As Democrats pull back on Israel, one unlikely senator is doubling down

by puradropgummiessupplement

Sen. John Fetterman of Pennsylvania, to the dismay of many of his erstwhile progressive supporters, has emerged as perhaps the most outspoken supporter of Israel in the Democratic Party.

“There’s a very clear right side on this,” he says, comparing Hamas to the Confederacy in the U.S. Civil War and the Nazis in World War II. “That kind of evil cannot be allowed to operate. Because if it is, how are we ever going to have peace?” 

Why We Wrote This

The controversy around the Pennsylvania senator’s strong support for Israel says as much about the evolution of the Democratic Party as about the nonconformist approach John Fetterman has taken to politics.

His uncompromising stance has set him apart from many in his party, underscoring the extent to which the Democratic center of gravity on Israel has shifted. Some argue that if it’s now controversial for a Democrat to support the Middle East’s sole democracy, when dozens of its citizens are still being held hostage by a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, that says more about the party than about Mr. Fetterman. 

But there’s also plenty to say about Mr. Fetterman, an unorthodox figure who seems to be finally finding his voice after a rough start to his Senate career. 

“I think what he’s done is remarkable,” says Shawn Brokos, director of community security for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, speaking on a personal level. “Right now it feels like a lot of people are abandoning the Jewish community. And he is not.” 

In the wake of the Oct. 7 attack on Israel, in which Hamas-led militants killed 1,200 people and kidnapped about 250 more, Sen. John Fetterman papered his office walls with pictures of the hostages. 

He wore the Israeli flag like a cape to a pro-Israel march on the National Mall and waved it from the roof of his home as pro-Palestinian protesters chanting below accused him of “supporting genocide.”

He even broke ranks with President Joe Biden, who last week threatened to withhold U.S. military aid if Israel moved ahead with invading Rafah, the last Hamas stronghold in Gaza and refuge for hundreds of thousands of displaced Palestinian civilians. 

Why We Wrote This

The controversy around the Pennsylvania senator’s strong support for Israel says as much about the evolution of the Democratic Party as about the nonconformist approach John Fetterman has taken to politics.

“Hard disagree,” Senator Fetterman posted on X.  

In short, he has arguably become the most outspoken supporter of Israel in the Democratic Party.

“There’s a very clear right side on this,” he says, comparing Hamas to the Confederacy in the U.S. Civil War and the Nazis in World War II. “That kind of evil cannot be allowed to operate. Because if it is, how are we ever going to have peace?” 

His uncompromising stance has set him apart from many in his party, underscoring the extent to which the Democratic center of gravity on Israel has shifted left since last fall. Some argue that if it’s now controversial for a Democrat to support the Middle East’s sole democracy, when dozens of its citizens are still being held hostage by a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, that says more about the party than about Mr. Fetterman. 

But there’s also plenty to say about Mr. Fetterman, an unorthodox figure who seems to be finally finding his voice after a rough start to his Senate career. 

A larger-than-life politician, he was elected as an ally of the left. He officiated a 2013 same-sex marriage in defiance of Pennsylvania law as an “act of civil disobedience.” He wants to legalize weed and codify Roe v. Wade. He posts selfies from picket lines. But he has now rejected the label of “progressive” and is charting a path as a pragmatic Democrat. That has dismayed some voters who thought they were getting a burly version of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, but it has also won plaudits from moderates and even Republicans, and elevated his profile. 

Democratic Sen. John Fetterman of Pennsylvania leaves the chamber as the Senate prepared to advance the $95 billion aid package for Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan that was passed by the House, at the Capitol in Washington, April 23, 2024.

“Is this the John Fetterman Pennsylvania elected?” asked a recent in-depth profile in Philadelphia magazine, which compared him to an “underground band from the 1980s that somehow finds itself scoring hit singles and Grammy nods a decade later.” 

The truth is, John Fetterman has never fit into neat boxes. This is a man who earned a master’s degree from Harvard and then moved to a Rust Belt steel town, where he became mayor – for $150 a month. Married to a U.S. citizen brought to the country illegally by her Brazilian mother, he supports both border security and protections for “Dreamers.” Unlike many Democrats who want to curb reliance on fossil fuels, he opposed a moratorium on fracking, saying it would have taken away the jobs of Pennsylvanians. And now, even as a growing number of Democrats are calling on Israel to show restraint and prevent further killing of Palestinian civilians, he puts the onus on Hamas, which he says could end the war by returning the remaining hostages.  

“The vocal stance that John has taken about Israel is something you can’t jump to easy assumptions about,” says Pat Clark, a community organizer in the Pittsburgh area who first met Mr. Fetterman in the mid-1990s, when the latter came to the city to run an AmeriCorps GED program.

A media darling who struggled to find his footing in the Senate

Mr. Fetterman became a media darling back in the mid-2000s, as national reporters found an irresistible story in the tattooed mayor trying to revitalize Braddock, Pennsylvania, which is 70% Black. 

He went on to become the state’s lieutenant governor and then mounted a bid for the U.S. Senate. While campaigning in May 2022, Mr. Fetterman suffered a major stroke that left him with auditory processing challenges. He narrowly won election with 51.2% of the vote, but six weeks into his first term sought treatment for clinical depression and didn’t return to the Senate for two months. He still uses live transcription on his phone to help him process reporters’ questions in the hallways. 

Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman takes the stage at an election night party in Pittsburgh, Nov. 9, 2022. Mr. Fetterman had his forearm tattooed with nine dates on which people were killed in Braddock, Pennsylvania, after he became mayor.

Much of the early press coverage of the freshman senator, never known as a policy wonk, revolved around either his health or his flouting of the staid Senate dress code with his trademark Carhartt hoodie sweatshirts. 

