In Heated Texas Primaries, Big Stakes for Israel Policies

A progressive backed by J Street is aiming to unseat an incumbent in one Texas district Tuesday, while elsewhere in the state another progressive candidate is under fire over his position on BDS

Ben Samuels
Ben Samuels
Washington
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U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, center, attending a rally for Democratic congressional candidates Jessica Cisneros and Greg Casar in San Antonio last month.
U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, center, attending a rally for Democratic congressional candidates Jessica Cisneros and Greg Casar in San Antonio last month. Credit: Eric Gay/AP
Ben Samuels
Ben Samuels
Washington

WASHINGTON – As the midterm elections season officially kicks off in Texas on Tuesday, Israel watchers will have their eyes on two races that act as a referendum of sorts for two separate phenomena within the Democratic Party.

One race places an establishment, pro-Israel incumbent against a progressive upstart who is critical of how the United States contributes to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. The other highlights the left’s ongoing debate over effective ways to engage with Israel and whether such engagement is disqualifying in itself.

In Texas’ 28th congressional district – which covers the deep, southern part of the state near the U.S.-Mexico border – 28-year-old immigration attorney Jessica Cisneros is running back her 2020 challenge of Rep. Henry Cuellar. He is a 66-year-old moderate who has long been identified as someone whose policy interests do not necessarily reflect the younger generations of voters.

Last time around, the eight-term incumbent narrowly defeated Cisneros, who rose to prominence thanks to endorsements from organizations such as Justice Democrats and J Street’s political action committee.

The 2020 Cuellar-Cisneros battle was widely considered a test case for the pro-Israel establishment’s strategy opposing progressive upstarts, including significant endorsements and investments from groups like Democratic Majority for Israel and Pro-Israel America.

Cuellar, who has long been considered an ally of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, received significant institutional support in 2020, including campaign events by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former Rep. Nita Lowey. The latter was considered among the most effective pro-Israel Democrats in the history of Congress.

This time around, Cisneros is not just focusing on Cuellar’s conservative positions on matters such as immigration, abortion rights, climate change and health care access. She is also targeting his alleged corruption and coziness with big corporations. The FBI raided his home and campaign office last month, bolstering Cisneros’ attack points.

While Israel is not a primary talking point in this electoral battle, the two candidates stand in stark opposition on how they relate – leading J Street to offer almost unprecedented support for a challenger over an incumbent.

Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar, right, speaking on the U.S.-Mexico border with Sen. Lindsay Graham last July.Credit: Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

“With our support for Jessica Cisneros, J Street is demonstrating that the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement intends to stand firmly behind candidates who embody our commitment to democratic values, diplomacy-first foreign policy, human rights and Israeli-Palestinian peace,” said J Street Vice President of Communications Logan Bayroff.

J Street’s new action fund, created on the heels of leading pro-Israel lobby AIPAC’s formal entry into the campaign space, notably bankrolled $100,000 to support Cisneros’ candidacy with a targeted digital ad buy.

Cuellar, who is not Jewish, recently found himself in trouble with much of the American-Jewish community after he co-founded the Congressional Caucus for the Advancement of Torah Values, to “protect Torah values and freedom of religion, while fighting antisemitism and hatred.” He noted the caucus would be “committed to combating anti-Israel bigotry and protecting the Jewish community’s values and right to worship freely.”

Leading Jewish organizations roundly dismissed it as a misguided effort in the fight against antisemitism, decrying its seeming disregard for the separation of church and state and Cuellar’s lack of consultation with American-Jewish figures.

Beyond this, left-wing Jewish groups decry Cuellar’s repeated alignment with hawkish foreign policy. “Rep. Cuellar has repeatedly aligned himself with foreign policy hawks and opposed a critical measure designed to prevent [former U.S. President Donald] Trump from taking us into a disastrous war with Iran. That’s not the kind of principled leadership we need to see in Congress,” Bayroff said.

While the Pro-Israel America group again endorsed Cuellar, the Democratic Majority for Israel opted not to make an endorsement this time around.

Democratic congressional candidate Jessica Cisneros in Texas last month. She has been backed by J Street.Credit: STRINGER/REUTERS

Many Cuellar supporters argue that a Cisneros primary victory would lead to more centrist voters either declining to vote for her or voting for her Republican challenger outright in November – which could see a Republican victory in what has long been viewed as a safe blue district.

Cisneros’ left-of-center views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which are consistent with J Street’s positioning, are being scrutinized in comparison to Cuellar’s more traditional centrist approach.

Jeering AOC

Another primary race further north, meanwhile, is showcasing what happens when a progressive lawmaker’s views are scrutinized by his own base.

Texas’ newly redrawn 35th congressional district, which covers deep blue parts of Austin and San Antonio, is holding a primary to replace Rep. Lloyd Doggett, a longtime J Street ally who will now represent a neighboring district.

Austin City Council member Greg Casar, a democratic socialist who came to prominence after advocating for hot-button progressive issues, has widely been considered the front-runner since the state’s new electoral map was released several months ago.

Democratic congressional candidate Greg Casar in Texas last month. He will face-off against fellow progressive Eddie Rodriguez. Credit: STRINGER/REUTERS

Casar, who had been previously endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America, wrote Rabbi Alan Freedman of Austin’s Temple Beth Shalom Reform congregation in January, pledging his support for U.S. military assistance to Israel and opposing the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.

In the letter, first reported by Jewish Insider, Casar echoed the foreign policy orientation of many on the progressive left: that support for Israel’s security and Palestinian human rights are not mutually exclusive.

The Democratic Socialists’ Austin chapter, which notably debated expelling New York Rep. Jamaal Bowman late last year over his participation on a J Street delegation to Israel and the West Bank, publicly condemned Casar’s positions, calling them “not reconcilable with DSA’s stance in solidarity with Palestine.”

While it stopped short of revoking its endorsement, it said it would “no longer be working on the Casar campaign.”

Left-wing activists subsequently voiced their displeasure at two separate rallies in Austin headlined by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, where pro-Palestinian protesters heckled the New York congresswoman and held up signs criticizing Casar’s stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Casar is heavily favored over his main challenger, State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, who also identifies as progressive but calls his policies more pragmatic than Casar’s. He has cautioned that the Democratic Party has moved too far left on Israel.

If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two candidates will head to a runoff in May.

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