In the heart of the Keystone State, two Pennsylvania politicos battle it out

The Harrisburg, Penn., Jewish community was shook in early August when the Kesher Israel synagogue was vandalized with a pair of swastikas painted on its entryway.

Following the incident, community members and local officials came together to offer their support. Among those who offered their help to the synagogue were Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale and Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA), who are in the midst of a tight congressional race in the state’s 10th district, which includes Harrisburg.

DePasquale told Jewish Insider that he was angered by the incident, describing his reaction as a “surprise on one hand, but on the other hand not completely shocked.”

“This stuff tragically happens. And sometimes it happens in your own backyard,” DePasquale, who is not Jewish but grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in Pittsburgh, said. “We have to do our best to root it out.”

Kesher Israel’s Rabbi Elisha Friedman said that both DePasquale and Perry expressed outrage after the incident.

“That’s exactly the kinds of people that you do want to make sure that they’re very concerned about it and you want them speaking out against it, but on a practical level it was being handled by other government agencies,” he said.

Perry did not respond to JI’s request for comment.

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DePasquale’s congressional run comes after a long career in state-level elected office. He first ran for the state legislature in 2006 on a platform of governmental reform, alternative energy and education reform — DePasquale and Perry entered the Pennsylvania House of Representatives the same year, and both concluded their terms in 2013.

DePasquale emphasized that he has pushed for government accountability throughout his career — he said he was the first legislator to post his expenses online, and, as auditor general, helped clear a backlog of untested rape kits and improved child protection services.

DePasquale is running on a moderate platform against Perry, a member of the conservative Freedom Caucus. The House Freedom Fund PAC has contributed nearly $200,000 to Perry’s campaign.

“My style of leadership [is] needed at [the] Capitol. Being tough and fair on both parties,” DePasquale said. “Certainly I’m a proud Democrat, but… I’ve looked out for what is right, not necessarily just what’s right for the Democratic Party. And I thought our nation could use some of that right now.”

Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA) (Perry for Congress)

He drew a stark contrast between himself and Perry, who he described as “an ideologue that is more focused on representing an extreme ideology as opposed to representing the district.”

Many of the issues on which DePasquale is campaigning are personal to him. His family was never able to obtain health insurance for his younger brother while he struggled with — and ultimately died of — muscular dystrophy. 

“At least through all [the Affordable Care Act’s] strengths and weaknesses, that type of situation will not happen for a family member again,” he said. “[Perry] actually voted to take away those protections for people with pre-existing conditions. This fight on healthcare is personal for me.”

The devastation of his brother’s death was compounded by other family tragedies. DePasquale’s father, a Vietnam War veteran, became addicted to painkillers prescribed for gunshot wounds he suffered during the war. To finance his addiction, he sold drugs, eventually landing in prison.

“He actually had to come to my brother’s funeral in shackles,” DePasquale said. “So criminal justice reform, treating drug addiction — these are also high priorities for me.”

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DePasquale visited Israel on a trip with the Philadelphia Jewish Coalition in 2019, while he was in the state legislature. In Israel, the group met with members of the Knesset, military and security officials, small business owners and environmental leaders, among others, in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The group also visited areas bordering Gaza and the West Bank. 

DePasquale described the trip as “life changing” and “eye opening.”

“I don’t think you can truly appreciate Israel’s challenges until you’re there and you see how close everything is,” he said.

DePasquale added that he also took time away from the group to visit local spots. “Just talking to average everyday folks, whether they were Palestinian or Jewish or whomever else may have been there… the people there desire peace. And they’re exhausted by this and they want it to change,” he said.

DePasquale supports a two-state solution, and believes the United States has a major role to play in brokering such a deal. “The United States needs to make clear not only are we a friend of Israel, but we’ve got to be a fair negotiator among both sides to reestablish credibility,” he said, “so that we can get these sides to the table and try to negotiate.”

DePasquale expressed concern that the U.S.’s credibility as a negotiator has been undermined in recent years by “unilateral actions” that go “well beyond political parties.”

“Our friendship and alliance with Israel is non-negotiable,” he continued. “That doesn’t mean we can’t sit at the table and try to make sure that everyone is negotiating fairly.”

Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale. (Courtesy)

DePasquale said he works in all aspects of his life — both with his family and in his position as Auditor General — to consistently push back against hate and extremism of all kinds, including antisemitism. 

As a member of Congress, he said he would continue these efforts by reiterating his support for Israel and speaking out against those who express antisemitism.

Perry voted in favor of last year’s House resolution condemning antisemitism, but also criticized it at the time, saying it had been watered down.

Members of the local Jewish community praised DePasquale’s stance on Middle East issues, and said he’s been very open to discussing these issues, as well as other topics, with members of the Jewish community.

“I came away being very impressed with his views and his knowledge of the Middle East and Israel issues,” said Arthur Hoffman — a Harrisburg, Pa., attorney who organized a fundraiser for DePasquale. “He’s willingly spoken and been open to anyone approaching him with concerns.”

Both Hoffman and Harvey Freedenberg, another Harrisburg attorney backing DePasquale, praised him as a centrist and as more representative of the district than Perry.

“He is somebody who is very much committed to representing all the people of the district, as opposed to the incumbent, who I think has a very narrow ideology… [that] I think is really out of step with a growing number of people in the district,” Freedenberg told JI.

Democratic Jewish Outreach Pennsylvania, a local PAC, also endorsed DePasquale during the primary. “We know he cares deeply about the Jewish community,” Jill Zipin, the PAC’s chair, told JI. “From our view, DePasquale is a man of integrity, he is a man of character, and he is a man who cares about the constituents of [the 10th district.]”

Eric Morrison, a longtime Perry supporter, praised DePasquale’s work as auditor general, but will be supporting Perry again this cycle.

“I’ve known [DePasquale] for a while as well… I hold him in high esteem,” Morrison told JI. “My concern is when you go to Washington, in the House or Senate, you tend to fall into the majority leader, speaker of the house platform regardless.”

Morrison praised Perry’s stance on Israel issues and said Perry has a “fantastic” relationship with the local Jewish community.

“He is very much involved in listening to AIPAC and we have meetings with him, he always avails himself, he wants to listen, he wants to learn,” he said. “He’s a tremendous advocate and ally for issues pertaining to Israel.”

Elliott Weinstein, a member of AIPAC’s national council, likewise described Perry as strong on Israel issues.

“He’s a friend of all of the things that we support,” Weinstein told JI. “He understands the issues that we bring forward to him.”

***

Recent polling indicates a tight race heading toward election day in the 10th district, which the Cook Political Report rates as a tossup. 

A late August and early September York Dispatch poll of 1,100 voters showed Perry leading DePasquale 44.7% to 38.4%, but 10% of voters said they were undecided. But a poll of 500 voters by GBAO Strategies found the two in a statistical tie, with DePasquale at 50% and Perry at 46%, with a margin of error of 4.4 points.

