In 2020, Nida Allam, an outspoken progressive and the daughter of Pakistani and Indian immigrants, became the Durham County Commissioner—and the first Muslim woman elected to office in North Carolina. Now, the 28-year-old is running for the U.S. House of Representatives.
She hopes to represent the newly-redrawn 6th District, where she would succeed longtime Democrat David Price. (Price represents the 4th District, which is being redrawn as the 6th.) Price, who is retiring after more than 30 years in office, has supported a two-state solution and opposed unlimited construction of new settlements in the Occupied Territories—positions that parallel those of J Street, the liberal advocacy group.
Allam’s candidacy has alarmed some members of Durham’s Jewish community, including Robert A. Gutman, a centrist political activist largely focused on opposing antisemitism and supporting Israel: “I am especially concerned by the public display of support for her candidacy by the well-known House of Representatives ‘Squad,’ all of whom,” Gutman charges, are anti-Zionists.
On domestic policy, Allam, who did not respond to requests for comment, ticks all of “the Squad’s” boxes: She supports Medicare for All, the Green New Deal and a reduced defense budget. Allam was also a regional field director for Bernie Sanders’s presidential run in 2016.
In 2019, when one member of “the Squad,” Ilhan Omar, suggested that American supporters of Israel were betraying “allegiance to a foreign country,” Allam joined other progressive Democrats in an open letter defending her. In November, when Allam announced her candidacy, Omar tweeted, “Let’s go Nida,” adding a cheerful emoji.
Allam, however, has launched her campaign with an unprompted overture to Jewish constituents. On December 22—well before the attack on the synagogue in Colleyville, Texas—Allam reached out to her local Jewish community. She denounced antisemitism and, going further, apologized for her previous statements and actions. In a featured op-ed in the district’s influential alt-weekly, the Indy, under the headline “We Must Stand in Solidarity With Our Jewish Neighbors to Fight Rising Anti-Semitism,” she wrote:
“We cannot sit by while our Jewish neighbors are under attack; we must stand in solidarity with them and unequivocally condemn anti-Semitism and bigotry in all its forms…This will require learning and accountability from everyone—myself included. In the past, I regrettably and unintentionally invoked anti-Semitic tropes in a tweet attempting to call attention to the United States’ withdrawal of humanitarian aid from the Palestinian people. In another instance, I attended and live streamed a protest at which destructive and anti-Semitic language, which I do not condone, was used by some of the protesters present. For my tweet and lack of sensitivity to what was captured and then posted in my personal live stream of that protest, I deeply apologize.” She also thanked her “neighbors in the Jewish community, who have engaged in a loving process of accountability to educate me on the harm my words have caused.”
Allam’s awareness of “the dangers of religious discrimination and how bigoted language can lead to acts of violence” was shaped by the 2015 murder of three of her good friends in Chapel Hill: Muslim students who were shot and killed by an Islamophobic neighbor. That incident, Allam said, motivated her entry into politics.
None of this is to say that she has embraced Zionism; far from it. In the same column, she also wrote: “I stand by the urgent need to end Israel’s illegal, violent occupation of the Palestinian people. But the movement to end the occupation, secure a lasting and peaceful resolution with Israel, and defend the human rights of everyone living in the region is a movement for justice and peace, in which anti-Semitism must have no home.”
Some have questioned whether Allam’s column shows a sincere, principled change of heart or calculated political cynicism.
Allam has served only one year in her county commissioner post, and while she has no singular accomplishments in office, she has attracted support based on her progressive views. Recently she was endorsed by the Carolina Federation, a statewide coalition of progressive groups. And she is the only declared candidate from Durham, where most of the Democratic primary voters are located.
However, some progressives feel Allam is too young and too untested to step up so quickly; that it is not yet her turn. While the final outline of the district is being challenged in court, it is likely to include a significant Black constituency, and many feel that a Black candidate should hold that seat.
The current frontrunners are two state senators, Valerie Foushee of Chapel Hill, who is Black, and Wiley Nickel of Raleigh, who is white. Other potential contenders: Kathy Manning, a Jewish Congresswoman from neighboring Greensboro, is expected to be gerrymandered out of her seat and has been mentioned as a possibility. And a potential wild card is American Idol star Clay Aiken, who announced he was joining the race as a “loud and proud Democrat.”
In a crowded and fractured Democratic primary field anything can happen, so although the Jewish vote in the primary is relatively small, in a tight, multi-candidate race, it could have a significant impact beyond its numbers. This, some believe, may account for Allam’s outreach to the Jewish community. She remains a relative long shot, yet even if she fails to secure the congressional seat this time around, she appears to be a rising political star.
Which is why few Jewish voters are more interested in what she really believes about Israel than centrist activist Gutman, a retired kidney specialist formerly on the faculty of the Duke University Medical Center.
In 2018, Gutman was in the thick of a largely symbolic controversy over the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and police training; a conflict that tore apart the area’s generally liberal Jewish community. Allam, who says she is an unofficial BDS supporter, was on the other side. She signed a petition backed by the Jewish Voice for Peace, which called on Durham’s mayor and city council to cease any local police partnership with the Israel Defense Forces—something that hadn’t taken place and was not being contemplated.
Gutman is also a board member of Friends of Durham, a secular political organization partly responsible for the recent upset of progressive candidates for Durham mayor and several city council members. He says he was “pleased and surprised” by Allam’s column in the Indy last month, because it was “startlingly different” from her previous statements. After reading the column, Gutman wrote to her, saying, “I hope you and I could meet to discuss your political position in the House and on BDS, should you emerge a victor.” But thus far she has not responded, prompting him to characterize the column as “virtue signaling.”
Other area Jewish leaders were more sympathetic, but had similar concerns. “I think the op-ed was a welcome step forward and it’s clear that she’s engaged in an important process of reflection,” says Rabbi Daniel Greyber, of Beth-El Synagogue, a conservative congregation just off the Duke campus. “It’s refreshing to hear a politician apologize! The antisemitic language used at the rally she attended and live-streamed was the phrase, ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’—I wish she had said more explicitly why that language is antisemitic, namely because it calls for the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state.” Still, he says, “I’m grateful for her apology and for being a person who is open to learning and growing. That’s something I think we need more of from our political leaders.”
But Shai Ginsburg, chair of Asian and Middle Eastern studies at Duke’s John Hope Franklin Center, wonders if such critiques hold Allam to a double standard. “Would you or other critics ask of a candidate who supports Israel to state explicitly that they support Palestinian political and individual rights, both within Israel and ‘outside’ it—that is, in areas Israel is still the sovereign of?”
Durham-based freelance journalist and author Mark I. Pinsky has been covering North Carolina politics since 1972.