Summer Lee spooks Jewish voters ahead of Pennsylvania primary
Summer Lee is a Bernie-Sanders-backed progressive who has tweeted against American politicians support for israel and in favor of aplan … to dismantle [the Democratic Party].” She also publicly challenged President Biden for “occasional racism.”
Polls show her leading the Democratic nomination in the congressional race for District 12 in western Pennsylvania ahead of Pennsylvania’s May 17 primary.
Many Democratic leaders consider Lee, a Howard University law school graduate who in 2018 won a landslide election at the Pennsylvania state house, as a rising Democratic star. Many believe her political trip to Washington DC will inevitably see her join ‘Squad’ members like Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) – both of whom endorsed her last week.
But a determined pocket of Pennsylvania voters said not so fast.
At a time when Senate Democrats hold a wafer-thin majority and 30 Democratic incumbents have announced their retirement, midterms pitting moderates against hard-left upstarts will strongly shape Congress for years to come. That’s why the Pennsylvania primary is seen by many as a key race in the battle for the soul of the Democratic Party.
The election will fill a seat vacated by Mike Doyle, the Democratic incumbent in District 12 – which includes Pittsburgh – who is retiring after 27 years, leaving the newly redistributed seat open.
Lee’s views on Israel became a main flashpoint; so much so that a campaign has been underway since March to persuade pro-Israel residents of Pittsburgh to vote for Steve Irwin. A lawyer for Squirrel Hill, the heart of the city’s Jewish community, Irwin is Lee’s strongest contender for the Democratic nomination.
The volunteer effort – made up of teachers, businessmen, lawyers, nurses, doctors and housewives – is popular and, according to Pittsburgh attorney and co-organizer Charles Saul, n is funded or promoted by any organization.
Although the pro-Irwin push is primarily aimed at Democrats, organizers have added an intriguing twist: asking Republican and independent voters to change their party affiliation (at least for the election) to vote for Irwin, who is widely seen as pro-Israel. In a deep-blue region where Democratic dominance is anything but absolute (“No Republicans can get elected here,” one voter told me) — that’s a truly radical idea.
But not entirely unexpected. Anti-Semitism became a particularly “hometown” issue in Pittsburgh after the 2018 shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill that killed 11 worshipers. Israel’s spring 2021 incursion into Gaza — which Lee condemned — has also seen progressive Democrats take increasingly tough stances against Israel. Former President Donald Trump’s relocation of the US Embassy to Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv in 2017 has made Israel a partisan issue – as has the BLM movement, which has taken a pro-Palestinian stance , calling Israel an “apartheid” state. Israel is also experiencing a new wave of terror attacks, raising even more security concerns among potential voters.
According to Saul, Irwin offers moderate and conservative voters a voice they have long been denied. “It’s a deep blue neighborhood, so for anyone to have a meaningful vote…whether it’s for mayor or Congress, you have to register as a Democrat,” regardless of your view, said the 72-year-old man, who believes the last-ditch effort spurred several hundred area voters to support Irwin.
The Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh, a nonprofit charitable organization serving the Jewish community, held public interviews with all applicants in April. Saul, who attended Lee’s event, said she came across as “brilliant…and likeable”, but that only made her “more dangerous”.
He fears Lee’s endorsers include Sanders, Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) , whom “I consider an anti-Semite”.
But it’s not just Lee’s associations. Most alarming, Saul argues, are his opinions.
He pointed to a past tweet in which Lee compared Gazans, in the context of Hamas’ campaign of terror attacks in May 2021, to black Americans in terms of oppression. Saul also opposes Lee’s advocacy of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign to isolate Israel economically. (Lee argues that she is “not part” of the BDS movement.)
Andrea Chester, an English composition professor at Allegheny Community College in Pittsburgh, fears that if Lee is elected, she will join radical forces.
“It would be really bad to have someone else on the team,” Chester said. “They… don’t understand Israel’s need to defend itself.” Chester sent several dozen emails trying to persuade Republicans to switch parties and vote for Irwin.
Cheryl Moore, 57, a nurse and head of the research program at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, is a Democrat who called on fellow Democrats to vote for Irwin and also encouraged Republicans to cross party lines and support him. “It was a grassroots effort that took a bit of time to explain things,” Moore said.
The issue, for Moore, is one of extremism versus moderation.
“Lee is going to step up the partisanship, but Irwin is a listener, a negotiator and a bridge builder,” Moore said. “I can admire revolutionaries like Lee, but I think it’s the Dr. Kings – not the Malcolm Xs – who become more accomplished.”