Squad members (from top left) Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, Summer Lee, Jamaal Bowman, Cori Bush, Ilhan Omar, and Greg Casar. (Photo illustration by The Free Press, images via U.S. Congress)

Could October 7 Bring Down the Squad?

The progressive House wing’s harsh criticism of Israel is out of step with voters—and it could cost three members their seats.

By November last year, Democratic Rep. Summer Lee realized she had to mend fences with Pittsburgh’s Jews. Since the October 7 atrocity in Israel, Lee had started to sound like she was on team Hamas—and Jewish leaders were taking notice

She had voted against the resolution condemning the Hamas attacks, and co-sponsored legislation calling for an immediate cease-fire along with other members in the House’s eight-strong, ultra-progressive “Squad.” But in Pennsylvania’s Twelfth Congressional District, Lee has run into trouble. 

On the evening of February 12, as Israel Defense Forces rescued two hostages from Rafah, Lee posted on X that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s war “is indefensible.” 

“As long as we send weapons & a blank check, we’re more than complicit in the nearly 30,000 lives lost,” she added. This month she also congratulated a Carnegie Mellon professor for receiving tenure after she compared Israel to Nazi Germany for its conduct during the Gaza war.

Lee’s comments prompted 40 Pittsburgh rabbis and cantors to sign an open letter on October 30, expressing their “frustration and anger” over her “ongoing actions.” The next month, Lee agreed to meet Jewish leaders to discuss their concerns. 

It didn’t go well. 

“The impression of the Jewish community is that Summer Lee has not served us,” said Yitzi Genack, the chief rabbi of Shaare Torah, one of the largest synagogues in Lee’s district. Genack, who attended the meeting, told The Free Press the two sides “were not able to find common ground. We didn’t hear sympathy.” 

Bhavini Patel, 30, is challenging Summer Lee in the Democratic primary for Pennsylvania’s Twelfth Congressional District. (Photo courtesy of Patel for PA)

Episodes like this have led the Jewish communities in Pittsburgh and others in Pennsylvania’s Twelfth District to seek an alternative to Lee in her upcoming primary. And Lee is not the only one facing such a backlash. Now, for the first time since the 2018 swearing-in of its inaugural class, the Squad could be shrinking, as its defamation of Israel after October 7 has repelled old-school liberals and centrist Democrats.

The more well-known Squad members, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley, are running unopposed in their primaries this year. Ilhan Omar is facing three challengers in a race she is largely expected to win. But three newer members of the Squad—albeit from the JV team—are facing serious, well-funded Democratic primary opponents who could knock them from their seats. They are:

Rep. Summer Lee

The 36-year-old lawmaker, who has been in office only one year, is being challenged by Bhavini Patel, a 30-year-old borough council representative from the Pittsburgh suburb of Edgewood. Raised in Monroeville, Pennsylvania, by a mother who started a food truck business selling samosas, Patel—who is Hindu—calls herself a strong supporter of Israel. She told The Free Press of Lee: “You have a Congress member who consistently votes against the Jewish community. This is the kind of thing we have to reject as Democrats.” So far, Patel’s campaign team said they have raised $310,000, an estimated quarter of which comes from pro-Israel sources. Meanwhile, only 38 percent of constituents hold a favorable view of Lee, according to an October survey.

Rep. Jamaal Bowman

Elected in 2020 to serve New York’s Sixteenth Congressional District, Bowman, 47, is facing a tough race from Westchester County executive George Latimer, 70. For the fourth quarter of 2023, Latimer raised nearly $1.4 million while Bowman raised just $725,000. Meanwhile, J Street—a group that fashions itself as a liberal alternative to the mainstream pro-Israel lobby—pulled its endorsement of Bowman last month after he repeatedly referred to Israel’s war as a “genocide.” So far, Latimer said he has endorsements from 9 out of the 12 local Democratic committees in Westchester County.

Rep. Cori Bush

Bush, 47, who represents Missouri’s First Congressional District, is being challenged by the popular black St. Louis County prosecutor Wesley Bell, 49. Last month, the Justice Department opened an investigation into Bush’s misuse of campaign funds when she hired her romantic partner (and now husband) for her security detail. Bush has also been one of the main organizers in the House for an unconditional cease-fire resolution and has called Israel’s military response to October 7 “ethnic cleansing.” A poll last week found Bush trailing Bell by 22 points. 

