Jewish congressional candidates demur, defer on Israel/Palestine

Ellen Cogan Lipton and Andy Levin are currently leading the race to represent Michigan’s 9th U.S. Congressional District, a seat previously held by Andy’s father Sander Levin, who is retiring after 35 years. Both candidates are Jewish, each with strong ties to our community here in metro Detroit, and both Lipton and Levin have strong opinions about Israel, Palestine, and the path toward peace and justice. However, only one candidate has been willing to speak publicly about his views on Israel/Palestine, while the other has remained silent.

Andy Levin and I have something in common that probably sets us apart from most other Jews in metro Detroit: While at least a handful of people from our community have enlisted in the Israeli military, Levin and I bear the distinction of both having been tear gassed by Israeli forces. Levin says that back in 1990 he went on an interfaith delegation to Israel and Palestine, and while his group, which included a baby, was visiting in Gaza, Israeli forces tear gassed them. Today Levin cannot recall what prompted the Israeli forces to want to so violently disperse them, but the memory of this attack has evidently stuck with him.

Andy Levin and Ellen Cogan Lipton, the two leading candidates in the race to represent Michigan’s 9th District in the U.S. Congress.

Despite our mutual experience with Israeli irritants, Levin appeared very hesitant about criticizing Israel when I interviewed him at length a few weeks ago. Levin repeatedly turned the discussion away from Israeli human rights abuses and spoke instead of his record fighting for human rights in other places. For example, Levin recounted his work in Haiti, where he learned Haitian Creole and wrote a report for Human Rights Watch on the destruction of the Haitian civil society following the ousting of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1992. Additionally, Levin spoke about about his efforts to organize opposition to the Iraq War, his fight against nuclear proliferation, and his struggle as a college student to force his university to divest from apartheid South Africa.

But Levin declined to criticize apartheid in Israel/Palestine, failing to condemn, in any way, shape, or form, the well-documented racist, discriminatory state violence by the State of Israel. For example, when I brought up Israel’s plans to demolish the Jahalin Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar, a potential act that has been widely denounced as ethnic cleansing, Levin told me that he would not be “pigeonholed” into taking a position.

On the topic of the Great March of Return, Levin said that the killing was “extremely upsetting” and that it was “hard to understand how that loss of life was necessary.” When I pointed to the allegations by human rights groups—including his old organization, Human Rights Watch—that Israel may have, or had in fact, committed war crimes in Gaza (both in recent months and during its last major assault in 2014), Levin demurred, saying that Israeli and human rights organizations were still compiling their reports and had not reached any conclusions. In fact, rights groups have published many reports since the protests began on March 30, deriding Israel for killing medics, journalists, and children who were clearly posing no threat to anyone. Moreover, early on in the March, the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem even bought ads in several major Israeli newspapers calling on soldiers to disobey flagrantly illegal orders to fire live ammunition on unarmed Palestinian demonstrators.

That said, Levin stands to the left of other pro-Israel Jewish members of Congress. During our talk, Levin came out as opposed to Trump’s embassy move and pro Iran nuclear deal (just like his father), as against BDS (he thinks), and in favor of the two-state solution. “I’m a Jew who believes in the homeland for the Jewish people in Israel. The only way for it to survive and thrive is for there to be a Palestinian state beside it,” he said. Levin noted that supporting the two-state solution was considered “leftist” back in the 1990s. Today, though, many leftists dismiss the two-state solution as quaint: Israel’s unabated, US-backed colonization of the occupied West Bank has led to the atomization of Palestinian lands, rendering any future, independent Palestinian state in the territory unviable.

Looking at Levin’s campaign donors might lend us greater insight into his views and commitments on the subject of Israel/Palestine. Andy’s uncle, former US Senator Carl Levin, is one of the top individual contributors to Andy’s campaign and has appeared in some of Andy’s campaign ads. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Carl Levin was one of the top recipients of funds from pro-Israel individuals and PACs during his 35 years in the Senate — over $1.2 million since 1989. Unsurprisingly, Carl’s pro-Israel/anti-Palestinian voting record reflects the wishes of his donor base: Senator Levin, who served as chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee for seven years, consistently voted in favor of massive military aid to Israel despite the Israeli military’s awful human rights record. He fully supported the Israeli assaults on Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2008-2009, and then later called on the United Nations to rescind the Human Rights Council’s report on the Gaza assault that found that Israel had committed war crimes and possibly crimes against humanity on a systematic basis.

