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Morse v Neal: Debate over Israel arises in another Democratic primary

In Massachusetts, Alex Morse, a progressive Jewish mayor, is running to unseat Richard Neal, a staunch Israel supporter who has been in Congress for decades
The Democratic Majority for Israel PAC has spent close to $180,000 to oppose Morse (Courtesy of Alex Morse for Congress)

We've seen it before in this US election cycle - a progressive newcomer challenges a decades-long Democratic Congress member stressing policies like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, and then the Israeli-Palestinian conflict becomes an issue with pro-Israel groups sweeping to the aid of the incumbent. 

It happened with Jamaal Bowman who successfully took on the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Eliot Engel; and it's happening with Alex Morse, who is vying for the seat of Richard Neal, the chair of the powerful Ways and Means Committee.

Morse is the mayor of the town of Holyoke, Massachusetts. He was born weeks after Neal took the oath of office in 1989 to represent a district in the western side of the state.

An openly gay Jewish-American, the 31-year-old progressive opposes the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and backs imposing human rights conditions on US aid to Israel. 

His opponent is a staunch centrist who has backed a bill that would criminalise boycotting Israel. 

"I believe our taxpayer dollars should not be going toward any activities that entrench occupation, annexation, home demolitions, the detention of Palestinian children, and undermine the two-state solution," Morse says on his campaign website.

Pro-Israel groups back Neal

The progressive candidate centres his Jewish identity when addressing the conflict.

"As a Jew, I deeply understand the need to feel safe and security with rising anti-semitism in this country and across the globe," his platform reads. "As a Jew, I also empathize with the Palestinian community’s struggle against endless occupation and for a homeland of their own."

In an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in July, he rejected the notion that criticising the Israeli government is a form of antisemitism. 

"Too often we conflate criticism of Israel, criticism of their leader with being anti-Semitic or being anti-Jewish, and I think they're two very different conversations... And as a young openly gay progressive Jew, I think I have a unique voice to lend in this conversation," he said.

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Earlier this month, the Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI) PAC, a lobby group linked to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), came out in support of Neal, spending close to $180,000 to oppose Morse's campaign.

Last month, Morse became the target of a smear campaign accusing him of sexual misconduct that critics dismissed as unfounded and homophobic.

IfNotNow, a youth-led anti-occupation Jewish group, sent a tweet defending the mayor, calling the vague allegations a bad-faith attack to "take down a young, gay progressive running against the political establishment". 

Morse responded by welcoming IfNotNow's support, describing the organisation's activists as his "friends".

"I’m honored to have the support of my friends at @IfNotNowOrg," he wrote on Twitter. "Together we will fight for justice at home and around around [sic] the world."

DMFI faced criticism over campaigning against a Jewish candidate. The group did not respond to MEE's request for comment, but two weeks ago, it cited Morse's accepting support from IfNotNow as the reason to oppose him.

'Alex is like us: a young progressive American Jew who wants a government that will combat the climate crisis, make health care affordable for all Americans, defund the police, and work to end the Israeli occupation'

- Emily Mayer, IfNotNow

"Alex Morse is happy to uncritically accept the support of a group that refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist in any borders...and whose primary tactics are dishonesty and disruption," DMFI said in a tweet.

In a statement to MEE, IfNotNow hit back at DMFI, saying that the group is backing Neal because he will give Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a "blank check to entrench the occupation and deny Palestinian freedom".

"Alex is like us: a young progressive American Jew who wants a government that will combat the climate crisis, make health care affordable for all Americans, defund the police, and work to end the Israeli occupation," said IfNotNow Movement political director Emily Mayer.

"Alex has been clear that he will take real action to hold the Israeli government accountable for violating Palestinian rights, including by conditioning the billions in US military funding to Israel on ending the horrific policies of Israel’s occupation."

Primary trend

DMFI had spent heavily to prop up Engel against Bowman in New York earlier this year. Other pro-Israel groups had also backed the challenger of Congresswoman Ilhan Omar who won the Democratic nomination in her Minnesota district, all but securing reelection with ease. 

In Missouri, Democratic Congressman William Lacy Clay attacked his progressive opponent Cori Bush over her support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement; she defeated him in one of the biggest upsets of the primary season.

'I do think these primaries are going to have a lasting effect in helping bolster the Palestinian rights movement in the United States'

- Beth Miller, JVP Action

Beth Miller, government affairs manager at JVP Action, a political advocacy group linked to Jewish Voice for Peace, said pro-Israel groups are "using the tired old tactics" against progressive candidates because they know that true progressivism advocates for human rights universally, including for Palestinians.

"I do think these primaries are going to have a lasting effect in helping bolster the Palestinian rights movement in the United States... The victories we're seeing will send a message that the Democrats and the progressive wing of the Democratic Party in particular are more than ready to start holding the Israeli government accountable," Miller told MEE. 

"And when Congress sees that, Congress will respond. Congress doesn't lead this conversation, they respond to what their constituents want."

Morse is trailing Neal in public opinion polls ahead of the election on Tuesday. But a recent poll by Jewish Insider that showed the incumbent with a nine-point lead also revealed that a plurality of voters in the district support conditioning aid to Israel.

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Despite Neal's apparent advantage, the race remains in the balance with the unpredictability of the turnout during the pandemic amid the broader tumult and increased racial tensions across the country. 

After NORPAC, a pro-Israel group that contributes heavily to Republican candidates, promoted an "emergency fundraiser" for Neal last week, Morse's campaign sent a message to supporters saying: "It is an emergency for Neal because we are winning."

In 2017, Neal co-sponsored an anti-BDS bill that would ban Americans from boycotting Israel. The legislation had stirred outrage from free speech advocates, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which said the proposal punishes individuals "for no reason other than  their political beliefs". 

At the time, Neal said he acknowledged the concerns of the ACLU but did not withdraw his support for the bill.

"I am opposed to international efforts that attempt to isolate, boycott and delegitimise the State of Israel," he told the Daily Hampshire Gazette.