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“Anti-Israel” and “Pro-Israel” in Michigan Election
By Ronald Aronson
In the last three weeks, the Democratic primary battle that has drawn national and international attention finally got noticed by Michigan’s major daily, the Detroit Free Press. But while neither of the Jewish community “voices” interviewed for the story dared mention the major issue, it was blurted out by the headline writer: “Andy Levin isn’t anti-Israel but he’s being painted that way” by AIPAC and its supporters.
The ad above pictures the usual AIPAC attack, “anti-Israel candidate” above Andy’s unflattering photo with unknown men on either side, calling him “Representative Andy Levin,” while the more attractive picture of his opponent Haley Stevens (with an American flag behind her) is captioned by the more honorific “Congressperson.” The two slightly different titles for the same office were no doubt survey-tested to give Stevens a subtle edge.
AIPAC’s efforts are aimed first of all at the Detroit Jewish community. Although we represent no more than 8 percent of the whole district, a majority of the area’s Jews live in the new 11th. Andy has deep roots there, being the latest member of the prominent Levin family in public office – following great-uncle Federal Judge Theodore, for whom Detroit’s Federal Building is named, uncle Carl, president of the Detroit City Council in the 1970s and then six-term Senator, and Congressman father Sander, who like his brother served in Washington for 36 years.
Andy’s great-grandfather settled in Birmingham, part of today’s 11th,, over 130 years ago. Andy, one of the leading Congressional progressives, is a former president of a Reconstructionist synagogue located in the district and a founder of the local activist group Jews for Justice. Stevens is also rooted in the area, which she describes as “pro-business, pro-economy, pro-worker.” She has now defeated two Republicans, has a winning personality, and has been endorsed by retiring Black Congresswoman Brenda Lawrence. Stevens is campaigning against the “Levin dynasty” and its supposed hold on local politics and – especially since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade and with significant help from Emily’s List – presents herself aggressively as the only candidate able to look out for women today. No less important, she has behind her the bottomless pockets of AIPAC and its wealthy donors and friends. Believing that a great deal is at stake for their politics in this race, AIPAC has made it one of its two top targets for 2022. They can be expected to pull out all stops in the days before August 2.
Why? The main reason is Levin’s Two-State Solution Act, which he presented to Congress after the High Holidays in September, flanked by Peace Now’s Hadar Susskind and J-Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami. With no negotiations taking place since the ill-fated efforts of John Kerry, and with the Israeli colonization of the West Bank proceeding relentlessly, the Two-State Solution has been abandoned virtually everywhere except as a shibboleth to which lip service must be given to undercut accusations of “apartheid.” In the face of these realities Levin, J-Street, and Americans for Peace Now, along with over forty co-sponsors in the House of Representatives seek to reassert the Two-State Solution as active American policy.
As described in The Forward, the bill “would prohibit Israel from using U.S. taxpayer dollars to expand settlements in the occupied West Bank or for annexation, and would increase funding for humanitarian purposes and for civil society groups in the Palestinian territories.” In short, it is an effort to be more even-handed towards Palestinians and Israelis and, by setting conditions for both, including American aid to Israel, revive negotiations between the two. But as described by the head of AIPAC-connected pac Pro-Israel America, Jeff Mendelsohn its approach is “fundamentally wrong”: it would “add further limits on the security assistance Israel receives, even though this aid helps ensure Israel’s survival against threats from Hamas and other Palestinian terror groups, Hezbollah, Iran, and others bent on Israel’s destruction; Codify the Palestinian position that Israel is, under international law, an illegal ‘occupier’ of ‘Palestinian land’; Declare that Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem’s Old City, including the Temple Mount and the Jewish Quarter, violates international law; and Support the efforts of the BDS movement by forbidding anything produced in the West Bank or Golan Heights from bearing the label ‘Made in Israel.’”
Levins’ bill rejects what has become the holy of holies among AIPAC’s supporters: preserving the current level of U.S. military support for Israel under the mantra of “unconditional aid.” And “unconditional” also means being uncritical towards Israel. This is how they define “pro-Israel.” In fundraising for Stevens against Levin, former AIPAC president, and Detroit-area resident David Victor told donors earlier this year that Levin is “the most corrosive member of Congress to the US-Israel relationship.” Then the conservative Detroit News showed their understanding of what was at stake by bringing in heavy hitter Abraham Foxman, former head of the Anti-Defamation League, whose op-ed endorsed Stevens as a “better friend to Israel than Levin.” This maven of antisemitism denounced Levin for “a paternalistic and sometimes hostile view” towards Israel. Even worse, Foxman accused him of being soft on antisemitism because of his collegial relationship with Representatives Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tliab – apparently no further explanation for this lightning bolt being deemed necessary. Then, descending into full-fledged McCarthyite sneering, Foxman referred to this man of the left and “his fellow travelers” as belonging to the same “ideological cadre.”
