By FARNOUSH AMIRI

WASHINGTON - They were warned that criticism of Israel’s conduct during its war on Hamas in Gaza could cost them politically. But in the four months since Israel’s blistering offensive was ignited by Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack, progressives in Congress who have called for a cease-fire are seeing record fundraising dollars as they fight to remain in office.

Members of the “squad” — a group of liberals in the House — are being singled out by pro-Israel PACs like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, better known as AIPAC. The groups have pledged or plan to spend tens of millions of dollars to try to defeat them in Democratic primaries and the general election this year, turning the otherwise safely Democratic districts into election battlegrounds.

The cohort of Black and brown lawmakers is facing what they see as an “existential threat” to their political careers. It’s a struggle that raises significant questions about who can be a Democrat in Congress, what positions are permissible about Israel and the Palestinians, and what role outside groups should have in determining both.

Unlike in previous cycles, progressives are being bolstered more and more by Arab American and Muslim groups who are organizing in record numbers to ensure their voices are heard on Capitol Hill.

“The fact that amidst these AIPAC attacks, amidst us having a viable challenger, we have record-breaking fundraising quarter is because the Muslim community has felt erased and dehumanized throughout this process,” Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., told The Associated Press in an interview last month.

AIPAC has defended its track record, telling the AP in a statement that “it is entirely consistent with progressive values to stand with the Jewish state,” and that the group has a history of supporting members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Congressional Democrats have long been sensitive about the divisions around Israel, with even lawmakers aligned with AIPAC declining to discuss the situation on the record.

Bowman, who is among a group of 19 Democrats who have called for a cease-fire in Gaza, is facing a Democratic challenger backed by AIPAC. The group, which has historically yielded immense clout in Washington, has shifted strategy in the last several years, transitioning from strictly a lobbying organization to helping elect centrist, pro-Israel Democrats. In 2022, it began challenging Democratic incumbents in primaries.

Ahead of November, the group and PACs connected to its ethos have once again begun contributing to candidates running against members of the squad. In addition to Bowman, the Democrats facing challengers include Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Summer Lee of Pennsylvania and Cori Bush of Missouri, all of whom have not only called for a cease-fire but have demanded an end to U.S. aid to Israel.

Israel’s air and ground offensive has killed more than 27,000 Palestinians, driven most people from their homes and pushed one-quarter of the population toward starvation. In the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas in southern Israel, militants killed some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and took about 250 people hostage.

Progressive groups are closely watching the campaign as they track the unprecedented flow of money into congressional district races at a level usually seen for battleground Senate seats.


NEVER GOING TO BE A ‘FAIR FIGHT’


In 2022, AIPAC spent around $27 million targeting progressive candidates. Its war chest this cycle is expected to be more than twice that amount.

In the last quarter alone, the group was the largest donor to George Latimer, Bowman’s opponent in the Democratic primary. AIPAC gave the Westchester County executive more than $600,000, representing more than 40% of his $1.4 million in contributions so far, according to campaign finance reports filed Wednesday.

Bowman, meanwhile, managed to raise more than $730,000 in total last quarter — the majority of which his campaign says came from grassroots Arab and Muslim groups and individual donors.

“(Muslim and Arab groups) are building an infrastructure that is financial and political and social, to fight back against AIPAC and to fight back against entities that continue to demonize them as Muslims as Arabs and as brown people,” Bowman said.

It marks a record-breaking quarter for the educator-turned-congressman who in December 2021 had barely managed to raise $200,000 in contributions. But outside groups like Justice Democrats say the challenge ahead is considerable, with AIPAC having the ability to drop more than half a million on a candidate in one quarter.

“This is versus candidates, black and brown candidates, who come from working-class backgrounds, who represent working-class districts, who do not take corporate PAC money, who rely on grassroots fundraising. So this is not a fair fight,” said Usamah Andrabi, the communications director for Justice Democrats. “It has never been a fair fight.”


LOOKING FOR CANDIDATES


Beyond the four members of the squad — Bowman, Lee, Omar and Bush — who are already facing both primary and general election challenges, pro-Israel groups are still searching for candidates to take on some other vocal Palestinian advocates in Congress.

One progressive who is no stranger to AIPAC-backed challenges since coming to Washington is Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, the only Palestinian serving in Congress.

While there has been an active effort to recruit an opponent against her this cycle, no candidate has accepted the appeals from various groups to take her on. Nonetheless, Tlaib has raised nearly $3.7 million since the start of the war in Gaza, record fundraising for the third-term congresswoman who has faced constant attacks from both sides for her criticism of Israel. She was censured by the House in November for her remarks about the war.

Tlaib’s massive fundraising haul can largely be attributed to a grassroots effort, with the campaign saying that donations in the three months came from 32,600 people. More than 20,000 of those people were first-time donors and the average donation was less than $75, according to the campaign.

“We are proud of our grassroots campaign that is bringing people together to fight for justice for all, no matter where you live or who you are,” said Carolina Toro-Román, Tlaib’s co-campaign manager.

Tlaib has easily defeated primary opponents in the past, in part because her district includes parts of Dearborn and one of the largest Arab American communities in the nation.

Hussein Dabajeh, a Dearborn resident and Democratic consultant, said there’s been an active effort in the community to financially support not only Tlaib, but any lawmakers who have called for a cease-fire in Gaza.

“Whether it be chats on WhatsApp, Facebook groups, coordinated emails from different organizations, text message campaigns, calls, or town halls: There are efforts that are coming in from the community,” Dabajeh said. “Not only in Dearborn or in Detroit, but from across the country.”


MESSAGE TO VOTERS AND DEMOCRATIC ESTABLISHMENT

 

Before November, progressive members and the outside groups supporting them are looking beyond fundraising tactics to challenge AIPAC’s standing with the Democratic Party.

Candidates being targeted by the group are trying to raise awareness for what they say is AIPAC’s toxic role in Democratic primaries. In recent years, several major Republican donors have helped fund the group’s effort to target candidates critical of Israel. In the 2022 Democratic primary between then-Rep. Andy Levin and Rep. Haley Stevens in Michigan, Levin and his supporters focused their criticism of AIPAC on its super PAC, United Democracy Project, which they alleged received significant donations from prominent Republican donors and spent it in Democratic primaries like his.

After the last Israel-Hamas war in 2021, Levin, a self-proclaimed Zionist and former synagogue president, renewed his calls for a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine. That, in addition to redistricting in Michigan, resulted in a perfect storm against Levin, who faced an organized campaign by AIPAC that would funnel an unprecedented amount of money — over $4 million — to Stevens, a centrist, pro-Israel member. Stevens won the primary, helping push Levin and his vocal criticism of Israel out of Congress.

“I think this is really a structural issue for democracy in general and an existential issue for the Democratic Party,” Levin told the AP last month. “What kind of a party are we, if we allow Republicans to come in and determine who we pick in a Democratic primary to run against the other side?”

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Progressive Caucus who is also a target of AIPAC this year, said she has been talking with Democrats who still receive money from the group about the damage it could do to the party and their efforts to regain the House.

“This is hurting the Democratic Party to challenge our incumbents,” Japayal said. “Our goal as a unified Democratic Party is to make sure that Joe Biden stays in the White House, and that we take back the House and make Hakeem Jeffries our speaker and that we expand our ranks in the Senate.”

And AIPAC, she says, has become a major obstacle to that goal.