Jewish Progressives Sound the Alarm as Pro-Israel Groups Target Marginalized Candidates

AIPAC and DMFI are leading scorched-earth campaigns in Democratic primaries. Progressive Jews warn the tactics are all too familiar.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee 2020 Conference on March 2, 2020 in Washington. Photo: Alex Brandon/AP

In the closing days of the 2020 general election, a PAC associated with Democratic Majority for Israel spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in ads warning Americans about the dangers of electing a wealthy, out-of-touch New Yorker. Those ads were not geared toward undecided voters in swing states who were considering a vote for Donald Trump. Instead, DMFI was trying to reach Democrats in a dark-blue district in California who were preparing to vote in a low-profile race between two Democratic congressional candidates.

Their target was Jewish progressive Sara Jacobs. A local anti-poverty activist and heir of the Qualcomm fortune, Jacobs was locked in a contentious fight for California’s 53rd Congressional District against fellow progressive and San Diego City Council president Georgette Gómez, a queer Latina and daughter of working-class immigrants. Both supported most cornerstone progressive issues such as Medicare for All and the Green New Deal.

The key difference between the two candidates — the difference that brought almost half a million dollars in spending from DMFI — lay in their stances on Israel. In a December 2019 interview with San Diego Jewish World, Jacobs spoke passionately about using U.S. policy and its assistance to Israel to promote peace with Palestinians. She also criticized a number of efforts — such as legislation condemning the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement and Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem — that hard-line pro-Israel organizations supported.

“The window for two states may be closing faster than we would like for logistical reasons,” she said. “I think all U.S. assistance needs to be viewed through the lens of ‘does it move things closer to peace?’”

In a series of events that progressive Jewish activists warn is becoming increasingly malicious and predictable, Jacobs’s discussion of her Jewish identity and pro-peace views activated a wave of outside attacks from organizations dedicated to preserving Israel’s brutal status quo. The signal to target Jacobs went out shortly after she finished first in the March 2020 primary. (In California, all candidates, regardless of party, run in a single primary, and the top two vote-getters advance to the general election.)

The following month, DMFI rolled out its endorsement of Gómez in a story with friendly outlet Jewish Insider, which also highlighted the candidate’s newfound support from two former presidents of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. The article argued with scant evidence that Gómez was a staunch and consistent advocate of Israel with deep ties to local Jewish communities. But before the general election, Gómez had seldom made public statements on the subject — an omission the publication neglected to address. Gómez argued that her endorsements from progressive groups like Justice Democrats did not mean that she agreed with their criticisms of Israeli policies. Justice Democrats, which had raised over $18,000 for Gómez’s campaign, suspended its fundraising in the race following the article’s publication.

DMFI more than made up the difference. In the course of a few months, its PAC spent nearly half a million dollars on the race, mostly to purchase negative ads attacking Jacobs. The underlying critique — that Jacobs’s fortune and privileged life put her out of touch with the needs of ordinary Americans — is well within the bounds of normal political discourse. But the imagery and language employed by many of the ads are reminiscent of common antisemitic tropes, and the group’s decision to highlight Jacobs’s wealthy background flew in the face of its ongoing support for several corporate-friendly candidates.

One widely distributed ad consists of panorama shots of skyscrapers and monuments in New York and Washington, D.C., flashes of the Wall Street sign, and closeups of Jacobs’s face. The narrator criticizes the candidate, a San Diego native, for having lived in New York and D.C., and for owning substantial stock holdings in large corporations. The caption declares that Jacobs “doesn’t share our views,” though the ad does not criticize any of her policy positions.

In an email exchange with The Intercept, DMFI spokesperson Rachel Rosen denied characterizations of the ads as antisemitic. “Discussions of residency in states and congressional districts are fairly common in campaigns, including in your publication,” she said. She did not address the other objectionable elements of the advertisements, and she did not reply to multiple requests to elaborate on what steps DMFI takes to make sure its advertising, the vast majority of which has targeted progressive Jews and people of color, does not incite violence or utilize racial or ethnic stereotypes.


