The Squad Is Getting Primaried for Standing Against the War

Justice Democrats co-founder Waleed Shahid and Ryan Grim discuss the domestic political response to Israel’s bombing campaign in Gaza.

Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking live via video at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee Policy Conference, on March 1, 2020, in Washington, D.C.
Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking live via video at the AIPAC Policy Conference, on March 1, 2020, in Washington, D.C. Photo: Michael Brochstein

Fourteen Democratic senators called for a “short-term cessation of hostilities” on Thursday, as Israel’s airstrikes continued for the fourth week and a ground invasion intensified. So far 18 House members have signed on to a resolution, introduced weeks earlier, with stronger calls for an “immediate de-escalation and ceasefire in Israel and occupied Palestine.” Pro-Israel lobbying groups have already begun efforts to oust House members pushing for a ceasefire. This week on Deconstructed, Democratic strategist Waleed Shahid joins Ryan Grim to discuss the powerful influence of groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and Democratic Majority for Israel in shaping U.S.-Israel policy, the generational shift challenging their power, and how Arab and Muslim communities are responding to the Biden administration’s response to the war.

Ryan Grim: Welcome to Deconstructed. I’m Ryan Grim.

This week, House Republicans fell short in an effort to censure Representative Rashida Tlaib, but an effort to oust her in a Democratic primary is full steam ahead. The organization Democratic Majority for Israel just dropped this ad against her:

Advertisement Voiceover: She’s one of only seven Democrats in Congress to vote against missile protection for Israel, one of only nine Democrats against condemning the brutal attack on Israel by Hamas. Her legislation would allow the terrorists to rearm themselves, and she refuses to answer even this horrific question:

Reporter: You can’t comment about Hamas terrorists chopping off babies’ heads?

Advertisement Voiceover: Tell Rashida Tlaib she’s on the wrong side of history, and humanity.

RG: On today’s show, I’m joined by Waleed Shahid, a cofounder of Justice Democrats, which has backed Tlaib and other progressive Democrats since her first run in 2018. He is also, like me, something of an amateur historian who likes to understand how things have gotten to the way they are, and what lessons have been learned but forgotten from the past. Is that a fair assessment, Waleed?

Waleed Shaid: I self-identify as a junior amateur historian. You’re, like, a senior amateur historian.

RG: I’m not so sure about that. If you’re a junior, I’m like a J.V. Junior.

So, I wanted to set up this conversation with a couple of historical paragraphs, actually, from my new book on The Squad, which goes into the roots of AIPAC. This very brief excerpt ends with the 2018 campaign of Marie Newman, where Justice Democrats also played a key role. So, here this goes:

Founded in Illinois, AIPAC, as we know it today, was born thanks in large part to the work of Chicago businessman Robert Asher, who pushed in the 1970s to transform the committee into a political powerhouse. Becoming one of the so-called “Gang of Four” board members who helped set strategy and organize a national network of donors. They first tested their theory of the case on Republican Representative Paul Findley; they viewed Findley as too sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.

In the 1980 election, Asher sent scores of letters to AIPAC donors around the country and chipped in his own money, targeting Findley in both the GOP primary and the general election. A young Rahm Emanuel took time off from college to volunteer for his first campaign that year, rising to become chief fundraiser for the Democrat challenging Findley, raising some three quarters of a million dollars. It was the first attempt to unseat a member of Congress by fundraising on the issue of support for Israel, and Findley survived, but the model was in place.

In 1982, Asher and his AIPAC allies recruited Dick Durbin to challenge Findley, and helped make the race the costliest ever in Illinois. Findley told The Washington Post afterwards, “If I hadn’t been a persistent critic of Menachem Begin, I wouldn’t have had a real contest this year.”

This time, he lost by less than 1%, and the message was sent that showing sympathy for the Palestinians, or wavering in one’s full, unconditional support of Israel, could be politically costly, even in districts like Findley’s, with a significant Arab population.

