Forget what’s in her heart. Some members of Maryland’s Jewish community are concerned about Rep. Donna F. Edwards’s intestines.
“If somebody could look in her kishkes, I doubt a love for Israel would be found there,” said Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg, using the Yiddish word for guts. His Baltimore congregation counts among its members Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D), whom Edwards is hoping to join in the Senate in 2017 as a replacement for retiring lawmaker Barbara A. Mikulski (D).
As she campaigns for the Democratic nomination, Edwards is facing pushback over stances she has taken on issues involving Israel that have some questioning her support for the Jewish state. Whether that record will stymie her Senate bid reflects a larger concern among Israel’s liberal critics: the extent to which candidates can question Israel’s policies without jeopardizing their political futures.
Wohlberg says that Cardin, Mikulski and Edwards’s primary rival, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D), all have positions on Israel that are more closely aligned with that of most Jews, who make up about 4.3 percent of Maryland residents. Jewish Marylanders tend to be reliable Democratic voters, concentrated in populous Montgomery and Baltimore counties.
Edwards is not ignoring this constituency. She placed Passover greetings in local Jewish newspapers last month, and visited Beth Am Synagogue in Baltimore recently to hear former mayor Kurt Schmoke speak and help weed the community garden.
But Jewish leaders are more concerned about what Edwards has done in Congress.
While she has voted to fund Israeli missile defense and impose sanctions on terrorist financiers, she has regularly ducked resolutions and letters backed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Washington’s dominant Israel lobby, which takes a harder line in support of the country’s self-defense.
In 2009, Edwards voted “present” — rather than “yea” — on a near-unanimous resolution endorsing Israel’s right to defend itself against Gaza rocket attacks. She was one of 20 House members to vote against a 2013 bill strengthening sanctions against Iran, which Israel considers an existential threat.
Unlike the vast majority of her colleagues, Edwards did not sign on to letters designed to pressure the Obama administration on Iran sanctions, Syria sanctions,Egypt policy, the peace process and resolving differences with Israel quietly — all efforts backed by AIPAC and like-minded groups.
On each of these issues, Van Hollen voted solidly on the side of Israel.
Last month, when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave a controversial address to Congress criticizing a nuclear deal with Iran, Edwards joined several dozen Democrats who boycotted. Van Hollen attended, although he criticized Republicans for inviting Netanyahu without consulting the White House or Democrats in Congress.
Edwards’s record on Israel-related issues has been problematic for her before.
In 2010 and 2012, a Montgomery County-based group of Jewish donors backed a candidate who ran against Edwards in the primary. Both challenges fell far short of unseating Edwards, who is strongly backed by national progressive groups.
Barbara Goldberg Goldman, a supporter of Obama and Van Hollen who was part of the 2012 effort, said Edwards’s record “does show inconsistency, and on things where there’s really nothing to have lost — by signing on to a bipartisan letter, for example.”
Edwards declined to be interviewed for this story, but said in a statement: “I am a staunch supporter of Israel and fully back America’s commitment to Israel’s security. I’ve traveled throughout Israel and seen her promise and the threats to her existence.”
Her views align with those of J Street, a liberal Jewish group founded the same year that Edwards launched her first winning campaign. She won the group’s endorsement in her upstart effort to replace Democratic incumbent Albert Wynn — emerging as the first candidate elected with J Street’s backing.
The congresswoman’s votes on Israel-related issues reflect J Street’s perspective that hawkish policies are not in Israel’s best interest, and should not be off-limits to criticism by friends of the Jewish state. Most Jewish voters, J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami argues, are both more liberal on foreign policy than Israel’s current government and more focused on domestic issues than on what is happening in the Middle East. The group raised $40,000 to help Edwards defeat her primary opponent in 2012.
“She’s been a real serious leader of efforts in Congress to advance the pro-Israel, pro-peace agenda,” Ben-Ami said. “She has survived all of these various challenges — both threats and actual in primaries — and she has been able to stand up and say what she thinks.”
While Jews overwhelmingly identify as Democrats, there has been a slow shift to the GOP in recent years among more conservative parts of the community. At the same time, as Israel’s government has become more aligned with the GOP, J Street has grown more popular among Democrats.
In the Senate race, however, Edwards cannot count on J Street’s exclusive support. Van Hollen has also met with the group, and Ben-Ami says he has a “good working relationship” with the congressman.
And Van Hollen, too, has criticized Israel in the past. In 2006, he urged then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to call for a cease-fire in Lebanon and establish an international peacekeeping force there, in the midst of an extensive Israeli bombing campaign.
Van Hollen has been doing his own outreach to Jewish groups in Baltimore, meeting two weeks ago with a group of rabbis, local AIPAC members and philanthropists. The conversation centered on the U.S.-Israel relationship and the threat of a nuclear Iran, said Van Hollen constituent Nathan Diament, who facilitated the meeting.
Last Sunday, congregants at Beth Am were more interested in asking Edwards about science funding, public schools and redistricting than about Israel. Still, several people in attendance said Edwards would need to further explain her position on Israel to draw strong Jewish support.
“I have a number of Jewish friends that are so right-wing that if they saw her here, they wouldn’t even go up to meet her,” Sheila Lemel said. “I try to be open-minded. . . . I give her a lot of credit for coming here.”
Edwards was shepherded through the event by Lisa Akchin, a congregant whose son Jonathan worked on one of the congresswoman’s political campaigns. As she introduced Edwards, Akchin made her own special pitch for the candidate, tailor-made for this particular audience:
“She’s responsible,” Akchin said, “for getting Jonathan to go back to law school.”