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DMFI’s campaign against Jacobs ultimately flopped. The hundreds of thousands of dollars in questionable negative ads that they financed proved to be no match for the millions that Jacobs and her family poured into her campaign. Despite its loss, DMFI continued to refine the candidate recruitment process that they pioneered with Gómez. Nine months and $2 million later, the group’s persistence was vindicated in Ohio. Its preferred candidate for the 11th District, Shontel Brown, overcame a large deficit in early polling to defeat Nina Turner.

Following DMFI’s success, AIPAC launched a PAC of its own — AIPAC PAC — as well as a super PAC — United Democracy Project — at the end of 2021. In February, yet another PAC with ties with AIPAC and DMFI was launched called the Mainstream Democrats PAC. Taken together, these organizations appear poised to make every competitive Democratic primary this cycle into a multimillion-dollar affair. And leaders connected to these groups have moved from flirting with antisemitic tropes to using white nationalist rhetoric to criticize the progressive Jews and women of color who most of the spending is set to oppose.

The Intercept interviewed over a dozen progressive Jewish activists across multiple organizations about the stakes of the 2022 primaries. All expressed some level of alarm about the surge in negative political spending from AIPAC, DMFI, and their affiliates. Most emphasized that DMFI and AIPAC share a similar network of donors and operatives who seek to flatten the diversity of opinion that American Jews have on Israel. While some expressed hope that the push was evidence that Jewish progressives are succeeding at shifting the Overton window on Israel policy, others warned that it posed a serious and immediate threat to the political power and physical safety of progressive Jews and women of color who have fought to make a place for themselves in the Democratic Party.

AIPAC, DMFI, and their affiliates appear poised to make every competitive Democratic primary this cycle into a multimillion-dollar affair.

When asked to comment on the concerns raised by Jewish progressives in this article, AIPAC spokesperson Marshall Wittmann did not deny that a disproportionate amount of his organization’s spending has been directed at progressive Jews and women of color, but he emphasized that support or opposition for candidates is “exclusively based on the candidate’s views on the U.S.-Israel relationship.” He also pointed to a number of candidates of color who identify as progressive and have received AIPAC support, including several members of House Democratic leadership and the Congressional Black Caucus.

Rosen, the spokesperson for DMFI, also pointed to candidates from underrepresented backgrounds her organization supports but did not directly respond to a recounting of the concerns raised by progressive Jews. Instead, she opted to criticize The Intercept and its founding donor, Pierre Omidyar.

“Pro-Israel Democrats who support DMFI PAC won’t be intimidated by bullying from this billionaire-funded propaganda publication which is making utterly false, inaccurate, and even dangerous charges,” she said. When pressed by The Intercept to address the concerns raised by Jewish Americans, Rosen demurred again. “We’re not a Jewish organization and don’t claim to be,” she said. “We are an organization of pro-Israel Democrats.”

The gravity of the political moment is forcing at least one purportedly progressive pro-Israel group to pick a side. J Street, an organization that has at times struggled to operate in the gap between traditional pro-Israel groups like AIPAC and unapologetically anti-occupation Jewish groups like Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow, is leading the counteroffensive against the flood of cash that AIPAC and DMFI are pouring into Democratic primaries. The group has spent over $100,000 backing progressive Jessica Cisneros over AIPAC-endorsed anti-choice incumbent Henry Cuellar, and its statements indicate plans to multiply that amount by 10 before the cycle concludes. J Street’s conduit PAC has also raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for progressive candidates.

Logan Bayroff, J Street’s vice president of communications, told The Intercept that while the group lacks the funding to match AIPAC and DMFI dollar for dollar, its spending does make a difference, especially by providing evidence that progressive Jews and women of color are being dishonestly accused of being antisemitic or anti-Israel. “We are trying to have the backs of those who represent the true values and views of the majority of American Jews and the majority of pro-Israel Americans who don’t believe the AIPAC line,” he said. “We’re doing what we can to push back and call out the smears.”