Monetarily, the candidates are fairly evenly matched — Perry had banked $1.9 million and DePasquale had raised $1.6 million by the end of the June. Both had approximately $990,000 in the bank as of the end of June.

But DePasquale is optimistic.

“We’ve been on the air for three and a half weeks and his first ad went on the air as a negative ad, and we’ve been positive,” he said. “So that lets me know that they know they’re in trouble.”

With Lowey and Engel departing, Elaine Luria says she’ll be stepping up

One of the most frequent questions Rep. Elaine Luria (D-VA) receives from constituents in Virginia’s 2nd congressional district is: “Is it as crazy in Washington as we see on TV?” 

Her typical answer, Luria told Jewish Insider,,is that while it might seem like there is no real opportunity for positive change in Congress, she has managed to find common ground with members across the political spectrum to pass legislation that matters to all. 

And while she is only a freshman member in Congress, Luria had the third highest number of bills signed into law by President Donald Trump among her colleagues on Capitol Hill last year. “It kind of shows that the process can work, and that there are lots of things that we can do that are not controversial where we can find common ground,” Luria told JI in a recent interview. “So when I talk to people about that, the bipartisan work I’ve done is hopefully somewhat reassuring.” 

Born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, Luria spent 20 years in the U.S. Navy, ultimately rising to the rank of commander. She served on six different ships and was deployed six times, operating nuclear reactors and on aircraft carriers. 

Luria, 45, was first elected in 2018 as part of a blue wave that flipped districts that had voted for President Donald Trump in 2016, beating first-term incumbent Republican Rep. Scott Taylor with 51% of the vote. This year, her district is considered a toss-up, according to the Cook Political Report, and she will once again face Taylor. 

While Luria voted for Trump’s impeachment last year, she has aligned herself with the president when it comes to his policy on Israel and — as a member of the House Bipartisan Task Force For Combating Anti-Semitism — she has been an outspoken critic of the far-left wing of the Democratic Party. Luria was one of 12 House Democrats who broke party ranks last year to vote in favor of a Republican motion to recommit on anti-BDS legislation that would allow state and local governments to adopt laws to divest public funds from entities that boycott Israel. 

She is also only one of a handful of Democrats who have attended Trump White House events, including the signing of Trump’s executive order to combat antisemitism on campus, and more recently, the Abraham Accords signing ceremony between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, along with Bahrain. “I was honored to join President Trump at the signing ceremony of the Abraham Accords, marking a new era in regional security and cooperation in the Middle East,” Luria told JI after the event. “I commend President Trump on his leadership to make this milestone a reality,” she added. 

While Luria claims she does not agree with everything Trump has done, she noted she is “willing to literally stand behind him on the stage while he does support an effort that I do agree with.” Luria added she would love “to see more bipartisanship and more opportunity to work together to get the things done that we all agree on.” 

Elaine Luria picture
Rep. Elaine Luria

In an interview last year, Elaine Luria told The Washington Post that her Jewish faith inspired her to take a position on impeachment and to speak up in defense of Israel and against antisemitism. 

“I did not necessarily anticipate going in to be a representative in the House that I would need to be as vocal about these things,” Luria told JI. Her debut speech on the House floor was during a debate over a resolution against hate, widely considered to be watered-down, following Rep. Ilhan Omar’s (D-MN) comments regarding lawmakers’ support for Israel. Luria quipped that her remarks, decrying the dual loyalty label by pointing to her faith and past experience, sounded like an adapted version of the Passover song “Dayenu.” While she felt “discouraged” that the measure was diluted in the process, Luria said she felt it was important for her to use that opportunity to “speak up against antisemitism.” 

Luria maintained that with the retirement of longtime Democratic members like Reps. Nita Lowey and Eliot Engel of New York, and the addition of some newly successful far-left candidates, “I think that it’s much more important that I stay and come back to Congress as a strong voice to counter people who certainly speak up with different views than mine.” 

Last year, Elaine Luria reached out to Omar to discuss Israel and antisemitism. And while those meetings were not “as productive as I hoped for, I will always continue to try to do that,” Luria said, adding that she will “redouble” her efforts to engage with new members about issues of importance to the Jewish community. 

Luria is also one of the few House Democrats who didn’t sign on to letters expressing opposition to possible Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank. A House letter sent to Israeli leaders, signed by 191 House Democrats and backed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), warned that annexation would undermine the two-state solution. Luria told JI she “deliberately chose to not sign on to that letter,” because she believes it’s not the job of a member of Congress to be weighing in on Israeli government decisions, or to be “doing anything that would erode the very strong relationship that we have between the U.S. and Israel.” 

Luria was an early supporter of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, endorsing the now-Democratic nominee back in January. “I know that Joe Biden is a very strong supporter of Israel. He stood up to antisemitism during his very long career serving in the Senate and he believes in standing up against the BDS movement,” she said. The only place she differs with her party’s standard-bearer is on his commitment to rejoin the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. “I know that that is something that I’m not 100% aligned with him on, but I think that overwhelmingly his positions, both for domestic policy and support of the U.S.-Israel relationship, [are] something I do align with.” 

Elaine Luria, along with fellow freshmen Reps. Max Rose (D-NY) and Elissa Slotkin (D-MI), are part of the “Gang of Nine,” moderate Democrats with national security backgrounds. 

In 2018, during a campaign stop, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) introduced Luria and expressed in amazement how “this Jewish girl from Alabama,” who served 20 years in the Navy, commanding a combat unit of 400 sailors, was going to be a congresswoman. Recalling that moment, Luria laughed that she might indeed be an unusual candidate for office. “I guess there are not many Jewish girls from Alabama who go to the Naval Academy and then end up in Congress,” she said. “But I feel it’s just a continuation of my service, and I feel a great responsibility to preserve my heritage and serve my constituents well.”

Riggleman, Malinowski introduce resolution condemning QAnon

The QAnon conspiracy theory has seen a massive surge in public attention in the month since Marjorie Taylor Greene, a promoter of the conspiracy theory, won the Republican run-off in Georgia’s 14th congressional district, all but ensuring she will be in Washington come January. But a bipartisan group of congressmen is trying to push back.

Reps. Tom Malinowski (D-NJ) and Denver Riggleman (R-VA) have introduced a resolution, co-sponsored by Reps. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ) and Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), condemning the conspiracy theory. The resolution enumerates a series of concerns, including the numerous violent and criminal acts which have allegedly been inspired by the conspiracy theory, as well as the antisemitic elements central to QAnon.

Both Malinowski and Riggleman told Jewish Insider that QAnon’s increasing prominence — including Greene’s primary victory and President Donald Trump’s recent approving comments — convinced them to take congressional action.

Malinowski emphasized that parts of QAnon’s central conspiracy theory — which claims, falsely, that wealthy political, financial and media elites are part of a cabal that sexually abuses and eats children — constitute “the ancient blood libel in new guise.” Riggleman noted that QAnon also echoes the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

The conspiracy theory seems to have become increasingly mainstream amid the pandemic. A recent Civiqs poll found that more than half of Republican voters believe QAnon is mostly or partly true. It has also found traction in alternative health spheres.