The next cycle, APAC recruited Democrat Paul Simon to take on Senator Charles Percy, whom the group also deemed too sympathetic to Palestinians. Simon won. Thomas Dine, APAC’s executive director, called it a warning, saying, “Jews in America, from coast to coast, gathered to oust Percy, and American politicians, those who hold public positions now and those who aspire, got the message,” unquote.

Asher, 38 years later, was still sending letters, but now in the form of emails. The Times of Israel reported that he went into overdrive on behalf of Dan Lipinski, telling allied donors that Marie Newman was, quote, “catering to the anti-Israel population in the district,” a reference to Bridgeview’s Palestinian Americans. “They are well aware of where there are strong Arab and Muslim American communities. They are intensely aware of it,” Newman told me.

As her run picked up steam, Newman got a call from a top federal affairs official for AIPAC in Washington who happened to be a friend of her nephew. She told him he was wasting his time, that she didn’t agree with AIPAC’s posture on the Israeli occupation or its support for endless military aid with no conditions attached. “Well, you’re going to lose a lot of fundraising,” she recalled him telling her. “And I said, ‘Okay, are you trying to scare me? Because that’s not working.’”

Now, Marie Newman probably should have been scared.

Waleed, you guys worked on both of her campaigns — 2018 and then 2020, when she finally won. Can you talk a little bit about the kind of big-money effort that you saw organizing against her? But, also, did that brief history kind of unearth any thoughts for you, particularly, maybe, as it relates to Dick Durbin, where we just had news relating to him?

WS: Yeah. I did not know that history of Dick Durbin and, to me, it resembled him being an AIPAC recruit. And then, coming today and being the first United States Senator to call for a ceasefire, I think is symbolic of some of the ways that the party is both slowly and quickly shifting on Palestinian rights.

In one way… People always say the way movements have power in Washington is either: you have access to money, you have access to votes, or you have access to some sort of big idea that can solve people’s problems. And so, with Palestinian rights, I think that, for a long time, there wasn’t access to any of those three things.

But what has happened recently, since the Bernie campaign in 2016, the election of people like Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar is that Arab Americans and Muslim Americans have become more civically engaged, particularly in districts like Chicago, states like Illinois, where Dick Durbin is from. They’ve gotten more involved in politics. There’s been a generational shift in the party on a host of issues, from healthcare to climate change to criminal justice reform. And foreign policy is part of that generational shift, too, where voters under 45 in all the polling we’ve seen have very different views on Biden’s policy on Gaza than voters over 45, just like they have different views on criminal justice reform, or climate change, or healthcare.

And so, I think Dick Durbin is seeing that shift happen in his own state, in his own staff, and responding to it. And Marie Newman’s case is also an example of that, where, if she had to mount a primary challenge to Dan Lipinski, she had to find out where her votes were going to come from. And if she’s not going to get the money — as AIPAC told her she wasn’t — she had significant numbers of liberals in her district, many of whom sympathize with anti-occupation politics. And she had a fair number of Arab and Palestinian American Democrats in her district.

This is partly why I think many of the advisors around Biden are out of touch, because the party, when it comes to these fundamental dynamics of where liberals are at on Palestinian rights — and where Arab and Muslim Americans are at, in terms of their role in the Democratic Party — those things are significantly different from the 1980s. It’s becoming more of a partisan issue than it was in the 1980s as well.

RG: Yeah. And to see AIPAC’s first successful recruit to the left of the Biden administration — and even to the left of, as you were just saying, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren — does point to kind of a situation that’s in flux. And when Justice Democrats was launched, I don’t remember Israel-Palestine being talked about much as a focus of the organization. I remember climate change, I remember money out of politics, I remember Medicare For All. You know, student debt relief, free college, a lot of the issues that were associated with the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign. Now, of course, Bernie spoke up for Palestinian dignity famously during that campaign, but it wasn’t kind of the centerpiece.

When did it become clear to you that, to paraphrase maybe that apocryphal Trotsky quote: “You might not be interested in Israel-Palestine, but Israel-Palestine is interested in you?”

WS: Many journalists have over the years been like, “Why is Justice Democrats obsessed with Israel?” And I’m like, we’re not. The Israel hawks are obsessed with us, the number one spender against us is typically very hawkish pro-Israel organizations.

