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Winograd vs. Harman in California Primary: Will U.S. or Israel's Interests Come First?

Linda Milazzo: Winograd's grassroots momentum so concerned her opponent that Harman retaliated with an ideological assault of minor relevance to most residents in her district. Rather than going toe to toe with Winograd on constituent-specific matters, Harman chose Israel as her main campaign strategy. Though Harman and Winograd are both Jewish Americans, they hold radically different views on Israel.

(This article is based on one that will appear in the upcoming May/June 2010 issue of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Winograd For Congress Headquarters (Photo by Linda Milazzo)

Winograd For Congress Headquarters (Photo by Linda Milazzo)

Sunday, March 14, 2010, ushered in two welcome events to Southern California: the inauguration of the headquarters of the bustling Winograd For Congress primary campaign, and an extra hour of daylight to help Marcy Winograd’s swarm of supporters evict Jane Harman, the wealthiest Democrat in Congress, from her eight-term seat in the House.

This is progressive Democrat Winograd’s second run against blue-dog conservative and AIPAC insider Harman. Winograd’s first effort in 2006 resulted in a respectable 38 percent of the vote after a short three-month campaign. This time, the determined challenger has given herself ample time to meet with residents throughout California’s 36th Congressional District, hear their concerns and identify their most critical needs. Not surprisingly, her industrious boots-on-the-ground campaign has been well received by constituents who were often ignored by their incumbent whose career focused more on rising through the ranks of Congressional 'Intelligence' than on the needs of constituents back home.

Winograd's grassroots momentum so concerned her opponent that Harman retaliated with an ideological assault of minor relevance to most residents in her district. Rather than going toe to toe with Winograd on constituent-specific matters, Harman chose Israel as her main campaign strategy. Though Harman and Winograd are both Jewish Americans, they hold radically different views on Israel. Winograd is co-founder of L.A. Jews For Peace and a critic of Israel’s Gaza blockade, West Bank settlement expansion, and refusal to grant Palestinians the right of return. Conversely, Harman is an AIPAC darling who believes Israel can do no wrong. Harman's uncompromising support for Israel has brought her substantial financial rewards. In addition to individual contributions, Harman has received a career total of $103,771 in pro-Israel PAC contributions.

To launch her Israel assault and tap into the psyches and wallets of her Jewish supporters, Harman solicited co-AIPAC loyalist, Congressman Henry Waxman, to compose a letter to Jewish donors blasting Winograd on Israel. Waxman, who like Harman, disdains critics of Israel, willingly obliged. His letter excoriated Winograd, calling her views “repugnant in the extreme.” He went on to say:

“To me, the notion that a Member of Congress could hold these views is alarming. Ms. Winograd is far, far outside the bipartisan mainstream of views that has long insisted that U.S. policy be based upon rock-solid support for our only democratic ally [Israel] in the Middle East.”

Winograd, taken back by the harshness of Waxman's attack, responded in kind with a powerful letter of her own. She stated in part:

"Like you, I am intimately aware of our Jewish history. On my mother's side, my great-grandparents escaped the Russian Pogroms to make a better life for themselves in Europe. On my father's side, my great-grandparents were killed in the Jewish Holocaust of Nazi Germany. Because of our collective experience with persecution, it behooves us to stand in opposition to persecution anywhere and everywhere, rather than sanctify reductionist state policies that cast all Jews as victims who can only thrive in a segregated society. Furthermore, we must stand in explicit opposition to the Israeli persecution of the Palestinians; the brutal blockade of Gaza, an act of war by international standards, denying children clean water, food, and medicine. We are better than that."

(The full text of Waxman and Winograd's letters are available in my January 11, 2010 article on the Huffington Post)

Regrettably for Harman, infusing the highly charged issue of Israel into her primary race appears to have backfired. Contrary to incumbents' tradition of downplaying the primary challenger, Harman's actions have heightened interest in Winograd, resulting in an onslaught of high profile media discussions. Tikkun, Politico, Huffington Post, The Nation, Washington Examiner, Glenn Beck on FOX TV, and dozens more venues have invoked the impassioned campaign. Interestingly, the article that seems to have stirred the most interest is that of Jewish Journal editor-in-chief, Rob Eshman, who offered to host a debate on Israel between the primary challengers - an invitation incumbent Harman probably hadn't expected.

Winograd accepted Eshman's offer the day the offer was made, writing on the Jewish Journal:

“Thank you for inviting me to debate my opponent at a public forum on the establishment of a lasting Middle East peace. I gladly accept and look forward to engaging in a community dialogue sponsored by the Jewish Journal. Ultimately, I believe we all want peace, though we may have different opinions on how to achieve it. It is time for serious soul-searching and what better time than now.”

Harman, however, took nearly two months to respond. I contacted Eshman and John Hess, Harman's chief of staff, numerous times by e-mail and phone to inquire about Harman's decision. Eshman kept me up to date, stating he'd personally reached out to Harman but hadn't heard back. Hess never responded.

