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Pro-Israel groups staying on the sidelines in race against Pa’s Summer Lee

Despite Lee’s anti-Israel record, AIPAC and DMFI are staying out of the competitive primary — with less than a month left until the election

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

Rep. Summer Lee (D-PA) arrives to the U.S. Capitol for the last votes of the week on Friday, January 12, 2024.

Days before the Oct. 7 Hamas terror attacks in Israel, a near-unknown Democrat announced that she was taking on Rep. Summer Lee (D-PA), a far-left lawmaker who has clashed with Pittsburgh’s Jewish community since she ran to represent the 12th Congressional District in 2022. 

Pro-Israel activists in Pittsburgh were still smarting from Lee’s razor-thin victory over attorney Steve Irwin in the 2022 Democratic primary. As Lee has taken an increasingly hostile posture toward Israel after the attacks and during Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza, a sizable constituency in Pittsburgh’s Jewish community has coalesced around her opponent. 

Bhavini Patel, a 30-year-old council member from a small Allegheny County town called Edgewood, has spent the past six months making the case against Lee. In the process, she’s earned the backing of many Jewish Democrats who have been alienated by Lee’s anti-Israel record — and association with antisemitic individuals. 

But while other embattled Squad-affiliated lawmakers, such as Reps. Cori Bush (D-MO) and Jamaal Bowman (D-NY), look vulnerable in primaries, Lee is in better political shape with less than one month before the Pennsylvania primary. 

While Irwin earned the endorsement and heavy financial support of major pro-Israel organizations such as AIPAC in 2022, national groups have largely stayed out of the race this year, a signal of how the landscape has shifted in the past two years. Where Lee was an insurgent state representative seeking a national platform in 2022, now she’s an incumbent member of Congress with the backing of prominent Democrats in Pennsylvania and in Washington. 

“We will be engaged in races where our involvement can have the greatest impact,” AIPAC spokesperson Marshall Wittmann said. He did not say if the group would consider supporting Patel in the weeks ahead. 

Patel’s backers face a double-pronged challenge: They have to convince voters who don’t rank the war in the Middle East as a top issue that Lee is also out of step with Democrats on other issues. And within the district’s sizable Jewish community, they have to mount an unprecedented mail-in ballot mobilization, since Pennsylvania’s primary is the only one in the nation to fall on April 23 — the first day of Passover. 

“I don’t think I’ve spoken to a single Jewish Pittsburgher, personally, that’s saying, ‘I’m voting in person,’” said Laura Cherner, director of the Community Relations Council at Pittsburgh’s Jewish Federation. (Cherner has invited Lee and Patel to participate in moderated conversations with the Jewish community; Patel has accepted, but Lee has not.) Pennsylvania does not have early voting, so anyone wishing to avoid the conflict with Passover will need to request and submit a mail-in ballot. 

A spokesperson for Patel’s campaign said she is working to win over Jewish voters and educate them about the primary’s Passover conflict.

“Our campaign is teaming up with leaders of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community to educate voters about what makes this primary different from all others: my strong support for our Jewish community, and that Election Day is also the first day of Passover,” the Patel spokesperson said, with a line hinting at the Four Questions recited at the Passover Seder.

Observant Jews will be unable to vote in person because they are prohibited to do so by Jewish law due to the Passover holiday, but many Jews who are less observant also face barriers; they will be cooking for Seders, going to synagogue, taking care of children who are home from school or celebrating the holiday out of town. Those who do vote in person may have to go to a different polling place than usual; six locations housed in synagogues and Jewish community centers have moved elsewhere. 

Some in the community have taken unconventional avenues to raise the issue with voters. Rabbi Yitzy Genack, a rabbi at the Orthodox Congregation Shaare Torah, dressed up as a mail-in ballot on Purim. He recorded a video that day with Patel encouraging people to send in their mail-in ballots — for Patel. 

Bhavini Patel

Genack’s synagogue is located in Squirrel Hill, a heavily Jewish enclave of the city that sits in Lee’s district. It’s also home to the Tree of Life synagogue, where 11 people were killed by a white nationalist during a Shabbat prayer service in 2018. That makes what some Jewish community view as Lee’s abandonment of Israel especially difficult.

“Her strong support of the Palestinians… and lack of support for Jews and Israelis is a major issue. It’s a more major issue because she represents the district that contains the Tree of Life synagogue,” said Sue Berman Kress, a Democratic activist who is supporting Patel. “I think there is a way to be supportive of the humanitarian issues that we’re all seeing in Gaza, and acknowledge the pain and the horror that the Jewish community is feeling about the surprise attack, about the barbarism, about everything that we all know happened on Oct. 7.”