Then came Oct. 7. Hamas invaded Israel in what the group later told The New York Times was a calculated effort to “completely overthrow” the status quo and put the Palestinian cause back in the global spotlight. During the attack, fighters killed babies, raped women, and burned people alive.

“He was very shocked, upset, and deeply moved by what happened on Oct. 7,” says Mark Fichman, head of the Pittsburgh chapter of J Street, an advocacy group that describes itself as pro-Israel and pro-democracy. 

Why Senator Fetterman, who is not Jewish, cares so much about Israel is something that ultimately only he can answer. But it’s clear he genuinely cares, says Mr. Fichman, who met with the senator about a week after the brutal cross-border attack. 

In conversations leading up to their October meeting, Mr. Fichman adds, the senator openly admitted that Israel was an area about which he didn’t have extensive knowledge. 

But one thing he did seem to have, Mr. Fichman observes, was a sincerely felt empathy for victims of violence. 

It was the fatal shootings of two youths he worked with in Braddock that prompted him to run for mayor in 2004, Mr. Fetterman has said. He won by one vote. Two weeks into his tenure, a father about his age was shot and killed while delivering pizzas – “a senseless crime that affected me deeply,” the mayor would tell a reporter later. 

Mr. Fetterman tattooed the date on his right forearm. Eight more such tattoos would follow, a list of losses literally etched onto his body.

Pittsburgh’s Jewish community and rising antisemitism

Born in Pennsylvania, Senator Fetterman represents a state with the fifth-highest percentage of Jewish residents in the United States. And one where the threat of antisemitism is felt particularly keenly. 

In October 2018, a shooter committed the worst act of violence against Jews in America’s history, killing 11 worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood. Mr. Fetterman joined a vigil that evening and later toured the synagogue and saw the bullet holes. 

“You can’t be a part of that and have that not really change you,” Senator Fetterman told the Monitor. 

Sen. John Fetterman (right) visits with people before a commemoration ceremony Oct. 27, 2023, in Pittsburgh to remember the 11 worshippers killed by a shooter at the Tree of Life synagogue in 2018.

It took nearly five years to bring the synagogue shooter to trial, a proceeding that reopened a raw wound for the Jewish community. 

“When our community thought we could close the chapter on that, we woke up to the events from Oct. 7 – and it’s one more in a series of traumas that the Jewish community is facing,” says Shawn Brokos, director of community security for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. She says the number of antisemitic incidents spiked after Oct. 7, with a third of the year’s total coming in the last 2 1/2 months. This year, the number of incidents so far is about triple what Pittsburgh saw last year, from graffiti on Jewish schools to hoax bomb threats at synagogues.

It was against that backdrop that Senator Fetterman’s 2022 campaign vow to support Israel was put to the test. 

Two weeks after the Oct. 7 attack, Senator Fetterman posted on X: “Two things can be true at the same time: I unequivocally stand with Israel and demand the immediate release of all hostages. I grieve for all innocent Palestinian lives lost. We must minimize suffering in Gaza and our humanitarian aid efforts must match the need.”

But his support for Israel’s efforts to root out Hamas in Gaza – including mass displacement of civilians, cutting off water for a week after the attack, and killing thousands of women and children – has rankled some of those who had helped him get to the Senate. 

Last October, an open letter by 16 former unnamed Fetterman campaign staffers said that his push for unconditional U.S. military aid to Israel felt like a “gutting betrayal.”

“On the trail, your overarching promise was to ‘Forgotten Communities’ – people and places that get overlooked, written off, and left behind,” they wrote, saying it wasn’t too late to stand on the “righteous” side of history. “You can’t be a champion of forgotten communities if you cheerlead this war and the consequent destruction of Palestinian communities at home and abroad.”

But as the months passed, and pro-Palestinian campus protests spread across the nation, Senator Fetterman only became more pointed. He mocked the “pup tent intifada” on college campuses, urged unconditional support for Israel, and countered calls for an Israeli cease-fire by placing the blame for the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza squarely on Hamas.

“Hamas fully owns and remains committed to the misery, deprivation, and trauma for Palestinians,” he wrote on May 5. 

Many Republican and Orthodox Jewish voters in the Pittsburgh area were pleasantly surprised by how unmovable he was, digging in further as he received blowback. Politically, it may be boosting him overall; a January poll showed twice as many voters saying they viewed him more favorably as a result of his stance than those who viewed him less favorably.  

Still, there are some in the largely progressive Jewish community of Pittsburgh who wish the senator would do more to support Palestinians – more than 35,000 of whom have been killed in Israel’s military offensive, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Ministry of Health, which does not distinguish between civilians and combatants. 

And indeed, Mr. Fetterman’s stubbornly pro-Israel position stands in sharp contrast to that of a growing number of his Democratic colleagues in Congress.

J Street’s Mr. Fichman says there’s been a “sea change” within the party over the past six months when it comes to the U.S.-Israel relationship. Mainstream Democrats, including President Biden and Sen. Chuck Schumer, the Senate’s first Jewish majority leader, are now taking a closer look at how Israel is using U.S. military aid and whether it aligns with American values. 

Mr. Fetterman’s stance has drawn ire on social media, with some antagonists “encouraging me to kill myself or hoping that I get a stroke,” says the senator. He adds that he doesn’t know how anyone thinks that will get him on their side. “But that’s not a side that I’m going to be on.” 

Ms. Brokos, speaking on a personal level, says Senator Fetterman has been a “tremendous” ally – a “very visible” presence in the Pittsburgh Jewish community, from rallies to Shabbat services. 

“I think what he’s done is remarkable, and it does give people a sense of hope,” she says. “Because right now it feels like a lot of people are abandoning the Jewish community. And he is not.” 

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