Finally, on March 3rd, Hess sent Eshman this cursory e-mail declining the invitation:

“Hi Rob—thank you for your message and your invitation. However, Congresswoman Harman declines the kind offer and believes her views on Israel are very clear. John H.”

Eshman was less then pleased with Harman’s refusal, as evidenced in his article, “Harman Declines Jewish Journal Debate Invite”

Winograd again responded immediately to Jewish Journal:

“I commend Editor Rob Eshman when he calls for open and intelligent debate on Middle East peace and thank Rabbi Dan Shevitz of Temple Mishkon Tephilo for offering to host a critically-needed conversation. I hope my opponent reconsiders her rejection of Rabbi Shevitz’s offer.

“In the meantime, I would like Jewish Journal readers to know that I will support a peace agreement, be it two states or one state, which both sides—Israelis and Palestinians—acknowledge will respect equality, dignity, and human rights for all.”

It’s fairly standard in American politics for the incumbent to decline to debate a primary opponent. In this case, however, the reasons for Harman’s refusal may be more complex than traditional political gamesmanship. Jane Harman has not served herself well by rebuffing her Jewish Journal ally and turning down Eshman’s request to debate. But this debate had the potential to harm Jane Harman, whose many personal and ethics controversies would have likely been exposed by Winograd.

Harman could have feared being challenged on her wiretapped conversation with former AIPAC employees that resulted in accusations of improper information sharing and exchanges of favors with agents of a foreign land [Israel]. Harman could have feared being confronted on Israel’s widely condemned mistreatment of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, for which there is ample proof of brutality via the Goldstone Report and eyewitness testimonies by Sen. John Kerry, Reps. Keith Ellison and Brian Baird, and former President Jimmy Carter.

American public opinion of Israel is declining rapidly as details of the Palestinians’ plight is more widely revealed.

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Israel’s growing national disfavor increases the probability that Waxman and Harman’s assault on Winograd originated not only as a political ploy, but also from their fear that electing a potential critic of Israel to Congress might weaken the United States' middle east policy that has always favored Israel - much to the detriment of the U.S. For legislators like Harman and Waxman, whose foreign policy decisions have been predicated first and foremost on serving Israel, such a possibility could be cause for great dismay.

But Israel/U.S. relations are now on shaky ground and the current Israeli government has been damaging to America. It's impossible to ignore that Harman declined the Winograd debate two weeks after five of her congressional colleagues, along with members of J Street (the year-and-a-half-old pro-peace/pro-Israel PAC), were snubbed and disrespected in Israel by the Israeli deputy foreign minister, and their pre-planned visit to Gaza was blocked by the Israeli army. These events would have assuredly come up in the debate since Harman and Waxman's colleagues, in particular Bill Delahunt of Massachusetts and Bob Filner of California, have been outspoken in their outrage over their mistreatment by the Israelis. The question of Harman's collegial allegiance would have been unavoidable in the debate.

In mid-March, during Vice President Joseph Biden’s visit to Israel, Israel announced the building of 1,600 new homes in the disputed territory of East Jerusalem - a direct insult to the United States and a rebuke of the U.S.' demand that Israel freeze further settlement expansion. Israel's announcement infuriated Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Adding insult to injury, a subsequent announcement by Prime Minister Netanyahu declaring that settlement expansion will continue unabated, drove a further gulf between the two nations.

Schisms are forming in American government amongst American legislators over Israel, chipping away at Waxman's proclamation of rock-solid legislative support. And those schisms are sure to grow wider as Israel's expansion into Palestinian territory and human rights abuses continue, figuratively spitting in the face of President Obama and ultimately forcing his and Congress' hand. Some believe Israel is acting out because the United States hasn't been harsh enough with Iran. But the American public and American coffers won't readily support a third war when the American economy is in such disarray. Thus, the question of Israel's value as an ally has more frequently come into play.

Truth be told, Harman and Waxman's congressional districts are not immune to the eroding pro-Israel sentiment that is spreading nationwide. Also true is that Harman and Waxman have underestimated the growing support for Winograd, who is no newbie to the political scene. She's co-founder of Progressive Democrats of Los Angeles, a former officer in the California Democratic Party, and her esteem amongst Jews and non-Jews traverses the boundaries of Los Angeles. She is feted by the Jewish community much like Harman - albeit Winograd's supporters tend to be less ideological and more open-minded.

I asked Winograd what responses she'd received after the ruckus raised by Waxman and Harman's provocative letter. Winograd answered:

"Americans, many of then Jews from across the country -- from San Francisco, Portland, Washington D.C., and New York City - emailed me to express gratitude that a candidate, aware of the political minefield, was nonetheless speaking out for human rights. People of diverse religions were outraged at the attempt to censor all debate on middle east peace, to declare critical debate somehow off the table.

