AIPAC-PAC, J Street, going head-to-head in five democratic primary races

AIPAC opened its Political Action Committee (PAC) in December, and for the first time the two pro-Israel lobbies are going head to head in five different states.

Rep. Andy Levin of Michigan. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Rep. Andy Levin of Michigan.
(photo credit: Courtesy)

WASHINGTON – Ever since J Street was established in 2007, a clear distinction has existed between political candidates supported by the progressive Jewish group and the bipartisan pro-Israel lobby of AIPAC. Last December, AIPAC announced it would launch a political action committee – a PAC, moving to directly fund political campaigns.

Thus, as the primaries are underway, the two groups find themselves for the first time contributing to hundreds of candidates across the country.

In five of those races, AIPAC and J Street will compete head-to-head in the primaries to the congressional seat in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Texas, North Carolina, and Maryland.

MD-04 (Donna Edwards against Glenn Ivey)

Progressive candidate Donna Edwards, supported by J Street, is running to win back the seat she held from 2008 to 2017.

In an interview with the Jewish Insider earlier this year, Edwards said she wants to see a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “I just always leaned toward what is going to provide Israel security, but also engage Israel with its neighbors so that the region can exist in peace and stability,” said Edwards. But such an outcome now ”feels so much more distant for a whole host of reasons,” she told JI.

J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami (credit: Wikimedia Commons)J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

“I think I voted for every Israel security appropriations bill that ever came in front of me. I mean, I’d have to go back and check, but I’m pretty sure that’s true. I don’t really see that changing,” Edwards told JI.

However the publication noted that “she did not vote in favor of all the legislation backed by AIPAC-aligned advocates. She voted against a 2013 bill that would have strengthened sanctions on Iran.”

AIPAC, on the other hand, is supporting Ivey, an attorney who is a partner at the law firm of Ivey & Levetown. He previously served as the State’s Attorney for Prince George’s County from 2002 to 2011.

In an interview with the Insider, Ivey voiced opposition to placing conditions on US foreign aid to Israel because “my sense of it is that it’s aimed at sort of trying to leverage some components of negotiations with the Palestinians about a two-state solution,” Ivey said. “I’m in favor of a two-state solution. But I think we have to allow the parties to negotiate that for themselves. And I want to be careful about us trying to do too much to twist the arms, to force one side or the other to do it a particular way.”

TX-28 (Jessica Cisneros against Henry Cuellar)

Cuellar the incumbent is supported by AIPAC. Last December, he led a bipartisan letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken sounding the alarm on Iran’s nuclear advancements. The letter urges the State Department “to hold Iran accountable for their non-cooperation with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors and their failure to comply with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty obligations.”

On a different occasion he tweeted: “Israel is not an apartheid state. Full stop. These inaccuracies incite antisemitic behavior against the Jewish people. Lies that incite violence, but do nothing to help the Palestinian people. Let’s work together, not tear each other down.”

 The J Street Action Fund, announced in February that it made a $100,000 targeted digital ad buy to support the candidacy of human rights attorney Jessica Cisneros and oppose Rep. Henry Cuellar “in the critical primary election for Texas’ 28th Congressional District.”

“With this campaign, we aim to make clear that Jessica Cisneros is a fresh, principled voice who will fight for the true needs and values of her district, while her opponent Rep. Cuellar has a repeated history of putting his own personal interests and out-of-touch, conservative views ahead of the people he was elected to represent,” said Logan Bayroff, J Street’s Vice President of Communications.

“Rep. Cuellar has repeatedly aligned himself with foreign policy hawks and opposed a critical measure designed to prevent former president Trump from taking us into a disastrous war with Iran. That’s not the kind of principled leadership we need to see in Congress,” J Street said in a statement.

Marshal Wittmann, AIPAC spokesperson, said that AIPAC-PAC “is proud to support candidates who will advance the US-Israel relationship as members of Congress. In these races, there is a clear contrast between pro-Israel candidates who will stand by our democratic ally and their opponents who will not.”  

MI-11 (Andy Levin against Haley Stevens)

This race is a unique one since it will feature two members of Congress: progressive Levin and centrist Stevens, who will face each other because Michigan lost a district following the 2020 census.

