Rep. Barbara Lee speaking at the Library of Congress, April 5, 2022. (Photo/Facebook-Congresswoman Barbara Lee)
Rep. Barbara Lee speaking at the Library of Congress, April 5, 2022. (Photo/Facebook-Congresswoman Barbara Lee)

East Bay’s Rep. Barbara Lee touts support of Israel amid Senate bid

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U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, who represents the Oakland-Berkeley area, sought to assure a Jewish Democratic audience of her pro-Israel credentials on Wednesday. She highlighted her opposition to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, in particular, as she vies to replace retiring Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

“I’m not a supporter of BDS,” the Democrat said during an online discussion organized by Democrats for Israel California (DFI-CA). “I have voted against resolutions condemning BDS because of protest protections and First Amendment rights. But I don’t support BDS, and I get picketed a lot for that.”

The April 19 conversation was the third installment in DFI-CA’s ongoing Senate Speaker Series, which is taking place following Feinstein’s announcement in February that she will not run for reelection in 2024. Feinstein’s planned departure has set off the most competitive Senate race in California in decades with Reps. Adam Schiff, who is Jewish, and Katie Porter, along with Lee, vying for Feinstein’s coveted seat, which she has held since 1992.

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Last month, DFI-CA hosted similar events with Schiff and Porter. Each of the three candidates was asked the same questions by representatives of DFI-CA, an umbrella organization of Jewish and pro-Israel Democratic groups in the state that includes the Jewish Democratic Club of Silicon Valley and Jewish Democratic Club of Marin.

Nearly 50 people tuned in to DFI-CA’s Zoom call with Lee. The congresswoman responded to questions about Israel, antisemitism and other issues as Californians try to figure out who to support in the upcoming Senate race. Of particular interest were Lee’s statements pertaining to BDS. In 2019, Lee voted against a resolution condemning the BDS movement.

Discussing the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, Lee described herself as a long, steadfast supporter of a two-state solution.

“We have to work together to educate the public about the viability of a two-state solution,” she said. “It’s the only way forward … I think it’s only the United States that can achieve that.”

Addressing a nationwide increase in antisemitic incidents, Lee said her background as a Black woman in the United States makes her uniquely equipped to combat hatred against Jews.

“[I will always be] making sure antisemitism is dealt with…as an African American woman, hate has no place in my life,” she said.

Lee spoke of traveling to Israel, saying she has visited at least 10 times. Her time in Israel has exposed her to the Iron Dome’s work protecting the Israeli people, and she has consistently supported U.S. funding for the defensive weaponry, she said. In fact, her support for Iron Dome funding has alienated some people in her congressional district, which covers most of the northern part of Alameda County.

The erosion of democratic rights in Israel is clear. I’m excited people took to the streets and said they’re not going to tolerate this.

Asked what she made of recent unrest in Israel over the proposed judicial overhaul, Lee said she was heartened by the strength of the Israeli protest movement.

“The erosion of democratic rights in Israel is clear,” Lee said. “I’m excited people took to the streets and said they’re not going to tolerate this.”

Whenever she visits Israel, meanwhile, Lee looks for any mention of Ralph Bunche, a Black diplomat from the U.S. who played a crucial role in the United Nations’ mediations between Jews and Arabs during the founding of the State of Israel. Bunche was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950.

“Every time I’m there [in Israel], I’m looking around for some tribute to Ralph Bunche,” she said. “There’s a lot of ignorance about who Bunche was.”

Lee’s political legacy includes the distinction of being the only member of Congress to oppose the authorization of the use of military force days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. She was also an outspoken opponent of the Iraq War that the Bush administration began in 2003. She was first elected to Congress in 1998.

If elected to the U.S. Senate in 2024, Lee would become the only African American woman in the legislative body, a distinction most recently held by California’s Kamala Harris before she became vice president. Lee currently lags in fundraising behind Schiff and Porter. DFI-CA leaders said her opponents have more name recognition, particularly Schiff, who led the House’s first impeachment trial against then-President Donald Trump and who served on the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the U.S. Capitol.

“Adam Schiff being very familiar to the L.A. Jewish community and being Jewish himself — and also Katie Porter — they have more established, well-known records on BDS and support for Israel,” Andrew Lachman, president of DFI-CA, said in a phone interview. “Lee took the time to address and point out where some of the similarities are and some of the small differences.”

During the Zoom call, Lee sought to distinguish herself from the other candidates, talking about reproductive health care and the need to codify the right to abortion in federal law. She also emphasized wanting to bring progressive issues to the forefront, including economic inequality, environmental justice and the curbing of military spending.

Dorene Kastelman, president of the Jewish Democratic Club of Silicon Valley, said the recent conversation with Lee “helped clarify her support for Israel and the Israeli community in our area.”

Closer to the race, DFI-CA will release grades on each of the three Democratic candidates related to their positions on Israel, antisemitism and BDS, among other issues.

Ryan Torok

Ryan Torok is an L.A.-based freelance reporter and former Jewish Journal staff writer.