Fri. May 24th, 2024

The Jewish vote could play a huge role in 2024. Pennsylvania is about to put up an early test.

By 37ci3 Apr22,2024



PITTSBURGH — In the heart of one of America’s most prominent historically Jewish neighborhoods, Dan and Baila Cohen keep the front entrance of their 70-year-old Judaica store locked during business hours.

It’s not how they’d prefer it. But in light of Hamas’ Oct. 7 terrorist attack in Israel, Israel’s ongoing military campaign in Gaza and tensions at home, they said, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh told them they needed to be vigilant about who enters their business.

“That’s the reality of the world,” Dan Cohen said. 

It’s not the first time they’ve had to take additional safety precautions. The couple completed their purchase of Pinsker’s Books and Judaica in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood in 2018 just days after a white supremacist gunned down 11 worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue a few blocks away in the deadliest antisemitic attack in American history. But this time feels different.

“Oct. 27 really unified” Squirrel Hill and Pittsburgh, Baila Cohen said of the Tree of Life massacre. “Oct. 7 … really started polarizing the community itself, because that’s when we started seeing much more of the infighting and conflicts.”

Conversations with more than 30 political strategists, activists and voters outlined how that tension has put Jewish voters in an unfamiliar spot ahead of the 2024 elections: on the front lines of the fight for control of the White House and Congress. Nowhere is that more apparent than in Pennsylvania, the swing state with the largest Jewish population — about 300,000 voting-age Jews in a state President Joe Biden won by roughly 80,000 votes in 2020.

What’s more, the congressional district that includes Squirrel Hill features a primary Tuesday that is among the first electoral tests of sentiment on both sides of the conflict in Gaza and concerns over rising antisemitism in the U.S. Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, a “squad”-aligned progressive critical of Israel’s handling of the war and one of the first lawmakers to call for a cease-fire last year, will face Bhavini Patel, an Edgewood Borough Council member who has painted Lee’s advocacy as harmful to Biden’s re-election chances and out of step with her district.

“We have communities that are hurting. The Jewish community is one of them. And there are people who are … not going to agree 100% on everything that you say,” Lee said in an interview, adding she has been “very clear and very upfront” about her cease-fire position. “I have condemned Hamas. We’ve worked with the families of hostages; we’ve done everything that I think is necessary to do that. And at the end of the day, we disagree.”

A dozen Jewish voters in the district who spoke to NBC News, whether supporting Lee or Patel, almost universally said their votes in November would be driven by issues beyond Israel, saying that the Jewish electorate isn’t a “monolith” and that democracy, abortion rights and the economy weighed heavily on them.

Most Jewish voters in Squirrel Hill — and nationally — align with the Democratic Party. A Pew Research Center survey released this month found 69% of Jews leaning Democratic, while 29% aligned Republican.

But Republicans aren’t looking for a massive defection. GOP strategists and Republicans involved in Jewish outreach expressed confidence that Democratic divisions over Israel will help move a small but potentially significant number of Jewish voters into their camp in battleground states like Pennsylvania, Nevada and Arizona. They pointed to surveys showing President Donald Trump’s improved performance among Jews in 2020, compared with his 2016 race, as evidence of a slow shift that could continue.

“Before Oct. 7, most candidates would say this issue is so messy. … It’s not necessarily something that I want to focus on in my campaign,” said Tali deGroot, political director for the liberal Jewish group J Street. “And I would have said, ‘Absolutely, this isn’t a voting issue for people we poll year after year.’ And it’s too soon to tell if it’s going to be a voting issue. But not talking about it is not an option.”‘Playing with fire’

In Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District, the war and its impact at home took center stage last week at a campaign event where Lee launched her “Jews for Summer” coalition.

Lee talked about “how our liberation is tied together,” whether “in western Pennsylvania or the West Bank.” She spoke about how the district still needs “deep healing” following both the Oct. 7 attack and the killing of Jews at Tree of Life. And she framed her primary as a covert Republican effort to divide a multiethnic, cross-religious support base by using splits over Israel.

“There are people who have to convince you that the only reason why I could believe in peace is because I actually hate some of our neighbors, not because we love each other,” said Lee, who overcame significant spending by groups aligned with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobbying group, when she narrowly won her first congressional primary in 2022.

