The Benjamins? A “Palestine Firster” controversy hits Congress

Author and activist Gloria Steinem attends a fundraising event for Marie Newman, Democratic candidate for Illinois 3rd congressional district, in Chicago, IL on Sunday, February 4, 2018. Photographer: Christopher Dilts/

Rep. Marie Newman (D-Ill.) in 2018 Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Christopher Dilts.

by Ben Cohen

(JNS) — During Barack Obama’s presidency, when diplomatic tensions between Israel and the United States sank to rarely seen lows, the term “Israel-Firster” was concocted by the Jewish state’s adversaries as a means of demeaning its advocates and supporters in America.

To be an “Israel-Firster” meant that you put the interests of Israel above those of the United States and were therefore marked down as someone with suspect loyalties. For the many Jews smeared in this way, there were unmistakable echoes of past surges of antisemitism, with the fixation on murky Jewish imperatives overriding national security concerns. But it was problematic in other ways as well.

For one thing, the term insinuated that the United States had one set of interests and Israel a completely different set, turning two close allies into adversaries. It also suggested that Israel was a rogue state that was quite happy to use Diaspora Jewish communities as a fifth column when necessary. Through a combination of financial incentives, subtle intimidation and promises of political advancement, the “Israel-Firsters” were able to ensure that American politicians put Israel’s agenda before that of their own country, thereby ensuring distrust and dislike of the United States across the Muslim world at the same time as billions of American taxpayer dollars flowed in support of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinians.

This caricature of advocacy for Israel in America has been offset by the carefully manicured self-image of Palestinian advocates as speaking truth to power and of campaigning for their cause through the power of popular persuasion, rather than dubious congressional lobbying. If Israel is an establishment cause, the logic goes, then Palestine must be the primary mission of a progressive coalition that understands Zionism as a political toxin, alongside racism and Islamophobia. And whereas advocacy for Israel takes place in the corridors of power, Palestine manifests itself in street demonstrations and campus rallies, in mass petitions, and, above all, in the campaign to subject Israel to a regime of boycotts, divestment and sanctions as seen in the BDS movement.

But that self-image has taken a harsh blow during the last fortnight with a new political scandal involving Rep. Marie Newman, a left-wing Democrat from Illinois who is a die-hard opponent of Israel. Newman is currently being investigated by the House Ethics Committee after a report published at the end of January by the Office of Congressional Ethics concluded that there was “substantial reason to believe” that she had violated federal law by promising employment to a political rival as a part of a quid pro quo.

Newman’s rival — a Palestinian-American academic named Iymen Chehade — was allegedly promised a job as her foreign-policy adviser on a six-figure salary in exchange for not running against her in the 2020 congressional race. A 2018 email unearthed by the OCE included an agreement that Chehade would “not announce or submit his candidacy for election to Congressional Representative of the 3rd District of Illinois” and that “in exchange, Newman will hire Chehade as her Chief Foreign Policy Advisor.” But after she won the election, Newman allegedly reneged on their agreement. Chehade sued in response before the pair reached an undisclosed out-of-court settlement.

Further investigations, however, have revealed a startling additional layer to Newman’s discussions with Chehade concerning her positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. According to the Daily Beast last week, “a cozy job and big title weren’t the only things Newman negotiated.”

Chehade reportedly secured Newman’s agreement to control her positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict entirely. Arguably, that wasn’t such a big ask, given that Newman had sponsored multiple bills in favor of a Palestinian state and, last September, was one of only eight Democratic legislators to vote against a bill authorizing $1 billion for Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system. Moreover, a visit to her website reveals just one topic under the issues tab: “Israel-Palestine.”

Nonetheless, according to the communications discovered by the Daily Beast, Chehade clearly wasn’t leaving anything to chance, demanding Newman’s agreement on a range of policy issues. This would mean opposing all legislation involving military aid to Israel, supporting legislation on Palestinian statehood and traveling to the region on “fact-finding” missions whose itinerary would be entirely set by Chehade.

Chehade also demanded that Newman boycott Israeli and Jewish organizations, revealing himself in the process to be an eliminationist anti-Zionist who is opposed to Israel’s very existence. “At no point will Newman accept partial or complete funding for congressional delegations from the [Jewish National Fund], any organization affiliated with the Israeli government, or any organization that embraces Israeli’s Zionist or colonial project,” he wrote.

At no stage did Newman give any sense of being troubled by the use of federal funds to reach a private agreement with a Palestinian advocate that would have provided him with a well-paid job and political influence — the source of Ethics Committee’s concern. Instead, she responded to Chehade’s email by saying, “Most of it looks good. Couple of concerns — mostly phraseology.”

Newman has dismissed the investigation into her professional relationship with Chehade as a “partisan witch hunt.” She is also poised to lose her congressional seat following redistricting in Illinois, which means that she will have to face off later this year against a legislator from her own party, Rep. Sean Casten. It shouldn’t come as shock, therefore, if the progressive “Squad” of House Democrats loses at least one member in 2022.

Even if Newman does disappear from Capitol Hill, the lessons from her dubious arrangement with Chehade need to be absorbed. It’s painfully obvious that no American interest is served by the adoption of anti-Israel positions on the part of an elected representative at the behest of an outside adviser who calls the shots. Newman and Chehade can fairly be called “Palestine-Firsters,” in that for both of them, the Palestinian cause takes precedence over all other considerations. Other legislators in the House should not make the same mistake.

Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.