a lot of stuff — doesn’t look back and understand the whole history,” Landay told JI. “I think a lot of people who have his stance don’t understand the whole history.”

“It has been striking how much Pocan has been developing a kind of national policy profile that even goes beyond his district,” said Barry Burden, a professor in the department of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “He’s become a player.”

Despite such disagreements, others expressed more favorable views that suggest the local Jewish community in deeply progressive Madison is, in some ways, reckoning with its own internal divisions over Pocan’s approach.

Rabbi Jonathan Biatch of Temple Beth El, a Reform synagogue in Madison with a congregation of approximately 600 families, described Pocan’s position as “one of engaging, being involved, looking at the needs of all the parties that are there and actively trying to make the United States into a just and equal broker in this process,” as he summed it up in an interview. “I think the majority of members feel similarly.”

“He has been unafraid to speak his mind on this,” Matthew Rothschild, the executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, in Madison, and the former longtime publisher of The Progressive magazine, told JI, while praising the congressman as “more courageous than any other Wisconsin elected official” in his lifetime on matters pertaining to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “He speaks from his conscience.”

In a recent interview, Pocan said he has long felt as if his positions have put him in somewhat rarefied political territory. “I’ll be honest,” the congressman told JI. “I’m in a bit of a weird, lonely place.”

***

Whatever the verdict, the range of opinions underscores the manner in which Pocan has established himself as something of a progressive figurehead whose input on a range of issues is shaping broader policy initiatives within the party. 

Now in his 10th year in federal office, Pocan, 57, entered the national spotlight last fall while participating in high-level negotiations over President Joe Biden’s sweeping social spending package that is currently stalled in the Senate. The five-term congressman, who took office in 2013, stepped down from his position atop the House Progressive Caucus in January of 2021 but still holds an emeritus role and continues to lead its influential political action committee.

“It has been striking how much Pocan has been developing a kind of national policy profile that even goes beyond his district,” said Barry Burden, a professor in the department of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “He’s become a player.”

Beyond his public criticism of Israel, Pocan has, since the May flare-up in Gaza, assumed an increasingly central role in high-profile legislative debates over American foreign policy in the region. Days after his floor speech, for instance, he led a joint resolution with Tlaib and Ocasio-Cortez expressing fierce opposition to a $735 million weapons sale to Israel. The effort was renewed in September as the trio of lawmakers introduced an amendment to the national defense bill that would prohibit the transaction over Israel’s military actions during the conflict.

Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI)

In early November, Pocan visited Israel and the Palestinian territories on a widely publicized five-day congressional delegation sponsored by J Street, the left-leaning Israel advocacy group. “We will be watching to make sure no violence occurs this weekend or anytime,” Pocan wrote in social media comments after visiting the Palestinian village of Susya in the West Bank. The congressman posted a photo of himself alongside Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) and the Palestinian activist Nasser Nawajah, with whom they discussed “Israeli settler violence to his village,” as Pocan wrote in his Twitter missive.

The group of Democratic lawmakers also met with several high-ranking Israeli officials, including Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and President Isaac Herzog. “When he got around to me, he said, ‘You’re the guy who criticizes Israel,’” Pocan recalled of his interaction with Herzog in a recent video interview with the journalist Peter Beinart. “I had to tell him, ‘No, no, actually, you know how sometimes when you have a friend you can say things to them differently because they’re your friend? I’m saying things to you as a friend as opposed to someone we may not know.’”

Throughout his time in Congress, Pocan has occasionally broken ranks with hard-left Democrats on Israel issues. He is against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting Israel, for example, and, in 2019, voted in favor of a resolution affirming support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which was rejected by four Squad members. 

To the surprise of some observers familiar with his efforts to place conditions on American military assistance to Israel, Pocan was, perhaps most notably, among the vast majority of Democratic House members who voted in favor of $1 billion in supplemental funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system, which passed the House by an overwhelming margin, 420-9, this past September — despite vocal opposition from a small handful of Israel critics with whom the congressman is often aligned. 

Such gestures have indicated that Pocan is carving out a path for himself that has at times been distinct from his allies on the progressive left as he balances relationships with a diverse cross-section of Jewish groups at the state and national levels that have his ear, including nonprofit organizations in Madison as well as J Street and Jewish Voice for Peace, the far-left advocacy outfit that supports the BDS movement.

