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1. Battleground Maryland
The latest showdown in the pro-Israel primary funding battle took place last week in Maryland’s 4th Congressional District, a suburb of Washington, D.C., where questions of Middle East policy or of the U.S. approach toward Israel are rarely contentious and have not been prominent in the campaign. And yet, as has been the case in several other races across the country this primary season, pro-Israel money played an outsized role—perhaps even a decisive one—in this race.
At the end of the day, AIPAC’s Super PAC, named United Democracy Project, chalked up another victory. The PAC poured $6 million into the race in order to ensure that Glenn Ivey, a former Maryland state prosecutor, beat Donna Edwards, a former U.S. representative of this district who broke rank with her Democratic colleagues several times by refusing to support pro-Israel legislation.
In addition to AIPAC’s $6 million, Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI), a group with similar positions on Israel but which funds only Democratic candidates, put up more than $400,000 in support of Ivey. Edwards, on the other hand, was supported by J Street’s PAC, which spent $700,000 on ads attacking her rival.
With these vast amounts of money spent by Israel-related PACs, you’d expect the Maryland airways to be flooded with ads discussing Ivey’s and Edwards’ views on Israel. But there were none. The pro-Israel dollars were used to run ads questioning Edwards’ record on representing her constituents, or, in the case of J Street, attacking Ivey’s corporate ties.
Ivey won the race handily, and while there is no way of knowing exactly how much is due to spending by pro-Israel PACs, it is clear that the massive infusion of funding from AIPAC and DMFI helped make Ivey competitive against Edwards, who was endorsed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and who had benefited from name recognition as a previous representative of the district.
2. Next stop Michigan
Maryland was the latest and most expensive battle involving pro-Israel campaign money in this midterm election cycle. Previous races have mostly ended with wins for the AIPAC-DMFI backed candidates, with one notable exception in Pennsylvania, where more than $3 million spent by the two groups combined were not enough to defeat J Street-backed progressive Summer Lee.
Now all eyes are on Michigan, where on August 2 Democrats will select their candidate for the state’s 11th Congressional District in a battle that is drawing a lot of attention—and money—in pro-Israel circles.
It is an unusual race. Both Democratic candidates, Andy Levin and Haley Stevens, are incumbents, who as a result of redistricting find themselves running for the same seat. What makes this battle the focus of attention in Jewish circles is the fact that Levin is a scion of a distinguished Michigan Jewish political family (his father held the seat before him; his uncle was a longtime senator). He’s also a poster child for J Street, which has spent $700,000 on his campaign. Meanwhile, AIPAC has already spent upwards of $3 million in negative ads trying to unseat Levin.
Why is AIPAC spending a fortune to defeat a Jewish member of Congress? The answer, for most centrist pro-Israel supporters, is that it is not a matter of faith but of policy. Levin, who has spoken out against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and has called for cutting U.S. aid to Israel if it is used for settlement expansion, simply doesn’t fill the bill.
A recent poll showed Levin is far behind his rival Stevens, although Levin’s campaign has questioned the accuracy of this poll.
3. Is it about race and gender?
Following the defeat of Maryland’s Donna Edwards, who is a Black woman, J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami attempted a cautious, nuanced yet very clear take on the question of whether AIPAC’s involvement in the 2022 Democratic primaries has a racial tinge to it. “I do not mean to charge organizations or individuals campaigning against certain candidates with racism or misogyny,” Ben-Ami tweeted, but—and there’s always a but—“it’s just true that many of those under attack by AIPAC and others happen to be women of color,” he added.
This is quite a serious charge that requires some unpacking.
It is true, of course, that AIPAC ran ads against Edwards, but her rival, whom they supported, is also African American.
In a New York Times interview, Mark Mellman, who heads DMFI, called the claim “an outrageous, disgusting lie.” He listed other Black women who were supported by his group and by AIPAC. Mellman even noted that AIPAC and DMFI’s latest target, Andy Levin, is, in fact, white and Jewish.
Ben-Ami suggested that it is not necessarily about racism but rather about perception and about community relations. “I worry that—in a misguided attempt to shore up support for Israel—some of these efforts are instead driving a wedge between communities over Israel and deepening painful rifts that we should be trying to heal,” he tweeted.
This touchy question is far from being resolved.
It is true that African Americans play an important role in progressive Democratic politics. It is also true—although somewhat of a generalization—that progressive Democrats tend to be more critical of Israeli policies. With these realities in mind, it is clear that questions of race will continue to plague this debate.
4. Is AIPAC playing into the hands of Republicans?
Some claim that AIPAC is being used—either willfully or not—by Republicans who make huge donations to the pro-Israel super PAC and see a return for their investment when AIPAC goes after Democratic candidates who may have stood a better chance to defeat GOP rivals. In other words, AIPAC is using Republican donor money to play favorites in the Democratic primaries.
Another claim is that most of AIPAC’s PAC contributions thus far have gone to defeat Democrats deemed by the group as anti-Israel, while AIPAC refrains from weighing in on Republican primary races, even in the case of Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, whose “Jewish space laser” comment was widely seen as antisemitic.
Rep. Mark Pocan, a Democrat representing Wisconsin, argued in a press conference last week that AIPAC is using funds it received from Republican billionaires “to beat strong incumbents with strong values in an attempt to force their will.”
Former Clinton administration labor secretary Robert Reich, a leading progressive voice, wrote that “AIPAC is on the way to becoming a Republican front group” and that pro-Israel Americans should “not give another penny” to them.
At their core, there is some truth to these claims: A significant portion of AIPAC’s PAC funding comes from Republican donors. It is also true that most of the cases in which the PAC stepped in with big money were in Democratic primaries. But here’s the thing—AIPAC’s sole issue is defending its own brand of pro-Israeli policy, which includes massive U.S. spending on military aid to Israel, intelligence and military cooperation, opposition to the Iran nuclear deal and refusal to confront the Israeli government over the occupation and settlements. This attitude is being challenged by progressive Democrats, and therefore that is where AIPAC is waging its war. This doesn’t mean that all Republicans are great when it comes to Israel. Far from it. But their views are less of a threat to AIPAC and other centrist pro-Israel groups’ worldview.
5. Good for the Jews?
Is there a problem with AIPAC’s PAC being too effective, too big, too rich? Does having a Jewish group, backed by Jewish donors, intervening heavily in out-of-state primary elections somehow threaten the Jewish community?
Well, it shouldn’t. Big money in politics is a huge problem but not one specific to pro-Israel or Jewish money. It can and it should be fixed.
Is pouring millions of dollars into defeating progressive Democrats a problem for many in the Jewish community? Sure, it is. And they can solve it by raising more money for their side of the debate.
Is there a problem with Jewish money playing an important role in political races? There shouldn’t be. And if anyone claims that there’s something wrong with Jews using money in politics, well, there’s a name for those kinds of people.