NBC called the race “a proxy war over Israel policy and other ideological differences,” noting that AIPAC raised nearly $300,000 in contributions for Stevens in the first three months of the year, while J Street says it has raised some $200,000 for Levin.

David Victor, a former president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, wrote to pro-Israel donors in the Detroit area that Levin is “arguably the most corrosive member of Congress to the US-Israel relationship.”

NC-01 (Erica Smith against Don Davis)

The primaries for North Carolina’s first congressional district will feature several candidates, as AIPAC is backing Don Davis, a state senator representing the 5th senate district since 2013. J Street last week endorsed Smith, an engineer and politician who represented District 3 in the North Carolina Senate from 2015 to 2021.

 “J Street is proud to endorse Erica Smith in the race for #NC01. She’s exactly the kind of principled, passionate leader we need in Congress,” the organization tweeted.

AIPAC sent a barb to J Street when it replied: “a natural J Street endorsement. Erica Smith is so “principled” that she deleted her tweets on the 2021 Gaza war and voted against North Carolina’s bipartisan anti-BDS bill. Pro-Israel leaders stand with our democratic ally and oppose the anti-Israel, anti-peace BDS campaign.”

PA-12 (Summer Lee against Steve Irwin)

The primaries will take place on May 17 and will feature progressive, J Street backed Lee and moderate, AIPAC-supported Irwin.

Pro-Israel groups sharply criticized Lee for past tweets from May 2021 in which she wrote: “When I hear American pols use the refrain “Israel has the right to defend itself” in response to undeniable atrocities on a marginalized ppl, I can’t help but think of how the west has always justified indiscriminate& disproportionate force &power on weakened & marginalized ppl.”

“The US has never shown leadership in safeguarding human rights of folks it othered But as we fight against injustice here in the mvmnt for Blk lives, we must stand against injustice everywhere. Inhumanities against the Palestinian ppl cannot be tolerated or justified,” she added in the tweet thread.

Last month, she appeared at a town hall meeting sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Community Relations Council.

“I also understand and truly believe the need that we have for Jewish folks globally to have a safe haven, to have refuge and a place to be safe,” Lee said, according to The Jewish Chronicle. “I think our role has to be in how we are ensuring the safety of all folks over there right now.”

According to the JC, Lee said she didn’t know if Israel was an apartheid state. “I don’t necessarily know the answer to that,” she said. “I don’t know that I am as well-versed in the intricacies of this.”

Steve Irwin told the JC that a strong, democratic, pluralistic state of Israel, where its inhabitants are safe, is good for the world. “We need to continue to support Israel’s right to exist,” he said. “Israel is not perfect, but Israel is a democracy,” he added. “Antisemitism is not acceptable, and threats to Israel’s existence and security and America’s support of Israel is just not acceptable. I will be a staunch supporter of Israel.”

A spokesperson for UDP-AIPAC affiliated Super PAC, added: “Each of these races has a candidate who supports the US Israel relationship and a candidate who would work to undermine these relationships.

“We are trying to build the broadest coalition possible in congress to support the US-Israel relationship and we are involved in these races and still evaluating other races where there is an issue with the support for Israel.”

On the other hand Laura Birnbaum, J Street’s National Political Director said that AIPAC is “currently fundraising for 109 Republican endorsees who voted to overturn the 2020 election and at the same time they’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars attacking progressives and bolstering their endorsees as the ‘real Democrat’ in primary races.”

“It’s outrageous that an organization that’s going all in on pro-insurrectionist Republicans thinks it has any business telling Democrats who the best candidate in these primaries is,” she said.

“Democratic values are the foundation of the US-Israel relationship and AIPAC is threatening those foundations. That it’s doing so under the banner of a SuperPAC called the ‘United Democracy Project’ is truly absurd.”

She went on to say that “while they’re fundraising for these 109 Republicans and attacking any Democrat who criticizes the settlement movement or voices support for Palestinian freedoms, we’re backing pro-Israel, pro-peace candidates who know that our shared values of justice, equality and democracy are vital to securing a better future for all Israelis and Palestinians.”