Pro-Palestine congresswoman faces pro-Israel challenger in US primary

Primary in Pittsburgh emerges as early test of whether Israel’s war against Hamas could threaten Democrats critical of conflict

Representative Summer Lee and Bhavini Patel are running for the Democratic nomination in Pennsylvania's 12th congressional district
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Early on a crisp spring morning in the US city of Pittsburgh, with coffee and bagels laid out on a table, a group of campaigners are figuring out how best to canvas in the largely Jewish neighbourhood of Squirrel Hill.

They are backing Summer Lee, a progressive Democratic congresswoman who has championed the Palestinian cause since the October 7 attacks.

But in this leafy neighbourhood, home to many kosher supermarkets and synagogues, the lawn signs and political posters mostly endorse Ms Lee's pro-Israel opponent, Bhavini Patel.

“We’re definitely losing the sign war,” one activist grumbles as campaigners mingle and discuss US politics and the conflict in Gaza.

Squirrel Hill made international headlines in 2018 when an anti-Semitic gunman opened fire at the Tree of Life synagogue, killing 11 people and wounding six, including several Holocaust survivors.

It was the deadliest attack on any Jewish community in the US.

The gunman claimed his goal was to kill Jews.

It left a lasting impact on the neighbourhood’s residents, with many continuing to fear for their personal safety since the attack.

Ms Patel, a municipal councilwoman and former food truck vendor, is challenging first-term incumbent Ms Lee for the Democratic nomination in Pennsylvania’s 12th congressional district, which includes the city of Pittsburgh and the Squirrel Hill community.

In pictures – Squirrel Hill before primary election

She has worked to win Jewish support, opening a campaign office in Squirrel Hill and sharing a bus with residents to attend a pro-Israel rally in Washington in November.

Ms Lee, on the other hand, has accused Israel of committing war crimes and demanded an end to US military aid to the country. She was recently photographed wearing a kaffiyeh during President Joe Biden’s State of the Union speech.

“Summer came along and, in a very no-nonsense way, dismantled decades' worth of power,” Kenny Mostern, a Jewish political activist who is allied with pro-Palestinian groups in Pittsburgh, tells The National.

“She was at the centre of saying we have new ideas and we need to change the United States.”

Ms Lee was elected in 2022 after a tight primary battle with fellow Democrat Steve Irwin, who was funded by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac), a powerful lobbying group that advocates pro-Israel policy in the US.

She has aligned herself with the “uncommitted” campaign that is encouraging Democrats to protest against Mr Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza by casting primary ballots that do not support the President.

Ms Patel, a Hindu of Indian descent, has denounced Ms Lee for this.

“Every Democrat in Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District should take notice that my opponent is equivocating on her support for President Biden,” she said, according to the Associated Press.

“I think that is a big concern for Democrats in this district.”

Ms Lee has defended her support of the “uncommitted” movement, saying the Democratic Party must listen to its voters' concerns on the Palestinian issue if it expects people to support Mr Biden in November's presidential election.

The National contacted Ms Lee's campaign for comment, but did not receive a reply.

In Squirrel Hill, Mr Mostern, a stern critic of Israel's war in Gaza, is preparing to knock on doors for Ms Lee, but he admits it is a tough neighbourhood to campaign in.

“It is the area in Pittsburgh where almost all of the synagogues are located, where the Israeli immigrant community is located … and it has a sense of cultural solidarity,” he says.

“A neighbourhood that is defined by its buildings that are for Jews and its community organisations that are for Jews is one in which the gravitation pull … lends itself towards Zionism.”

While few signs supporting Ms Lee could be found in Squirrel Hill, Mr Mostern believes she has steadfast support in the area.

“Half or more of the people of Jewish descent in Squirrel Hill agree with me … the evidence is there in the voting pattern,” Mr Mostern says, in reference to the area’s history of voting Democrat.

But Julie Paris, mid-Atlantic regional director of the Israel education organisation StandWithUs, disagrees with Mr Mostern.

A long-time resident of Squirrel Hill, she says that while her community is highly progressive, they support Israel and its war against Hamas.

“Hamas committed an act of war,” she tells The National. “Israel had no choice but to defend itself.”

Ms Paris says many people in her community feel let down by Ms Lee, listing the times in the US House of Representatives where she has voted against the interests of Israel.

“Sadly, since Representative Lee started in office, she has proven to be openly hostile to those of us who believe in Israel’s right to exist,” she says.

“She voted against a bill that condemned Hamas and has for the most part refused to meet with the majority of Jews in her district who feel a connection to the state of Israel.”

Defending her decision on that October resolution, in which Ms Lee joined eight Democrats in voting against expressing support for Israel, she said it had failed to acknowledge the overwhelming loss of life of Palestinians.

In March, a group of rabbis in the area wrote to Ms Lee describing some of her rhetoric since the October 7 attacks as being “openly anti-Semitic”.

The joint letter included the name of Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, who narrowly escaped the Tree of Life shooting in 2018.

“You have continued to call for an unconditional ceasefire from one side of the conflict,” the letter says.

“That devalues the lives and beliefs of one group.”

Updated: April 21, 2024, 11:00 AM