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Pro-Israel Billionaires Are Spending Big To Oust Socialists From Office

Across the country, pro-Israel groups and billionaires are trying to stop the antiwar movement pushing for a cease-fire in Gaza by bringing down its elected leaders, including Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar. These are fights the Left can win with popu

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hosting an AIPAC delegation at his office in Jerusalem, Nov. 29, 2023. ,Photo by Kobi Gideon/GPO.

Socialists in elected office are standing up for Palestinian rights and demanding a cease-fire in Gaza. A handful of billionaires, rejecting this progressive and popular agenda, are trying hard to take down these antiwar lawmakers. As well, many conservative and centrist Democratic candidates are launching primary challenges against them, hoping to be the recipients of big campaign cash from the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and similar pro-Israel groups. AIPAC and its allies — like-minded organizations and big donors — told the New York Times that they are going to spend big, probably far more than in previous election cycles, to defeat anyone standing up for Palestine. Many of their targets are members of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) or close allies of the organization.

It’s essential that we defend those elected officials who are providing principled leadership to the Left in the midst of Israel’s brutal assault on the Gaza Strip, which has so far killed more than nineteen thousand Palestinians. Israeli president Benjamin Netanyahu’s allies have plenty of money, but politically, they’re flailing as international support for Israel’s war gradually declines in the face of its indiscriminate bombing of civilians. The call for a permanent cease-fire in Gaza is broadly popular, as are the economic justice issues these officeholders champion, so these should be winnable fights if the Left can stay organized. A 61 percent majority of likely US voters believes the United States should support a cease-fire, while only 28 percent oppose such a move — even though only sixty-two members of Congress have publicly called for one so far.

Michigan representative Rashida Tlaib may be number one on AIPAC’s enemies list. The DSA-endorsed congresswoman, who is the only Palestinian American to serve in the US House of Representatives, has faced censure from her colleagues for her Palestinian advocacy. Two Detroit Senate candidates say that AIPAC offered them $20 million to abandon their Senate races and run against her. Both refused, in pretty indignant terms, and despite the hefty political bounty on her head, Tlaib still doesn’t have a serious primary opponent. AIPAC has for now resorted to running attack ads against her through its dark money arm, equating her advocacy for a cease-fire in Gaza — and her participation in antiwar protests — with enabling terrorists.

AIPAC has a genuine challenger for Missouri representative Cori Bush, a democratic socialist activist from St Louis who introduced the House bill calling for a cease-fire, around which so much of the antiwar movement has mobilized. In an especially depraved move, Wesley Bell, the prosecutor who investigated the Ferguson Police Department after the infamous police murder of Michael Brown, switched his attentions from unseating far-right Senator Josh Hawley — a worthy goal — to launching a primary campaign against Bush, tapping into monied ire over her cease-fire bill.

Most of the “Squad” will be targeted in 2024. AIPAC remains, as the Nation put it in 2022, “desperate to defeat Summer Lee.” The group has tried backing both primary challengers and Republicans against the Pennsylvania representative and former DSA member, and it is expected to do so again in 2024. Minnesota representative Ilhan Omar, one of the most principled anti-imperialist and pro-Palestinian voices in office and a close ally of DSA members in Congress, faces multiple primary challengers competing for AIPAC funds.

Perhaps most worrisome is the animus against Representative Jamaal Bowman of New York. Bowman, ironically, left DSA when many members felt he was not sufficiently supportive of the group’s stance on Palestine, but he has turned out to be one of the strongest voices in Washington regarding the urgency of a cease-fire and the injustice of Israel’s occupation. Bowman’s seat may now be the most imperiled of any Squad member, as AIPAC has recruited Westchester County executive George Latimer to run against him, and Latimer may tap into considerable pro-war sentiment in the district.

Bowman isn’t the only New York elected official being targeted — a coalition of billionaires will also be taking aim at several state officeholders. A recent report in Hell Gate, a local New York City news site, confirmed rumors that had been flying around for months: a group of centrist and right-wing millionaires and billionaires, including Gil Cygler, a rental car mogul, as well as bigger names like Ronald Lauder (Republican diplomat and heir to the Estée Lauder Company) and Thomas J. Tisch (investor and Brown University chancellor), want New York’s socialists out of office. While these billionaires have disliked DSA’s success in expanding renters’ rights, the organization’s advocacy for Palestinians has galvanized even more ruling-class opposition.

DSA officials under fire include state senators Jabari Brisport of Brooklyn and Kristen Gonzalez of Queens, as well as Assemblymembers Marcela Mitaynes and Emily Gallagher from Brooklyn. (For full disclosure, I’m a DSA member and live in Brisport’s district; I’ve volunteered on his campaigns in the past and plan to do so again.) While the New York State Legislature does not set foreign policy, socialist elected officials have been visible at Palestinian solidarity protests.

A particular object of ire for the pro-Israel billionaires is Assemblymember Zohran Mamdani of Queens, who wrote the “Not on Our Dime” legislation, which would bar any charity in New York State from funding Israeli settlement activity (because the tax-exempt status of nonprofits makes them effectively government-supported). Mamdani also joined a group of legislators and activists on hunger strike in front of the White House recently, demanding a cease-fire in Gaza.

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New York City Council doesn’t make foreign policy any more than the state government does. But these pro-Netanyahu billionaires understand that local leaders do help shape the discourse and play a role in building political movements. They’re also targeting Brooklyn councilmember Shahana Hanif, who was not endorsed by DSA but has said that she identifies as a socialist, and who has been outspoken in her support of a cease-fire in Gaza.

New York’s pro–Benjamin Netanyahu billionaires haven’t succeeded in their previous efforts to topple DSA-endorsed candidates. They have, however, backed successful challenges to longtime black socialist city councilmember Charles Barron and helped drive newcomer city councilmember Kristin Richardson Jordan, another democratic socialist not aligned with DSA, out of office.

The lawmakers presently targeted by AIPAC and the pro-Netanyahu billionaires are indispensable leaders on the Left, and it would be a travesty to lose any of them as political representatives. In the past, so much monied opposition might have been the kiss of death to an American left movement, especially given that most people aren’t well-informed about foreign policy. But that’s not the case right now.

The Left is up to the challenge of fighting well-funded opposition today. These fights require people and commitment, and all these districts have both — that’s how left-wing candidates get into office in the first place. DSA and allied groups like the Working Families Party, especially working with the wider movement for Palestinian rights and the hundreds of thousands of Americans who have taken to the streets to demand a cease-fire, have the grassroots power to fight back and win. Every decent American should join them.

Liza Featherstone is a columnist for Jacobin, a freelance journalist, and the author of Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers’ Rights at Wal-Mart.