Column: The Potential Fall of Rep. Summer Lee, the Squad Member from Pittsburgh

After seven months on the job, U.S. Rep. Summer Lee set herself up for the winter of Summer, to borrow from “The summer of George” title of a Seinfeld segment.

Earlier this month, she traded barbs with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which criticized her decision to boycott Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s address before Congress.

Lee’s response was haughty. She magnified the issue into a racist scuffle, obviously expecting to get away with it. Perhaps she thought her retort would bolster her stock with “the squad” and their followers. It could more likely turn into a political disaster.

She accused AIPAC of racial bullying, The Algemeiner newspaper reports. “They’re just an extremely wealthy white org that operates like so many others: they hate progressive, Black and poor folks fighting for themselves, who they can’t control,” she said.

Like some of her Israel-bashing colleagues, she exploited the familiar race, gender, ethnic and religion cards to deflect from their anti-Israel rants. Supporters of Israel object to their conduct not because they are persons of color, Muslims, and/or liberal Democrats, or poor. Not even because of legitimate criticism. It is due to their hostile, fact-free attitudes toward Israel.

Reps. Rashida Tlaib of Detroit and Ilhan Omar of Minneapolis, two of the original members of the left-wing “Squad,” have successfully avoided a backlash at the polls. Both were re-elected twice while persisting in blaming Israel for just about everything. The Michigan-born Tlaib, whose family emigrated from Israel’s West Bank, has relatively few Jewish constituents. Most Michigan Jews live in Detroit’s northern suburbs in separate congressional districts.

Lee’s district in the Pittsburgh area comprises a sizeable and active Jewish population that stands out partly because of a now-unused building at Shady and Wilkins avenues in the city’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood. Inside the Tree of Life synagogue, 11 members of three Jewish congregations were murdered by a white supremacist on Oct. 27, 2018.

Lee is vulnerable in the Democratic primary next year. She squeaked through the 2022 primary with a 41.9 percent plurality, less than one point ahead of her closest rival. Two pro-Israel candidates received a combined majority of the votes. Her district covers Pittsburgh and some of its suburbs in Allegheny and Westmoreland counties.

In the general election, she trailed her top-tier running-mates, Josh Shapiro for governor (68 percent) and John Fetterman for the Senate (63 percent). She received a solid tally of 56 percent, but Pittsburgh is so heavily Democratic that she should have performed better.

Lee could have defended her decision to avoid Herzog’s speech and leave it at that. Instead, she replied, “This is a right-wing bully group that supports actual insurrection, white supremacists…To point out the obvious power dynamic get us labeled antisemitic. It makes us targets of dangerous and incredibly disingenuous attacks. It chills speech.”

An AIPAC spokesman told The Algemeiner: “Summer Lee is outrageously attempting to distract attention from her consistently hostile record against Israel by making unfounded and scurrilous attacks against us…Despite your transparent and baseless attempts to make it about race, gender, background or party, we oppose you only because of your anti-Israel votes and statements.”

Lee’s approach here confirms that she had no intention of changing. Before the primary election, Pittsburgh Jews complained that she likened the plight of Gazans to the struggles of African Americans. Black people here want justice, Gazans either seek Israel’s destruction or are victimized by their own leaders. Lee even compared an Israeli military raid to the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in Florida, a Black teen-ager who was fatally injured by a white man under dubious circumstances.

Strange that she would warn how AIPAC’s criticisms “make us targets.” Now she knows how Jews feel when she lies about Israel.

Pro-Israel candidate Jerry Dickinson said during last year’s primary, as quoted in The Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, “The idea of delegitimizing the state of Israel is extremely problematic and dangerous. It gives rise, I believe, to other forms of antisemitic behavior and actions.”

It appears likely that Lee will be re-elected if she gets past the primary. Pittsburgh Democrats have a 5-1 registration edge over Republicans. Because the next presidential election will be held in 2424, President Biden or whoever is the Democratic nominee will aid down-ballot candidates with their coattails in liberal congressional districts.

First she must win the primary, and that can be difficult. Prevailing in the last primary with 41.9 percent is not encouraging. She won because her opposition was split. Two pro-Israel candidates took a combined majority of the votes.

Lee refused to be evenhanded on the Israel question. The issue at hand was not all that contentious. She boycotted Isaac Herzog’s speech because he represents a government that has antagonized not only critics of Israel but many of the nation’s most loyal supporters. Note, though, that Herzog has been highly critical of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies.

I do not find Lee’s action here offensive as I do other positions taken by Squad members. I do find it offensive that she played some of the usual prejudicial cards. It was not necessary. She was so full of it. Plenty of Democrats in Congress support both progressive policies and Israel’s survival. Other Black representatives have not griped about racism on Capitol Hill. Lee is not poor, unless she blows her yearly $174,000 salary at Rivers Casino along the Ohio River.

I imagine that Jewish and Democratic leaders in Pittsburgh will take note of her words. They are likely already plotting to oust her from office. All to end their winter of discontent.

About Bruce Ticker

Bruce S. Ticker, who writes from Philadelphia, also blogs for The San Diego Jewish World and Smirking Chimp and previously for the suspended Philadelphia Jewish Voice. He was previously a reporter and copy editor for daily newspapers in eastern Pennsylvania.

Check Also

white house

Column: Biden’s Israel Vise: So Little Sense, So Much Hustling

President Biden withheld bomb delivery to Israel, influenced by political pressures and potential voter backlash, while facing criticism both domestically and internationally. Critics worry about the impact on U.S.-Israel relations and Democratic policies.

Column: GOP House Members Go on the Record: The Jews Killed Jesus

U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene criticized antisemitism but opposed the Antisemitism Awareness Act, suggesting it could unjustly criminalize Christian beliefs.