WASHINGTON – Like most Jewish lawmakers, Rep. Andy Levin’s religion has greatly informed his worldview and approach to governing.
The Michigan Democrat, however, is in a league of his own when it comes to contextualizing his heritage in fighting for social justice – even if it means vocally criticizing Israeli policy and going out on a ledge against community orthodoxy.
“I don’t think the Jewish community really knows what to do with me,” Levin laughs. “I am really Jewish, but I insist on keeping my moral clarity. It comes from my Judaism – what can I do?”
When nearly half the Jewish Democrats in the House of Representatives issued a statement recently accusing Rep. Ilhan Omar of equating the U.S. and Israel to Hamas and the Taliban, for example, he was not immediately sure how to respond. “I needed to take a beat,” he told Haaretz.
After reading Prof. David Shulman’s article in The New York Review of Books about the cracks in the Israeli consensus surrounding perpetual war on Hamas, as well as Haaretz’s article on nearly 200 leading Israeli intellectuals urging the International Criminal Court to not accept Israel’s internal investigation, the progressive lawmaker reached his conclusion.
“I realized these esteemed voices in Israeli society are talking about accountability for human rights abuses, yet Rep. Omar is demonized when she tries to do it,” he says.
Levin, 60, believes Omar’s original criticism hits at a longer-standing issue. “The U.S. doesn’t want to subject itself to ICC jurisdiction, and Israel doesn’t either. The one thing I cannot accept is assuming the U.S. or Israel are above accountability,” he says.
The latest spat between Jewish lawmakers and Omar further highlights Levin’s modus operandi. “Helping secure a democratic Israel living in peace and tackling antisemitism has to be about expanding the circle and building alliances, not drawing an ever-smaller circle of wagons against the whole world,” he says.
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“A lot of my colleagues want to draw a line in the sand and say that her and [Rep. Rashida Tlaib] are on the other side,” he says. “We are much stronger in the fight against antisemitism and all forms of white supremacy if we’re together.”
He cites historical discrepancies in representation as a reason he is so vocally supportive of his female colleagues of color. “When this all started happening, I looked at how many Jewish and Muslim members of Congress there have been dating back to the mid-19th century. There has been something like 11,000 members – 245 of those are Jewish and four are Muslim,” he says. “It strikes me as small-minded, ineffective and not having a capacious view of justice to make enemies with them.”
Most practical way forward
Levin dates his activism back to his days at Williams College and Harvard Law School’s human rights program. That activism has long extended to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including attempts to push his own community to the left for decades.
He recalls his op-ed in the Detroit Jewish News in 1990 calling for an end to the occupation for the sake of justice, as well as to ensure a secure Jewish and democratic homeland for the Jewish people. “That was not a kosher position to take in the Detroit Jewish community. It was seen as radical,” he says. Recalling all of the developments over the past three decades, Levin believes he has largely stayed true to himself while the world around him has changed.
The lawmaker visited Israel and the occupied territories in 2019 with an admitted skepticism regarding the prospects of a two-state solution because of all of the setbacks of the past several decades.
He relays that after a rigorous trip filled with meetings and firsthand visits and experiences, he still believes a two-state solution – based on 1967 borders with land swaps of equal size and quality, and Jerusalem in some way as a capital of both states – is still the most practical way forward. Despite this, he worries much of the Jewish community underestimates how much the younger generations are writing off such a solution.
“People offer bland talking points on supporting a two-state solution, but we’re coming off 12 years of a prime minister who has never been for two states for one minute in his life. That’s very damaging,” he says, adding that there isn’t an effective democratic Palestinian government ready to make peace while Gaza is run by a terrorist organization.
“So many are asking ‘Why have two states?’ The occupation has gone on for 54 years, nothing’s going in a good direction – why don’t we just have one state for two peoples? Maybe it’ll come to that. Call me old-fashioned, but I still want a homeland for the Jewish people,” he says, noting that he also supports a Palestinian homeland and will continue fighting for full Palestinian political and human rights as an urgent necessity.
“The difficulties in living under occupation is not to be underestimated, nor is the need for Israel to reach an agreement with the Palestinians to end this conflict,” he says, decrying the cycles of violence in Gaza in particular. “I want to end the conditions that cause this. The best way to attack Hamas is to stop demolishing houses and expanding settlements, and supporting Palestinians. Why give them a lifeline by making them look like saviors?”