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The red-baiting words are aimed at the fact that Levin is a genuine progressive, a union activist and supporter briefly considered by the Biden administration for Secretary of Labor, a force behind the Congressional Workers Union, and a solid proponent of the Green New Deal and Medicare for All. Israel aside, all of these are anathema to the increasingly Republican wealthy donors to AIPAC, which has brazenly given money to dozens of Republicans who voted against certifying Joe Biden’s victory in 2020. Interestingly, Stevens’s lawn signs don’t even mention that she’s a Democrat, suggesting that her wealthy Republican backers are trying to encourage members of their party to cross over and vote against Levin in the August 2 Democratic primary.
“Anti-Israel” and “antisemitism” – behind these words of attack, yoked together for incendiary effect, is the Israel lobby’s increasing loss of control over what it means to be “pro-Israel.” The strenuous effort to disqualify Levin, J-Street, and Americans for Peace Now starts with these Liberal Zionists’ determination to speak the words that have become verboten among right-wing Jews and their allies like Stevens – and could not even be spoken by the Free Press’ local Jewish interviewees: “occupation,” “settlements,” and “Palestinian human rights.” The words were not mentioned in an article on the contest in the Jerusalem Post . And in an otherwise informative article by the Jewish News Syndicate, Rabbi Asher Lopatin, head of the local Jewish Community Relations Council and American Jewish Committee, steered around the words revealingly: he said Levin was “very concerned about what J-Street calls the occupation.” But in a world suffering from less censorship, Free Press journalist Todd Spangler unflinchingly pointed out: “while Stevens has voiced support for Israel and muted any outright criticism of its policies, Levin has been openly critical. He has argued against Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and urged restrictions on settlements in the territories. He has pushed for restrictions on American aid.”
Of course, these differences may not sound like much to those in that part of the world – including many Jews – that has been questioning and sometimes breaking with the Zionist vision of Israel as a Jewish state. One recent survey reveals that 25% of American Jews see Israel as an apartheid state and 34% see “Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is similar to racism in the U.S.” While 61% of Jews continue to support the Two-State Solution, one in five supports the more radical idea of a single binational state including Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. Another survey finds that one in ten American Jews support Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS). Often questioning the existence of Israel itself, Jewish Voice for Peace, authors like Peter Beinart, and magazines like Jewish Currents, have reflected and provoked this wave of rethinking especially among younger Jews,
Within this wave, J-Street, Levin’s carefully phrased criticisms coupled with his professions of love for Israel and his vote for the Iron Dome, as well as his Two-State Solution bill, may seem mild indeed. As Phillip Weiss, editor of the anti-Zionist website Mondoweiss, insists, the authors of this thoroughly moderate proposal take great pains to demonstrate themselves to be members of the “good pro-Israel team,” and never question the legitimacy of the Jewish state. Thus Weiss sees the Levin-Stevens battle as one between the “two branches of the Israel lobby.”
Among progressive Jews who are part of this recent wave, Levin can be criticized as far too moderate given the realities of the Occupation, the spread of the BDS movement, and the presence in Congress of the far more militant voices of the Squad – especially given the fact that Palestinian Rashida Tliab represents the neighboring Michigan 12th CD.
But the Levin-Stevens race is more deeply conditioned by a different reality, the kind reflected by the Foxman op-ed: Levin denounced as “soft” on antisemitism because of his friendship with Tlaib, attacked as a “fellow-traveler” to the Squad, sponsoring, as Victor says, “highly problematic” legislation because it seeks to set conditions to Israel’s use of American aid. These are the political realities that will determine whether or not Andy Levin is returned to Congress, and the realities within which a mainstream member of Congress must work. It is the realities he is trying to change.
Moreover, despite belittling it, even anti-Zionist Weiss agrees that the “fight between AIPAC and J-Street is good and important because it licenses more discussion.” This is precisely what Levin’s bill is trying to do, and that is one of the important results of the contest with Haley Stevens, who declares herself “fired up” about Israel and whose positions – and silences – are in lockstep with AIPAC. Any discussion is significant given the drift of mainstream politics in Israel, the deepening of the occupation, and the Israel lobby’s success in setting limits on what may be said about Israel. In this setting, Levin deserves enormous credit for the leadership he has shown, and the risk he has taken, in bringing the question of Palestinian human rights into the mainstream. Hitting back on those who question his Jewish identity and connection to Israel, he has stuck to his basic moral and political argument: Israel’s flourishing demands Palestinian flourishing.
About silence: The Detroit Free Press ignored an early op-ed version of this article going back well before the Todd Spangler June 17 article, as did the Detroit News – although I’ve published in both. Then the Free Press demanded deep cuts to a version of this sent as a letter to the editor but proceeded to ignore that. Although the Jewish press everywhere is discussing the contest, searching the Detroit Jewish News website under “Andy Levin and Haley Stevens” turns up exactly zero results about the current campaign. In fact, the early draft of this article received zero response from that community newspaper, even to a request to print it as a letter to the editor. To talk about the contest means talking about the Two State Solution Act, which means using the words “occupation,” “settlements,” and “Palestinian Human Rights.” Silence thus begets further silence.
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