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Not beating around the bush

Rep. Cori Bush draws ire of St. Louis Jewish community

One St. Louis rabbi: ‘I look at Cori Bush and what she has done as being dangerous to the safety of Jews, both here in the States, as well as the safety of Jews in the Jewish state’

Jemal Countess/Getty Images for Court Accountability

Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO) questions witnesses during a roundtable discussion on Supreme Court Ethics conducted by Democrats of the House Oversight and Accountability Committee at the Rayburn House Office Building on June 11, 2024 in Washington, DC.

During her time in office, Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO), who is fighting for her seat in her Aug. 6 primary, has consistently ignored and rejected efforts from members of the mainstream Jewish community to communicate and connect with her and her office, six Jewish leaders supporting her opponent told Jewish Insider.

Bush is fending off a challenge from Wesley Bell, the prosecuting attorney for St. Louis County, who has leaned into support for Israel in his campaign and picked up the backing of national pro-Israel groups.

A group of more than 30 rabbis from the St. Louis area came together in March to write a letter condemning Bush and endorsing Bell, accusing the Missouri congresswoman of antisemitism and of having “continually fanned the flames with the most outrageous smears of Israel, accusing the Jewish state of ‘ethnic cleansing’ and ‘genocide’ as it has fought to defeat the terrorists.”

The letter follows one sent on Nov. 1, signed by local rabbis as well as the leaders of the local chapters of the Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee, J Street, Jewish Community Relations Council, Jewish Community Center, Hillel, National Council of Jewish Women and other Jewish institutions.

That letter condemned Bush for her comments on Israel, accusing her of a “lack of decency, disregard for history, and for intentionally fueling antisemitism and hatred.” Her behavior, the letter charged, “not only fails to advance peace, but it incites anger and the potential of further violence toward the Jewish community.”

Signatories to the March 4 rabbis’ letter supporting Bell described Bush’s response to the Oct. 7 attack as a breaking point in long-simmering frustrations with the incumbent congresswoman dating back to her earliest days in office.

“The groundswell is really taking place post-Oct. 7, because when you are basically siding with Hamas two days after the attack and calling out Israel and calling for a cease-fire when Israel hasn’t even attacked, the Jewish community at that point basically threw their hands up and said, ‘We’re not going to be able to work with this person. We need to find an alternative,’” said Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham of Congregation B’nai Amoona, a Conservative synagogue in the St. Louis suburb of Creve Coeur. 

Abraham organized the March 4 letter. Bush’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Jewish leaders highlighted Bush’s statements in the immediate aftermath of Oct. 7 calling for a cease-fire and blaming U.S. support for Israel for the Oct. 7 attack, as well as her votes against a resolution condemning Hamas and a bill barring Oct. 7 attackers from the U.S. as particularly offensive.

Bush was also the lead sponsor of an Oct. 16 cease-fire resolution which made no mention of Hamas or the hostages taken by Hamas.

“I’m hesitant to ever get involved politically because I’m going to upset one group or another,” Rabbi Yosef David, of Orthodox educational organization Aish HaTorah in St. Louis, told JI. “The difference here is that I look at Cori Bush and what she has done as being dangerous to the safety of Jews, both here in the States, as well as the safety of Jews in the Jewish state.”

David said that Bush’s public statements about Israel, accusing it of genocide and condeming Israel immediately after Oct. 7, ”amount to, practically speaking, a blood libel about Israel.”

“That’s beyond the pale, especially after Oct. 7,” David said. “That is putting Jews in actual, physical danger.” 

He also condemned her for supporting “anarchy” on Washington University in St. Louis and Columbia University’s campuses, backing anti-Israel campus encampments.

But the Jewish community’s difficulties with Bush aren’t new. Leaders said that Bush has largely refused to engage with the mainstream Jewish community since she first took office in 2021.

“Going back for the last four years, in general, Cori Bush has not been willing to work with the mainstream Jewish community here,” Abraham said. He said her staff has brushed off meeting requests by highlighting her relationships with far-left groups including Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow.

Abraham said the dynamic was particularly stark around Hanukkah last year, when the local Chabad held its annual menorah-lighting in downtown St. Louis. Bush skipped that event, instead attending a pro-cease-fire ceremony with JVP and INN. Bell, her primary challenger, attended the Chabad event.

Abraham said he was aware of multiple requests from the local federation and JCRC to meet with Bush in 2021 and 2022, inviting her to discuss Jewish communal concerns, which were refused. He said Bush had sent staffers to some events, but almost never appeared herself. 

Ze’ev Smason, the Midwest chairman of the Coalition for Jewish Values (CJV), an Orthodox rabbinic advocacy group that leans conservative politically, said that Bush had also been slated to appear at the opening event at a local Holocaust museum, but didn’t show up. Smason is also the rabbi emeritus of Nusach Hari B’nai Zion congregation, a Modern Orthodox congregation in Olivette.

The federation declined to comment in the midst of the election, referring JI to the November letter.

“It was just a number of times where, over and over again, she wouldn’t support the Jewish community when all we wanted was to sit down and meet with her,” Abraham said. “We weren’t trying to even change her views, per se.”

Based on public information, Bush has met publicly just once with Jewish leaders in St. Louis, in 2022, sitting down with the local JCRC days before her 2022 primary election. The then-leader of the JCRC, Maharat Rori Picker-Neiss said that Bush’s views on Israel didn’t come up at the meeting. Bush toured the Holocaust museum and a food pantry during that visit.