While he has taken heat from pro-Israel advocates, Pocan said he has also faced criticism from the far left for some perceived indiscretions, including his Iron Dome vote. “For some folks who are watching this maybe for the first time in their life, who have come on to this in the last year or two,” he said, “a lot of those folks are some of the most vocal against Iron Dome because they’re just tired of how we’ve had our policy.”

“I have this kind of finessed position, because my main goal is to make sure we don’t have to send American men and women over there in order to risk their lives,” Pocan reasoned, without specifying what kind of scenario would necessitate such an outcome. “I also want to make sure that we have humanitarian conditions and we don’t have loss of life there.”

In conversations with JI, local Jewish leaders applauded Pocan’s support for the Iron Dome, which he says he has long regarded as a vital “de-escalation” tool, while commending his advocacy on a range of constituent-oriented issues that are mostly unrelated to foreign policy, such as combating antisemitism and resettling refugees in the district in partnership with Jewish Social Services of Madison.

Still, some Jewish community members have expressed reservations that, at least when it comes to Israel, Pocan’s more supportive votes have not been reflected in his public engagement on the conflict, according to Jeremy Tunis, an executive committee member with the Jewish Federation of Madison who sits on the organization’s board of directors.

During the federation’s most recent meeting with Pocan, hosted at its headquarters last August, Tunis recalled that some in attendance had raised concerns that the congressman has not gone far enough in either distancing himself from or publicly renouncing instances of inflammatory anti-Israel rhetoric espoused by some members of the Progressive Caucus, including from Tlaib and Omar.

“In the privacy of that meeting, he definitely expressed that he had spoken to them,” Tunis said, though he declined to elaborate aside from noting that Pocan had suggested “he tries to be a bridge between such members” and the White House in order to “resolve occasionally rough patches” when they have emerged, including on Israel.

According to a source who was present at the meeting but asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitive nature of the discussion, attendees presented Pocan with specific quotes from some members that they have found problematic, including Omar’s suggestion, in 2019, that support for Israel is “all about the Benjamins,” which was widely viewed as antisemitic. 

Pocan made clear that he did not share the sentiment expressed by Omar, for which she has since apologized, and that such rhetoric was unhelpful, but he was unaware of other comments that were brought up during the discussion, according to the attendee. In the meeting, the source told JI, Pocan also suggested that because English was not Omar’s first language — she was born in Somalia — her comments may sometimes come out in ways that she had not intended.

Matthew Handverger, a spokesperson for Pocan, told JI via email that the congressman “doesn’t recall exactly” the details of the discussion. “It’s consistent with what he’s said,” Handverger added. “He was likely saying it as a way to diffuse unwarranted anger towards Rep. Omar.”

Notwithstanding such tensions, Tunis emphasized his appreciation that Pocan, unlike some left-wing lawmakers who have resisted engagement with organized Jewish community members in their districts, has remained open to constructive feedback throughout his congressional tenure. “I think he wants to do the right thing,” Tunis said, “to balance a lot of competing interests here in the district and nationally.”

***

In the interview with JI, Pocan acknowledged that he had spoken with local Jewish community leaders in Madison this summer. “When I met with them most recently, they’re like, ‘We just wish you’d tweet more,’” he said, “and I did a tweet to make them happy.”

Though Pocan said he could not recall the specifics of the request, he dismissed the matter as relatively inconsequential because his conversations with the federation have, he explained, focused more on domestic issues than foreign policy. “I think there’s some individuals who may have some political leanings,” he told JI. “But that’s not necessarily the mission of that group, which is probably why they don’t reach out as a group very often to me on those things.”

The congressman said he is “very comfortable” with his approach, “because that means I’m probably doing my job the best for someone who looks at this as an outsider.”

Throughout his time in Congress, Pocan has remained active on matters pertaining to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, even as he has upped his engagement over the past year or so. In 2017, he was the lone congressional sponsor of a Capitol Hill briefing “on life for Palestinian children under Israeli military occupation,” as an invitation characterized the event. The following year, Pocan signed a joint letter calling on Israel to allow members of Congress into Gaza after his request for entry had previously been denied during a delegation to the West Bank. In 2019, he was among 17 House Democrats who voted against a resolution condemning BDS. 

Still, Pocan, who previously served as a member of the Wisconsin State Assembly between 1999 and 2013 — where he earned a reputation as something of a bipartisan workhorse — had yet to hash out his views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before he arrived in Washington. “When he first got to Congress, I don’t think he had a strong position one way or another related to Israel and Palestinian issues,” said Jeff Spitzer-Resnick, a progressive attorney who chairs J Street’s Madison chapter and has known Pocan for years. “I think he’s always been, both domestically and internationally, a human rights activist.”

