Democratic Israel Critics Draw Opponents Eyeing AIPAC Aid


Tim Peterson, a bald, burly Air Force veteran running for Congress in Minnesota's Fifth District, wants to discuss the “existential” problem Minneapolis faces with mass retirements of police officers looming on the horizon. But first he has to say something else: Hamas is fascist.

Sarah Gad, a young criminal defense attorney running for the same position, is passionate about criminal justice reform, but, she acknowledged, everyone wants to know her feelings about the conflict in Gaza.

Don Samuels, another candidate, has a lifetime of public service to promote as a retired city councilman from north Minneapolis. But, he noted, “there is, of course, the international question” looming over the race: Israel and Palestine.

All three are challenging Rep. Ilhan Omar, one of Israel's fiercest critics in Congress, in next August's Democratic primary. But only one of them is likely to be the beneficiary of a flood of campaign cash from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, its super PAC and other pro-Israel allies outraged by the Democratic left's criticism of the Jewish state. after Hamas attacks in October. .7 and the subsequent war in Gaza.

Eight months before Democratic voters decide, a pre-primary primary has begun. Call it the AIPAC primary, in which each of Omar's opponents argues why they deserve a boost.

“Four million would be more than enough to do what we need to do,” suggested Joe Radinovich, the Democratic operative running Samuels' campaign.

It's unclear how much AIPAC, its super PAC, the United Democracy Project, or another pro-Israel group, the Democratic Majority for Israel, will spend in this race or nationally. The United Democracy Project spent nearly $36 million in 2022, and DMFI raised $9 million. Liberal groups like the Justice Democrats and the Working Families Party have hovered around the $100 million mark in their counterfunding campaigns.

AIPAC and its allies decline to give a figure, but say the total will likely dwarf previous cycles.

Haim Saban, one of the Democrats' biggest donors, said Thursday that the group of Israel critics in his party was “small and vocal” but that it would be “a dangerous development, and contrary to the security interests of the United States.” , that the Democratic Party would allow more members” of that group in.

“God bless AIPAC for taking this initiative,” he said.

Ms. Omar responded: “We know that organized people beat organized money. And I am confident that I will once again earn the trust that my constituents have given me.”

AIPAC's other possible targets in Congress are no secret. At the top is Rep. Cori Bush, an activist voice from St. Louis, whose Democratic rival, Wesley Bell, investigated the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and has already garnered Jewish support in the city. Rep. Jamaal Bowman of New York will face Westchester County Executive George Latimer, recruited by pro-Israel groups.

Pittsburgh Rep. Summer Lee, a freshman, is also high on the target list. Two candidates emerged in Detroit to say they were offered $20 million to challenge Rep. Rashida Tlaib, the only Palestinian American in Congress and one of two Muslim women.

It will be difficult to unseat Omar, the only other Muslim woman in the House, but she is too tempting a target to leave off the list. Donors have asked her by name and her rivals have been open about their pursuit of that money. Gad, an Egyptian-American Muslim, said she had two interlocutors, including an Israeli filmmaker, Jonathan Baruch, present her case to AIPAC.

Samuels, who came within two percentage points of beating Omar in the 2022 primary, was in New York on Thursday for a fundraiser hosted by hedge fund manager Brian Eizenstat, son of Stuart E. Eizenstat, a former diplomat . and Undersecretary of the Treasury.

Peterson, a gym owner and former deepwater captain, argued he has the stamina to knock on doors in every quadrant of the district.

Pro-Israel groups “should be very careful about giving that money to someone who will be here and do the work,” he said in a dirty campaign office in a vacant apartment block in Minneapolis' Uptown neighborhood.

The group's advance toward the Democratic primaries has not gone unnoticed.

“Wherever AIPAC's Republican billionaires can find a warm body to regurgitate their right-wing and progressive Democratic primary talking points, they'll find it,” said Usamah Andrabi, a spokesperson for Justice Democrats, which was formed to encourage challenges. of the left in the Democratic primaries.

Critics of AIPAC argue that its staunch support for the Israeli government and its willingness to spend against its detractors in Congress can divert attention from critical domestic issues.

“It's not why most American voters go to the polls,” said Tali deGroot, who heads the J Street political action committee, a pro-Israel group that criticizes Israel's government. J Street has supported some of AIPAC's goals, including Ms. Lee.

AIPAC and its affiliated organizations support many Democrats, including centrists like Rep. Abigail Spanberger, who is now running for governor of Virginia, and Rep. Jared Golden of Maine, who recently called for gun restrictions after a mass shooting in his district. . But AIPAC skeptics point out that the organization's single-minded approach has led it to endorse more than 100 members of Congress who opposed certifying the 2020 election results.

Even more irritating to critics is that much of AIPAC's funding comes from Republicans.

So far this cycle, the United Democracy Project has received $1 million from Bernard Marcus, the billionaire co-founder of Home Depot who primarily supports Republican candidates and groups. He received $500,000 from Michael Leffell, an investor who also supports Republicans. Previous donors include WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum, who donated $2 million to the group in 2022, and hedge fund manager Paul Singer, who donated $1 million that year.

Greater Minneapolis Jews are sensitive to the charge that outside money will influence a race with a particular local dynamic. Avi Olitzky, former rabbi of one of the region's largest synagogues, rejected the “AIPAC primary” label as a “red herring.”

“This race should not be about money, funding or support,” he said, adding: “We need a member of Congress in this district who represents the pro-Israel mainstream represented by President Biden.”

But Jewish leaders say the division over Omar has supercharged interest in the primaries.

After the Oct. 7 massacre, Rabbi Alexander Davis of the Beth El synagogue in the predominantly Jewish suburb of St. Louis Park said Minnesota's Democratic governor, Tim Walz, and Nadia Mohamed, a Muslim newly elected to to be the next mayor of St. Louis Park. , he approached with sympathy. Mrs. Omar has not done so. A solidarity service on Oct. 10 drew more than 2,000 people, including Mr. Walz and Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. Mrs. Omar was not one of them. (An aide said she had votes in Washington that night.)

“She is an extreme figure, very far removed from the mainstream of the Jewish community,” Rabbi Davis said.

Ms Omar rejected the suggestion that she had become disengaged.

“In the midst of the horrific carnage in Israel and Gaza, we have worked day and night to secure the evacuation of multiple constituents out of Israel and the Gaza Strip,” he said in a statement. “We have worked with regional partners to press for the release of all hostages and are leading an international parliamentary initiative to achieve a ceasefire.”

It has its Jewish supporters, especially in the extremely liberal city of Minneapolis, which last month voted to bring to power a left-wing majority on the City Council, led by a Democratic Socialists of America slate. David Brauer, a journalist in Minneapolis for 30 years and a Jewish member of Ms. Omar's informal “kitchen cabinet,” said the congresswoman is taking the primary fight seriously.

Rabbi Jessica Rosenberg, who leads a flock of what she calls “anti-Zionist and non-Zionist” Jews in the city, has had much personal contact with Ms. Omar since October 7. I am very proud that she represents me,” she said over an oat milk latte at a vegan cafe.

The upcoming primary season will be intense, not only for the district's Jews but also for the Palestinian, Somali and Muslim population in general, said Steve Hunegs, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas.

Omar, who came to the country as a Somali refugee, is probably the most popular and most reviled Democrat in the state, he said, adored by many, deeply opposed by many and with few Minnesotans indifferent.

“We're going to see activism at all levels,” Hunegs said.

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