Riggleman said he was shocked by those poll results — although he questioned their accuracy. If they are true, he added, “the Republican Party’s in trouble,” and “we need a massive education effort in the Republican Party to identify what’s ridiculous about QAnon.”

While several Republican leaders — including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) — have condemned QAnon, Riggleman and Kinzinger have been more outspoken than most of their colleagues on the issue. And many Republicans — including McCarthy — have declined to distance themselves from Greene.

“There’s gonna be people who don’t want to sign on to this, obviously, but I really don’t care about that,” Riggleman said. “There’s certainly Republicans that have jumped on this… but there certainly hasn’t been enough and I believe a lot of it has to do with — they’re scared of voters or they’re scared of the backlash that they might have going out against something like QAnon.”

Voters will not have an opportunity to punish Riggleman electorally for this resolution — he already lost his Republican primary to a religious conservative challenger in June. But he is considering running for Virginia governor in 2022, possibly as an independent.

Riggleman said the president’s recent comments about QAnon — Trump said last month: “I don’t know much about the movement other than I understand they like me very much, which I appreciate” — shocked him.

“I think a lot of that has to do with, there’s so many conspiracy groups out there,” he said. “And I would hope once the president learns more about QAnon and what they’re talking about… that he would see that and eventually come out and condemn it.”

Riggleman is also a member of the House Freedom Caucus, a strongly conservative group of House Republicans, several of whom supported Greene. The Caucus’s affiliated PAC, the House Freedom Fund, donated more than $200,000 to the Georgia congressional candidate.

Riggleman said he does not have any input on the PAC’s spending, but he would not have given Greene “a penny.” 

“Maybe those endorsements are because 80% of what she believes is in line with fundamental conservative principles on spending and things like that,” he said. “But I do think we have to draw a line when you have those who espouse conspiracy theories.”

Malinowski said he’s found his Democratic colleagues are now taking the QAnon threat seriously. “We’re all catching up to the reality that this is extremely dangerous, that it’s not a fringe movement anymore,” he said. “At this point, it is easier to get Democrats to want to do something about QAnon, partly because it’s been associated with the right. The important thing is to demonstrate that there is bipartisan rejection.”

Although only two additional backers have signed onto the resolution so far, Malinowski said he expects that “the overwhelming majority of members” will support the bill if it makes it to the floor. But he acknowledged that the window for that is closing.

“I’m hoping that we will [get a vote],” he said. “If we do, I think you will see a pretty solid bipartisan vote on this.”

But Malinowski acknowledged that this resolution will do little to shake QAnon believers from their views. He plans to introduce legislation addressing social media companies’ recommendation algorithms, noting that his experience in international human rights work showed him how social media can foment violence, extremism and social strife.

“I think that they need to fundamentally change the way their algorithms work,” he said. “The algorithms are designed to keep us glued to our screens by feeding us information that engages our basest emotions. That’s a problem and the companies have been protected from any liability for the harm they cause by encouraging this kind of content to spread, and I think we need to look at them.”

Riggleman — whose background is in military intelligence — said he’s considering legislation boosting funding and information sharing for FBI and Department of Homeland Security operations to counter domestic extremism.

“We need to have a larger cyber presence. They’re using the same type of methodology that radical Islamic terrorists use,” he said. “I think we need to utilize some of the protocols that we perfected to track terrorists and actually use that to identify those who are using coded language to go after law enforcement or to go after innocents.”

Meet the Israeli immigrant mounting a longshot bid for Senate in Wyoming

In every sense of the word, Merav Ben-David is an outlier in Wyoming politics.

A Jewish Israeli immigrant who speaks with an accent, Ben-David is running for Senate as a Democrat with a platform focused on climate change in a state that has not elected a Democrat to a federal office since 1976, has a minuscule Jewish population and is heavily economically reliant on resource extraction. 

But despite the hurdles in her path, Ben-David believes her message is one that will resonate with Wyoming voters, as long as she’s able to reach them. 

“I think the vision that I’m offering Wyoming is much more compelling to many,” she told Jewish Insider. “I’m not saying it’s gonna be easy. We knew that when we started, but I think that a lot of people were ready to hear a different message.”

Ben-David acknowledges, however, that she needs more money in order to disseminate her message to voters. Having spent most of the $81,000 she raised during the primary, she had just $22,000 on hand at the end of July, compared to the $413,000 her Republican opponent, former Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) had in the bank at the time.

Ben-David and Lummis are competing to replace longtime Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY), who is retiring.

In an interview with JI, Ben-David laid out her vision to help bolster Wyoming’s economy, which includes shifting miners and oil workers to other fields, creating more work opportunities for young people and attracting remote workers to the state. She also backs several progressive policy priorities, including a federal jobs guarantee and universal healthcare.

But the issue Ben-David emphasized most — which lies at the heart of her campaign — was climate change. This topic, and Ben-David’s observations and research on its impact through her work as an ecologist and zoologist, spurred her to run for office.

“It’s not enough. I need to do more. That was the main motivation. I need to do more in terms of making sure that our younger generations have a livable planet,” she said. “But also specifically to the state that has become my home, to make sure that we are not reliant on an industry that is on the way out.”

Ben-David got her start in the sciences at Tel Aviv University — after completing her IDF service amid the 1982 Lebanon War — and earned a bachelor’s degree in biology in 1984 and a master’s degree in zoology in 1988.

She went on to spend five years as a wildlife tour guide in Kenya before making a drastic shift and relocating to Fairbanks, Alaska, to pursue a PhD in wildlife management.

“I just packed a few things in my suitcase and made it from the equator to nearly the North Pole in one week,” she said. 

Despite moving from one of the world’s hottest regions to one of its coldest, Ben-David said she adjusted quickly, and quickly fell in love with winter sports.

“I really enjoyed living in Alaska,” she said. “The cold is something that is really easy to deal with. You just dress warmly, and have heating in your home. It’s the short days in the winter that are difficult to deal with.”

After earning her PhD, Ben-David remained in Alaska for several years and applied for permanent residency in the U.S. Her contributions to wildlife conservation in Alaska earned her support from Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AL), then-Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AL) and then-Gov. Tony Knowles for her residency application. 

Merav Ben-David recreation area
Senate Candidate Merav Ben-David at Vedauwoo Recreation Area on March 31, 2020. (Courtesy)

Ben-David said that, once she realized that work would keep her in the U.S., it was critical to begin the process to become a U.S. citizen.

“I’ve been engaged civically since I was a teenager in Israel, when we had all kinds of changes in Israel back in the 70s. I’ve been involved as a citizen,” she said. “You can’t let other people make decisions for you. If you want to be influential, if you want to make sure that things you believe in have a voice, then you have to be engaged.”

In 2000, Ben-David accepted a faculty position at the University of Wyoming. She explained that she settled in the state in part so that she could continue to enjoy winter sports. Around this time, she applied for citizenship, and became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2009.