Then-Wisconsin State representative Democrat Mark Pocan (R) getures as he argues with Wisconsin Speaker of the House Jeff Fitzgerald (L) during a session of the Wisconisn State Assembly at the Wisconsin State Capitol on March 8, 2011, in Madison, Wisconsin. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Pocan describes Madison’s activist community as rather engaged on human rights issues, with sister cities in such far-flung locales as East Timor, Cuba and El Salvador, among other places. One organization has, to some controversy within the district, also long proposed that Madison adopt a formal sister city relationship with the Palestinian city of Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip. “I wound up taking on lots of issues that involve human rights in various places around the globe,” Pocan said.

But even as the congressman has devoted his attention to a number of humanitarian issues, including the war in Yemen, he has often demonstrated that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is among his top priorities. Out of just four international delegations that he has traveled with since entering the House, Pocan said that three have been to Israel and the Palestinian territories. (The other was to Japan.) In what has long been something of a rite of passage for freshman House members, Pocan first visited Israel during his inaugural year in Congress, with an AIPAC-affiliated group. 

He made his second trip in 2016, when he participated in a congressional delegation to the West Bank that was hosted by the Humpty Dumpty Institute, a nonprofit public policy organization in New York.

Joseph Merante, the executive director of the Humpty Dumpty Institute, described Pocan as “among the hardest-working” elected officials with whom the group has engaged. “I remember him asking for the most briefing papers, and also he was pushing to do as many appointments a day as possible,” said Merante, who noted that under House ethics regulations, lawmakers who participate in international delegations are required to fill their days with at least six hours of work. “He was actually asking for nine, 10, 11 hours of appointments,” Merante recalled. “He didn’t want to take any breaks.”

Still, Pocan returned from the trip frustrated that his request to visit Gaza had been denied. He has since vowed, so far unsuccessfully, to enter the region one way or another — even if, as he has indicated, that means entering by way of Egypt. 

“We have a moral imperative to have a better grasp of what’s going on on the ground,” he said. “I’ve often taken on issues that, if people aren’t paying attention to them, someone needs to, and in this case, I think, for a very long time, especially when I first got into Congress, no one would question anything about human rights,” particularly for the nearly 2.1 million people in Gaza, he said, who live in “some of the worst humanitarian conditions on the planet.”

Pocan said the new coalition government, which he praised for its diversity, will likely face some challenges when it comes to resolving the conflict. “It’s easier probably to pass a budget than it is to deal with the Palestinian-Israeli issue,” he said.

During his most recent trip to the region, with J Street, Pocan said he made a request with the Israeli government to visit Gaza, which is controlled by Hamas, but was denied once again, an experience he characterized as inexcusable. In the coming months, Pocan said he will be “cranking up the heat on” the issue. “I think it’s absolutely incredulous that they’re telling members of Congress we’re not allowed to go somewhere where we’re funding both in Gaza and in Israel.”

He plans to take direct action through the House Appropriations Committee, where he is a sitting member, by introducing legislation that, he suggested, would provide him with more leverage. “It’s just saying, anywhere on the globe, if we’re giving funds, which we’re happy to do in many areas, you can’t deny a member of Congress access who’s trying to have oversight functions on the funding,” Pocan said. “Otherwise, I’m going to start saying you don’t fund something if you do get denied,” he added, “because that would be the next logical step.”

All in all, he said his recent visit had left him feeling deflated about the prospects for a two-state solution. “I’m probably more pessimistic than I’ve ever been,” Pocan told JI, “looking at the difficulties on the ground to getting toward the peace that, I think, we all want.”

Though he is relieved that former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is no longer in power, Pocan said the new coalition government, which he praised for its diversity, will likely face some challenges when it comes to resolving the conflict. “It’s easier probably to pass a budget than it is to deal with the Palestinian-Israeli issue,” he said.

“It was a rough period when you had Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump,” he recalled. “We all know that. It was a period that made it very difficult, and I guess I’m grateful that that time period is done. But seeing the regression that’s happened during that time period also makes me concerned.”

Pocan is also skeptical that the Palestinian Authority (PA) is capable of rising to the occasion. “The PA doesn’t seem to have a grasp over the Palestinian people, clearly,” he said. “Hamas is the elected, I guess, for lack of a better word, leadership in Gaza, but what I really heard was [that] May brought an uprising of young people who really care, but it’s not coordinated by an individual or organization. It’s just kind of an organic uprising. But that doesn’t necessarily tie into Hamas or the PA. That means, without some greater organization, I don’t know what those next steps are.”

