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Labeled anti-Israel, Nina Turner aims to win Jewish voters’ trust in Ohio rematch

Turner clarifies her views on BDS as pro-Israel groups seek to solidify support for Rep. Shontel Brown

For the second time in less than a year, Israel has become a key issue in a primary battle between two Democrats from Greater Cleveland vying for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. 

Nina Turner, a former Ohio state representative and an ally of Sen. Bernie Sanders, has launched an aggressive effort to change the minds of Jewish voters, an electorate that contributed to her defeat in an Ohio congressional district with the largest Jewish population in the state — 5% — in last year’s special election.

In recent weeks, Turner, a progressive who served as co-chair of the Sanders presidential campaign in 2020, has attempted to push back against perceptions that she is anti-Israel, a label she says was applied to her in an expensive and negative campaign organized by establishment Jewish and pro-Israel groups. She hopes to unseat Rep. Shontel Brown, a former councilwoman from Cuyahoga County who pulled an upset victory in last August’s primary, beating Turner by less than 6% of the vote.

The May 3 primary for the 11th District — a safe Democrat seat that includes neighborhoods in Cleveland and its suburbs, and includes the city of Lakewood that Sanders won in the 2016 and 2020 presidential primaries — reflects many contests across the nation which pit moderates against progressives trying to gain more of a foothold in the party. Support for Israel is just one issue that tends to divide these camps, but it’s one that has shown itself to be particularly relevant in Greater Cleveland, given last year’s special election but also because of recent redistricting, which added neighborhoods in Cleveland’s West Side that include a significant number of Palestinian Americans. 

In a recent interview, Turner said she expects the same amount of what she had described last year as “evil money” from outside groups to be spent against her, “misrepresenting and slandering people who are running to serve a community.” 

She pointed out that she lost to Brown by a mere 4,200 votes, and predicted that she could win next month if Jewish voters give her a second look, and the 30% of the electorate who are new to the district get to know her.

Keeping Brown on Capitol Hill

Brown is backed by the same pro-Israel groups that invested heavily in her campaign last year.

Democratic Majority for Israel PAC, which was created in 2019 to support pro-Israel Democratic incumbents, spent about $1.9 million, including attack ads against Turner, in the special election last August.

The Jewish Democratic Council of America, and Pro-Israel America, a bipartisan group that supports pro-Israel candidates, are also expected to put money into direct texts, phone calls and digital advertising, and are bundling donations for Brown’s campaign. 

Voter turnout in the heavily Jewish areas of the district was significantly higher than the overall 16.8% turnout on the day of the primary.

DMFI has already kicked off an aggressive campaign to boost Brown in recent weeks. It sponsored a 30-second TV commercial highlighting Brown’s achievements in the short time she’s been in Congress. It also spent $32,000 on direct mailers and newspaper ads in the Cleveland Jewish News describing Turner as anti-Israel and pro-BDS. “We stopped an anti-Israel candidate in August, we must do it again on May 3rd,” the paid ad reads. 

Mark Mellman, DMFI’s chief executive, declined to further detail his group’s spending plans, but said that unlike last year’s campaign, where DMFI was the largest outside investor, “we have a lot of allies.” 

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee political action committee, launched last year to support congressional incumbents facing primary challenges for their pro-Israel stances, included Brown in its list of endorsements on Wednesday. AIPAC also formed a super PAC, the United Democracy Project, that can give an unlimited amount of money to campaigns. 

In a recent email to members of the Jewish community in Ohio, AIPAC warned that if elected Turner would join forces with Reps. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, prominent members of a group of House members known as “The Squad,” who have publicly criticized Israel in Congress and voted against additional funding for the Iron Dome missile defense system. “We must ensure Shontel Brown has the resources to stand up to her anti-Israel opponent,” the fundraising email from AIPAC’s PAC read. 

Marty Gelfand, a former South Euclid councilman and a supporter of Turner, called the attacks against Turner “lashon hara,” or “evil speech” in Hebrew, a grave sin under Jewish law. “These kinds of attacks have an effect,” he said. 

The liberal, pro-Israel J Street PAC has not yet made an endorsement in the race.

Turner seeks to clarify her views on Israel

Turner in recent weeks has aggressively pushed back against the idea that she is anti-Israel. In private meetings with local rabbis and leaders, as well as in public campaign appearances, she endeavored to clarify her positions. 

“I believe that Israel has a right to exist as a democratic nation in the Middle East,” Turner said during an event hosted by the City Club of Cleveland earlier this month. “I believe in justice and security for Israel, and justice and security for Palestinians.” 

Turner last week published an open letter in the Cleveland Jewish News, the largest Jewish publication in the state, pledging support for Israel and explaining that she is opposed to the Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment movement, though she’s also opposed to legislation against BDS activities. “Just as I would not support sanctions on us because of the actions of our government, it is not appropriate in this circumstance to place sanctions on Israelis for their government’s actions,” the paid ad reads. 

In a questionnaire submitted to the Jewish Democratic Council, obtained by the Forward, the Turner campaign touted her alignment with President Biden on key policies such as support for a negotiated two-state solution and a return to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. 

Turner has also said she supports security assistance to Israel, but that U.S. dollars shouldn’t help fund the expansion of settlements in the occupied West Bank or annexation that violates human rights or international law. 

“I am on the side of humanity,” Turner said. “None of us can be comfortable if people are suffering anywhere in this world.” 

Gelfand, a resident of Cleveland Heights, a suburb east of Cleveland, suggested that Turner, in her efforts to directly engage with the community, will pick up support from individual voters who may have been influenced last year by campaigns that disparaged her, but who are not affiliated with those groups and favor her progressive policies. 

The final stretch

In her interview with the Forward, Turner said the attacks against her are unfair. “There are forces that came into the district to try to malign my reputation in that way, knowing that there is absolutely no truth to that,” she said. 

She blasted AIPAC for suggesting she would be an opponent of the Jewish state if elected to Congress. “On what grounds are they saying I am anti-Israel?” Turner asked. “That’s a serious thing to say about somebody.” And she noted that the pro-Israel lobby’s PAC faced backlash last month for backing 37 Republicans who refused to certify Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 election.  

Referring to outside groups’ donations — from AIPAC’s PAC and others — Turner accused Brown of being “very comfortable with dark money overpowering the wishes of the people of this district.”

DMFI’s Mellman dismissed Turner’s attempts to win over Jewish voters as “moving an inch” towards the mainstream pro-Israel position.  “This is another example of somebody trying to move closer to our position in response to the work that we’ve done,” he said. ”​​She may have moved on BDS just for political reasons.” 

Gelfand said he is hopeful Turner’s outreach efforts will bear fruits given that more people vote in primaries compared to special elections. He also pointed out that in August, when Turner ran in the only race on the ballot, Republicans most likely went for Brown. But this year, those Republican voters won’t be there for her because they will choose to vote in the GOP statewide primaries.

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