Ben-David has also cemented herself within Wyoming’s Jewish community, which has one of the smallest Jewish populations of any state — just 1,150 people, or .2% of the total state population in 2019.

“I think we all know each other personally,” Ben-David said of the state’s Jewish community, remarking that she usually makes matzoh balls for the local community Seders.

***

Having grown up in Israel, with family still living in the country, Ben-David would bring a unique perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the halls of Congress should she be elected — for one thing, she would be the only person with Israeli citizenship ever elected to the Senate. Ultimately, she would like to see a two-state solution, including a shared capital in Jerusalem, she said in responses to JI’s candidate questionnaire.

Ben-David is an outspoken critic of current Israeli policies, which she said make a peace agreement more difficult to achieve.

“Expansion of West Bank settlements, unilateral annexation of Palestinian lands, demolitions of houses, forced relocations of Palestinian families, and continued violence contribute to escalation of the conflict,” she wrote in the questionnaire. “I believe peace can only be achieved if the Palestinian people are treated with dignity, provided with financial assistance to develop a sustainable economy, and their human rights and wishes for self-governance in their own country is guaranteed.”

She added that the Trump administration has likewise undermined peace efforts, and has “made support for Israel needlessly partisan.”

(Read Ben-David’s complete answers and those of other candidates on JI’s interactive map.)

If elected, Ben-David said she would work to engage both sides to pursue a peace agreement. She predicts that the imminent global climate crisis will serve as an impetus to force parties in the Middle East to come together to form agreements, as the impacts of climate change will be devastating for the region.

“It’s not anymore a question of Palestinians versus Israelis. It’s not Saudi Arabia versus Iran. It’s not Turkey versus Egypt anymore,” she said. “If we don’t work together as a humanity to solve our climate crisis, nothing else will matter.”

“Mother Nature doesn’t care about what we think or feel,” she continued. “It is happening right now… I think a lot of people are starting to pay attention. They have no choice. We have no choice.”

In the questionnaire, Ben-David called out increasing antisemitism across the U.S., both in terms of increasing hate crimes and antisemitic political rhetoric, including in her own primary race — where one of her opponents referred to her as a “fake Jew.”

“When antisemitism is virulent and explicit, we must immediately condemn it. When it is organized and violent, we must prosecute it,” she wrote. “But when it is inadvertent, education and compassion will be more effective.”

Ben-David added that she sees antisemitism as part of the broader issue of racism in the U.S.

“Jews should also stand in solidarity with other groups facing oppression,” she said. “We can’t fight antisemitism without also fighting other forms of racism — and we can’t fight racism without also fighting antisemitism.”

Should Ben-David be elected, she would join several outspoken critics of Israel in the halls of Congress, some of whom have called to condition aid to Israel or expressed support for a one-state solution. 

She told JI that she would tell those who support such measures that U.S. pressure has historically been an ineffective tool to change countries’ behavior, and that only diplomacy will be effective.

“We, the United States, have failed miserably in all attempts to force our vision on other countries. It doesn’t matter if you look at it from the war on drugs or involvement in Vietnam, Korea, Afghanistan, Iraq,” she said. “We failed because we did not use diplomacy as the main approach.”

She highlighted the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran as the government’s most prominent success in recent years.

“If we are willing and have learned how to exert influence through diplomacy with an enemy called Iran, there’s absolutely no reason why we can’t do that with our ally, Israel,” she continued.

Ben-David speculated that, if the U.S. sanctioned or conditioned aid to Israel, Israel would instead turn to the U.S.’s geopolitical opponents.

But Ben-David disputed the idea espoused by some in the American pro-Israel community that criticizing Israel is inherently antisemitic.

“I criticize the government. My family members in Israel criticize the Israeli government… That is legitimate criticism. Just like American citizens criticizing our own government. This is democracy,” she said. “I wouldn’t say there is no antisemitism. I wouldn’t say that antisemitism is not a motivating factor in some of those discussions. But you can’t take every single criticism of a government and immediately call it antisemitism. I think we need to look more deeply into the motivation for it.”

Neal leading Morse 49-40 in Massachusetts 1st

Rep. Richard Neal (D-MA) leads his progressive challenger, Alex Morse, by nine points ahead of the heavily contested September 1 Democratic primary in Massachusetts’s 1st congressional district, according to a new Jewish Insider poll.

The poll, based on 518 voter surveys conducted by RABA Research on August 23 and 24, puts Neal on relatively comfortable footing with 49% of the vote, placing him outside the ±4.3% margin of error. Morse pulled in 40% of the vote among those surveyed, with 12% of likely voters reporting that they were “not sure” who they would choose.

At the same time, Neal’s failure to clear the 50% threshold could be a sign of trouble for him, as incumbents polling below 50% are often considered at risk of defeat.

In recent weeks, the contentious race has gained national attention as Morse, who is gay, became embroiled in a sexual misconduct scandal that nearly ended his run. But he was vindicated after the allegations put forth in a letter by the College Democrats of Massachusetts appeared to have been part of a scheme to derail Morse’s campaign in coordination with the state’s Democratic Party. Neal has denied any knowledge of such plans.

The controversy seems to have given Morse a boost, said Robert Boatright, a professor in the department of political science at Clark University in Worcester. “A lot of people outside Massachusetts rallied to his side on that, so the story got him more visibility, and my guess would be it helped him more than it hurt him,” he told JI. 

“But at the same time, the district is not really favorable to him,” Boatright added, predicting that Neal’s blue-collar base would likely give him an edge next week.

Still, Boatright speculated that left-leaning enthusiasm for another candidate in Massachusetts, Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) — who is running against a younger challenger, Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-MA), but has been backed by progressives in and outside of the district — could perhaps buoy Morse in his own race. 

According to the JI poll, Kennedy leads Markey 44% to 37% among Democratic and independent voters in Massachusetts’s 1st congressional district. Nineteen percent of respondents said they were undecided.

Morse, the 31-year-old Holyoke mayor, entered the race to unseat Neal last summer, riding a progressive grassroots wave that, this election season, has swept away a number of long-serving legislators including Reps. Eliot Engel (D-NY), Dan Lipinski (D-IL) and William Lacy Clay (D-MO). 

Among the many issues demonstrating the political divide in the race, Neal and Morse have divergent views on aid to Israel. Morse, who is Jewish, believes the U.S. should condition aid to Israel in order to pressure the Israeli government to change its policies towards the Palestinians. Neal opposes conditioning security assistance to Israel.

According to the poll, a plurality of voters in the district — 48% — think aid to Israel should be conditioned, while 34% want assistance to continue without conditions. Eighteen percent — including 29% of voters who identified as “very liberal” — were not sure or expressed no opinion on the matter.

Morse said he does not support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, but opposes efforts to legislate against BDS.

Neal is backed by a number of pro-Israel groups including Pro-Israel America and Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI), which last week poured more than $100,000 into anti-Morse advertising.

Over the past year, Morse has built a formidable campaign operation, raising more than $1.3 million, according to the latest filings from the Federal Election Commission. 

