Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.) makes a point of saying that he is “proudly Jewish.” He can back up that assertion by, among other things, citing the fact that he’s been the president of a synagogue, a job that can make the travails and brickbats that are the daily fare of members of Congress look like a vacation. He also says he supports the idea of a Jewish homeland though as part of a two-state solution with the Palestinians.
Levin, 61, also has deep roots in the Democratic establishment. He is the son of Sander Levin, an 18-term member of Congress from Michigan, whose seat he inherited when his father, now 90, retired. On top of that, he’s the nephew of the late Carl Levin, who spent 36 years representing Michigan in the Senate. Though both of the elder Levins were staunch liberals, they were also generally supportive of Israel.
So why then has Andy Levin become the focus of a controversy about how we define the term pro-Israel that has drawn in AIPAC, left-wing Jewish groups, and a laundry list of current and former liberal Jewish members of Congress who are mobilizing to defend him?
The controversy centers on an email that was sent by David Victor, a former national president of AIPAC, who recently circulated a fundraising email that urges donors to back Levin’s primary opponent. Due to Michigan’s loss of population, the state lost a congressional seat. When the district lines were redrawn, Levin found himself in a contest with another incumbent—Rep. Haley Stevens (D-Mich.)—for what is likely to be a safe Democratic seat.
But Victor didn’t just advocate for the 38-year-old Stevens, who is not Jewish but also a supporter of a two-state solution, and who is regarded as a much stronger advocate for Israel and against the BDS movement than Levin. He went further and said that the primary “presents a rare opportunity to defeat arguably the most corrosive member of Congress to the U.S.-Israel relationship.” The letter was posted on Twitter by an official for a left-wing Jewish group that supports Levin.
According to Victor, despite his Jewish bona fides, Levin is “more damaging” than Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), who are open opponents of Israel, supporters of the BDS movement and have made anti-Semitic statements. As Victor explained:
“While they [Tlaib and Omar] and some in their circle are openly anti-Israel, and even anti-Semitic in some cases, their Israel views have little influence on fellow members given their backgrounds and fringe status. The opposite is true of Andy Levin. Andy frequently and one-sidedly criticizes Israel and even fundraises for its worst detractors (think Tlaib, Omar, Cori Bush, etc.) and from his seat on the House Foreign Relations Committee authors and supports highly problematic legislation. … So when Andy insists he’s pro-Israel, less engaged members may take him at his word, follow his seat and proclaim themselves pro-Israel as well. The dumbing down of that term on Capitol Hill to mean its opposite is one of the most dangerous dynamics to the U.S.-Israel relationship today. Andy Levin is at the vanguard of that threat.”
Other than underestimating the influence of Tlaib and Omar, whose rock-star status and fawning treatment by the media and pop-culture outlets gives them far more impact than he thinks, Victor’s email was entirely correct. His Jewish credentials notwithstanding, Levin’s main impact on the debate about Israel is in providing cover for some of the Jewish state’s worst and most hateful enemies. Whatever his goals for Israel might be, the people and groups to which he lends his support want to destroy it. That’s a compelling reason for pro-Israel Democratic donors and voters to seek to oust him, especially when the more pro-Israel alternative in Stevens is a liberal Democrat rather than a Republican.
For that, Victor is now the focus of hostile coverage by liberal Jewish outlets, as well as being denounced by a letter from six sitting Jewish members of Congress and five former members who praised Levin for his “courage” for attacking Israel and accused the former AIPAC leader of trying to divide and polarize the Jewish community.
The latter charge is a familiar one, though in the past, it has generally been used against Republicans who sought to hold Democratic officeholders accountable for their stands on Israel. Jewish Democrats have spent the last 20 years claiming that it’s wrong for GOP candidates to highlight their pro-Israel stands while pointing out the problematic attitudes on an issue that has become all too common among liberal and left-wing Democrats. But this approach, which disingenuously claims that pointing out anti-Israel actions undermines bipartisan support for the Jewish state, is just as easily aimed at pro-Israel Democrats and their supporters who have the temerity to highlight Levin’s troubling stands.
The congressman’s support for legislation that aims to restrict military aid to Israel because of bogus charges that it uses American hardware to target children is crucial because it allows other “progressives” to do so with impunity.
Just as harmful is the way he has been deployed by the anti-Semites of “The Squad” to claim that their hatred for Israel and the Jews has been misunderstood or exaggerated. In particular, his vouching for Tlaib—the woman he calls “his sister”—and his assertion that calling for the destruction of the one Jewish state on the planet and the labeling of Zionism as a form of racism isn’t anti-Semitic is at odds with his branding as a “proud Jew.” By the same token, he has proved a highly useful ally for anti-Zionist groups like IfNotNow, which is also pro-BDS and on behalf of which Levin has spoken.
Both politics and ideology are at the bottom of the Levin conundrum.
Given the enormous influence and voting power of Arab Americans in his corner of Michigan, allying himself with Tlaib and other Israel-haters is good politics for Levin. It’s also clear that he subscribes to a view about Judaism and Jewish identity that is largely composed of left-wing “social-justice” stands, which makes him vulnerable to critiques of the Jewish state as somehow being antithetical to Jewish values.
Yet while those ideas are debatable, his claims that left-wing anti-Semitism is either not real or not comparable to the hatred of Jews from the right is not so much dishonest as it is dangerously blind to the implications of his statements. People like Levin, who routinely and falsely smear Republicans as anti-Semites, are seeking to disarm the Jewish community against its foes. Unlike the outliers on the right who have no influence in Washington, the anti-Semitic left now commands formidable support within the Democratic Party because of the way intersectionality and critical race theory have given permission to Jew-hatred on the grounds that Israel and the Jews possess “white privilege.” Nor can Levin credibly deny that the rhetoric of his left-wing allies has led to violence against Jews in the United States and elsewhere.
Levin is entitled to believe that his brand of Jewish activism is more valid than others who prioritize the rights and the safety of Jews who are under attack from people with whom he is allied. But to cry foul, as his supporters have done, when other Jews highlight how his efforts are hurting Jews and endangering Israel is a form of gaslighting that is as dishonest as it is damaging to the Jewish community. Supporters of Israel are entirely justified in seeking to end his tenure in Congress and to support members, like his opponent Stevens, who stand with the Jewish community against anti-Semitic BDS backers rather than with them.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.