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Some Democratic House members face opposition because of their criticism of Israel

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The ongoing war between Israel and Hamas is playing a divisive role in elections here in the U.S. Forces normally aligned with the Democratic Party are working to defeat some of the most liberal members of the House over their positions on Israel. NPR political correspondent Susan Davis reports.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Pennsylvania Democrat Summer Lee is a proud new member of the so-called "Squad," a term used either as a badge of honor by its members or as an insult by critics to describe a small but growing coalition of the most liberal members in Congress.

SUMMER LEE: We put forth the boldest priorities, and we fight for them, and we show other people how to fight for them. And I've learned how to fight for them because they were there before. So it's not a pejorative to me at all.

DAVIS: First elected in 2022, Lee is the first Black woman to represent Pennsylvania in the House. Her district includes most of Pittsburgh and its surrounding suburbs, and within that city is the historically Jewish neighborhood of Squirrel Hill, where Lee's primary opponent, Bhavini Patel, made a point to headquarter her opposing campaign.

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BHAVINI PATEL: What we have right now is a representative who has aligned herself with a small minority of the Democratic Party and has taken a lot of votes, I would say, that are not with the majority of Democrats in Congress.

DAVIS: For example, in the wake of the October 7 attack on Israel, Lee was one of just nine Democrats to oppose a resolution in support of Israel. And earlier this year, under pressure from fellow Democrats, including Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro, who is Jewish, Lee canceled an appearance with the Council on American-Islamic relations, a Muslim advocacy group, after reports that some of the scheduled speakers had previously made antisemitic remarks. This record has been fuel for Patel's campaign.

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PATEL: We need to ask the question as to why she wanted to go and share that stage to begin with.

DAVIS: Patel has less money and less organization, and Lee is currently favored to win in the April 23 primary. But it's the first pressure test in a series of Democratic primaries in the coming months, in which both wealthy Republican donors and pro-Israel Democrats are focusing on defeating fellow Squad members, including Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Cori Bush of Missouri and Jamaal Bowman of New York.

MARK MELLMAN: We have a small group of anti-Israel members of Congress. It's a small group, but we have to keep it from growing.

DAVIS: Mark Mellman is a veteran Democratic pollster and strategist who helped form the group Democratic Majority for Israel back in 2019. His group is already backing primary challengers to Bush and Bowman, and he told NPR more endorsements are coming. The Squad's allies are pushing back. Last month a coalition of nearly two dozen liberal activist groups, including the Democratic Socialists of America, launched Reject AIPAC. Its goal is to try to counter the reported $100 million the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and its affiliates are prepared to spend in the 2024 campaign. Usamah Andrabi is a spokesman for Justice Democrats, one of the member groups. And he says there's a generational shift happening among younger progressives and how they view the powerful pro-Israel lobby in Washington.

USAMAH ANDRABI: AIPAC is our generation's NRA. As they became a right-wing, Republican-aligned lobby against all gun safety legislation no matter what sort of gun violence was the product, we have seen the exact same thing happen with AIPAC, who has moved further and further right with the extremism of the Israeli government that it demands its endorsers unconditionally support and further and further right as its donor base has gotten larger and larger shares of Republican mega-donors.

DAVIS: It is true that AIPAC takes money from Republicans, but it remains one of the largest PAC contributors to Democrats. One of their top recipients in this election is House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York. AIPAC says their sole criteria for endorsing candidates is their position on strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship. Like Mellman's group, AIPAC has also endorsed primary challengers to Bush and Bowman. AIPAC spokesman Marshall Wittmann told NPR in response to this story that AIPAC, quote, "believes it is entirely consistent with progressive values to stand with the Jewish state." Mellman acknowledges there is a divide within the party here, with no clear resolution in sight.

MELLMAN: Among Democrats, there is a rift that can be healed, but it can't be healed when people are heaping that kind of invective on Democratic groups like ours or on the state of Israel or on the Jewish people.

DAVIS: In an interview with NPR, Lee rejected the premise that progressives like her are out of step on Israel. Just last week a Gallup poll showed a majority of Americans now disapprove of Israel's handling of the war, compared to the majority who approved shortly after the October 7 attack.

LEE: Every day our numbers swell - people who are seeing what's happening on the ground in Gaza and are realizing that that is an untenable situation. And I think that what we see a lot are people who are not shooting the message but the messenger.

DAVIS: Retiree Lisa Messineo lives in Lee's district, and she's been canvassing to get out the vote later this month. She personally supports Lee, but she told NPR Lee's position on Israel hurts her in this race.

LISA MESSINEO: Well, I do think it does. Yes.

DAVIS: And that complaint is coming from Democrats. Pennsylvania has closed primaries, which means only Democrats can vote in them. Messineo described it as the, quote, "old guard" of Democrats who generally dislike criticism of Israel.

MESSINEO: They don't look at the work that she does. They just want to say, she just wants to be a - I don't like her 'cause she just wants to be a member of the Squad.

DAVIS: Progressives likely are, in turn, warning the Democratic Party that efforts to force out progressives like her could have negative repercussions come November.

LEE: When you see us on ballots, we bring with us our communities.

DAVIS: And in a swing state like Pennsylvania, that matters not just for Lee but for President Biden and Democrats up and down the ballot.

LEE: You can't say that the Democratic Party is a big tent and then, in the same breath, say that that tent is big enough for Joe Manchin but that tent is not big enough for a black progressive woman.

DAVIS: Exactly who is welcome in that tent is one of the many questions to be answered in this year's elections. Susan Davis, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.