One of the forces fighting to unseat these incumbents is the Democratic Majority for Israel, a political action committee that raised money to help defeat Bush and Bowman. Mark Mellman, the president of the group, told The Free Press, “Defeating incumbents is extraordinarily difficult, but there are a couple of them who are vulnerable, and I think there will be extraordinary efforts to defeat them.” 

Meanwhile, in December, it was reported that the pro-Israel lobby American Israel Public Affairs Committee, also known as AIPAC, is planning to spend up to $100 million in the 2024 election cycle, with some of it going to challengers to the Squad. That is more than double the amount the group spent on the 2022 midterms. AIPAC declined to discuss its political spending for this story. 

Rep. Ritchie Torres, whose district in the Bronx sits alongside AOC’s, refused to knock his fellow Democratic legislators, but said their strident criticism of Israel after October 7 was out of step with most voters in his party. He told The Free Press that “the notion that Ceasefire Now represents the will of the American people is pure fiction. We have to make sure we don’t play into that false narrative.” 

The Squad has held sway over the left wing of the Democratic Party since its inaugural four members—AOC of New York, Tlaib of Michigan, Omar of Minnesota, and Pressley of Massachusetts—were first elected to Congress in 2018. Since 2020, four new members have joined its ranks: Lee, Bowman, Bush, and Rep. Greg Casar of Texas. (Casar does not face a primary opponent this year.)

Squad members Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Cori Bush, Summer Lee, and Jamaal Bowman call for an end to the Israeli attacks on Gaza on November 13, 2023. (Photo by Celal Gunes/Anadolu via Getty Images)

In New York State’s Sixteenth Congressional District, George Latimer opposes a unilateral cease-fire and is the first nonincumbent to receive AIPAC’s endorsement this year. He told The Free Press that his opponent Bowman “has not secured the local base in his district. He’d like you to think his problems are from an external group of people. They are not.” 

Back in Pittsburgh, Lee has not attacked Patel directly. But Patel blames Lee’s supporters for stoking a social media campaign to get her February 7 speaking engagement at her alma mater, the University of Pittsburgh, canceled. Patel’s campaign pointed me to a series of retweets from a senior adviser to the Lee campaign, Emilia Winter Rowland, who boosted posts on X that promoted articles insinuating Patel was a front for Hindu nationalists and a puppet of the pro-Israel lobby.

On February 6, Patel received an email from the dean of the honors college at Pitt asking her to reschedule the event for the fall. This would “give us the ability to secure a location free from any potential disturbances,” Dean Nicola Foote wrote. 

After the university announced the event was postponed, one of Lee’s supporters, Tanisha Long, a local police abolition activist, tweeted her approval. “This is why organizing and speaking out are important,” she posted on X. “We have the ability to push our institutions to do the right thing. I’m glad Pitt made the right decision after pushback from the public.”

Lee’s campaign declined requests from The Free Press for an interview.

The three Squad primary battles are a microcosm of a wider war over Israel inside the Democratic Party. On one side, social justice progressives have aligned themselves with the activists blocking traffic for Gaza. Tlaib was censured by the House in November for her harsh condemnation of Israel’s war by a vote of 234 to 188 with more than 20 members of her own party voting against her. On October 12, Omar reposted to X a photo of children gassed in a 2013 Syrian attack that decried the “child genocide in Palestine.” 

On the other side are more moderate Democrats and the pro-Israel lobby that champions the Jewish state’s right to defend itself against the worst massacre of civilians in its history. Stuck in the middle is a Biden administration that has armed Israel but is also attempting to appease the anti-Israel wing of its party with largely symbolic gestures such as sanctioning four Israeli settlers for violence against Palestinians in the West Bank. 

Polls show the Squad’s harsh criticism of the Jewish state is out of step with voters—even in their own districts. The Democratic Majority for Israel polled constituents for Squad members Omar and Bush in December and January and found that just 6 percent of their voters support Hamas in the war, compared to the more than 59 percent who back Israel. A December Pew poll found that 65 percent of Americans agree Hamas is more responsible for the war than Israel, although an Associated Press survey last month found that 50 percent of Americans say Israel’s response has “gone too far”—up from 40 percent in November.  

“Those of us on the center left have to confront the extremes on the far left,” Rep. Torres told The Free Press. “The Ceasefire Now movement is not a monolith. It contains the well-intentioned and ill-intentioned. The most nefarious members, though, are siding with Hamas. Those extreme elements should be categorically rejected.”

Eli Lake is a Free Press columnist and podcaster. Follow him on X (formerly Twitter) at @EliLake and read his Free Press piece, “Delusion in the White House. Bloodshed in Israel.”

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