Israel didn’t have the salience it does now. Lee has accused the Israeli government of committing “war crimes,” called for an end to unconditional military aid to the country and joined a handful of other progressives in mid-2022, before the Israel-Hamas war, who voted against a GOP-led resolution that said Israel wasn’t “a racist or apartheid state.” She has also condemned Hamas’ attack and repeatedly spoken out against antisemitism. 

On Saturday, she joined 36 Democrats and 21 Republicans in voting against an aid package to the country, which passed overwhelmingly. She and Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., were the only Pennsylvania members to vote against it.

Her early call for a cease-fire is now largely in step with Democratic voters, but Jewish leaders have expressed unease with how Lee and some of her allies have discussed the issue. Last month, more than 40 Pittsburgh-area rabbis wrote in a letter, after an earlier meeting with Lee, that she has “continued to use divisive rhetoric” that the group has at times “perceived as openly antisemitic.”

Their letter didn’t describe that rhetoric, but it said Lee opposed House measures to condemn antisemitism and criticized her calls for an “unconditional cease-fire from one side,” which they said “devalues the lives and beliefs of one group.” They also called on her to return campaign contributions “from people who have voiced virulently antisemitic sentiments.” In February, Lee canceled an appearance before the Philadelphia chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations amid backlash over other speakers’ antisemitic and homophobic remarks, which she condemned.

Karen Hochenberg, president of a local Democratic club that has endorsed Patel, said Lee has lost considerable support in the Jewish community, including hers. While Hochenberg aligns with Lee on many issues, she and others have been “hurt” by some of her votes and actions, and she said she wished Lee had been more vocal about the Hamas attack.

“Many Jews now are starting to question where are we on the road map of intersectionality,” Hochenberg said. “Jews are starting to really take a look at how comfortable we are and if we’re going to send candidates to Congress who’s going to be there and have the voice of the Jewish community in mind, as well.”

Jeremy Kazzaz, a Pittsburgher leading a new Jewish voter group, said the pushback Lee faces isn’t so much about Israel but about what he called an unwillingness to meet with constituents who don’t share her views.

“She finds the individuals who agree with her already who are anti-Zionist, who are extremist or fringe of the left of politics, and she will hold them up on a pedestal while spreading things” that, Kazzaz said, make local Jews “less safe.”

But overall, Lee is looking stronger in her district now than in her first run, even to some opponents. AIPAC-linked groups aren’t getting involved in her primary this time. Lee has framed her campaign around efforts to counter MAGA Republicans and bring federal dollars to the district.

Jonathan Mayo, a Squirrel Hill resident co-leading the Jews for Summer coalition, told NBC News he aligns with Lee’s position on Israel but emphasized that he’s not a single-issue voter.

“It is so important to speak out and show that there are members of the Squirrel Hill Jewish community who still very much support Summer Lee,” he said.

Patel, meanwhile, is framing her challenge to Lee around who offers Biden the most support, hitting Lee for not criticizing activists and groups calling for “uncommitted” votes against the president in Tuesday’s primary.

“It’s essentially playing with fire,” Patel said in an interview, arguing it could boost Trump.

Lee allies have countered that anti-Biden GOP megadonors support Patel’s campaign. An outside group boosting Patel recently disclosed that it received an $800,000 donation from right-wing billionaire Jeffrey Yass. (Patel said she “denounces” Yass, calling any focus on him a distraction.)

Lee has said she is supporting Biden in the fall. She’s endorsed by congressional Democratic leadership and by Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., who has become arguably the most staunchly pro-Israel Democrat in Congress. And in Pittsburgh on Wednesday, Biden shouted out Lee as someone “who had my back.”

“We’re going to make sure that the person who’s sitting in the White House is not going to be replaced,” Lee said at her event on a recent Sunday.

Several attendees said they were casting anti-Biden protest votes Tuesday. But most said they would support him this fall.

One of them, Harry Hochheiser, said Biden “is the only legitimate choice” against Trump. He said the divisions opened up in the Jewish community over the war have been devastating.

“I don’t think any of us enjoy these divisions,” Hochheiser, a University of Pittsburgh professor and pro-Palestinian activist voting uncommitted in the primary but backing Biden against Trump, said of tensions in the Jewish community over Israel.

