For some Jewish voters in Michigan’s heavily-Democratic 13th Congressional District — and there aren’t that many — the Aug. 4 Democratic primary is presenting a difficult choice.
The one-term incumbent is Rashida Tlaib, the first Palestinian-American ever elected to Congress who has drawn repeated accusations of anti-Semitism for her criticism of Israel and support for a one-state solution and the BDS Movement. Her opponent is Brenda Jones, President of the Detroit City Council and a supporter of Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam who is widely regarded as an anti-Semite.
The district, which includes a large part of Detroit and suburbs to the west and south, is home to fewer than 1,500 Jews. The choices are problematic enough that the Michigan Democrat Jewish Caucus chose not to endorse either candidate, and a Jewish policy group that does not endorse candidates, the Michigan Jewish Action Council, described Tlaib in a statement as “a poor choice for Jews and for our country.”
The vast number of Detroit-area Jews live north of the city.
“It is important to note that Rashida has not done or said anything patently anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish, though she has made inaccurate and controversial statements about Israel, and has openly associated with people who have engaged in anti-Semitism,” Noah Arbit, chairman of the Jewish caucus, wrote on his Facebook page. “She is vehemently anti-Israel and opposed to the two-state solution, all of which is more than enough to have a wide, gaping policy difference between the vast majority of Michigan’s Jewish community and her, which is why she lacks support in our community.”
He said nothing about Jones and did not return several phone calls seeking comment.
The Detroit News, the city’s only major newspaper, gave Tlaib a guarded endorsement, saying she “has certainly made a splash in her first term in Congress, and not often in ways we support. Her socialist screeds are becoming wearisome.” It credited her with “passion and energy,” qualities missing in Jones, and concluded, “Tlaib should be renominated.”
Neither campaign responded to messages left for comment.
Despite Tlaib’s frequent public assurances that she is not anti-Semitic and Arbit’s confirmation, her views are antithetical to voters uncomfortable with her criticism of Israeli policies regarding the treatment of Palestinians. She has a grandmother who still lives in the West Bank.
In a recent interview with the Jewish News of Detroit, she said, “If people saw me more as a granddaughter, versus a Congress member, they would understand why I have said we need to push for true equality and justice in Israel. The lens I bring to the issue is something I hope people welcome, because I don’t think there has ever been a member of Congress with a living grandmother or relatives in the occupied territories of Israel. I hope people see an opportunity, not something negative.”
Tlaib served three terms in the Michigan House of Representatives before she ran for Congress and has since impressed constituents for her attention to district-based issues, like tax credits, social justice and racial equality, and removing dangerous lead pipes from the water system.
During her years as a state lawmaker, her views on Israel and the Palestinians rarely came up, said Steve Tobocman, a former advisor to her Congressional campaign. They arose, he said, only after she entered Congress and formed “The Squad,” with fellow Progressive representatives Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.
“It’s just not an issue for that district,” said Tobocman, now executive director of Global Detroit, an economic development organization.
Jones, a member of the Detroit City Council since 2005 and its president since 2015, would appear to pose her own problems for Jewish voters. She has spoken warmly of Farrakhan on different occasions, sharing the stage with him at his group’s annual convention in Detroit two years ago and embracing him through a statement at this year’s convention, saying, “I am so excited to welcome The Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan and the National of Islam back home.”
Farrakhan has spoken derisively about Jews for years, with false claims and anti-Semitic characterizations, denying their status as “God’s chosen people” and their right to Israel.
Neither candidate has an overwhelming edge in the race, and recent history suggests a razor-thin finish, close enough that any bloc of voters, including Jews, could swing the race either way.
This is the third time in two years Tlaib and Jones are facing off. The same day in August 2018 that Jones beat Tlaib in a special election to serve out the remaining weeks of the late Rep. John Conyers’s final term after he resigned in the wake of sexual harassment allegations, Tlaib beat Jones for the full two-year term that followed.
Jones won her contest by 1.8 percent of the vote. Tlaib won hers by 1 percent, then sailed into office with no major party opponent in the general election. Several Republicans are competing in a primary but the winner doesn’t figure to be a threat in November. Leading analysts, including the Cook Political Report, rate the district “Solid Democrat.”
“The primary is the election,” said Marjorie Sarbaugh-Thompson, a political science professor at Wayne State University in Detroit. “November is the coronation.”
Issues that are off-putting to Jewish voters notwithstanding, both candidates may have advantages. Tlaib has far out-raised Jones in campaign contributions, $2.8 million to $135,000 through the June 30 reporting period. Also, Tlaib called for impeaching President Trump (in a most colorful way) even before she was sworn into office.
Jones has her own following in the district, owing to her years on the City Council and a black-majority district, 56.3 percent, compared with 33.4 percent white and 6.7 percent Hispanic. She’s a former union president and has dozens of endorsements from local elected and religious leaders.
“She’s got proven leadership and an ability to effectively communicate our issues,” said Ian Conyers, a former state lawmaker and great-nephew of the former Congressman.
The choice for Jewish voters is part of a larger landscape of uncertainty this year. Redistricting after the 2020 census will likely cost Michigan one of its current 14 House seats, which means the Tlaib-Jones winner might only serve a single term before district lines are redrawn.
Further, this is the first year for absentee voting in Michigan, making predictions of turnout almost impossible — particularly among Jews. And then there’s the coronavirus, which Jones contracted in April, limiting her campaign events around the district.
“There’s a cohort of Democrats for whom their first choice will be ‘None of the Above,’” said Sarbaugh-Thompson, referring to Jewish voters. But whom might Jews who do vote favor?
“I have absolutely no idea,” she said.
In tight Michigan race between Tlaib and Jones, Jews want ‘none of the above’