Jane Harman is known as one of Israel’s most ardent supporters in Congress, but now, as she faces a challenge from the left, the electoral appeal of this support is being put to the test.
On June 8, Democrats in California’s 36th District will choose between two Jewish women: the incumbent Harman, representing the party’s centrist wing, and her challenger, Marcy Winograd, who hopes to cash in on the nationwide, anti-incumbent sentiment and on the frustration of progressive Democrats with their party and the president.
Winograd’s views on Israel put her at the edge of the political map, and if elected, she would become the first member of Congress to endorse a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Harman is a veteran of tough political races. Before the redistricting of California’s 36th, which includes Venice and other parts of Los Angeles County, she was faced with close races against Republican rivals, in which her centrist views served her well against claims that she was too liberal. But after the lines were redrawn in 2001, making the district solidly Democratic, Harman was forced to deal with rivals in her own party who saw her blue-dog affiliation as too conservative.
“Harman is a survivor,” said Raphael Sonenshein, a political science professor at California State University, Fullerton. “She survived close races both with Republicans and with people of her own party.”
But the 64-year-old attorney and lawmaker, considered to be the second-wealthiest member of Congress — thanks to the multimillion-dollar sale of her husband’s audio-equipment company — is not easy to pigeonhole. While she holds openly hawkish views on foreign policy issues, ranging from backing Israel to supporting tough measures on terrorism, she is also a leading voice on women’s equality and on gay and lesbian rights. And she is an author of landmark environmental legislation that calls for the gradual phasing out of inefficient lightbulbs.
In recent years, Harman was in the spotlight, mainly because of controversy. First, she was passed over by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for chairmanship of the House Intelligence Committee, an act that exposed the deep ideological and personal rift between the two California lawmakers. Later it was revealed that Harman was under FBI investigation after being caught on a wiretap, speaking to a person identified as an “Israeli agent.” In the conversation, Harman allegedly promised to intervene with the Justice Department and plead for leniency for two former employees of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. In return, the person was reportedly expected to lobby Pelosi in favor of appointing Harman to head the intelligence panel. Harman has denied any involvement in such a quid pro quo deal.
But while the AIPAC affair did not become a major issue in her recent re-election campaign, the broader question of her support for Israel emerged as a key theme. Although foreign policy issues rarely play a role in House primary races, and despite the fact that the district has only an estimated 44,000 Jewish residents, each woman vying for the seat has spent time and money blasting her rival’s views on Israel. Winograd has accused her rival of making Israel a central issue in order to “raise money and drive a wedge among voters.” But according to Harvey Englander, a Harman re-election campaign consultant, “It is Miss Winograd who continues relentlessly to attack Congresswoman Harman’s support for Israel.”
In a letter sent last January to major Democratic donors on behalf of Harman, Rep. Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and dean of the unofficial congressional Jewish caucus, blasted Winograd for saying in a speech that she would like to see a binational state in Israel.
“In Marcy Winograd’s foreign policy, Israel would cease to exist. In Marcy Winograd’s vision, Jews would be at the mercy of those who do not respect democracy or human rights,” he wrote. “Jane’s victory will represent a clear repudiation of these views.”
“Waxman’s letter was meant to head off Jewish donors” from giving to Winograd’s campaign, Sonenshein said.
The two candidates also sparred over Iran in early May, after Winograd attacked Harman as “reckless” for saying in a television interview that she favored keeping the military option on the table when dealing with Iran. The Harman campaign responded with its own attack, citing Winograd’s criticism of the administration’s approach to Iran in an interview she gave to the Tehran Times.
Winograd, a high school teacher, labor activist and co-founder of the Los Angeles chapter of Progressive Democrats of America, first challenged Harman in 2006; at that time, she came in a strong second, with 40% of the votes in the Democratic primary.
Born to a Jewish family in West Los Angeles, Winograd grew up in a “strong Zionist” home, and although, she said, her family was not “particularly religious,” she attended a Jewish camp, sang at her brother’s bar mitzvah and visited Israel when she was a young adult.
“For years I avoided wrestling with the issue of Israel,” she said in a May 28 interview with the Forward. But after the Second Lebanon War, she added the Israeli issue to her agenda and organized a demonstration outside the Israeli consulate.
“Frankly, I’m not a Zionist,” Winograd said, explaining her support for a one-state solution in which Jewish Israelis and Palestinian Arabs will share the country. “I think we should all be equal — one voice, one vote.”
Winograd explained that she is not opposed to a two-state solution, if such an agreement is reached between Israelis and Palestinians, since she had noticed that both parties “are frightened” of losing their rights in a binational state. There are no current members of Congress who call for a one-state solution, and the majority of Israelis and Palestinians have rejected the idea.
“I think most members of Congress are petrified of challenging the status quo in our relations with Israel,” Winograd said, adding that she had heard of many non-Jews who refrain from criticizing Israel for fear that they’ll be accused of antisemitism. She opposes the $3 billion annual military aid package provided to Israel by the United States, and supports foreign aid only for Holocaust victims living in Israel.
Winograd believes that while her views on Israel might have cost her some support and donations, they have also helped mobilize her progressive base.
Polls conducted by both campaigns show Winograd trailing Harman, although the margins are in dispute.
Contact Nathan Guttman at firstname.lastname@example.org