Donna Edwards shouldn’t be shvitzing


Politico asked the other day whether Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) should be "shvitzing" over facing a possible primary challenger backed by the pro-Israel community. The answer is no — and it’s kind of surprising that some in the community are even airing the idea as a possiblity.

First, the gist of the Politico piece:

Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) knocked off incumbent Al Wynn in a 2008 primary by tapping into liberal resentment of the Democratic congressman and portraying him as a tool of K Street who had lost touch with his suburban Maryland constituents.

But after just a year on the job, Edwards herself is facing grumbling from within her own party, not to mention the possibility of a primary opponent with support from an alienated constituency: the suburban Washington-area Jewish community.

“The relationship between the Jewish community and Donna Edwards got off to a rocky start,” said Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington. “I would be lying if I told you there wasn’t concern.”

At issue is Edwards’ support for Israel. Jewish leaders say tensions began to rise in January, when the House voted on a nonbinding resolution “recognizing Israel’s right to defend itself against attacks from Gaza” and condemning Hamas for its attacks on the Jewish state.

The resolution, introduced by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), passed 390-5 with overwhelming bipartisan support. But Edwards balked at supporting the measure, joining 21 other members who voted “present.”

At the time, Edwards said the “House voted on the wrong resolution at the wrong time” and that she chose not to back the resolution because Congress ought to instead support the United Nations’ call for an immediate cease-fire in the Middle East.

Her explanation did little to quell the controversy, and in the weeks after Jewish leaders complained that an Edwards-sponsored forum on the Israel-Palestine conflict failed to include a hawkish, pro-Israel voice and that the first-term congresswoman was unresponsive to requests to organize a meeting with suburban Washington Jewish leaders to discuss the vote.

Having covered local D.C.-area politics for the Washington Jewish Week before joining JTA last summer, I can testify that relations between some in the local Jewish community and Edwards are strained, dating back to when she was running against Wynn in the Democratic primary early in 2008. Some Jewish community leaders complained back then that they had reached out to the campaign but were unable to set up a meeting with the then-candidate, and I made repeated calls to the campaign to set up an interview for WJW without success. Only after the campaign learned that WJW was publishing an editorial criticizing her lack of access to the community was an interview scheduled, with Edwards calling personally to apologize and set it up.

But having said that, other than the one "present" vote on a non-binding resolution, I’m hard-pressed to find anything that Edwards has said which places her out of the mainstream on Israel. Edwards certainly comes from a left-wing perspective — Daniel Levy, a former aide to Ehud Barak and Yossi Beilin and currently a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, has been an adviser to her on the issue — and she professes to not be an expert, but in that campaign interview she rejects a Palestinian right of return to Israel proper, says the U.S. shouldn’t negotiate with Hamas unless the group gives up terror and violence, wants accountability on Palestinian aid and (pre-Obama) calls for stepped-up U.S. involvement in the Middle East. And at the town hall meeting she sponsored earlier this year on the Middle East that’s mentioned in the Politico article, Edwards didn’t say anything particularly controversial, defending her "present" vote but also stating thatshe "did not want to send a signal to anyone that it was appropriate to send rockets into Israel.”

The panel itself was a little lopsided to the left, with Levy and a representative from the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem turning out to be the most "right-wing" of the five and no one from the Israeli government or a mainstream pro-Israel group invited. Edwards said at the time that she wanted a moderate discussion — and to be fair, she didn’t invite anyone from a Palestinian or Arab advocacy organization either.

But one vote and an unbalanced town hall panel seems like an awfully thin platform for a pro-Israel challenger to base a campaign on. Edwards, after all, knocked off an eight-term incumbent handily last year, an impressive accomplishment, and there’s no reason to think those supporters would not continue to back her.

The article notes that former African-American Democratic Reps. Earl Hilliard (Ala.) and Cynthia McKinney (Ga.), both with a history of antagonizing Israel supporters, were knocked off in primaries by candidates who received strong backing from pro-Israel donors.

That’s true, but while their Israel criticism attracted dollars and attention — and was of a much different degree than anything Edwards has said or done — both had other problems that hurt them in the district. Hilliard admitted to using tens of thousands of campaign dollars to pay family members and employees at companies he owned, while McKinney, well, where do you want to start? The scuffle with the Capitol Police officer? Charging that President Bush had advance knowledge of the 9/11 attacks and allowed them to happen? There’s no comparison.

And while a pollster in the Politico article estimates 15 percent of the Democratic electorate in Maryland’s heavily Democratic Fourth District is Jewish, that leaves 85 percent that aren’t Jewish in the jurisdiction, which includes a big chunk of the largely middle-class, African American Prince George’s County along with some neighborhoods, including Olney and parts of Rockville and Silver Spring, in more affluent Montgomery County. (And at least some of that 15 percent may not have a problem with Edwards’ stance on the Middle East)

But the best reason why Jewish activists floating this trial balloon seems so misguided goes back to that February town hall meeting Edwards sponsored. Sure, the panel may have been lopsided, but even more striking was the question and answer period. Of the dozen or so who spoke from the crowd of more than 100 people, it seemed many would have preferred she had voted "no" on that Israel resolution instead of "present." As I wrote at the time:

Questioners ranged from gently critical of Israel to outright hostility to the Jewish state – with calls for the recognition of Hamas, the suspension of aid to Israel and a man who sneeringly asked why no one from “the dreaded AIPAC” had shown up — with no questioner ever offering a traditional pro-Israel view.

That doesn’t sound like a district who is upset with their congresswoman’s stance on Israel. And maybe it’s something pro-Israel activists in her district should worry about before they muse about backing a pro-Israel challenger.

For a similar, but much more strongly-worded view, on this issue, check out M.J. Rosenberg.

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