'Squad' Member Summer Lee Prevails in Primary That Drew Attention to Anti-Israel Views

Summer Lee (Mark Dixon/Wikimedia Commons)
April 23, 2024

The anti-Israel "Squad" notched an early primary season victory on Tuesday after Rep. Summer Lee (D., Pa.) defeated pro-Israel progressive Bhavini Patel in one of the most closely watched contests of the primary election cycle.

Lee led Patel, a councilwoman in the borough of Edgewood, Pa., 59 percent to 41 percent when the Associated Press called the contest. The freshman lawmaker will go on to face Republican businessman James Hayes in November.

The race was seen by some as a referendum on Democrats' views of the Israel-Gaza war. Lee, one of Israel's loudest critics in Congress, has accused the Jewish state of committing genocide in Gaza. She was one of the first members of Congress to call for an Israeli ceasefire, with no conditions for Hamas's release of hostages.

Critics of the "Squad" are likely to downplay the significance of Lee's victory. Mark Mellman, the head of Democratic Majority for Israel, a group backing pro-Israel Democrats, recently said the Lee-Patel race was "not really a serious test" of the "Squad's" position on Israel given that the "national pro-Israel community did not engage in this race."

Mellman's group and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee stayed out of the Lee-Patel contest, spending heavily against other anti-Israel candidates.

"There will be tests yet to come," Mellman told the Washington Post.

Those tests include the primary challenges against Lee's fellow "Squad" members, Reps. Jamaal Bowman (N.Y.) and Cori Bush (Mo.), both of whom trail their challengers in fundraising and polling. Bowman trails his challenger, George Latimer, by 17 points in recent polls. Latimer outraised Bowman $2.2 million to $1.3 million in the first quarter this year. Bush is 22 points behind her challenger, Wesley Bell, who raised $954,000 to her $608,000 in the first quarter.

By contrast, Lee outraised Patel by $2.3 million to $600,000, thanks in large part to an influx of out-of-state donations, many from anti-Israel activists. Nihad Awad, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), contributed $3,000 to her campaign. Osama Abu Irshaid, the head of American Muslims for Palestine, contributed $500, and Zainab Billoo, the head of CAIR's San Francisco office, gave $350.

The White House denounced Awad last year after the CAIR leader said he "was happy" that Hamas attacked Israel. Abu Irshaid and Billoo have extensive histories of praising Hamas and of making anti-Semitic remarks.

Local Jewish leaders opposed Lee over what they called her "openly antisemitic" rhetoric. The rabbi at Tree of Life, the site of the worst anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history, was one of more than 40 Jewish leaders to sign a letter opposing Lee. The congresswoman's district encompasses Tree of Life, where 11 parishioners were murdered in 2018.

Though Lee's victory provides a boost for the "Squad," it creates a political headache for another Pennsylvania incumbent.

Sen. Bob Casey (D.), who faces a tough reelection fight in November, has faced pressure to rescind his endorsement of Lee over her anti-Israel position. Casey, who won his uncontested primary on Tuesday, last week offered a lukewarm endorsement of Lee and told reporters that he and the congresswoman have "clear" policy differences.

Casey did not immediately react to Lee's primary victory.