While the polling indicates Morse has been gaining momentum, he’ll still have to overcome the gap if he wants to pull off an upset in the district, which includes a large swath of western and central Massachusetts. 

Morse, who is backed by Justice Democrats, picked up another key endorsement on Tuesday from Courage to Change, the political action committee founded by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY). The endorsement was not reflected in the poll because it occurred after the surveys were conducted.

Neal, who entered Congress in 1989 and serves as the powerful chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, has vastly outraised his opponent, raking in nearly $3.8 million in his reelection effort. 

Neal, 71, has also benefited from considerable outside spending. In addition to the money spent by DMFI, the American Working Families super PAC poured more than $500,000 in advertising into the race in an effort to boost Neal.

Even if Neal manages to defend his seat, his falling short of 50% in the poll signals a tough political environment for established longtime members of Congress.

“If this were an isolated phenomenon, it wouldn’t be a big deal, but there have been a bunch of these races,” Howard J. Gold, a professor of government at Smith College in Northampton, told JI. “This fits into a really well established and growing pattern, and the old guard, the Democratic establishment, has to be really, really, careful. They can’t rely on politics as it used to be.”

Jacob Kornbluh and Marc Rod contributed to this report.

Jeremiah Ellison is more artist than politician

Before he was elected to the Minneapolis City Council in 2017, Jeremiah Ellison had carved out a niche for himself as a freelance muralist and aspiring comic book artist for schools and businesses in the city. The last mural he painted — a job overlapping with the tail end of a grueling campaign — was for a pediatric dental practice called Camp Smile, which, to Ellison, evoked “the name of a dentist-themed horror movie.” 

Because he was so short on time, Ellison showed up to the gig without having planned out what he would draw and rendered a series of creepy vignettes, scattering a few anthropomorphic electric toothbrushes with arms, legs and wings around a giant toothpaste tube unfurling a colorful striped ribbon. “It came out really weird,” Ellison, 30, recalled in a series of interviews with Jewish Insider this summer. “I knew the client didn’t like it.”

Still, Ellison found the experience of unloading his ideas directly onto the final surface to be a refreshing change from the usual process of coming up with a design beforehand and then getting it approved. “It always feels really dynamic on the page,” he mused, “and then it loses something in translation when you get it up onto the wall.”

In a way, Ellison could also have been talking about his time as a city councilman representing Minneapolis’s Fifth Ward, where he was born and raised. The activist-turned-politician came to prominence as a public figure five years ago, when he appeared in a viral photo while protesting the police killing of a young, unarmed Black man, Jamar Clark. Though Ellison once defiantly addressed city councilmembers with his back to them, he has taken a somewhat more measured approach since joining their ranks in 2018.

Not that Ellison is new to politics by any means. As the son of Keith Ellison — Minnesota’s attorney general and a former congressman — he is attuned to the vicissitudes of governance. But it is one thing to watch from afar and quite another to do it day in and day out. When he was elected, Ellison hoped to focus on housing equality and economic development at the hyperlocal level. “That’s sort of where I really wanted to stake my claim,” he said. 

But he has shifted his priorities as the pandemic has taken its toll — his grandmother died from the coronavirus — and as mass protests against George Floyd’s murder have set off a national reckoning over the role of the police. In Minneapolis, Ellison has led the charge to introduce a charter amendment that would replace the city’s police department with a new public safety system, but those plans were put on hold when the city’s charter commission blocked the proposal from appearing on the ballot until next year.

His activism notwithstanding, Ellison rejects the notion that he is seeking to eradicate the police. “Abolishing the police department is certainly the goal of activists in the community,” he said. “Not that I’m against that concept. I just don’t think it’s what the council is doing at the moment. I don’t even think it’s anywhere close to that.” 

Ellison describes the effort in different terms. “We are looking to reimagine how public safety happens in our city,” he said. “But the simple fact is law enforcement, at least for the foreseeable future, is still going to be, probably, a significant part of that.”

Jeremiah Ellison speaks during the North Minneapolis City Council Candidate Forum on February 16, 2017. (Tony Webster)

Ellison talks about this issue with a fluency that suggests he was made to address the policing crisis. But in conversation with JI, he also appeared to be exasperated by some of the structural challenges ahead of him, such as qualified immunity and arbitration statutes that have protected police officers from wrongdoing.

“These are things that will drive you to a point of frustration pretty quickly when you’re realizing that you can’t hold people accountable in the way that they deserve to be held accountable,” Ellison said with a sigh, lamenting the lack of control he once possessed with a paintbrush. “I don’t necessarily feel made for this moment in any kind of way. But I do feel like it’s important that I answer the call when I’m being asked to keep my community as safe as possible.”

Despite that goal, Ellison also expressed a strong and persistent desire to give it all up and return to his old vocation, even if he is the scion of one of the most powerful politicians in Minnesota politics. In the art world, at least, his ideas would be unadulterated by the vexing challenge of legislation. “Certainly, when I’ve wrapped here, my plan, my hope,” he said matter-of-factly, “is that I can go back to drawing comics.”

***

Ellison has always defined himself as an artist, which his parents encouraged from a young age. “When he was a little kid, he used to paint and draw on the walls,” Keith Ellison told JI in a phone conversation. “We had to tape paper up on the walls so he would write on the paper and not the walls. This was when he was a tiny little boy, like two or three years old. He just kept doing it, and so we put him in an arts class.”

The class was with Juxtaposition Arts, a prominent non-profit visual arts organization in North Minneapolis. “He was our youngest student,” said Roger Cummings, a co-founder of Juxtaposition, adding that Ellison, who joined at age six, learned to develop his analytical faculties by critiquing and interpreting his classmates’ works before he had reached adolescence. 

Ellison was also taught that making a mural was as much an artistic statement as it was an exercise in community engagement. “What we try to do is give different levels of responsibility to young people,” Cummings explained, mentioning such extra-artistic tasks as securing the wall, talking to the business owner and creating a design that takes into account those who live and work in the area.

Even with that civic-minded training, Ellison was not immediately moved to go into public service. “When we were younger — 16, 17 — he was really adamant that he did not want to go into politics,” said Michael Lee, who is one of Ellison’s best friends from high school, noting that Ellison’s father had been elected to Congress the year after they got to know each other. Still, Lee added that Ellison had changed his mind when they spoke years later. “His understanding of public service and politics comes out of his orientation toward art and storytelling.”

Ellison, who dropped out of college after about one semester, has brought that sensibility to the city council. “He’s not locked into convention,” his father told JI. His mother, Kim Ellison, who chairs the Minneapolis Board of Education, agreed. “If he didn’t have blank paper and pencil in front of him, he wasn’t focused — that was part of everything he did or any space he was in,” she told JI. “Even now, in his office or in his house, he’ll have a whiteboard. He’s got to write down his thoughts and be able to see them.”