But I think the entrance of Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib into Congress in 2019 was the first sign that there was just a whole different level of adversaries to deal with, particularly as Ilhan and Rashida began to speak up. And then, later, Ayanna and AOC also began to speak up on the issue.

Electorally, it was really Jamal Bowman’s primary against Eliot Engel, where the money and the intense organizing began to happen, in part because Eliot Engel was the most hawkish Democrat in the House on issues related to Israel-Palestine. He represented a majority people of color district, and DMFI — which is somewhat of a rebrand of AIPAC, many of the same players — felt very threatened by that, and were ultimately caught off guard. And that’s why, in 2022, they’re more organized and early.

But in 2020, the first time it came to a head was that primary in New York.

RG: Yeah. And he was even chair of the foreign relations committee, so just, a huge blow there.

Was it your sense that AIPAC had been leaving the kind of super PAC world to DMFI, but that losing Engel is what brought them into the arena full bore? Or did you have any sense of what shifted in 2022, because that’s the year you saw AIPAC come in with $30-plus million, just really upending the table and changing the game when it came to primaries.

WS: Yeah. My understanding of what happened is that AIPAC did not want to start a super PAC in 2020, because they wanted to continue to have the semblance of being a lobbying presence in Washington that was not electoral, but it was bipartisan. And so, many of the board members and funders of AIPAC went to go start DMFI to make a democratic-branded AIPAC, and also a liberal-progressive-branded AIPAC that could wage the electoral fight. I forgot to mention that, actually, the first candidate DMFI ran an ad against was Bernie Sanders in 2020, not Jamal Bowman, in the Iowa caucuses.

And then AIPAC, I believe, once they saw Elliot Engel defeated, decided that they could actually raise even more money than DMFI, as the organization more well-known, and decided to start the comedically named United Democracy Project, to have their own super PAC in addition to DMFI run attack ads in districts. Not just against potential squad members like Jessica Cisneros, but also against party stalwarts who are just a little critical of Israel, such as the Hillary Clinton-endorsed Donna Edwards in Maryland, Andy Levin from Michigan, who would not have been a Squad member. But, because both of those members were associated with J Street, AIPAC thought that they were threats to their agenda.

RG: And J Street, for those not familiar, is a kind of more moderate version of AIPAC. It describes itself as a counterweight to AIPAC that is both pro-Israel and pro-peace.

WS: And so, what AIPAC and DMFI are seeing is a new generation of progressive Democrats — from the Donna Edwards and Andy Levins to the AOCs and Coris and Rashida — start to represent what the Democratic voters want to see on Israel Palestine, which is a more even handed approach, an anti-occupation approach. And they’re deeply threatened by that generational change.

RG: And just to be clear to people that you and I are not making some kind of wildly out-there argument about the role of money in these primaries, let’s play this clip that you highlighted a couple days ago from none other than former President Barack Obama, in his memoir:

Barack Obama: Members of both parties worried about crossing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — or AIPAC — a powerful bipartisan lobbying organization dedicated to ensuring unwavering U.S. support for Israel.

AIPAC’s clout could be brought to bear on virtually every congressional district in the country. And just about every politician in Washington, including me, counted AIPAC members among their key supporters and donors.

In the past, the organization had accommodated a spectrum of views on Middle East peace, insisting mainly that those seeking its endorsement support a continuation of U.S. aid to Israel and oppose efforts to isolate or condemn Israel via the U.N., and other international bodies.

But as Israeli politics had moved to the right, so had AIPAC’s policy positions. Its staff and leaders increasingly argued that there should be, quote, “no daylight between the U.S. and Israeli governments,” even when Israel took actions that were contrary to U.S. policy. Those who criticized Israeli policy too loudly, risked being tagged as anti-Israel, and possibly anti-Semitic, and confronted with a well-funded opponent in the next election.

RG: Waleed, is Barack Obama right there?

WS: You know, what Barack Obama said in his memoir is what a lot of Democrats say privately, and aren’t brave enough to say until they are defeated or they leave office.