But he acknowledged that J Street’s actions alone are not enough to counter the “onslaught” facing marginalized progressives. “This is an extremely dangerous time,” he said, “and a lot more needs to be done to call out what AIPAC and their allies are doing and to find ways to mobilize to counter it.”

Morriah Kaplan, the managing director of IfNotNow, pointed to a recent endorsement by the Jewish Democratic Council of America, or JDCA, a nominally progressive pro-Israel group, to illustrate that point. In the primary for Michigan’s 11th District — a rare contest in which, due to redistricting, two Democratic incumbents are competing for the same seat — progressive Jewish Rep. Andy Levin is facing off against Rep. Haley Stevens, a moderate with deep ties to AIPAC and DMFI. “[JDCA] put out this great op-ed about AIPAC’s endorsement of insurrectionists, and then they turn around and endorse AIPAC endorsees,” Kaplan said. “So I suppose that it was a lot of hot air, and I think it’s time for people to get serious.”

“I don’t want this story to be ‘JDCA joins AIPAC and DMFI,’” Halie Soifer, the CEO of JDCA, told The Intercept. “That’s not what we’ve done.” She said instead that JDCA endorsed Stevens because of her relationships with members of the organization. Despite the ideological gap between the two candidates, Soifer claimed that JDCA “looked at their policy positions on a range of issues and found that they were quite similar.” And she argued that Levin’s stances on Israel — which she agreed should be welcomed by the party — were not a factor in the endorsement. “The issue of Israel played very little role in the decision,” she said.

Soifer’s defense of Levin does put JDCA at odds with AIPAC and DMFI. Rosen and Wittmann, the spokespeople for DMFI and AIPAC, respectively, both confirmed to The Intercept that their organizations believe that Levin’s introduction of the Two-State Solution Act and his support for end-use restrictions on U.S. military aid to avoid violating Palestinian rights foreclose him from claiming that he is “pro-Israel.”


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Levin, for his part, does not seem to mind. In a recent press release, he joined growing calls for candidates to stop taking money from AIPAC altogether, and he endorsed two progressive Black women — Summer Lee in Pennsylvania and Erica Smith in North Carolina — who have been targeted by this money in their respective House races.

Beth Miller, the political director of Jewish Voice for Peace Action, emphasized the urgency many Jewish activists feel to support progressive women of color who are willing to fight for Palestinian rights. She described the surge in activity from AIPAC and DMFI as an effort to “keep [voices like Lee and Smith’s] away from Washington at all costs.” Miller says it is important to send a message to the women of color under attack that “progressive American Jews have your back.”

In an interview with The Intercept, Levin also expressed alarm at “the extent to which women of color in particular seem to be subject to attacks.” He said his endorsements of Lee and Smith are part of a broader effort to “be a bridge for Jewish people, and Muslim people, and African American people, and immigrants, and everybody else who might be subjected to white supremacist attacks.” According to Levin, that solidarity, which he says “comes straight out of my Judaism,” is also essential to creating the peaceful and secure Israel that he supports. “[Israel’s future] totally depends on realizing the political and human rights of the Palestinian people,” he said.

Lee’s campaign echoed Levin’s call to unite in the face of AIPAC and DMFI’s attacks. In a statement provided to The Intercept, the Lee campaign said voters deserve leaders “who know that our struggles and our safety are interwoven,” and it underlined “the power and possibility of Jewish and Black solidarity” as a tool for fighting white supremacy.