“It’s really on both sides of the conflict,” Pocan concluded, “that I think there’s difficulties moving forward.”

***

Pocan, who has no immediate plans to return to the region, has found a receptive audience among many of the politically active voters in his district who are dedicated to Palestinian causes. 

Last month, Pocan hosted an hour-long virtual question-and-answer session in which he fielded inquiries about his recent trip to Israel from constituents who expressed overwhelmingly positive assessments of his involvement on the issue. The congressman has said he has received more than 1,000 emails supporting his efforts, far outweighing the estimated 165 messages sent to him from those on the other side of the issue.

Even voters who were randomly surveyed by JI, on an afternoon early last month in downtown Madison, expressed not only an awareness of Pocan’s approach but support as well. “He represents us,” Glen Reichelderfer, a pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Waukesha, who lives in the district, said in an interview, noting that Pocan is in many ways continuing a longstanding tradition of progressive foreign policy activism that extends back to the late former Rep. Robert Kastenmeier (D-WI), an early opponent of the Vietnam War. “There’s a big heritage of that here.”

But some Jewish community members, who take issue with Pocan’s views but would nevertheless appreciate conversations with the congressman, have suggested that such advocacy seems to have come at the expense of direct outreach. 

Rabbi Betsy Forester of Beth Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Madison that caters to some 280 households, said she has felt relatively little engagement from Pocan, despite her “attempts to nurture a relationship, or at least conversation.” Shortly after moving to Wisconsin about three years ago, Forester recalled meeting with the congressman to discuss his approach to Israel. “I found him to be concerned for the plight of the Palestinians, as am I,” she said. “However, I did not perceive him to be concerned for Israel, which troubled me.” 

During the May conflict, Forester added, three of her family members wrote to Pocan individually, “based on his tweets showing only concern for the Palestinians and no support for Israel.” The rabbi, for her part, also reached out to request a “response and dialogue,” but neither she nor her family members received a response, she said. “I do not hear members of my community talk about Mr. Pocan’s views or any relationships they may have with him,” Forester told JI, “even during animated conversations about the Israel-Palestinian conflict.”

“There’s a multitude of opinions,” Pocan said of the pushback he has received from some voters. “However, the vast majority, and by vast I mean, like, 80%, falls pretty closely aligned to the way I talk about the issue.”

Such support, he argued, is indicative of a broader national trend in which younger, left-leaning members of Congress who are critical of Israel have found acceptance as public opinion “has significantly moved around human rights in the region.”

“I think you’ve seen that with newer members of Congress, even, that aren’t the Squad,” Pocan said, adding that “more people are paying attention.”

With that in mind, Pocan may benefit from a built-in level of wiggle room on such issues, even as his positions have drawn scrutiny from local Jewish community members who, at an estimated population of 5,000 or so, only make up a fraction of the district. 

“Clearly, Pocan feels comfortable and safe politically tilting left,” said Mordecai Lee, a professor of urban planning at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee who previously served in the state legislature. “He’s following, generally, where the gentile left has been going.”

For his part, Jordan Loeb, the attorney in Madison who watched Pocan’s recent floor speech with a sense of alarm, said he believes the congressman is, broadly speaking, “a good representative.” He plans to vote for him in the upcoming midterms, where Pocan is up for reelection and is expected to secure another term.

But for the moment, at least, he longer views the congressman with as much enthusiasm as he was once capable of summoning. 

“I don’t think he’s saying the right things if he wants to keep the pro-Israel contingent of progressive Jews,” Loeb told JI. “He’ll get the progressives that are anti-Israel. He’s not going to get the conservatives. But we’ve got a couple of big races going on in the state right now, so I have a limited amount of money that I contribute to politics, and I’d prefer to write checks to charity, frankly. Where it comes down to is, how eager am I to write another check to Mark Pocan?”

Join with a free membership to continue reading

Jewish Insider covers U.S. politics, philanthropy and business news with a Jewish angle.

What We’re About: We are here to bring you new ideas and information. We’re not advocacy news. We’re not here to confirm your views or challenge your beliefs.

JI delivers a curated morning newsletter, the Daily Kickoff, which provides an overview of the news, buzz and stories that matter. The Daily Kickoff is distributed on weekday mornings.