Rep. Andy Levin wants to have it both ways. The Michigan Democrat running for re-election to his seat in the House of Representatives has tried to refute criticism from pro-Israel advocates by reminding everyone of his Jewish identity and claiming that he embodies his community’s values. However, he’s also invoking the sort of stereotypes about Jews and money to characterize his opponents’ supporters in a way that would provoke outrage from members of his party if they were spoken by a Republican.
Indeed, when some conservatives complain about the tens of millions that billionaires George Soros, Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer spend on electing Democrats or use imagery of dollar bills when talking about them, the chattering classes are quick to denounce it as anti-Semitism. But apparently, denouncing those who are spending heavily to promote a political point of view is only bad or hateful if it is directed at the GOP.
When Levin reacted to the efforts of those pro-Israel political action committees working to defeat him by claiming that AIPAC’s involvement in the race reflected “a politics of domination,” and that AIPAC uses “vast amounts of money to control or to prevent open space to have rational dialogue about Israel and Palestine,” he had a ready defense. Levin and his defenders say he can’t be accused of being anti-Israel or even of using rhetoric that is redolent of traditional tropes of anti-Semitism because he’s Jewish—and not just Jewish but a former synagogue president, as well as the scion of a popular Michigan Democratic political dynasty.
Levin is a persistent and bitter critic of the Jewish state, as well as a supporter of a bill that sought to restrict aid to Israel and which the Democratic Majority for Israel correctly described as being about rewriting history to conform to an anti-Zionist narrative and “stirring up anti-Israel hostility. Indeed, as some supporters of Israel have pointed out, Levin is actually more dangerous to its cause than open supporters of the anti-Semitic BDS movement.
Levin likes to assert his Jewish bona fides and famous name, which was long associated with support for Israel (his father Sander Levin served 26 years in the House and his uncle, Carl Levin, 36 years in the U.S. Senate) as proof that he is actually “pro-Israel.” However, he does so in order to provide cover and support for members of his party’s left-wing “Squad,” like Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), which makes no secret of their desire to see the Jewish state erased from the map. He also has openly supported anti-Zionist and even anti-Semitic Jewish groups like IfNotNow that engage in libelous attacks on Israel and seek to alienate American Jews from it.
Such actions send a message to other House members and Democrats that Levin’s bizarro definition of “pro-Israel” has credibility. That, in turn, gives them a pass for joining with other members of the House Progressive Caucus to engage in efforts to blow up the U.S.-Israel alliance and legitimize Palestinian intransigence and terrorism. So, it comes as little surprise that actual supporters of Israel are interested in seeing Levin booted out of Congress. That is why they are supporting Rep. Haley Stevens in the primary for Michigan’s 11th district that both incumbents now find themselves in.
While public interest or industry groups of every variety routinely work to defeat those who oppose their agendas and help those who support them, the left-wing of the Democratic Party and some of their corporate media cheerleaders seem to think there is something ominous or undemocratic when supporters of Israel do that.
That’s been the theme of articles in The New York Times and Politico that focused on the role pro-Israel groups are playing in this race and others. In the former, the left-wing J Street lobby claimed that AIPAC was racist because they targeted “communities of color” and “women of color,” even though the candidates backed by pro-Israel groups were themselves often African-American and female.
Those attacks were echoed in left-wing outlets like The American Prospect and The Intercept, which portray pro-Israel activism as if it were a conspiracy to hijack American foreign policy.
Of course, none of these outlets nor Levin’s supporters think there is anything wrong with Emily’s List, a PAC that backs pro-abortion and female candidates, spending $2 million in the district on behalf of Steven’s cause. It’s only AIPAC and other pro-Israel money that is described by Levin and his supporters as “dark.”
There is a legitimate debate to be had about the substance of the critique of Levin. Some on the Jewish left simply oppose AIPAC’s stand on the issues. The Forward published a piece claiming that AIPAC’s stand against Levin was “an attack on the future of peace in Israel” and will damage the U.S.-Israel relationship. This is nonsense since the policies that Levin supports, which encourage Palestinian intransigence and ignore that the concessions that left-wingers demand of the Jewish state, will only ensure more conflict, not peace. The idea that American support for Israeli rights and security is somehow antithetical to the alliance is equally risible. But saying that is not the same as asserting that there is something wrong with friends of Israel who seek to elect politicians who agree with them.
Yet for someone who trades on his Jewish identity and ties as Levin routinely does to aid those who oppose Israel and engage in anti-Semitic invective, as Omar and Tlaib have done, to also engage in some of the same kind of atrocious language as them is chutzpah on steroids.
It’s not hard to understand why Levin is, like J Street, employing smears. His campaign is in huge trouble. The most recent poll of Democratic voters in the district showed Levin trailing Stevens by a crushing 58% to 31% margin with only a couple of weeks to go before the primary. Levin is now a desperate candidate who knows his time in Congress is about to end.
His problem, of course, is bigger than just being out-of-step with most Americans about supporting Israel. Stevens’s good polling numbers are based on her reputation as a moderate rather than a progressive firebrand like Levin. She’s also more in touch with working-class voters in that rust-belt state than Levin, and was therefore supportive of former President Donald Trump’s trade policies that sought to protect American manufacturers and jobs from being lost to foreign countries where labor is cheaper.
Pulling out all the stops to win an election you know is slipping away is one thing. Still, for Levin and other left-wing Jews to join the progressive chorus claiming that there is something wrong with supporters of Israel engaging in commonplace political activism to advance their cause remains deeply troubling.
The notion that an all-powerful “Israel lobby” is engaged in conduct that is harmful to American democracy has been a staple of conspiracy theorists and anti-Semites. Being a former synagogue president doesn’t give anyone a pass for helping to propagate that kind of pernicious slur.
If Israel’s open enemies and their fellow travelers like Levin want to run on platforms that favor policies that would endanger it—or as his allies Omar and Tlaib believe, one Jewish state on the planet is one too many—they are free to do so. They are also free to spend whatever money they can raise to oppose friends of Israel when they run for re-election. Holding candidates accountable for their positions is, after all, the essence of representative democracy. But for these candidates and groups, amplified by the platforms provided by their mainstream media allies, to seek to silence or to delegitimize the efforts of pro-Israel groups is not so much ill-considered as it is despicable.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.