Congressman Waxman's letter mobilized incredible support for my campaign, with people stepping up to host fundraisers, organize precinct walking, and volunteer at events. They felt they had no choice, that history was calling them."

Winograd Fundraiser at Sheinbaums'

Winograd fundraiser.

On February 18th, just such a fundraiser was held by iconic Los Angeles couple Betty and Stanley Sheinbaum, leaders in the Los Angeles progressive community who hosted a well attended event for Winograd, co-hosted by prominent members of the Jewish community and keynoted by Gore Vidal. This is one of many Jewish sponsored events for Winograd, whose accolades from Jewish supporters are glowing.

Photo by Linda Milazzo

Well known Rabbi Michael Lerner, national best selling author, and publisher of Tikkun Magazine, shared this with me about Winograd:

"Marcy Winograd's critique of Israeli policies fits right into the best traditions of prophetic Judaism. While I do not agree with her call for a One State solution, I believe that position to be a reasonable alternative to endless and blind support for the Israeli Occupation of the West Bank and its blockade of food, medicine, and other vital necessities from the near-starving people of Gaza (however much I deplore Hamas' violence).

Congressional reps Waxman and Harman consistently take the low road--attacking the messenger because they can't refute the message of the Israeli peace movement and its supporters (like Winograd) in this country: that the Occupation is immoral and self-destructive for Israel and for the Jewish people, and a violation of the highest ethical vision that has sustained Judaism for the past thousands of years. Substituting short-term political advantage for a strategy that could actually work to protect Israel and the Jewish people, Harman and Waxman jump on to the "Israel can do no wrong" bandwagon that seeks to silence all legitimate criticism and thereby fosters deep resentments toward Jews that will likely come back to haunt the entire Jewish people around the world in the form of a new anti-Semitism fueled not by ancient religious disagreements but by the behavior of Israel and the suppression of debate by its ultra-nationalist American advocates (including both Jews and Christians who think they are doing Jews a favor by their blind loyalty to Israel's self-destructive path).

Many Jews in Congress have told me privately that they agree with this position articulated in Tikkun magazine, and perhaps if Marcy Winograd gets to Congress she will help give them the backbone to say these things publicly."

Lila Garrett, long-time activist, J Street Board member, Progressive Democrats of America Board member, two time Emmy Award winner, host of Connect The Dots on KPFK Los Angeles and a woman who worked in Israel as far back as 1953, conveyed this to me about Winograd, speaking candidly of Waxman's assault:

"Waxman’s blatant attack on Marcy Winograd is not only embarrassing; it’s irresponsible. It’s one thing to debate an issue; it’s another to stab someone in the back who doesn’t agree with you. And that is what Henry Waxman did with his widely distributed letter which he did not bother to send to Marcy...

As far as Waxman’s letter is concerned there is an undercurrent of hysteria about it which is extremely disturbing. He represents a large group of people. He Chairs an important committee and too many people look to him for calm, steady leadership. Times are too uncertain for us to tolerate a leader who shoots from the hip. Waxman is using the same fear tactics to justify Israeli violence against the Palestinians that Bush and Cheney used to whip us into supporting the savage wars against Iraq & Afghanistan. Marcy doesn’t use fear that way. Her views represent careful thought and a realistic knowledge of history. A two state solution cannot work as long as one side refuses to allow a second state. That’s foreign policy 101. A one state solution is not working either. Same reason. What does Waxman suggest....mass annihilation? That’s what his rant seems to imply.

This blast against Marcy should have been written by Waxman's worst enemy not by the Congressman himself. The Henry Waxman I’ve known for over thirty years would have been a strong Marcy Winograd supporter."

Considering current Middle East events, it appears that Waxman’s proclamation at the behest of Harman that

“Ms. Winograd is far, far outside the bipartisan mainstream of views that has long insisted that U.S. policy be based upon rock-solid support for [Israel]...”

stems more from Waxman and Harman's personal bias than from America's current truth. One would hope that any legislator elected to serve the U.S. would insist that U.S. foreign policy uphold the interest of the U.S. before that of a foreign nation - Israel or any other.

With Waxman and Harman, however, their foreign policy focus seems to be Israel's interest first. With Marcy Winograd, the interest of the United States, not Israel, would undoubtedly be first.

Linda Milazzo

One final note: Jonathan Tasini, U.S. Senate candidate from New York - a Jew who lived in Israel for seven years and whose father was born in Palestine - has filmed the deeply personal video shown here that supports an end to Israel's blockade of Gaza. Please take a moment to view Jonathan's touching message to grasp the extent of the growing opposition to Israel's policies. Much like Marcy Winograd, Jonathan Tasini embodies a humane position on middle east policy that puts U.S. interests first and seeks to end the unflinching pro-Israel bias that undermines U.S. prestige and the legitimacy of our diplomacy in the region.

Linda Milazzo