And so, President Obama’s just saying what I’ve heard many Democrats say, which is that they are afraid of AIPAC and AIPAC’s allies’ enormous power to mobilize money, mobilize constituents, mobilize a lobbying presence against anyone who criticizes Israel.

The important thing of what president Obama says there is that AIPAC believes there should be no daylight between Republicans and Democrats in Congress and whoever is in government in Israel, regardless of who that person is or what they say. And so, there’s a chilling of discourse on the Hill when you can’t speak up against even someone like Netanyahu, who represents the most extreme far-right politics within Israeli society.

RG: And there’s some chilling of discourse and campaigns, too, and I’ve reported a little bit on that, but you’ve been on these calls in particular campaigns — I assume a lot of campaigns — where you’re having a conference call setting strategy, and you’ve started to talk publicly about that recently.

Can you bring listeners into what happens on those calls when a campaign gets wind that either DMFI, or AIPAC, or both, might be interested in a particular district?

WS: Yeah. So, something that people don’t understand is that the infrastructure is very asymmetric when it comes to extreme pro-Israel politics versus anything resembling any advocacy of Palestinian rights. AIPAC has regional political directors all across the country, they have regional deputy political directors across the country, and Mark Mellman, the head of DMFI, is a pollster that offers polling and communications consulting services to a range of Democratic candidates.

And so, I have been on conference calls where someone will say, “I heard AIPAC is going around this district and wants to meet with candidates. Seems like they might get involved.” Often a strategist or a consultant from Washington, D.C. will say, “We should just put out a tweet that says we stand with Israel, we support Israel’s right to exist, blah-blah-blah.”

And, as a person on the call who’s spent more than two seconds thinking about that, I’m often like, “Hey, wait a second. Candidate, do you have any views of your own on Israel-Palestine? Before you just tweet out something that, like, you don’t know what the effect of that will be?”

RG: What’s the answer to that, often?

WS: It really tells you about a candidate’s ethics, how they respond to that. Like, do they want to do the easy thing? Which is, just say whatever will potentially neutralize AIPAC. But, once you’re endorsed by Justice Democrats, I think you’re already in their line of sight.

Or, if they want to take the easy way out and just tweet something, or release a very, very one-sided statement about just how Israeli lives should be valued, and nothing about Palestinians, or Israel should be valued and nothing about a Palestinian state, that tells you a lot about someone’s character and politics.

Peter Beinart actually wrote about this, as like, a Democrat who can’t stand up for Palestinian rights will probably crumble under pressure on any issue. And I think that’s a good point.

But yeah, the consultant class in Washington, they’re extremely risk-averse. They see themselves as only focused on victory, so, if throwing Palestinians under the bus will help you win, they’re going to do that. And they know very little about the occupation, or apartheid, or about Gaza, or anything. So they are just trying to do the easiest thing, which is a shame, because they have spent less than five seconds thinking about what they’ve said on Israel.

RG: And that’s always been kind of the easy thing because, like you said, there wasn’t money or votes for the most part on the other side in a lot of these districts. But now — and you’ve been highlighting this a lot lately — there does seem to be some pressure coming, particularly from the Arab and Muslim communities around the country.

So, I want to play this Karine Jean-Pierre clip where she was asked recently about whether Biden is nervous about his absolutely disappearing support among Arab and Muslim voters, and responded this way.

Karine Jean-Pierre: Look, of course, the president is always concerned and wants to hear how different communities feel about the work that he’s doing. Of course, of course that’s important to this president.

And, you know, one of the reasons that he’s going out there, to go into rural America to hear directly from Americans there, one of the reasons that he does these travel, because he wants people to hear directly from him on the work that he’s doing on behalf of Americans across the country.

And so, always, paying attention, listening to what different communities are concerned about, obviously, that is important to this president. I’m just not going to go into every poll from here.

WS: So, the context of the press secretary’s remarks are that Biden was visiting Minneapolis and Minnesota on November 1st. And Minneapolis is one of the largest Arab and Muslim cities in the country. Minnesota has a huge Somali American population and Arab American population in general. In the context of that, she’s talking about how Biden is going to visit rural Minnesotans.

