Israel emerges as flashpoint in Detroit-area race

Pro-Israel groups are backing state Sen. Adam Hollier amid concerns about state Rep. Shri Thanedar, who is self-funding his campaign

As the bitterly fought primary between Reps. Haley Stevens (D-MI) and Andy Levin (D-MI) continues in Michigan’s 11th District, and pro-Israel activists escalate their efforts to oust Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) in the 12th District, a third Detroit-area congressional seat is emerging as another battleground for pro-Israel forces.

United Democracy Project, the AIPAC-affiliated super PAC, has spent $3.1 million in Michigan’s 13th Congressional District in recent weeks to back state Sen. Adam Hollier — nearly as much as it has spent boosting Stevens in her more high-profile, member-on-member race. Hollier has also been endorsed by Democratic Majority for Israel.

The 13th District, which includes parts of Detroit and some of its suburbs, features a crowded nine-candidate field, and the exact direction of the race remains unclear.

Fundraising totals reported at the end of last month show state Rep. Shri Thanedar — an Indian immigrant and wealthy entrepreneur who has self-funded his campaign to the tune of $8.2 million — far ahead of the competition. Thanedar’s significant self-funding follows a pattern set in his failed 2018 Michigan gubernatorial bid, in which he spent $10 million, and his subsequent successful state House campaign. He initially pledged to spend $5 million on the congressional race but added an additional $3 million in June.

Some support for Hollier is partly driven by concerns about Thanedar’s stance on Israel. In May 2021, amid the conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, Thanedar co-sponsored a resolution in the Michigan House urging Congress to halt aid to Israel. The resolution described Israel as an “apartheid state” and accused it of “countless human rights violations.”

“Adam Hollier would be a strong supporter of the U.S.-Israel relationship in Congress,” UDP spokesperson Patrick Dorton told JI. “Shri Thanedar sponsored some very odious anti-Israel legislation [in] the Michigan statehouse.”

A UDP ad targeting Thanedar accuses him of “follow[ing] the Republican line.”

Thanedar has since attempted to walk back his support for this legislation and frame himself as a supporter of Israel, requesting in January, shortly after he announced his candidacy for Congress, to remove himself as a co-sponsor. Thanedar was initially poised to run against Tlaib before she switched districts.

In a policy paper, Thanedar writes that he will back “supporting Israel economically and militarily so they are able to defend themselves in a dangerous part of the world” and that “the United States must continue to strongly support Israel and the Israeli people.” He told JI he would not support any restrictions or conditions on U.S. aid to Israel. He also called for the U.S. to play an “active role” in bringing about a two-state solution.

State Rep. Shri Thanedar (Facebook)

Thanedar told JI in early June that his initial support for the resolution calling to end aid was “an emotional reaction” to last May’s conflict and said he had not been as focused on foreign policy issues until he began his congressional run.

“When I was formulating my Israel policy, I felt that resolution did not fit with, and upon more reflection, more reading, I felt that the language in there was not in line with my thinking,” he said. “It was a mistake.” 

“This is my policy and this is what I will work [on] in the United States Congress,” he added, referring to the stance laid out in his position paper.

In the paper, Thanedar declares his opposition to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, but also says that the U.S.’s Israel policy “must leave room for respectful debate.” 

He told JI that he did not support Michigan’s anti-BDS law barring state contracting with companies that engage in boycotts of Israel.

“There should be debate and there should be everybody’s First Amendment right to express their views and ideas on this,” he said. “Specific laws prohibiting business relationships [are] harmful overall, in my opinion.” 

But in an email two days later, he told JI he had not been familiar with the law — which JI described to him during the interview — and had subsequently researched it and was supportive.

“There’s a difference between expressing an opinion and actively taking steps undermining U.S. national interests, as companies engaging in BDS do,” Thanedar said in the follow-up email. “I support efforts to make sure we do not reward companies that decide to undermine our policy goals by engaging in BDS.”

During his gubernatorial run, Thanedar faced accusations that he was willing to change his political stripes for electoral benefit. Politico reported that Thanedar had discussed running as a Republican with multiple political consultants. They described him as “unsure of his own party affiliation and malleable about his political stances,” including being willing to adopt any position on abortion or gun rights that would enhance his chances of winning. Thanedar has denied these claims.

He also previously donated to the late Sen. John McCain’s (R-AZ) presidential campaign and attended a 2016 rally for Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-FL) presidential campaign — although the majority of his political donations have been to Democrats.

In late June, Thanedar introduced a resolution condemning antisemitism, including weekly protests at an Ann Arbor, Mich., synagogue, and urging state law enforcement to take action. He also told JI he had recently read Israeli antisemitism envoy Noa Tishby’s book Israel: A Simple Guide to the Most Misunderstood Country on Earth, which he said had been gifted to him by former AIPAC’s former president, David Victor, who is active in Detroit-area politics.

For his part, Hollier, who has mixed Black and Native American ancestry, told JI that this background gives him a “really unique” perspective on Israel policy. He compared the thorny issues in Israeli-Palestinian relations to “complex” questions about land rights and sovereignty for Native tribes in the U.S.

State Sen. Adam Hollier (Facebook)

“I think about the incredible grace that the Israeli government has tried to manage, and dealing with the complex issue of where is their nation, who are Israeli citizens, who are not Israeli citizens,” Hollier said. “These are the kind of issues that tribal governments are dealing with right now. It’s a huge issue, right?”

Hollier emphasized his support for both ongoing security aid to Israel, noting that terrorism threatens both Israeli and Palestinian lives, as well as a two-state solution. He urged both sides, with the U.S. as a driving force, to work toward tackling the specific issues and demands necessary for peace, rather than reiterating past “grievances.” 