A still frame from a Levin campaign video. Left to right: Andy’s uncle, U.S. Senator Carl Levin, Andy Levin, and Andy’s father Congressman Sander Levin. (Courtesy of Andy Levin for Congress)

Congressman Sander Levin, though apparently not a donor to his son’s campaign, has leant Andy significant support in the form of joint public appearances and features in campaign ads alongside his brother Carl. In the past couple decades, Congressman Levin has consistently received negative reviews from the Arab American Institute on issues relating to Palestine, with the notable exception of his repeated opposition to moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. For instance, Sander has co-sponsored legislation placing further restrictions on aid to the Palestinian Authority and co-sponsored legislation in 2006 urging President George W. Bush to “fully support” Israel’s attack on Lebanon (the resolution did not call for a ceasefire or express any support for Lebanon’s democratically elected government, as the AAI noted). In 2001, Sander Levin signed a letter coinciding with mass murderer Ariel Sharon’s first visit to the United States as Israel’s Prime Minister, calling for the downgrading of US relations with the PA and placing exclusive blame for the violence of the then-burgeoning Second Intifada on the Palestinians, even though Sharon himself had provoked the unrest. In 2011, Levin opposed any “unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state,” calling on the Obama administration to prevent the PA from receiving recognition in international bodies, threatening the withdrawal of aid.

In general, we obviously should not assume that a son holds the same views as his father, or that a nephew necessarily agrees with his uncle, but this situation is exceptional considering the Levin family’s deep ties to pro-Israel individuals and PACs along with Sander and Carl Levin’s steadfast support for Israel and antipathy toward the Palestinians during their long tenures in Congress.

Furthermore, Andy Levin’s campaign itself has received over $15,500 from the pro-Israel “industry,” as the Center for Responsive Politics calls it, and thus far he has refused, when asked, to utter even one critical or censorious word about Israel. His comments regarding the March of Return show that he is ambivalent about whom to blame for the killing despite the unanimously scathing reviews of Israeli conduct by esteemed international observers and the incriminating videos of some of the killings published online. As a champion of human rights in other places, this deviation should raise serious questions for his progressive supporters.

Ellen Lipton chose not to talk to me about her stances on Israel/Palestine. Initially, Lipton’s campaign manager Anna Scanlon denied me an interview with her candidate, but asked that I instead send in my questions by email. I wanted to know: What is Lipton’s personal relationship to Israel? What has been her reaction to the March of Return? And does Lipton support the calls from young Jews in metro Detroit, like IfNotNow, to end our community’s support for the Israeli occupation? Unfortunately, after stringing me along for a week, Lipton ultimately refused to answer these questions.

A week later, I sent Lipton another round of questions, this time inquiring about the significance of several of her top campaign contributors’ pro-Israel and anti-Palestinian politics. I received no reply.

One prominent leading donor, Mark Bernstein, currently serves on the Board of Regents at the University of Michigan. In 2017, the Board rejected a proposal brought by the UM Central Student Government calling for the establishment of a committee to investigate university divestment from companies participating in “alleged” human rights abuses in the Middle East, referring to Israeli abuses. Bernstein voted against the proposal, calling BDS “an intellectually bankrupt and morally repugnant expression of anti-Semitism” — the standard Zionist equivocation of resistance to Israeli aggression with anti-Jewish racism.

Other top Lipton contributors are involved with something called the Grosfeld Leadership Mission, a program that takes people identified as leaders in metro Detroit Jewish community on trips to Poland, where they visit Auschwitz, and then to Israel. Nancy and James Grosfeld, who fund the missions, are also major donors to Detroit Jewish Federation, Birthright, and the Anti-Defamation League. James Grosfeld was actually the vice chair of the national commission at the ADL, an organization most well-known for civil rights defense, but which also specializes in defamation and slander of anyone who seriously criticizes Israel. The ADL also participates in what activists call the “deadly exchanges,” whereby ADL facilitates partnerships between repressive police departments in the United States (e.g., the Chicago and New York police departments) and Israeli police and military.

Though one cannot divine precisely what Lipton’s views are based on these data, taken together we can make inferences to the best explanation. Why decline to answer basic questions about one’s position? And why refuse to clarify one’s position in response to questions raised based on donors’ allegiances? Perhaps her major donors and strongest supporters already understand that Lipton is pro-Israel, anti-BDS, etc., and publicly responding to questions would only serve to alienate potential pro-Palestinian voters.

Judging from his comments, Levin is a liberal Zionist. He supports a Jewish-majority state in the land of historic Palestine, believes in the two-state solution, and apparently does not accept the consensus view of international human rights organizations that Israel is routinely committing major crimes against the Palestinians. That said, his strong record of standing up for human rights in other places and his general progressivism suggests that once he is in office, Levin would be open to listening to Palestinians and Palestinian solidarity activists. He could be convinced to come out courageously against racist violence and for full civil rights in Israel/Palestine, like he did in the case of apartheid South Africa when he was a college student. Indeed, even signaling this openness is probably politically risky for him.

Lipton, staying silent, either recognizes this risk and has decided that Palestine will not be another plank in her otherwise progressive platform, or she simply isn’t progressive on Palestine. In any case, by not answering important clarifying questions, Lipton has shown that in office she would likely not be an ally to the Palestinians or to the young American Jews fighting to end U.S. Jewish support for the occupation.

Therefore, for those of us who support Palestinian self-determination, Levin is strategically the better choice.

About the Author
Zak Witus is a writer, whose work has appeared in The Forward, +972 Magazine, and Truthout. He is also community organizer with IfNotNow, a movement seeking to end Jewish-American support for Israeli apartheid. Zak earned a master's degree in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Chicago (2020).