Lisa Goodman, a city councilmember who sits next to Ellison on the dais whenever the council meets in person — which isn’t often these days — described Ellison as a “creative, nervous doodler” who could often be seen scribbling away on a piece of paper during council presentations. “He lets out his anxiety and energy through art,” she said. 

Though Ellison and Goodman disagree on several policy issues — including the police — Goodman said that she has managed to find common ground with her young colleague despite their differences. 

Jeremiah Ellison speaks with constituents in Minneapolis. (Courtesy)

In the fall of 2019, Goodman, who is Jewish, invited Ellison, a Muslim, to a Friday night service at Temple Israel, a Reform synagogue she regularly attends in Minneapolis. “In Minnesota, Jews and Muslims are not the predominant religion, and so I found commonality with him in that, and I was really honored that he agreed to come with me to synagogue,” she told JI. “He immediately accepted my invitation, showed up on time and sat with me and prayed.”

Ellison, who serves a section of Minneapolis that was once home to a sizable Jewish population, recalled the service with a sense of appreciation. “It was very social justice–centered, and there was this strong sense of solidarity that I felt, especially sitting next to Lisa Goodman, who I had been told would be an intense political enemy.”

Ellison believes Judaism and Islam are “incredibly compatible,” given, for one, that they are both Abrahamic religions. “I also think that, politically, the two religions sort of exist under a certain level of threat in America,” he said. “It can be difficult to recognize that when you have prominent sort of, quote unquote, Islamic figures who are openly antisemitic.”

He was referring, in large part, to the Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who is widely viewed as an antisemite. But Ellison’s appraisal is complicated by the fact that his father once supported Farrakhan and defended him in law school newspaper columns. 

Though Keith Ellison — who was the first Muslim to serve in Congress in 2007 — has since renounced Farrakhan, his affiliation with the controversial leader, as well as some of his past statements on Israel, have come back to haunt him, particularly when, in 2016, he ran for chair of the Democratic National Committee. While Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) endorsed Ellison, Haim Saban, the powerful Democratic donor, refused to get behind him, characterizing Ellison as “an anti-Semite and anti-Israel individual.”

***

Ellison is, of course, aware of his father’s uneasy relationship with some high-profile members of the Jewish community, but he doesn’t feel constrained by it. “I think, personality-wise, my dad is a bit extroverted,” he said. “I’m more introverted, which is probably the only reason that I don’t have a bunch of controversial things that people know I said when I was in my early 20s.”

“I don’t feel any pressure because of my relationship with my dad,” he added. “I have a level of urgency to remember that I don’t know everything. At 21, I probably would have very decidedly spoken about my support for Palestine, which I still hold, without much regard for any understanding of antisemitism. Now, I’m building relationships with people in my community. I’m building relationships with my colleagues who are helping me consider things that I just quite honestly hadn’t considered before.”

Steve Fletcher, another Jewish Minneapolis city councilmember who was elected the same year as Ellison, is one of those colleagues. He described Ellison as a strong ally who was capable of detecting instances of antisemitism when they entered the public discourse. 

“I’m an advocate for smart housing and density in the urban core, and every once in a while somebody who opposed adding more dense housing would say to me, ‘Go back to New York,’ and I’m not from New York,” Fletcher recalled. “It just felt a little coded. It was something that I noticed, and that Jeremiah noticed. He picked up on it right away.”

Still, Ellison acknowledged that he has approached the issue with a learning curve. “There have been points where elected leaders who I’m fond of, who I have a good relationship with, have said things that I didn’t understand to be antisemitic,” he said, “and it’s been through conversations with people like Lisa and Steve Fletcher, in particular, where I feel like I have come to understand antisemitism a lot better than I think I really did.”

“I’m Muslim, so solidarity with people in Palestine is something that has been a crucial part of my politics,” Ellison elaborated. “I think that understanding where that line is and when you do cross that line between being critical of the way a government functions versus assigning these characteristics, these caricatures, to a religion, a people, I think that I needed to grow in understanding what that line was myself. And I think that I have grown.”

Ellison declined to name names when asked which elected leaders he had in mind. But Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), who inherited Keith Ellison’s seat in Minnesota’s 5th congressional district when he ran for attorney general, is a friend of the young city councilman and has been accused of making antisemitic remarks.

“Ilhan has had to learn the hard way what that line is between being, I think, appropriately critical of a government’s policies versus saying things that are antisemitic,” he said of the congresswoman, who endorsed Ellison during his run for City Council when she was a member of the Minnesota House of Representatives. “While I still unequivocally support Ilhan and her reelection, and want to support her in her growth as a young congressperson, I also think I understand that there’s probably still some learning and a little bit of remedy that needs to occur between her and a lot of folks of Jewish faith here in Minnesota.”

For his part, Ellison said he is still working out some of his beliefs when it comes to Israel. He declined to take a stand, for instance, regarding the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. 

“To be fully honest, I wouldn’t condemn the BDS movement just because I understand, I think, the impulses of a lot of the people I know who are participating in it and who do believe in it,” he said, adding, “I would want to make sure that I fully understand the ways in which that movement could be interpreted as antisemitic, whereas I gotta acknowledge right now, I don’t fully understand where that line is as it pertains to BDS.”

Still, he expressed a strong desire to visit Israel as well as the Palestinian territories, if given the chance to do so. “It’s just an important part of the world to engage with,” he said, “and I think it’s important to sort of be on the ground. I think that you always learn more on the ground.”

Jeremiah Ellison speaking
Jeremiah Ellison speaks in front of a mural at a Minneapolis skate park.

***

For the moment, though, Ellison appears intent on staying put in his home city, where, as a member of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, his first term ends in 2022. While his tone suggested that he would most likely run for a second term, he also indicated he would be happy to pass the mantle to another public servant when he felt the time was right. He certainly has no intention of running for higher office, he said. “I don’t want to be mayor.”

Though such statements should be taken with a grain of incredulity — he is a politician, after all — Ellison appeared genuinely intent on getting back in touch with his artistic side and abandoning politics altogether when the time is right. 

“Without putting a date on it, I think me deciding to wrap up this position will have less to do with whether or not I think I’m ready, and I think it’ll have more to do with how good of a job I do in fostering new political talent that centers the work more than the title, that centers the community more than their own advancement,” he said. “Those are the things I care about. I’m gonna be doing well either way. I made a living as a muralist.”

Ellison regards his muraling as separate from his political endeavors. He quotes a role model, the Chicago artist Theaster Gates, to bolster his point: “I would never make a mural to solve a social problem.” 

“I think muraling is really important, but I also think that there’s a real limitation to murals that doesn’t really dishonor them,” he said. “I still think that murals are really necessary, but the thing that I always found as a mural artist was that murals are often like pins on a map. I think the best murals maybe tell a story of a neighborhood — and certainly murals that ignite that activist sort of impulse tell a story and they point to an issue.”

In his time on the city council, Ellison has nevertheless made efforts to marry his past life as an artist with his current role as an elected official, but he hasn’t yet found a spare moment to do so effectively. “I will tell you, there have been times where I’ve tried to pick up a project,” he told JI. “I’ve thought about doing almost, like, a very relatable local government explainer via comic. It gets so hard to actually sit down and write and draw when you’re in the day-to-day of this job.”

