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US: Pro-Israel money under spotlight in Michigan's midterm elections

Aipac-affiliated group has spent millions of dollars against Jewish-American Congressman Andy Levin
Michigan Democrats Andy Levin and Rashida Tlaib hold a campaign rally on 29 July 2022 in Pontiac, Michigan.
Michigan Democrats Andy Levin and Rashida Tlaib hold a campaign rally in Pontiac, Michigan, on 29 July 2022 (AFP)

On Tuesday night, the US state of Michigan will head to the polls for the 2022 midterm election primaries, where the Democratic and Republican candidates will be finalised ahead of the general elections later this November.

The primaries will see a number of key positions open for grabs - from the state legislatures all the way to the governorship. 

The state's races have also come under the spotlight in recent months due to a flood of money from pro-Israel groups that have been on a spending spree across the country in an attempt to sway elections towards their favoured candidates.

One group in particular, the Aipac-linked United Democracy Project, has spent tens of millions of dollars in races in Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Maryland. So far, it has successfully backed winning candidates in nine elections.

Some of the largest amounts of money in US campaigns have been spent in Michigan's races, including against a Palestinian-American lawmaker as well as a Jewish congressman.

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Andy Levin vs. Haley Stevens

Due to redistricting taking place in the state, in the Democratic primary for Michigan's 11th district there will be a race between two incumbents: Andy Levin and Haley Stevens.

It is a tight race between Levin and Stevens, partly due to the amount of money being spent in Stevens' favour.

Over the past few months, the United Democracy Project, an Aipac-affiliated Super PAC, has spent more than $4m in negative advertising against Levin in the race.

Levin, 61, is a congressman from one of the most prominent Jewish families in American politics - his father Sander Levin served in the US House of Representatives and his uncle Carl Levin was a US senator.

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Levin has drawn the ire of pro-Israel groups like Aipac following his introduction of a bill, the Two State Solution Act, which sought to block the expansion of Israeli settlements, the demolition of Palestinian homes in the occupied West Bank, and prevent US funding from aiding Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories.

In January, former Aipac president David Victor sent an email to a potential Stevens donor saying that this election was the "race of the cycle" and that Levin was "arguably the most corrosive member of Congress to the US-Israel relationship".

"The whole thing is so absurd," Levin said in an interview with the Washington Post. "I'm a way out-there Jewish person. I have mezuzahs on the doors in my office. I'm one of two former synagogue presidents in the Congress."

Levin has also called Aipac's involvement in the race "a politics of domination", as the pro-Israel group uses "vast amounts of money to control or to prevent open space to have rational dialogue about Israel and Palestine".

Still, Levin, a self-proclaimed Zionist, continues to receive support from some pro-Israel groups, including the liberal Zionist group J Street, which endorsed Levin.

Rashida Tlaib faces late challengers

Rashida Tlaib, the first Palestinian-American woman elected to US Congress and a strong voice for Palestinian rights, is currently also running in a newly redrawn 12th district, which encompasses roughly 60 percent of her old district.

Though Tlaib is seen as likely to win, she is facing challenges from three opponents: Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey, former state Congresswoman Shanelle Jackson,  and Kelly Garrett, a former mayor of a small Michigan town.

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In the past few months, the Urban Empowerment PAC, an Atlanta-based political action committee made up of Black and Jewish community leaders - has spent $1m in support of Winfrey in an attempt to try and unseat Tlaib.

Bakari Sellers, a TV pundit with progressive leanings but who also supports Aipac, has endorsed and is fundraising for the PAC.

Sellers had previously said that while it isn't his primary focus, Tlaib's criticism towards Israel is "definitely high up on the list" of reasons he is working to support Winfrey.

Tlaib's criticism of Israel often draws backlash from pro-Israel groups, and Winfrey said it was one of her reasons for running against the incumbent Democrat.

"When you don't support the one ally that we have in the Middle East, then I feel you have another agenda, and that agenda is not conducive to the citizens of the 12th Congressional District," Winfrey said in April.

However, with Tlaib having outraised her opponents by millions of dollars, she is seen as likely to win the race for the newly redrawn 12th district, which includes the city of Dearborn, a city referred to as the capital of the Arab American community.

Prominent progressive members of the US Congress known as "The Squad" joined Tlaib in Michigan for an event in support of the Palestinian-American lawmaker.

Tlaib also held a rally with Levin on Friday alongside Senator Bernie Sanders, who said a vote for Levin would send a message to corporate PACs including the UDP that "they cannot buy our democracy".

Another Palestinian American runs for Congress

Huwaida Arraf, a prominent Palestinian-American activist and lawyer, has been vying for the congressional seat for Michigan's 10th district.

Arraf's work advocating for Palestinian rights has driven criticism from pro-Israel groups, as it has for Tlaib and many prominent Palestinian activists.

"I'm a civil rights attorney and now I am running for US Congress," she said in March.

"I am a proud daughter of Palestinian immigrants who made their way to this country when my mom was nine months pregnant with me."

"So my qualification to run for Congress is that I have fought for human rights for most of my adult life and I believe in putting people at the center of our policy, whether foreign or right here at home. That’s what we need to be doing. And that’s what we are not doing."

If elected, she would become the second Palestinian-American woman to be elected to Congress.

However, she faces a crowded pool of five candidates running for the position and has fallen short of fundraising in comparison to Republican candidate John James, who has pooled together more than $4m.

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