He also said the U.S. is “doing a terrible job of humanitarian aid,” citing in particular Palestinians and “people on the African continent,” and called for overall spending to be increased.

“The way I look at this thing is that Israel has a fundamental right to exist. And every nation in this world could do a better job of taking care of the marginalized people that live in that space,” he explained. “And if we aren’t willing to have a conversation about both pieces, we can’t talk about the overall security.”

“The reason I care so deeply about the stability of Israel and why this is such an important thing is because I have a large Palestinian population [in the district],” Hollier continued, explaining that constituents are frustrated by “extremes from the right and the left” that have perpetuated the conflict because they are “committed to a continued movement of violence.”

His district includes Dearborn Heights, which has a significant Arab American population.

Hollier offered particular praise for Israel’s policies toward the LGBTQ community, particularly surrounding housing equity — the core domestic policy focus for his campaign. Hollier said that his views on Israel, as well as antisemitism domestically, have been shaped in part by his close friendship with fellow state Sen. Jeremy Moss, who is Jewish.

Moss told JI he and Hollier have been friends since serving together as staffers in the state legislature, and described Hollier as having been very supportive of him both as a Jewish and gay colleague.

“Adam doesn’t want to have anyone feel like they’re alone. And he doesn’t want anyone to feel like they don’t have a support system,” Moss said. “Adam has often said that as a Black person, he doesn’t have a lot of times where he can extend his privilege to another community. But when he can use it as a Christian, or he can use it as a straight person, he does extend that privilege to support others who are marginalized, others who are targeted.”

“He’s really just one of those people who always has come up to me and has said, Where do you need me? Where can I fill in a space? Where can I be a voice?” he continued.

Moss said he’d had increased discussions on Israel and foreign policy with Hollier as he pursued a congressional run.

“He really attached himself to this idea of a homeland, as an African American, recognizing what it’s like for a community to be kicked out of its homeland and the implications of diaspora and how you can lose your identity and feel lost amongst majority communities, and why that concept of a homeland is so critical to the Jewish identity,” Moss said. “He’s just become empathetic to the plight of Jewish people here in this country. He’s become very knowledgeable of the historical dynamics of Israel.”

Hollier said he has worked closely with Stevens, and compared himself to Reps. Ritchie Torres (D-NY) and Shontel Brown (D-OH), both favorites of mainstream pro-Israel groups. He also rattled off a list of several other lawmakers he admires, including Rep. Melanie Stansbury (D-NM), who has taken a more critical stance on the Jewish state, praising her work on Native American issues.

In fundraising at the end of the last quarter, Thanedar was trailed by Hollier — consistently a strong fundraiser for multiple quarters — with $926,000, nonprofit CEO Portia Roberson with $438,000, attorney Michael Griffie with $374,000, small business owner Adrian Tonon with $363,000 and former state Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo with $284,000.

Former City Councilmember Sharon McPhail and John Conyers III — son of longtime Detroit  Rep. John Conyers Jr. — trail with $70,000 and $69,000, respectively.

John Conyers III (Facebook)

Roberson did not respond to requests for comment.

A recent Detroit Free Press editorial, which endorsed Roberson, called her and Hollier “the top contenders.” A July 5 Free Press article about the race noted that Hollier has been running a “better organized” campaign than many of his rivals and said he “appears to have the wind at his back,” but concluded “it’s still hard to say” whether he’ll come out on top.

An early May poll by local firm Target Insyght painted a different picture. The survey found McPhail leading the field with 20%, followed by Conyers at 15% and Thanedar at 12%, with 25% of voters still undecided. No more recent public polling has been conducted.

Hollier came in at just 6% in that poll, trailing Roberson and Gay-Dagnogo, both at 9%. 

Ed Sarpolus, executive director of Target Insyght, told JI in late June that McPhail has strong name recognition in the district, but will need to remind voters of her previous service to clinch victory. Conyers, he said, has benefitted largely from name recognition, although his popularity has dropped, compared to a previous poll, as voters learned that his father, who represented Detroit for more than 50 years, is not on the ballot. Thanedar’s self-funding has allowed him to vastly outspend his rivals.

McPhail, the former Detroit City Council member, also described herself as supportive of aid to Israel.

“We have to protect Israel. The Israelis have been through quite enough,” she told JI in early June. Asked to elaborate further, McPhail added, “If you look at what’s going on in this country, it can happen again. There are people who hate people of color, hate Jewish people… You really do have to stay on top of that.”

McPhail did not express significant familiarity with the issue, but broadly indicated support for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “in a way that gives everybody something.”

Sharon McPhail (Facebook)

The former general counsel and director of Workforce Development for Detroit mentioned — unprompted — that she had had “some issues with a couple of organizations here in the city” in the Jewish community during her tenure in city government, surrounding changes to the city’s workforce development contracting procedures that stripped funding from some “non-performing” social services agencies.

While McPhail declined to offer further details, local media reports make reference to tensions between McPhail and Jewish Vocational Services (JVS) in Detroit relating to city funding. However, McPhail denied in 2011 that JVS had been “removed” from the funding program and said the agency had been high-performing.

Conyers, the son of the longtime congressman of the same name, served for a time as an intern at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C., under then-Ambassador Ron Dermer.

At the embassy, he worked on outreach to the D.C.-area Jewish community. He told JI that many of his friends growing up were Jewish, and he saw the internship as “another way of learning about my friends and their history and their community.”

He called the U.S.-Israel relationship “vital,” and said that “it is imperative that we do everything that we can to support Israel, full stop” and that he is “committed to helping ensure Israel’s right to exist.” 

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