Tree of Life Rabbi Jeffrey Myers was one of more than 40 rabbis and cantors in Pittsburgh to sign a letter denouncing Lee’s anti-Israel rhetoric last month. The letter came after she canceled an appearance at a gala hosted by CAIR, the Council on American Islamic-Relations, after Jewish Insider reported on the antisemitic views of the event’s other speakers. The rabbis acknowledged a meeting with Lee in October, where she pledged to call out antisemitism. 

“Sadly, three months later, you have not followed through on those commitments,” the rabbis wrote.

Jodi Hirsh, a progressive activist in Pittsburgh who is close to the Lee campaign, told JI that “the Jewish community in Pittsburgh is not a monolith, and many of us have stood with then state Rep. and now Congresswoman Lee for years.”

Many Patel supporters point to Lee’s absence from public community-wide vigils remembering the Israelis killed on Oct. 7 and events calling for the release of the hostages still held in Gaza. In a statement on Oct. 7, she condemned “Hamas’ horrifying attack on children and innocent civilians” and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who “has reportedly already targeted densely populated civilian areas.” Less than three weeks later, she was one of just nine Democrats to vote against a resolution expressing support for Israel defending itself against Hamas. She has since advocated for ending U.S. military assistance to Israel. 

“Her positions on the West Bank and Gaza are based on her support of all marginalized peoples everywhere, and align with progressive Jewish organizations, many of which are supporting her reelection,” said Ritchie Tabachnik, a J Street activist who lives in Western Pennsylvania and supports Lee.

J Street’s president, Jeremy Ben-Ami, told JI the group sticks by its endorsement of her but declined to comment on her views on Israel.

AIPAC’s super PAC spent more than $2 million on anti-Lee ads in her 2022 primary against Irwin, and Democratic Majority for Israel PAC added another nearly $500,000. So far, neither group has spent money on the race — or even endorsed Patel. The only outside group spending big on Patel’s behalf is Moderate PAC, a Super PAC funded by Republican investor Jeffrey Yass, which has so far pledged $570,000 in the race. (A DMFI PAC spokesperson declined to comment.)

Lee has made a point of attacking AIPAC, despite the group’s lack of involvement this year. Last week, she spoke at an IfNotNow event called “Reject AIPAC.” She has also campaigned with members of Jewish Voice for Peace, an anti-Zionist organization that is backing the “Uncommitted” effort against President Biden in Pennsylvania. 

In recent months, Lee has further aligned herself with the Squad-affiliated lineup of far-left lawmakers in Washington who have condemned Israel as it battles Hamas in Gaza. Lee wore a keffiyeh — the scarf worn by pro-Palestinian activists — and dressed in all black at Biden’s State of the Union address in March, refusing to applaud him or join Democratic colleagues in chanting “four more years.” This, Patel’s backers argue, gives her ample fodder to attack Lee for straying from the party mainstream when Biden is months away from a rematch with former President Donald Trump.

“What we have seen with Congresswoman Lee is that she isn’t strong enough for Biden, and she has taken votes and made statements that undermine the president,” said Marjorie Manne, a Pittsburgh lawyer in Squirrel Hill who supports Patel. A staffer for Lee has been operating an Instagram account urging Pennsylvanians to vote “Uncommitted” on their primary ballot, rather than casting a vote for Biden. (A spokesperson for Lee did not respond to a request for comment asking whether she supports the “Uncommitted” campaign. They also did not respond to questions about Lee’s outreach to the Jewish community after Oct. 7.)

Patel is attempting to hammer this message home with new TV ads that focus on her support for Biden. A new TV spot from Patel says she was “100% for” Democrats’ signature infrastructure legislation in 2021, but “Summer Lee was not.” (Lee was not in Congress when the bill passed, but she expressed some reservations about it at the time.) “In the Trump era, Democrats have to stick together,” Patel said in the ad.

Whether this message is getting through to voters beyond the heavily engaged pro-Israel base supporting Patel is unclear, particularly given the dearth of polling at this point in the race.

“I just don’t see them doing a lot of work winning over past Summer Lee voters or convincing new voters to be against Summer Lee, or bringing out more of those people who had already been inclined to be against her,” said one local Democratic strategist who is not supporting either candidate. 

But Patel supporters insist that she has momentum and charisma, which they acknowledge Irwin lacked in 2022. He relied too heavily on TV ads from his campaign and media buys from the United Democracy Project, a super PAC affiliated with AIPAC, some Patel supporters say.

“Steve would’ve been an incredible congressman. He’s a really thoughtful, sensitive intellectual. But he’s lower energy. Bhavini is feisty. She’s out there,” said Lou Weiss, a Jewish Republican who is campaigning for Patel. “Some Jews felt last time that there’s no way Summer Lee could be that bad. She was that bad, and worse.” 

CORRECTION: An earlier version of the story suggested Lee was in Congress when the bipartisan infrastructure bill passed. Lee expressed reservations about the legislation, but wasn’t in Congress at the time.

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