Royal Oak, Michigan, US – Andy Levin, a progressive Democratic congressman, says his support for a two-state solution in Israel-Palestine is a mainstream position in the United States.
But Levin, who hails from a prominent Jewish-American political family in Michigan, in recent months has become the target of attacks by AIPAC, a prominent pro-Israel group that is hoping to unseat him in a Democratic primary next week.
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“I think it’s really sad that the right-wing-on-Israel crowd is trying to define pro-Israel as being against doing anything serious to achieve a two-state solution, as being against being pro-peace, as being against being for Palestinian political and human rights alongside supporting Israel,” Levin told Al Jazeera.
The primary on August 2 between Levin and fellow incumbent Haley Stevens has emerged as a significant litmus test on Israel-Palestine within the Democratic Party, which is divided between an old guard unquestioning in its support for Israel and a progressive wing sympathetic to the plight of Palestinians.
AIPAC, formally known as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, has been spending millions of dollars in US congressional Democratic primaries to defeat progressives ahead of the November midterms — and it has celebrated the victories of several of its allies in recent weeks.
AIPAC-funded ads for Stevens are flooding local radio and television, as well as Facebook, throughout southeast Michigan. But Levin says he is confident that he can overcome the election spending onslaught coming his way.
“How do you beat that?” asked Levin, pacing around the hardwood floor of a bar where his supporters had gathered for a campaign event in the northern Detroit suburb of Royal Oak earlier this week. “You beat it with people power; you beat it on the doors, by citizens talking to citizens.”
He later said he is also counting on his “authenticity” and the diverse coalition of supporters his campaign has amassed to defeat his AIPAC-backed opponent.
Although Levin did not mention AIPAC by name, the group is emerging as the biggest spender in the Michigan primary, with millions of dollars doled out so far, according to Open Secrets, which tracks campaign financing.
AIPAC, which has endorsed dozens of pro-Donald Trump candidates, is bipartisan; it accepts donations from donors associated with both major parties. Progressives have criticised the group for using money from right-wing sources and billionaire investors in Democratic contests.
Although Levin describes himself as pro-Israel and belongs to a well-known, Jewish-American political family — his father is a retired US House member and his uncle was a veteran senator — AIPAC says he “represents the fringe wing that is working to undermine the US-Israel relationship”.
Redistricting after the 2020 Census merged parts of Stevens’ and Levin’s districts, pitting them against each other in a newly drawn district. In US elections, sitting Congress members are favoured to retain their seats, so the incumbent-versus-incumbent primary is an opportunity for AIPAC to remove Levin.
In an interview with Al Jazeera, Levin said pushing to “restrict honest and open dialogue” about the conflict is “harmful” and does not do Israel any favours.
But even with a sizable Jewish community in the district, the race between Levin and Stevens — like most US elections — is not dominated by conversations about Israel. Instead, issues such as climate change, the economy and access to abortion often take precedence over foreign policy.
For that reason, AIPAC has been running campaign ads praising allies and disparaging opponents without mentioning Israel, part of what Levin called a “double deception”.
“The first deception is the idea of Republican money at all coming in and determining a Democratic primary,” he told Al Jazeera. “And then … they don’t even talk about why they’re giving the money; they talk about other things. And so they’re not even honest about it.”
AIPAC and its affiliated super PAC, the United Democracy Project — which uses donor funds to run ads against or in support of candidates without coordinating with their campaigns — did not respond to Al Jazeera’s multiple requests for comment.
AIPAC calls Levin ‘hostile voice’
In an email to supporters this week, AIPAC called the Stevens-Levin race “particularly notable”, stressing that defeating Levin “would remove one hostile voice” and “cement a pro-Israel champion” in Stevens, who often praises US-Israeli ties.
