Hawkish pro-Israel lobby groups have been accused of using Republican mega-donors to hijack Democratic primaries following the “alarming” defeat of a prominent Jewish congressman because he criticised Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) spent more than $4m to defeat Andy Levin in Tuesday’s Democratic primary for a congressional seat in north-western Detroit.
Levin, who comes from a distinguished political dynasty including his father and an uncle who served long stints as Democrats in Congress, said he had been “the target of a largely Republican-funded campaign” because he dissented from Aipac’s support for hardline Israeli policies.
Aipac poured funds into supporting Levin’s opponent, Haley Stevens, who won with about 60% of the vote. The lobby group heralded her victory as evidence that “being pro-Israel is both good policy and good politics”. But critics noted that much of Aipac’s spending was on negative campaigning against Levin that did not mention Israel.
Levin was backed by the more liberal pro-Israel group, J Street. It contrasted Aipac’s endorsement of more than 100 Republican members of Congress who voted against certifying Joe Biden’s presidential election victory with the “onslaught of rightwing outside spending and baseless smears” to defeat a progressive candidate with a history of supporting unions and civil rights.
Aipac, through its political action committee, the United Democracy Project, has raised millions of dollars from Republican billionaires such as the Trump campaign funders Paul Singer and Bernie Marcus to defeat candidates not considered pro-Israel enough.
Other pro-Israel groups, such as the Democratic Majority for Israel and Pro-Israel America, have also spent heavily to oppose candidates regarded as anti-Israel in Democratic primaries from Texas to Ohio and California.
“This aggressive intervention in Democratic primaries – by a group funded in part by Republican mega-donors – to promote an unpopular agenda is harmful to American foreign policy, to the Democratic party and ultimately to the State of Israel,” said J Street, which is more critical of Israeli policies that perpetuate domination of the Palestinians.
In an interview with the Guardian during the campaign, Levin warned that Aipac’s involvement raised the specter of the entire primary process being hijacked by well-funded lobbies such as big oil and the gun industry.
“I don’t think the Democratic party can really stand for it and maintain the integrity of our own elections,” he said.
Following his defeat, Levin said he “will continue to speak out against the corrosive influence of dark money on our democracy”.
J Street has called on Democratic candidates to decline Aipac’s support, saying that it is intended to warn politicians against criticism of Israel’s actions or risk a well-funded campaign against them.
“With their overwhelming spending, Aipac hopes to send an intimidating message to others: cross our red lines, and you could be next. While political space for open and healthy debate over US foreign policy has opened up considerably in recent years, they appear determined to close it down,” it said.
Aipac has poured more than $24m in to defeating Democratic primary candidates critical of Israel. Last month it celebrated defeating former congresswoman Donna Edwards who was favorite to win a Maryland seat until the UDP spent $7m to unleash an advertising blitz against her.
But Aipac suffered an unusual setback on Tuesday in another Detroit seat where it spent heavily to defeat a member of the Michigan state legislature, Shri Thanedar, who has strongly criticised the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.
Thanedar, an Indian immigrant and wealthy entrepreneur, beat state senator Adam Hollier, who is Black and strongly pro-Israel, in a field fractured between several candidates in the majority African American district.
Some of Aipac’s supporters have suggested that the focus on Aipac’s funding of campaigns against candidates critical of Israeli government policies is antisemitic because the group is doing no more than other lobby organisations.
In response, Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, tweeted: “So AIPAC can do it… & AIPAC can brag about doing it… But talking about what AIPAC did (at least in a critical way) is antisemitic. See how that works?