‘We’re not just a religion’
One significant keystone of Levin’s worldview is his deep-rooted identity as a Reconstructionist Jew. “One of Mordecai Kaplan’s big ideas was that Judaism is a civilization, not just a religion,” Levin explains, pointing out how many of his ideas are now mainstreamed despite the relatively small size of the denomination (its members comprise about 1 percent of the population of American Jews). “We’re not just a religion. We’re a people, a culture, a food, a language, a history,” he adds.
Levin did not run for office until he was 58, though he comes from Michigan political royalty. He was elected to replace his father, Rep. Sander Levin, who retired after a 36-year career that left him the longest tenured Jew in the House. His uncle, Sen. Carl Levin, also represented Michigan for 36 years before retiring in 2015.
He notes how he was raised in a very culturally Jewish household, though his parents were not observant. “When my parents came of age in America, Jews were trying to assimilate and not stick out,” he says, citing his siblings’ names versus his children’s names as examples of how his family’s Jewish identity has evolved. “We’re proudly Jewish and out there,” he says.
Levin raised his children Jewish after marrying a non-Jewish woman, with one of his son’s serving as his synagogue treasurer while the other is studying the history of antisemitism in the Black Power movement at Yale. He and his wife served on the board of their synagogue in Oak Park, MI, Congregation T’Chiyah, eventually rising to the position of president. This experience offered him firsthand exposure on generational evolutions within the community.
“We came into the synagogue with people in their 60s to 90s, and I had a vision for it,” he says, opting to steer the congregation in an alternative direction. Under his stewardship, they hired Rabbi Alana Alpert to serve part-time as the congregation’s leader and part-time as community organizer for social justice matters in Detroit and greater Michigan.
Levin notes that the most repeated mitzvah in the Torah is to love the stranger as thyself. “Our most challenging stranger is the Palestinian people. Jews are great at the stranger who’s the immigrant or the African-American,” Levin says. “We have to dwell on our most challenging stranger. I insist we can coexist. How amazing could that new chapter be if we see each other as human beings?”
‘What are we actually doing?’
Despite his vocal critiques of Israeli policy and his support for Palestinian rights, Levin has not joined on several notable examples of congressional action over the past several months. “When I back or don’t back something, it’s based on my idea of being maximally effective to bring about real change,” he explains.
Levin says he is intent instead on focusing his work in a way that builds a broad coalition for urgent change toward a two-state solution. “I’m sick of the ‘I’m for two states’ over and over. What are we doing actually? It’s not just about undoing [Donald] Trump’s actions,” he says. “I want to know what would the program be for the U.S. to robustly push for a two-state solution in our joint posture as Israel’s best friend and an honest broker?”
The progressive IfNotNow movement highlights Levin as “one of the most important Jewish leaders on the Hill, especially when it comes to fighting antisemitism and working to end the Israeli occupation. He is a trusted ally whose progressive Jewish values are deeply aligned with our own movement. He’s demonstrated moral leadership, most recently in defending members of his own caucus from senseless smears,” IfNotNow National Spokesperson Morriah Kaplan told Haaretz.
“We hope that in addition to standing up for them, he will stand with them in supporting legislation to defend Palestinian rights and to hold the Israeli government accountable for human rights violations,” Kaplan adds.
The left-wing, pro-Israel organization J Street also praises Levin. “Congressman Levin is a perfect example of a leader who draws on our community’s Jewish and progressive values to help shape a more just and effective approach to U.S. foreign policy and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” J Street Senior Vice President for Policy and Strategy Dylan Williams told Haaretz.
“His outspoken opposition to occupation and recognition that the rights and futures of Israelis and Palestinians are interdependent represents a view that is becoming increasingly prevalent in our community, in our country and among his fellow congressional Democrats,” he adds.
Levin has his eye on the new Israeli government, and what it could mean for future peace efforts. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett “has been at least as against Palestinian political rights as [Benjamin] Netanyahu, but he’s sending different signals and he represents six votes out of 60,” the lawmaker says. “It’s an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink governing coalition that was necessary to end the Netanyahu era, and I’m cheering that development.”
His immediate hope is to get back to a “bipartisan tradition of maturity” in Washington, where officials use best judgment on how to move Israelis and Palestinians toward reaching an agreement.
“We need to do much more to say that it has to happen and in real time, and we need to insist on it for both of their sakes,” he concludes.