Last year, Levin introduced a bill titled the Two-State Solution Act, which would restrict the $3.8bn in annual US aid to Israel from being used for the Israeli occupation or annexation of Palestinian territories — an apparent red line for pro-Israel hawks. A former AIPAC president described Levin in an email early this year as “arguably the most corrosive member of Congress to the US-Israel relationship”.
In contrast, Stevens does not publicly criticise Israel and regularly releases statements echoing mainstream pro-Israel talking points, including voicing opposition to United Nations efforts to investigate Israeli abuses against Palestinians.
Howard Lupovitch, director of the Cohn-Haddow Center for Judaic Studies at Wayne State University in Detroit, said while Stevens and Levin have differences on Israel, they both recognise its “right to exist” as a Jewish state and back the two-state solution.
Where Levin “gets in trouble” with some Jewish voters, Lupovitch told Al Jazeera, is over his less diplomatic criticism of Israel, as well as his association with political figures on the left, especially his Palestinian-American colleague Rashida Tlaib, also of Michigan.
Lupovitch said pro-Israel groups are reacting to a small but “vocal” and “charismatic” group of legislators deemed anti-Israel.
“We’ve gone from unanimous support for Israel to overwhelming majority support for Israel, which on any other issue wouldn’t cause a problem,” he said. “But because the American-Jewish community has been so used to ‘unanimous’ for so long – for decades, overwhelming majority by comparison makes it seem to some … that the sky is falling.”
Levin defended his ties with Tlaib, saying that although they do not see eye to eye on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — Tlaib supports one state with equal rights; he supports two states — they are able to have productive discussions.
“This Jewish boy and Palestinian girl from Detroit, who happen to be neighbours, can we model talking about how to make peace together? And the idea that we would agree on everything to start with seems absurd,” Levin told Al Jazeera.
He added that he works with a range of progressive colleagues, including Tlaib, to “make progress for the American people” on other issues.
AIPAC vs progressives
Progressives have coalesced around Levin, who says next week’s primary is about aggressively tackling the climate crisis, pushing for universal health care and having “the courage to say no to unlimited military spending in this country”.
The most prominent left-wing senators, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, support him, as do several progressive advocacy groups, including the environmentalist Sunrise Movement, the liberal Jewish group J Street, which describes itself as pro-Israel and pro-peace, and the youth-led, anti-occupation organisation IfNotNow.
Meanwhile, Stevens is backed by former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Congresswoman Joyce Beatty, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, as well as Emily’s List, an advocacy group that supports female politicians who back reproductive rights.
The congresswoman was criticised in 2020 for endorsing former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg for president, despite his spying programme that targeted Muslim communities and “stop and frisk” policies that some rights groups have denounced as racist.
But it is Stevens’s AIPAC endorsement that has been most controversial.
Stevens’s campaign did not respond to requests for an interview with the candidate or answer a list of questions sent by Al Jazeera. “This [AIPAC] endorsement is solely about members of Congress supporting Israel, and I am proud to unequivocally support the Jewish state,” Stevens said during a debate with Levin in April.
The congresswoman presents herself as a dedicated public servant, having served as the chief of staff for the US Auto Rescue Task Force, which helped save the auto industry during the Obama administration. Her campaign website describes her as a “strong advocate for unions, women, innovation, manufacturing and gun reform”.
Many Levin supporters say AIPAC’s involvement in the Michigan contest is not just about his position on the Middle East; they see a convergence of interests between AIPAC’s uncompromising pro-Israel advocacy and the broader anti-progressive leanings of some of its right-wing megadonors.
Michael Whitty, a retired college professor who is Jewish, said his “gripe” with AIPAC is not over its staunch Israel advocacy but rather its ongoing efforts to “knock off progressives”.
“The Democratic Party is already very weak in America; we’re not in good shape,” Whitty, dressed in a navy blue t-shirt featuring Andy Levin’s name, told Al Jazeera.
“So for somebody like Republican billionaires to knock off the Progressive Caucus, they’re only knocking a hole in this Democratic Party boat.”