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Forget the Squad, Politicians Like Chellie Pingree Represent the Real Threat to Israel

How the congresswoman from Maine, who’s never shown any interest in the Middle East, turned against Israel

KC Johnson
July 31, 2019
Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, right, arrives with Rep. Chellie Pingree at a House Democratic Caucus meeting at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 9, 2019, in Washington, D.C.Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images
Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, right, arrives with Rep. Chellie Pingree at a House Democratic Caucus meeting at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 9, 2019, in Washington, D.C.Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Last week, in a rare moment of bipartisan comity, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly endorsed a nonbinding resolution criticizing the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement. The resolution’s text avoided anything potentially controversial and simply reaffirmed the conventional U.S. support for a two-state, diplomatic solution between Israelis and Palestinians. It excluded portions of a Senate-sponsored measure that concerned the ACLU. It steered clear of equating support for BDS with anti-Semitism. And it proceeded only after the House condemned President Trump’s nativist tweet about Ilhan Omar and her three “squad” colleagues.

The careful wording of the resolution made it almost impossible to oppose. Almost, but not quite, as 17 House members, 16 Democrats and one Republican, still voted against it. Most coverage of the vote focused on Rashida Tlaib, who used the debate to analogize BDS to unsuccessful pre-World War II boycott efforts against Nazi Germany, and her fellow freshman Democrat, Ilhan Omar. But where the squad members attracted the headlines, a more notable opponent of the bill was far lower profile—Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, the only New England legislator to oppose the resolution and a sign, perhaps, of things to come. It’s likely Pingree, rather than figures such as Omar and Tlaib, who represent the greatest looming threat to Israel in the coming years.

Pingree represents Maine’s 1st District, which includes five coastal counties ranging from the New Hampshire border to Rockport, on the midcoast, along with the state’s capitol, Augusta. The district has a very small Jewish population, and even fewer Muslims. One of the most closely contested districts in the country between the early 1960s and the late 1990s, it shifted to the left during the Bush administration and now is a safe Democratic seat. Demographic changes produced a better-educated and wealthier electorate, especially in the suburbs of Portland, the district’s largest city, which became more Democratic as it grew wealthier and more diverse. The district’s evolution previewed that of many suburban House districts that veered toward the Democrats in 2016 and especially in 2018.

After a successful career in state politics, Pingree challenged Sen. Susan Collins in a 2002 campaign where she focused almost entirely on domestic issues. When the 1st District opened in 2008, Pingree won a multicandidate primary with 44% of the vote—she hasn’t been seriously challenged since. In the House, she has rarely commented on international affairs, concentrating on district matters and the domestic issues (such as health care) in which she has long shown an interest. As Democrats from more marginal seats lost in 2010 or 2014, Pingree’s seniority increased; she now is a prominent member of the House Progressive Caucus.

When Pingree first ran for the House, she presented herself as a conventional, pro-Israel liberal. She pledged to support a “secure and democratic Israel” as part of a two-state solution. Since “terrorism by anyone for any reason must always be condemned,” she also committed to “strongly support Israel’s right to defend itself against all attacks.” In 2014, Pingree voted in favor of emergency funding for the Iron Dome during the Gaza war.

Her approach toward Israel, however, started to change the following year. Pingree joined a minority of House Democrats in refusing to attend a joint session of Congress in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opposed the Iran nuclear deal. She couched her decision primarily in procedural terms, explaining that the speech didn’t happen “at the right time or under the right conditions . . . so close to Israeli elections [and] without the President’s consent.” Pingree claimed that she continued “to support a strong U.S.-Israeli relationship,” even as she expressed her strong support for the Iran nuclear deal.

A few months later, Pingree joined a fringe of House Democrats in signing onto a letter denouncing “Israel’s military detention system targeting children,” including 17-year-olds. That many of these teenagers were accused or convicted of serious crimes, including murder, did not seem to concern the signatories who based their complaints solely on the perpetrators’ age. Pingree and her colleagues urged the Obama administration to give the issue “priority status” in the U.S.-Israel relationship.

By early 2017, the former backer of a “secure and democratic Israel” voted against a resolution condemning the Obama administration’s abstention from U.N. Security Council Resolution 2334, which reversed a decades-long tradition of the United States vetoing resolutions that deemed Israeli control over East Jerusalem as contrary to international law. That fall, Pingree’s office took a meeting with the controversial B’Tselem field researcher Nasser Nawaja.

Earlier this year, Pingree was one of only 21 House Democrats to sign onto a bill to create a $19 million fund to monitor alleged abuses of Palestinian children held in Israeli jails. The bill, introduced by Betty McCollum, D-Minnesota), denounces Israel for committing “gross violations of human rights inconsistent with international humanitarian law and the laws and values of the United States.” So much for Pingree’s 2008 commitment to “strongly support Israel’s right to defend itself against all attacks.”

Pingree is no Omar or Tlaib, legislators whose passionate hatred for Israel runs deep. Indeed, there’s scant evidence Pingree has given much thought to Israel at all. Neither her House nor campaign websites mention her current position on Israel-related matters, and she did not speak on the House floor or use her Twitter feed to explain her vote on the BDS resolution. Pingree’s office did not respond to Tablet’s request for comment.

Pingree’s opposition to Israel, instead, seems to be more tribal, caused by her fellow progressives coming to view the Jewish state skeptically. In recent years, a plurality of liberal Democrats for the first time said that they sympathized more with the Palestinians than with Israelis. (Zach Goldberg previously touched on this phenomenon in an extraordinary Tablet article.) In an April Pew poll, more Democrats viewed the Palestinian government favorably than the Israeli government; the ratio was 3-2 among younger Democrats. One in eight Democrats said they viewed the Palestinian government favorably but the Israeli government unfavorably. Apart from antipathy toward Israel itself, it’s hard to see any policy issue—gender equality, rights of religious minorities, civil liberties, LGBT equality—in which the record of either the Palestinian Authority or Hamas-ruled Gaza could generate a “favorable” opinion from a contemporary U.S. progressive.

Pingree’s transformation, then, illustrates how a generic legislator lacking deep concerns about Israel could shift to accommodate the newfound support for Palestinian nationalism among some quarters of the Democratic base. For all the attention people like Omar and Tlaib receive, most electorates aren’t going to choose figures who openly traffic in anti-Semitism. But legislators like Chellie Pingree, from districts like Maine’s 1st? They’ll be much of the House Democratic caucus in coming years.


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KC Johnson is professor of history at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.