FARMINGTON HILLS, Mich. – Days before Tuesday’s highly anticipated Michigan Democratic primary between Reps. Andy Levin and Haley Stevens, Levin’s core Jewish supporters are fighting to sway local voters that he should be their pick while combating attacks based on his positions on the Israel-Palestine issue.
A group of volunteers calling themselves “Jews for Andy,” consisting of Jews of various ages and political positions, has been spearheading campaign efforts due to what they deem “existential” positions.
AIPAC Wants to Defeat this Jewish Democrat. He’s fighting back
“Andy is a Jew for Palestinian rights and Medicare for All. He embodies the progressive agenda that feels like the only hope I have for a better future. The stakes feel so high,” says IfNotNow Political Director Eva Borgwardt, who drove up from Missouri to support Levin’s efforts in Michigan over the weekend.
Levi Teitel, who is from the district and volunteers with IfNotNow Detroit, says he “wants to be represented by someone who champions the working class, Medicare for All, the Green New Deal.”
He decries the efforts of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, whose super PAC United Democracy Project has spent $4.2 million on ads either attacking Levin or supporting Stevens. For Teitel, that move represents “an existential threat. The fearmongering really strikes a nerve and has made me realize what’s at stake in this election.”
“What’s really upsetting is that Andy represents where the majority of American Jews are on Israel: he’s actually speaking from much closer to the community’s center of gravity than AIPAC,” Borgwardt says. “They’re trying to move the goalposts where you can be attacked by millions of right-wing dollars, and it makes me angry.”
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Brookings Nonresident Senior Fellow Shibley Telhami, who regularly conducts public opinion polling, notes that Democrats “by and large used to be more pro-Israel than not, but the situation has shifted dramatically in the past 20 to 30 years. Two-thirds of Democrats say they do not want to lean toward either side, and those who do want to lean – especially those under 35 – trend toward the Palestinians.”
The 11th congressional district fight between incumbent Levin and fellow representative Stevens is believed to include at least 40,000 of the estimated 70,000 Jews living in the metropolitan Detroit area, or 5 percent of the electorate. Jewish voter turnout has historically run disproportionately high, making the Jewish vote that much more significant in this race.
Yet despite the oversize role Israel has played in the campaign, which has become a referendum on the internal American-Jewish conversation on Israel, it does not rate as a key issue among voters – both in the 11th district or around the country.
“Jewish Americans do not rate Israel as a priority in comparison to other issues, and polling does not show a substantial difference between Jewish and non-Jewish Americans,” says Telhami. “Roughly 2 percent consider it the single most important issue, and it’s not in the top three for the vast majority of Americans.”
Borgwardt says that for her, AIPAC’s aggressive campaign “means they know they’re losing public opinion, and [this is] why they’re pouring money into races where they focus on non-related issues. It feels like this is the start of progressive Jews changing tactics to fight back,” she says.
Rene Lichtman, an 84-year-old Michigander and Holocaust survivor, says that “to be attacked by your enemy today is a good thing: for them to be attacking Andy, it means they’re scared shitless. This is class war,” the abstract artist says.
“The billionaire class wants to destroy the progressive forces. That’s why they’re using AIPAC, which has turned in my opinion into a fascist organization,” he charges. “They support those 109 congresspeople on the extreme right who had the same kind of values that fascists did in World War II,” he adds, referring to Republicans who wanted to overturn the Electoral College results on Jan. 6.
He says he decided to get involved in canvassing efforts after hearing that AIPAC endorsed Stevens over Levin. “I said, ‘Wow, this is incredible, I got to participate in this struggle.’ We’re talking about people’s needs; the right wing does not represent our needs. They live in a different world. They have no idea what the hell’s going on in the streets.”
Lichtman describes pro-Levin efforts as “a righteous fight that is consistent with Jewish values. We represent Jewish values. The rich class, and Jewish Trumpers and billionaires do not.”
‘Partners in crime’
Perhaps no one is more familiar with Levin’s Jewish values than Rabbi Alana Alpert, who first met him in 2013 when he a board member at Congregation T’chiyah in Detroit. The two of them helped transform the Reconstructionist congregation into what she calls a “vibrant intergenerational community.”
“He got the congregation on board with this idea that they would hire a rabbi with a background in organizing,” she says, moving to Detroit to split her time between acting as the congregation’s rabbi and being an organizer for the broader Jewish community.
The work led to the formation of Detroit Jews for Justice, where hundreds of local Jews participate in events focusing on issues such as reproductive rights, water accessibility and health care.
Alpert says Levin’s stature as a U.S. congressman has helped the group effect change, pointing to his efforts in 2019 at getting the Dearborn Police Department to end its agreement to hold detainees for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (aka ICE). “We won that campaign, but the fact he was there with [fellow Democratic Reps.] Rashida [Tlaib] and Debbie Dingell made a huge difference,” she says. “I miss Andy: We were partners in crime in building an organization and a congregation together, but it’s a small price to pay for what he’s doing in the larger world.”
While AIPAC has targeted progressive Democrats this cycle, Levin is the first Jewish lawmaker to find himself under attack. Much of the pro-Israel establishment’s criticism has surrounded his linkage of his positions to his heritage – an attack Alpert finds unfair.
“No one sits through hours of congregational board meetings if you’re not committed to the safety and flourishing of the Jewish people,” she says. “To say that he doesn’t care about that is really painful. It’s painful for me, it’s painful for our community and I can see how painful it is for him.”
“My mother has been an AIPAC supporter for decades, but their attacks on Andy put her over the edge,” Alpert adds. “She told me, ‘How can AIPAC target Andy like this? He’s such a mensch!’”
Rep. Alan Lowenthal, a Jewish Democrat from California, also defends Levin, saying he knows the embattled Democrat is a “strong supporter of a free, Jewish and democratic Israel, as I am.
“Any attempt to smear Andy Levin as anything other than a staunch supporter of Israel is fundamentally dishonest,” says the 81-year-old retiring lawmaker, sharply critiquing AIPAC’s targeting of his colleague.
“The dark money backing these bad-faith claims is saddening and will undermine any ability for policymakers to engage in a healthy dialogue on critical matters of U.S. foreign policy,” Lowenthal adds, warning that “this is another reminder of the need for comprehensive reform of dark money in our political process.”