How do you solve a problem like Ayanna? That is the question that is bedeviling Jewish leaders in Massachusetts after Representative Ayanna Pressley was one of nine members of the House to vote last month against funding Israel’s Iron Dome aerial defense system.
The Boston lawmaker defended her vote against the $1 billion in targeted military aid as a matter of process rather than policy; she said Israel had the right to defend itself but objected to the way the issue came to the House floor as a stand-alone bill without time for debate during a week when a more comprehensive defense bill was scheduled to be deliberated.
Even so, Ms. Pressley’s vote stirred passions across the 7th congressional district that the two-term lawmaker represents – so much so that Jeremy Burton, executive director of Boston’s Jewish Community Relations Council, said that “every conversation turns to the Pressley vote on Iron Dome.”
That preoccupation largely is confined to Jewish circles, of course, for Ms. Pressley’s district is more likely to be described as progressive than Jewish. Still, Jews occupy a prominent part of the district and ripples of her vote extended far beyond Chelsea, Everett, Somerville, Randolph, the 21 wards of Boston, the seven wards of Cambridge, and the three precincts of Milton that she represents.
“She is reflecting where much of her constituency is on issues involving the Middle East,” said Michael Goldman, the longtime Democratic consultant who has known Ms. Pressley for many years. “That’s politics, and her voters who care about this issue are skeptical of Israel and strongly support a two-state solution. They want a negotiated solution, and you can’t have that if you only give resources to one side.”
Local Jewish leaders were skeptical of her process-not-policy explanation, finding her argument highly problematic and hoping she might soon release a stronger statement of support for policies having possibility of saving lives – not only Israeli lives but also Palestinian lives and other lives in the region.
“If she truly supports Iron Dome, then she should make it clear that had such a bill come up in a different way she would have supported it unequivocally,’’ said Steven Grossman, who led AIPAC from 1992 to 1996 before becoming chairman of the Democratic National Committee. “If she wants to clear things up, then she can do that. That’s what the Jewish community is looking for.”
Ms. Pressley has not joined some of her progressive colleagues in supporting the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement; unlike her “Squad” allies Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, she supported a resolution opposing the BDS financial boycott of Israel.
“What I heard resounding in the community,” she said in the wake of the vote on the BDS resolution, “was that voting yes on this resolution affirmed to my constituents raised in the Jewish faith Israel’s right to exist, a view I share as a supporter of a two-state solution.”
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, regarded as the leader of the group, originally joined Ms. Pressley in opposing the Iron Dome measure but while the vote was still open changed her vote to “present” and was seen to have been weeping in the chamber. She, too, disagreed with the procedure under which the resolution was brought to the floor.
“The reckless decision by House leadership to rush this controversial vote within a matter of hours and without true consideration created a tinderbox of vitriol, disingenuous framing, deeply racist accusations and depictions,” Ms. Ocasio-Cortez wrote.
Ms. Pressley has become increasingly impatient with Israel and on May 13 delivered a floor speech that troubled local Jewish leaders.
“We cannot remain silent when our government sends $3.8 billion of military aid to Israel that is used to demolish Palestinian homes, imprison Palestinian children, and displace Palestinian families,” she said, adding, “I am committed to ensuring that our government does not fund state violence in any form, anywhere.”
In those remarks she said, “The question at hand is should our taxpayer dollars create conditions for justice, healing and repair, or should those dollars create conditions for oppression and apartheid?”
Many Jews have opposed Israel’s policy toward Palestinians, a view that was at its strongest when Benjamin Netanyahu was prime minister. Mr. Netanyahu left office in early June.
“The irony of the timing of the Iron Dome rupture within the Democratic Party is that the new Israeli coalition government – which includes an Arab-Israeli minister and the leader of the Islamist Party – appears amenable to taking steps to improve conditions for Palestinians,” Robert Wexler, a former Democratic congressman from Florida and now president of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace in Washington, wrote in The New York Times.
That sentiment only served to reinforce the disappointment of local Jewish leaders over the vote by Ms. Pressley, who did not respond to requests for comment.
“We’re very disappointed,” said Mr. Burton, of Boston’s Jewish Community Relations Council. “It has become self-evident that the person we knew on the Boston City Council and as a candidate for Congress is not acting in the same way.”
He said that it was “unfortunate that a small number of members of the House have decided to demonize Israel – a decision that has to have an impact on our relationship with those members.”
In truth, few politicians’ views remain static. They change with time and circumstance, and often are affected by the views and actions of their congressional allies and colleagues.
Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan moved from isolationism to internationalism at mid-century. George H. W. Bush dismissed supply-side theories as “voodoo economics” before embracing it as vice president and opposed new taxes as a Republican presidential candidate before endorsing them as president two years later. House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, a prominent Democrat at the end of the last century and into the 20th, abandoned his strong opposition to abortion rights. In all cases, the transformations – regarded as “growth” by supporters of the changes and as “betrayal” by spurned opponents of the new views – prompted enormous controversy.
So it is with Ms. Pressley, who did not respond to requests for comments for this story. In the next several months she will learn whether, like Mr. Vandenberg and Mr. Gephardt, she will survive the furor, or whether, like Mr. Bush, who was not re-elected after his apostasy, will be punished for it.
David M. Shribman is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He led the newspaper’s coverage of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting that won the Pulitzer Prize.