Abraham emphasized that the meeting didn’t happen until her second year in office, that it was limited to a small group from the JCRC and that Jewish leaders were turned down when they asked for a follow-up meeting with Bush.

Bush has also refused to sit for an interview with the St. Louis Jewish Light, which multiple local rabbis cited as a point of concern.

“She has demonstrated a real lack of interest,” Rabbi Yonason Goldson, executive vice president of CJV Missouri, told JI. He said that his wife had reached out to Bush’s office shortly after she was elected to arrange a meeting between her and the Orthodox community in St. Louis. “There was no interest in that whatsoever.”

Rabbi Jordan Gerson, the rabbi of the Washington University Hillel, said that Bush has “abdicat[ed]” her responsibilities to her constituencies when they “offer opinions that are critical of her policies or her stances, especially on Israel.” Gerson does not live in Bush’s district, but the Hillel falls within it.

“Not only have they been dismissed, but they’ve been ignored completely,” Gerson continued, explaining that Bush’s office has often not even acknowledged receiving communications from those who don’t agree with her views on Israel. He said the Hillel’s executive director told him that she wrote to Bush four times, without any response. “There’s just no recognition of their viewpoint because it’s inconvenient for her.”

Rabbi Jeffrey Stiffman, the rabbi emeritus of Congregation Shaare Emeth, a Reform synagogue, told JI that Bush has not responded to any of his letters — either positive or negative.

“She has her own agenda and she runs on that agenda where there’s good and there’s bad — and the Jews and Israel are bad,” Stiffman said.

Goldson said he’s heard throughout the community that “the consensus is that she feels she doesn’t need us, and therefore she has no interest in establishing any kind of a relationship or really engaging in any kind of discussion about what our priorities are.”

Bush’s icing out of the mainline Jewish community carries echoes of one of the weaknesses that ultimately brought down fellow Squad member Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) in his primary in New York last month. 

While the Jewish population in Bush’s district is smaller than in Bowman’s district, Jewish leaders supporting Bell said it could be heavily mobilized against Bush in next month’s primary.

Abraham, who organized the March 4 letter endorsing Bell, said that he was inspired directly by a similar communique by rabbis in Bowman’s district condemning him and supporting his primary challenger, Westchester County Executive George Latimer.

He and other signatories described it as a largely unprecedented show of unity from the St. Louis Jewish community, bringing together leaders across religious and political denominations. Abraham said still other rabbis expressed their support for the effort, even if they weren’t willing to sign publicly.

“It took Cori Bush to get individuals to simultaneously sign a letter who have never co-signed a letter before,” Smason said. “So I think that expresses what is an overwhelming consensus within the Jewish community, our support for Wesley Bell over Cori Bush.”

Abraham said many of the signatories are now actively volunteering with Bell’s campaign, talking about him in their congregations and inviting him to speak in their synagogues. Bell’s campaign is actively working to reach out to and mobilize Jewish leaders and voters. Smason said Orthodox rabbis have been particularly engaged in supporting Bell’s campaign.

Jewish leaders said that Bell’s posture clearly contrasted with Bush’s, including meeting with and standing with the community repeatedly at local events and in other settings, including shortly after the Oct. 7 attack on Israel, before he had declared his candidacy.

“He’s actually listening to who would be his constituents, and that’s critically important,” Gerson said. “We need someone who can listen to both sides, who can discern reality from fabricated reality and really keep in mind the values of the people that they’re serving.”

Abraham said that Bell has shown up to “almost every” rally and memorial event the community has held since the Oct. 7 attack, as well as met individually with rabbis and other leaders in private settings. 

“He’s been willing to meet with anyone and everyone in the Jewish community, really every step of the way,” Abraham said.

Stiffman said that, a year ago, well before he ever entered the race against Bush, Bell had attended and brought his staff to a program on antisemitism organized by the local chapter of the AJC.

David said that Bell has “become close to the Jewish community” and praised his willingness to publicly stand up for Israel.

Some of those who signed the letter endorsing Bell acknowledged that they, and others in the Orthodox community particularly, have strong disagreements with Bell politically, but have been willing to support him anyway.

“Our community does not widely support the policies of Wesley Bell, but he has taken the step of showing solidarity with the Jewish people in times of antisemitism, which [Bush] has not done at all,” Goldson said. “He seems to be a person who has a measure of personal integrity.”

Goldson said that many in the Orthodox community are Republicans but plan to vote in the Democratic primary, which is permitted under the state’s open primary rules, because “the community feels very strongly that Cori Bush has no interest in us and has no business representing our district or any others.”

Smason offered a similar assessment.

“We want a legislator who’s going to do the nuts-and-bolts work of getting things done,” he said. “I disagree very strongly with a number of Wesley Bell’s positions… but he’s a person who I believe is a person of integrity, a person who has a track record as an effective prosecutor, a person who I think will be an effective legislator for the St. Louis community.”

Some of the leaders also criticized Bush’s broader approach to politics, which they said has prompted further division. They argued that she has prioritized her own national profile over serving the needs of the local community, like infrastructure funding — another issue that helped sink Bowman’s campaign.

“She sees her job as making statements, dramatic actions,” Stiffman said. “But in terms of getting things done in Congress, I think you need a more sophisticated person. And I think that Wesley has shown that he can do that here in the county.”

“I see everything about her as focused on inciting division and strife, and exploiting differences between communities,” Goldson said.

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