‘More salient than it has been’

The fight for Jewish votes in Pittsburgh is only part of a bigger landscape. Across Pennsylvania, Republican Dave McCormick has put Israel at the forefront of his campaign against Democratic Sen. Bob Casey. Nationally, groups in both parties are preparing for what they say could be the largest investment ever made to court the Jewish vote at the presidential level.

Biden’s handling of the war is the main flashpoint. Initially, he was more deferential to Israel. But as the death toll mounted in Gaza and left-wing blowback intensified at home, he has sharpened his criticism of Israeli leadership, pushed for increased humanitarian aid and ramped-up efforts to reach a cease-fire agreement. Still, he hasn’t gone as far as his critics to his left would like.

As for whether Republicans can pick up voters disaffected by the Democratic divide over Israel, Mark Mellman, president of Democratic Majority for Israel, said it’s “mostly noise” but cautioned “there is a serious chance” depending how the coming months play out.

Jewish voters have “been extraordinarily appreciative of the support that President Biden and Democratic leaders have given Israel over the course of this conflict,” he said. “I hear from some people that is beginning to change as people perceive some change in the positions of those Democratic leaders. But look … Biden has been extraordinary.”

A 2021 Pew Research Center survey found a wide split in partisanship among Jewish voters depending on which movement they aligned with. Orthodox Jews favored Republicans over Democrats by 75% to 20%, while 70% of Conservative Jews and 80% of Reform Jews backed Democrats.

Sam Markstein, national political director at the Republican Jewish Coalition, said much of the Jewish vote is based in states where Republicans have no shot at all, contributing to the gulf in support between Republicans and Democrats. Pointing to an Associated Press VoteCast survey after the 2020 election that found Trump improved on his 2016 performance among Jewish voters, Markstein predicts the Republican Jewish Coalition will make its “largest investment at the top of the ticket ever” this cycle to target Jewish voters in battlegrounds.

“That’s where you’re going to see the most success this year,” he said.

Some other surveys had more positive trends for Democrats. This month’s Pew survey found the share of Jewish voters who align with Democrats has increased 8 points since 2020.

Dan Siegel, who led Jewish outreach for Biden’s 2020 campaign, said Jewish voters’ foremost concerns are similar to those of any other voting group: the economy, health care and education.

“I do think [Israel] may be a little bit more top of mind. But I also think at the end of the day, elections are a binary choice,” Siegel said, predicting Jewish voters “are going to want that strong, steady hand, not an authoritarian demagogue who is unwieldy at best in a crisis.”

Trump, who strongly favored Israel as president, has offered limited commentary on the war. Speaking last month with Israel Hayom, an Israeli newspaper, Trump said, “You have to finish up your war. You have to get it done. We have to get to peace. We can’t have this going on.”

Biden’s campaign has zoomed in on recent comments Trump has made about Jewish voters; he said on Real America’s Voice that “any Jewish person who votes for Biden does not love Israel and, frankly, should be spoken to.”

In a statement, Karoline Leavitt, Trump’s national press secretary, slammed Democrats for caving in “to the demands of far-left Palestinian extremists.”

Asked about Trump’s comments on the war, Markstein said he believed Trump “was just giving voice to the frustration of … people [who] want this to be concluded, with Israel defeating Hamas and rescuing the hostages.” On Trump’s remarks about Jewish voters, Markstein said Trump “was just trying to say in a Trumpian way … why haven’t they been more vocal in their opposition to what their own leaders of their party are doing?”

Back in Pittsburgh, Kipp Dawson, a Jewish civil rights activist backing Lee, said she would be horrified by Trump’s re-election and expressed hope that Lee would be able to bring skeptical Democrats back on board with Biden this fall.

“My sense is that things are extraordinarily in flux in this country right now,” she said. “The big issue for November is who’s going to come out to vote.”

At Pinsker’s, the Cohens declined to say whom they’d support in next week’s primary or the general election, though they said a number of Jews in Squirrel Hill were eager to back Patel.

“The Jewish community really feels that if they don’t take the stand now, [U.S. support for Israel] is not going to be assured,” Baila Cohen said. “Everyone’s very interested in getting actively involved and being part of the political scene in a way that doesn’t always play out.”





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