rabbis respond

Pittsburgh-area rabbis sign open letter denouncing Rep. Summer Lee over anti-Israel rhetoric

Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of the Tree of Life Congregation signed the letter

Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Rep. Summer Lee (D-PA) attends the House Oversight and Accountability Committee hearing titled "Overdue Oversight of the Capital City: Part II," on Tuesday, May 16, 2023.

More than 40 rabbis and cantors in the Pittsburgh area have signed on to an open letter voicing their continued disappointment with Rep. Summer Lee (D-PA) over her criticism of Israel amid its war with Hamas in Gaza, and accusing the congresswoman of using “divisive rhetoric” that the clergy members say they “have perceived as openly antisemitic.”

“Last fall we wrote to you with concerns about your rhetoric and votes in relation to the events of October 7 in Israel, the subsequent war and the rise in antisemitism in America,” the signatories write in their letter, which was first shared with Jewish Insider on Monday. “You graciously agreed to meet with us, and in that meeting you promised us that you would call out antisemitism and temper your own language.”

“Sadly, three months later, you have not followed through on those commitments,” say the authors, including Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of the Tree of Life synagogue in the heavily Jewish neighborhood of Squirrel Hill.

The letter comes a week after Lee, a prominent Squad member who represents a sizable Jewish constituency in Pittsburgh, announced she had canceled a planned appearance at a fundraising banquet for a leading Muslim advocacy group featuring several speakers who have espoused antisemitic and homophobic views.

Her initial decision to join the event alongside speakers who had rejoiced over Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks and called Israelis “demons” who lie to “cover their horns,” as JI first reported last week, had faced intense backlash from Jewish leaders and elected officials in Pennsylvania who denounced the event.

In a statement shared on social media last Tuesday, Lee said that she had chosen to pull out of the banquet, hosted on Saturday by the Philadelphia branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, “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 have worked my entire life to bring these communities together, and I will continue to do so,” she added.

But her explanation was unsatisfactory to the dozens of Jewish clergy members who have long felt that Lee has failed to adequately address their concerns about rising antisemitism and growing hostility toward Israel, particularly in the wake of Oct. 7.

The new public statement shared by the Jewish leaders, which follows an open letter from late October that led to a meeting with Lee the next month, underscores how their frustrations have continued to mount.

Even as the Jewish leaders acknowledge that Lee withdrew from the CAIR event, their letter states that she has “so far been unwilling to denounce the hatred and ugly language coming from the keynote speakers” who were invited to the banquet — which drew criticism from Gov. Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, and the chairs of Pennsylvania’s Jewish Legislative Caucus.

Meanwhile, the letter raises related concerns that Lee has accepted campaign contributions from some pro-Palestinian activists who have “voiced virulently antisemitic sentiments” about Israel, including CAIR’s executive director, Nihad Awad, whose comments celebrating Hamas’ attacks were condemned by the White House in December. 

“So easily you have criticized campaign contributions to others; the time is now to hold yourself to the very same standard you seek from others,” the clergy members write to Lee, who has also faced pressure from a top primary challenger, Bhavini Patel, to give back the donations. “We call on you to denounce antisemitism fully and frequently, including returning contributions and declining support from those who have voiced hateful views.”

Lee, for her part, has distanced herself from Awad in particular but otherwise ignored calls to return the contributions. A spokesperson for Lee did not respond to an email from JI seeking comment on Monday evening.

In late October, weeks after Hamas’ invasion of southern Israel, the rabbis and cantors had first shared an open letter expressing their “frustration and anger” over Lee’s support for an immediate unilateral cease-fire, which the authors had called “grotesque.”

Their letter also took issue with Lee’s decision to oppose a widely backed House resolution standing with Israel and condemning Hamas, and called on the freshman congresswoman “to exercise better leadership and join her colleagues in upholding the moral obligation for Israel to protect its citizens against Hamas.”

Though the new letter, which largely includes the same signatories as the first one, states that Lee pledged to condemn antisemitism and tone down her rhetoric on Israel when she met privately with several of the Jewish leaders last November, the authors claim that she has not lived up to those promises.

“Since that meeting, you have continued to use divisive rhetoric, which, at times, we have perceived as openly antisemitic,” the authors say. “You have continued to oppose measures before the House of Representatives which condemned antisemitism, and you have continued to call for an unconditional cease-fire from one side of the conflict, a position which devalues the lives and beliefs of one group.”

Despite their frustrations, the clergy members conclude their letter expressing a commitment to continued communication.

“We, like you, want a just and fair end to the hostilities,” the authors conclude. “We believe that the best result will come from open commitments to new behavior, to an end to division, and to a commitment to care for and protect all people. Stand with us, reject the voices of hate, and together we can build the world for which we all pray. We look forward to continuing to dialogue with you.”

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