For now, Ellison is focused on the day-to-day. “I just try to do my job,” he said. “My job is to keep people safe. The police murdered George Floyd and then the police also escalated tensions with protesters until things obviously got untenable. And so that’s my focus.”

Susan Segal, who was recently appointed chief judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals and who previously served as Minneapolis’s city attorney, told JI Ellison had been a thoughtful councilman during the brief time she worked with him. “He asked questions and wanted information, and he’s a good listener, so I really enjoyed my time working with him,” said Segal, who hosted Ellison and his father for a Passover Seder not too long ago. “He was a good client in the sense that he asked for legal advice and he followed it.”

But it remains to be seen how long being a public servant will be his focus. “A few years ago, he was happy painting, doing graphic novels, painting murals, part of the whole Minneapolis art scene,” Keith Ellison told JI. “He’s been painting murals since he was literally three years old. And it’s his passion. It’s what he really is here to do.” He added, “I think Jeremiah could do more things in politics. But the question is, does he want to? And so I think, at this point in his life, he’s happy to do public service, but I think his real heart is in the arts world.”

Ellison isn’t denying his father’s assessment. “I’ll tell you, as much as I am honored to do this job,” he said, “I do like painting murals more.”

Palestinian activists disappointed at DNC platform’s language on Israel

Longtime Palestinian activists expressed their disappointment at the language in the Israel plank of the 2020 Democratic National Committee platform during a webinar hosted by the Arab American Institute on Tuesday.

James Zogby, AAI’s president, who has been involved in the drafting process of the party’s platform for decades, said this year’s process was markedly more friendly to Palestinian activists and their supporters than in prior election cycles, but still expressed frustration that the 2020 platform did not reference “occupation,” condemn all Israeli settlements or support conditioning U.S. aid to Israel.

Zogby accused party leaders of caving to pressure from the pro-Israel community for political reasons. “It’s not about policy, ever. It’s really about politics,” he asserted. “And it’s sort of a power pull. It’s a question of who can make who jump through hoops… We were always on the downside of that debate. In this case, they did it again, they wouldn’t let those words in the platform just to show who’s boss.”

Zaha Hassan, a human rights lawyer and visiting fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, called this year’s platform drafting process “difficult to understand” and “not very transparent,” adding that Palestinian-American delegates were disappointed with the results. She also decried the party for failing to explicitly support “equality” between Israelis and Palestinians, not using the word “sovereignty” in discussing Palestinian statehood and including language calling for Israel to remain a Jewish state.

Zogby praised the platform’s language regarding the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which says the party opposes “any effort to unfairly single out and delegitimize Israel, including at the United Nations or through the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement, while protecting the constitutional right of our citizens to free speech.” Zogby said he sees the second clause as essentially nullifying the previous anti-BDS language and as a disavowal of the state-level anti-BDS legislation that has been adopted by 30 states.

Jewish Currents editor-at-large Peter Beinart, who recently sent shockwaves through the Jewish community with a column arguing that liberal Zionists should abandon hope for a two-state solution, claimed that there is no longer a viable argument in support of Israel from a Democratic perspective.

“One of the things that I think we see more and more clearly is it’s not really possible to cordon off the Israel-Palestinian debate from all of the other debates… People have a set of values and principles,” he said. “In the Republican Party that is not such a problem because those principles fundamentally are not about equality.”

“But in the Democratic Party,” he continued, “the move that people who want the United States to support the Israeli government… is essentially to kind of cordon off, or try to defend the Israeli policies in the language of progressivism, which really doesn’t work when you have a government that’s denying millions of people basic rights because of their ethno-religious status.”

Hassan noted that the platform does not use language seen in previous platforms about “shared values” between the U.S. and Israel — recognition, she said, of this dynamic.

Beinart partly blamed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government for this shift.

“We’ve had an Israeli prime minister now for 11 years who is very American, and who often looks to many progressive Americans as a kind of Israeli version of the Republicans that we like least domestically,” he said. “That makes it so easy for Americans to understand why the values that he represents are so anathema to us.”

Despite his criticisms of the platform, Zogby went on to downplay its significance, noting that it often does not reflect how the party, and its members, actually behave in practice.

“I dare say most people never even read the damn thing after it’s done,” he said. “Secondly, I think it’s important to see that the platform is never adhered to even by Democratic administrations… So I’m not going to make much right now of where [Joe] Biden and [Kamala] Harris are going to be.”

Jared Polis hails increasing visibility of Jewish Americans in politics

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, who was elected in 2018 as the state’s first Jewish governor, celebrated the increasing number of Jewish Americans involved in politics, with some rising through the ranks of the Democratic Party. 

“It is very heartening to see the increasing visibility of Jewish Americans throughout politics,” Polis said during a virtual event on Tuesday for Jewish Democrats hosted by the Democratic National Committee during the 2020 Democratic National Convention. “This year, several of the candidates for president of the United States were of Jewish heritage. And of course, with the selection of [Sen.] Kamala Harris, our soon-to-be second gentleman of the U.S., Douglas Emhoff, is Jewish.”

Polis noted Emhoff’s possible role is “another reason” why Joe Biden’s selection of Harris as his running mate “was not just outstanding, but, frankly, groundbreaking.” 

“These are milestones and speak well of the inclusive nature of our nation and of the Democratic Party,” said the Colorado Democrat. 

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who participated in a follow-up panel focused on American Jewish voters, said he was deeply moved to watch “a Jew named Bernie Sanders give, I think, the most enthusiastic speech about a nominee in the nomination that he competed for and came in second place, of any second-place finisher I’ve ever heard.” 

On the webcast, Polis also highlighted President Donald Trump’s comments on the campaign trail on Monday, suggesting that he “moved the capital of Israel to Jerusalem… for the evangelicals.” 

“For once, President Trump was honest about his motives. It wasn’t because of a belief that Jerusalem is the capital of the State of Israel. It wasn’t because of any deeply held belief in the Jewish state. It was simply what he said it was: an appeal to evangelical voters,” Polis stressed. “I have friends on both sides of when or how, or if the embassy should be moved. But it should not be moved — I think we would all agree — simply because evangelical voters in America want it. It should be situated because of where we can best support the peace process, the stability and survival of the Jewish State of Israel.”

Barry Shrage dishes on two key Massachusetts Democratic primaries

The Senate primary matchup in Massachusetts between Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-MA) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) has made for some curious dynamics. While progressive Democrats are throwing their support behind the 74-year-old Markey, a co-author of the Green New Deal who has held elected office for nearly 50 years, the local pro-Israel community has largely rallied behind Kennedy, the 39-year-old political scion who gave up his seat in the state’s 4th congressional district to run against a member of his own party.