It was confirmed in NBC news that Biden had no meetings with any Arab or Muslim or Somali official in Minneapolis, which I think is a slap in the face to many communities who want to talk to him about their concerns about his reelection and his policies toward Gaza.

I think the White House really has their heads in the sand about this. They have a view of the Democratic Party that is old, they are only used to taking the Jewish American and pro-Israel constituency seriously, and not Muslim or Arab Americans as a political constituency. But I think this is just a generation that, after 9/11, is now starting to speak out, be a little bit less afraid of speaking out about what their views are on this issue, and I don’t think the Democratic Party has experience of that, or dealing with that.

And so, the White House is really putting themselves at risk of losing the 2024 election to Trump by continuing to take actions or make statements that really invisiblize Muslim Americans or Arab Americans as a constituency for their party.

RG: And so, what about The Squad?

So, it looks like Rashida Tlaib’s going to have a primary, Ilhan Omar will have a primary, Summer Lee is going to have a primary. Cori Bush, who was one of the lead cosponsors of the ceasefire resolution, it looks like Wesley Bell — who’s kind of a progressive-ish prosecutor in St. Louis — dropped out of the Senate race to challenge her in the House.

Instead, Jamal Bowman may have a Westchester County executive; he’s kind of on the fence, but it seems like he might jump in. Other than maybe Ayanna Pressley and AOC, it looks like all of them are going to face credible challenges … Summer Lee in Pittsburgh.

What’s your sense of that landscape? And have you seen any joint effort — maybe led by AOC, who is a fundraising powerhouse — to kind of organize a resistance here, or is this kind of, every person for themselves here?

WS: I definitely don’t think it’s every person for themselves. I think Justice Democrats is in active conversations trying to organize the political and financial vehicle to support these incumbents who are facing primary challenges, alongside the members in The Squad themselves. So, I think that is going to come to fruition.

I expect that most of our squad members will be outspent by AIPAC and Democratic Majority for Israel, and associated hawkish groups. I think these are going to be competitive elections. Maybe not Rashida Tlaib, because she seems to kick everyone’s ass every time she’s primaried by double digit points. Dearborn, Detroit really like her, and feel represented by her.

RG: Yeah, she won her first race by, like, a thousand votes and since then has just been crushing it.

WS: And she’s had significant resources spent against her the other times. But I do think that … Look, DMFI put up an ad today that basically called Rashida Tlaib a terrorist sympathizer, and I feel like, if they’re able to raise money from their donors for that kind of disgusting, hateful ad, that means their donors are energized to really … They see anyone who is speaking out against Israel as a terrorist sympathizer, and that means they’re going to be raising a lot of money to get that message out, and other messages out, and I imagine that these will be difficult elections going forward, and these Squad members really need a lot of help.

Last thing I’ll say about this is: I feel really proud, as someone who worked for Justice Democrats for six years, that the people who are most speaking up about how Israeli civilian lives and Palestinian civilian lives are equally precious, how Israel should be held accountable for dismantling a two-state solution and the blockade of Gaza. These Justice Democrats, these Squad members are the ones we elected in 2018 and 2020 and 2022, and it just shows what just having a few seats in Congress, a little bit of political power, can get you in Washington, and having that go away would be a tremendous defeat for anyone who cares about peace, anti-war, or the Palestinian rights cause.

RG: Waleed, thank you so much for joining me.

WS: Thank you.

RG: That was Waleed Shahid, and that’s our show.

My book I mentioned is called “The Squad: AOC and the Hope of a Political Revolution,” and it comes out in a few weeks, but you can pre order it now.

Deconstructed is a production of The Intercept. Our producer is José Olivares. Our supervising producer is Laura Flynn. The show is mixed by William Stanton. Legal review by David Bralow. Leonardo Faierman transcribed this episode. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Roger Hodge is The Intercept’s Editor-in-Chief. And I’m Ryan Grim, D.C. Bureau Chief of The Intercept.

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