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“This is a War”: How Pro-Israel Politics Is Upending Democratic Primaries

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Many of the most contentious Democratic primaries for House seats this past election cycle shared something in common: outside money, in the millions of dollars, from pro-Israel advocacy groups. The creation of an affiliated Super PAC by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in December 2021 marked a new level of engagement by the most prominent pro-Israel interest group in American politics. The transformation of AIPAC from an organization with a primarily behind-the-scenes influence in the halls of Congress to the top spender in Democratic primaries may endanger good-faith criticism of Israel’s policies in Congress.

When Michigan’s congressional districts were redrawn by a non-partisan, independent commission following the 2020 census, the new lines created an uncomfortable situation for Rep. Andy Levin and Rep. Haley Stevens. The two Democrats found themselves double-bunked in the new 11th district, which encompassed Democratic-leaning communities in suburban Detroit. The differences between the candidates were clear: Levin, more labor-oriented; Stevens, a more typical suburban liberal. What followed was one of the most brutal Democratic congressional primaries in the 2022 election cycle, where those usual ideological fault lines were superseded by an issue far more niche: Israel. 

On primary night, Stevens took 59.9% of the vote to Levin’s 40.1%. Her campaign was propelled by millions in dollars in outside spending from pro-Israel groups, including over $4 million from the United Democracy Project, a Super PAC associated with AIPAC. Levin also benefited from spending by outside groups, including more than $700,000 in anti-Stevens ads from J Street, an AIPAC rival. AIPAC was by far the biggest outside spender in the race, to the point where its spending came close to surpassing that of all other groups combined. 

Rep. Haley Stevens’ victory was perhaps the crown jewel for AIPAC involvement in Democratic primaries this cycle. Yet it was far from their only foray; in races in Maryland, North Carolina, Texas, and Pennsylvania, the AIPAC spent millions of dollars to support candidates aligned with their policies and attack opponents who adopted stances more critical of Israel. In many cases, AIPAC was successful in defeating their targets, including the upset of former Rep. Donna Edwards in Maryland’s 4th district.

It would be reductive to suggest that the outcomes of these primaries can be completely attributed to outside spending by AIPAC. In MI-11, Haley Stevens’ slightly more centrist ideology likely fit the district better than Levin’s labor-oriented rhetoric. In Maryland, Donna Edwards faced legitimate criticism of her congressional office’s history of lax constituent services during her previous terms. Yet it is hard to overstate the sheer size and scale of AIPAC’s spending in these and comparable races. In Maryland, outside spending supporting challenger Glenn Ivey and attacking Edwards totaled almost $7 million. Expenditures supporting Edwards and attacking Ivey amounted to a mere $1.5 million. This disparity existed in MI-11, TX-28, PA-12 (where AIPAC target Summer Lee actually eked out a victory), and so on. 

Prior to December 2021, AIPAC waged its political battles by “maintaining at least a superficial distance from partisan attacks.” By encouraging donors to support AIPAC’s slate of endorsed candidates, the interest group could kill legislation “even moderately critical of Israel.” AIPAC’s influence on politicians manifested in the financial windfall an AIPAC endorsement would provide, and the loss in donations that losing an endorsement might entail. So what has precipitated AIPAC’s shift into direct political spending—advertisements explicitly for or against candidates? For one, American sympathy for Palestinians has increased in recent years, even as a majority continues to side with Israel. AIPAC’s push into direct spending is a defensive move against an electorate more inclined to question the American relationship to Israel. 

Another factor is the advent of interest groups that seek to redefine “pro-Israel” advocacy, like J Street. Founded in 2008, J Street bills itself as “the voice for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans” and positions itself to the left of AIPAC, with policy positions including opposition to the expansion of settlements in the West Bank and strong support of the Iran Deal and American aid to Palestinians. It is no coincidence that some of AIPAC’s biggest targets were politicians closely allied with J Street, including Andy Levin and Donna Edwards. AIPAC’s pro-Israel vision faces far fewer challenges from “anti-Israel” members of Congress than J Street-affiliated politicians who articulate policies that actually seek to achieve peace. 

In May, Senator Bernie Sanders described AIPAC’s push into direct political spending as “war,” warning that the outside spending could impact “the future of the Democratic party.” Hyperbolic as Sanders’ statement may be, AIPAC’s spending might really represent an existential threat for progressive Democrats looking to expand their numbers in the House Democratic Caucus. Unsurprisingly, candidates and members of Congress identifying more strongly with the progressive wing of the party tend to be more critical of the United States’ relationship with Israel and will continue to find themselves targets of AIPAC’s unprecedented political spending. For these candidates, the alternative is acquiescing to AIPAC’s preferred policy positions and accepting the support of an organization that values uncritical support for Israel above all else. 

This political spending results in censorship of good-faith, legitimate criticism of Israeli policy from members of Congress. Influential former AIPAC president David Victor called Andy Levin “the most corrosive member of Congress to the US-Israel relationship” in a January email encouraging his network to support Haley Stevens. His crime? Criticizing human rights abuses by the Israel Defense Forces and associating with Squad members Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Clearly, AIPAC’s objective is to narrow the definition of what constitutes “pro-Israel” politics by erasing the narratives of progressive Jews like Andy Levin, attempting to discredit their righteous anger at Israel’s decades-long military occupation of the West Bank and the de facto apartheid that West Bank Palestinians experience on a daily basis. In other words, Andy Levin became a threat because he represented a truth uncomfortable to AIPAC: Jewish political thought on Israel is not nearly as monolithic as the organization would like people to think.

Note: The author of this article is a co-chair of Brown’s J Street U chapter. This article represents his thoughts and his thoughts only, and should not be taken as representative of J Street as a whole.