That solidarity appears to be very thing some conservative pro-Israel activists fear most. On Tuesday, former Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman accused Levin of “using his Jewishness” as a cover for softness on the U.S.-Israel relationship. Foxman also pointed to Levin’s relationships with the only two Muslim women in Congress — Reps. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., and Ilhan Omar, D-Minn. — as evidence that Levin is weak on Israel and antisemitism. Levin has previously said that his friendship with Tlaib, a fellow Michigan representative who is Palestinian, is a model for the possible reconciliation between Jews and Palestinians.

“The framing about Andy Levin being the liberal white Jewish cover for these other supposedly more dangerous elements is like full-on Stormfront stuff — full-on neo-Nazi.”

Foxman’s statements echoed controversial language used by former AIPAC President David Victor in a widely circulated email to members of the Jewish community earlier this year. Victor, who retains considerable influence among Jewish political organizations, pointed to the alliances Levin has formed with progressive women of color like Omar, Tlaib, and Missouri’s Cori Bush to explain why he viewed Levin as the most “corrosive member of Congress to the U.S.-Israel relationship.” Victor goes on to say that Levin’s sincere claims that he is “a lifelong Zionist, proud Jew, and defender of Israel,” make him the “vanguard of [a] threat” to change what it means to support Israel.

Michigan Democratic activist Caryn Noveck, a founding board member of the Michigan Democratic Jewish Caucus, put the stakes of such rhetoric in stark terms. “There’s white nationalist framing about how liberal white Jews are sort of the front for bringing in the people of color and the non-Christians,” she said. “To me, that framing about Andy Levin being the liberal white Jewish cover for these other supposedly more dangerous elements is like full-on Stormfront stuff — full-on neo-Nazi.”

The Intercept’s attempts to reach Foxman and Victor for comment were not returned.

Extremist parts of the American right have long found common cause with extremist parts of the Israeli right in their calls for unconditional support for Israel and their hostility toward disenfranchised people of color. As Washington Post national correspondent Phillip Bump has noted, over half of America’s evangelical Christians support Israel — at least in part — because of antisemitic religious doctrines that posit that Jews must return to Israel in order to facilitate the second coming of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, nearly half of Republicans believe in some form of the “great replacement” theory, which holds that there is a group of people — often implied to be progressive Jews — who seek to replace native-born Americans with immigrants in order to seize political power.

According to Noveck, Victor’s statements are also reminiscent of the culture that preceded the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Israeli prime minister who was assassinated by a right-wing extremist in 1995 for his efforts to pursue peace with Palestinians. “I was a kid, but I remember where I was when I heard on the radio in the car that Yitzhak Rabin had been assassinated,” she said. “And there was a culture of incitement in Israel against the Jewish left. And it was coming straight from Bibi Netanyahu at the time, who was obviously part of the right-wing Jewish establishment in Israel.”

Noveck pointed out the similarities between Levin’s positions and Rabin’s. While she expressed pride in Levin’s approach, she also expressed fear that inciting language used by his detractors might make him and other Michigan Jews a target for white supremacist violence. “I’ll just say this: I go to the same synagogue as Andy Levin,” she said. “God forbid, someone sees ‘Andy Levin is the vanguard of the threat to Israel in Congress’ and goes to try and harm him and gets me instead sitting next to him.”

Like Levin, Noveck identifies as a pro-peace Zionist. She lamented the ongoing refusal to condemn rhetoric like Victor’s by leaders in high-profile Jewish and pro-Israel political organizations. (Spokespeople for AIPAC and DMFI declined to comment on Victor’s rhetoric.)

Noveck, who said she feels warmly toward Stevens and considers her a family friend, expressed particular dismay at the representative’s silence on Victor’s comments. In an interview with AIPAC after the comments were made public, Stevens praised Victor at length and emphasized how influential his thinking on Israel is to her own. She has given no indication that she takes issue with his exposed remarks. Her congressional office and campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

“Does [Stevens] really not understand how dangerous this rhetoric in support of her is to me and the entire local Jewish community?” Noveck said. “Does she not get it? Or does she not care? Because I don’t know which one is worse.”

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