In a recent letter, more than 75 Jewish community leaders in Massachusetts endorsed the young congressman over Markey, though the two elected officials seem to share similar views. “At a time when some work overtime to delegitimize Israel, Joe has been unyielding in making Israel’s case to those who may be reluctant to listen to it,” read the letter, which was published earlier this month. “He has never ducked and run when it comes to support for Israel.”

Barry Shrage, a professor in the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program at Brandeis University and the former president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, was one of those who signed onto the letter, and in a recent interview with Jewish Insider, he explained his reasons for backing Kennedy.

“I support him because I think that, at the end of this particular era of politics, after the next election, we’re going to be trying to figure out who’s going to lead the Democratic Party into the future,” Shrage said. “I’m 73 myself. I’m not against older people. They’re all great. We’re all great. Baby boomers are my favorite. But on the other hand, the future of the Democratic Party, as everyone knows, is not Joe Biden, it’s not [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi. These are all fine people, but they’re not going to be in a position to actually lead the party. So the question is going to be, ‘Who is going to lead the party?’”

Shrage is worried that the answer to that question could be such left-wing Democrats as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), a rising star who has endorsed Markey and whose political views are inhospitable to Israel. “It troubles me,” Shrage said, pointing out that Markey has also been endorsed by a local nonprofit organization, Massachusetts Peace Action, which supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.

Not that Shrage is implying Markey necessarily holds the same views of those who have backed him. “I’m not saying that’s Ed Markey. I’m not,” said Shrage, who added that Markey has a solid record when it comes to Israel. “But I’m saying that all that support from those places makes me concerned.”

“Whether Markey will feel beholden to them or not, I do not know,” Shrage added. “I assume that he will continue to be a supporter of Israel as he has been in the past. But I still worry about the future of the party and maintaining a bipartisan sense of support for Israel.”

“It’s a big deal for me as a Jewish person,” Shrage concluded.

Though Shrage publicly supports Kennedy, he declined to reveal who he would be voting for in the district Kennedy is leaving behind to run for Senate. (He has donated $350 to local legislator Becky Grossman, according to the Federal Election Commission.) The crowded Democratic primary contest includes nine candidates who are vying to represent a portion of southeastern Massachusetts in Congress. 

Shrage believes that most of the candidates would do a fine job representing the 4th district, reserving criticism for Ihssane Leckey, a young progressive who has been endorsed by Jewish Voice for Peace and If Not Now Boston. Leckey, Shrage said, “really doesn’t understand the nature of Israel, its political systems, its strengths.”

A recent poll released by Leckey’s campaign put her in third with 11% of the vote, behind Newton City Councilor Jake Auchincloss at 16% and Grossman at 19%. The numbers suggest that some of the contenders could split the vote, giving Leckey the edge in a packed race.  

“There’s no way to know how the vote is going to split,” Shrage said. “The best thing we can do is to make sure that people do come out for the candidate of their choice.”

With that in mind, Shrage said he has been doing his part to educate Jewish voters in the district about their options. He has helped distribute letters to synagogues and Jewish organizations exhorting Jewish community members to participate in online forums so they can decide for themselves who they like. 

The hope, he explained, is that even if the vote splits, Leckey will fail to garner enough support to advance to the primary. 

“What I want the Jewish community to know is that this is an extremely important race that deserves their time, attention and their engagement in order to make the best possible choice and avoid a situation where a district that’s always been balanced, liberal, progressive and also pro-Israel goes in a totally different direction,” Shrage averred. “It would be, what we used to say in Yiddish, a shanda.”

Auchincloss defends himself amid renewed scrutiny of past statements

Facing a firestorm of criticism for past social media posts, Massachusetts 4th district Democratic congressional candidate Jake Auchincloss addressed his comments in a web event hosted by the Boston Globe on Monday.

The Globe had endorsed Auchincloss — a Newton, Mass. city councilor — in the district’s crowded Democratic primary shortly before the social media posts resurfaced. 

In a 2010 post, addressing Pakistani lawyers burning an American flag at a rally, Auchincloss wrote, “So we can’t burn their book, but they can burn our flag?” In the other, he said that Cambridge, Mass. was “taking P[olitical] C[orrectness] too far” by changing Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s day.

Auchincloss apologized for his comments about the Quran, characterizing them as “a stuipd remark by a snarky 22-year-old” and said that he is “surprised and embarrassed” by them now. “It’s not how I felt then and it’s certainly not how I feel now,” he said.

Auchincloss argued that he was attempting to point out difficulties inherent in the broad protections of the First Amendment.

“As a country, we have grappled with how to balance the First Amendment freedom of expression, which has been an important bulwark of liberty in our country’s history, against the portfolio of other civil liberties that we cherish, including freedom from fear and freedom from harassment — and that’s an ongoing balance that we need to strike as a country,” he said.

He went on to say that he objects to burning both scripture and the American flag, adding that he was not advocating for burning either in his post. He said he has “grown and evolved” since he posted the comment, pointing specifically to his experiences working with Afghani Muslims while deployed to the country.

When pressed by Globe editorial editor Bina Venkataraman, who moderated the event, Auchincloss said the post was a “tone deaf way to kind of make a point about mutual toleration.”

The candidate also addressed a previous statement that Newton high school students should not be punished for displaying a Confederate flag on school grounds. Auchincloss had argued that the students had the First Amendment right to display the flag, but told Venkataraman that he now regrets his response.

Auchincloss also said that he has changed his opinion on Columbus after reading more about him, and is now advocating for Newton to change the holiday to Indigenous People’s Day.

On the issue of political correctness more broadly, Auchincloss pointed to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and broader criticism of Israel on college campuses as examples of the potential dangers of political correctness taken too far.

“I do worry that on college campuses in particular, we see an increasing reluctance to engage with different points of view, I think we’ve seen this, and this is especially close to home for me as a Jewish American,” he said. “We’ve seen this with issues related to Israel and BDS… I do think that as a country, we’ve got to be careful that we’re not putting [blinders], that we really are willing to grapple with the full suite of opinions.”

Auchincloss also addressed reader concerns over his level of engagement with communities of color in Newton.

He insisted he’s been engaged in conversations about racism and discrimination throughout his time in city government, noting that he has received the backing of local civil rights advocates.

“I’m going to continue to be there in Congress on behalf of the Black community, on behalf of other historically marginalized communities,” he said. “We have a tremendous amount of work to do as a country to be a place where everybody truly feels like they’re part of our common heritage and they’re part of the 21st century promise that we have. And I’ve been there on the City Council and I’ll be there in Congress.”

Venkataraman questioned Auchincloss’s claims that he opposes dark money in politics, noting that he has benefited from $180,000 in outside advertising from a super PAC, which received a $40,000 donation from his parents.

“We have a broken campaign finance system,” he responded. “We have to operate in the system that we have. We all have to play by the same set of rules. And right now I’m under attack by a quarter million dollars worth of dark money that is trying to paint an incredibly unfair distortion of my beliefs. And I think there are people who want to tell a positive story about me… I hope that story gets out and can counterbalance these really negative unfair attacks.”

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