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Will progressive foreign policy win out in Massachusetts?

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On September 1, Massachusetts voters will head to the polls to cast their ballots in the Democratic primaries. Most national coverage of the election has focused on the state’s Senate race, where Joe Kennedy III is attempting to oust longtime incumbent, and Green New Deal cosponsor, Ed Markey. However, there are a number of House races that progressives will be paying close attention to as well, as they symbolize the growing battle over the future of foreign policy within the Democratic party.

Jill Charney, a local activist and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) Boston member, told Mondoweiss that foreign policy really hasn’t come up very much during the state races at all. “I was just talking to some [other local activists] and we couldn’t really think of very many examples where these issues have come up or been debated,” she said, “They’ve largely been ignored.”

Charney says that’s a shame, especially in the case of the state’s 4th congressional district race, where nine candidates are vying to fill the seat that Kennedy abandoned to run against Markey. One of them is former bank regulator Ihssane Leckey. Leckey, who immigrated to the United States from Morocco at the age of twenty, is an advocate for Universal Family Care, the Green New Deal and Medicare for All. Charney points out that Leckey was the only candidate who decided to run for the seat while Kennedy still occupied it, while everyone else jumped into the race once they realized it would be vacated. “I think that showed a lot of strength, a lot of guts, and a lot principle,” said Charney, “When I first heard her speak, I saw a fighter who believed in what she was talking about. She’s also been willing to listen and she’s open to new information.”

Leckey’s foreign policy positions have earned her endorsements from groups like Massachusetts Peace Action, JVP Action, and IfNotNow Boston. According to her website, she opposes all sanctions on nation-states, wants to end America’s forever wars, and reduce the Pentagon’s budget. A Massachusetts Peace Action questionnaire, that was filled out by her campaign, states that “she will advocate to redirect funding away from America’s dangerous and wasteful nuclear arms program, towards investments in education, health, and a climate-smart economy.”

In that same questionnaire, Leckey said she’d refuse any AIPAC-sponsored trips to Israel, would support Rep. Betty McCollum’s historic bill to promote the human rights of detained Palestinian children, and would oppose all anti-BDS legislation. In response to a survey from Boston DSA, Leckey wrote, “I support the ending of the Israeli oppression of the Palestinian people, including supporting the BDS (Boycott Divestment Sanctions) movement, but do not support sanctions.”

Jewish Insider reported that Leckey clarified her position on BDS at a recent campaign event devoted to Jewish outreach. “We know that there has been so much divisiveness within the Jewish community because we spend so much time talking about ‘yes’ or ‘no’ instead of talking about the issue itself and how we’re going to resolve it,” said Leckey, “I always said I will not stand against a peaceful protest. I will not stand against people coming peacefully and asking for something that they believe that is the right way to get things done.”

Massachusetts’ 8th district race has barely gotten any national attention, but a longtime incumbent is trying to fend off a primary opponent there. Rep. Stephen Lynch has been in congress for almost 20 years and in that time he’s established himself as one of the most conservative House Democrats when it comes to foreign policy. In addition to voting for the Iraq War, Lynch was one of the only Democrats to vote against the “No War with Iran” provision in 2019’s National Defense Authorization Act. Last fall, Lynch was questioned by an activist at a town hall meeting about why he hadn’t signed onto Rep. McCollum’s child detention bill. He indicated that he would support such legislation, but has yet to become a cosponsor. He’s also voted in favor of anti-BDS legislation.

His challenger is Dr. Robbie Goldstein. His website touts his commitment to stopping climate change, challenging racial injustice, and investment in public transportation, but it doesn’t seem to mention foreign policy at all. Nonetheless, his answers to the Massachusetts Peace Action questionnaire are certainly to the left of Lynch’s current agenda. Like Leckey, he indicated that he’d skip AIPAC trips, support McCollum’s bill, and oppose anti-BDS laws.

“Attempts to conflate criticism of Israeli policies with acts of anti-semitism are dangerous. As a Jewish American, it is important for me to use my voice to call out the rise of anti-semitism here in America, as much as it is to stand for human rights and democratic principles abroad,” he wrote in response to one question.

The battle in Massachusetts’s First Congressional District, between incumbent Richard Neal and Justice Democrats-backed challenger Alex Morse, has taken a number of astonishing turns in recent weeks. First, College Democrats accused Morse, a 31-year-old mayor, of inappropriate conduct. A letter from the group asserted that Morse had used “his position of power for romantic or sexual gain” and that “numerous incidents over the course of several years have shown that it is no longer appropriate to encourage interaction between College Democrats and Alex Morse.” Since then, reporting from The Intercept has revealed that the accusations were part of a year-long plan to engineer and leak damning information about Morse. The scheme was apparently a wide effort, where candidates and reporters were pitched information about the accusations.

Morse is a single, openly-gay man and some fear that the smear campaign will deter LGBTQ individuals from running for office in the future. “I can tell you it has a chilling effect because I know people who have thought twice about running for public office because they’re LGBTQ,” State Sen. Julian Cyr told WBUR.

Despite soaking up most of the coverage around the race, the saga certainly hasn’t seemed to depress Morse’s support. In fact, a recent internal poll shows that he’s actually gained ground and is now within 5 points of Neal. Neal (who has been in office for over 30 years) is one the biggest Democratic recipients of corporate money, with much of it coming from the pharmaceutical industry.

Morse’s progressive domestic agenda has earned him endorsements from groups like Indivisible and Sunrise Movement, but his foreign policy plank is also to the left of the Democratic establishment. Morse is Jewish and has spoken openly about how his Birthright trip to Israel exposed him to anti-Palestinian bigotry for the first time:

It became very clear early on that the way the folks on the bus, the tour guides, the way people in charge talked about Palestinians was in this language of “The Other” and [there was this] implication of blame. It connected me back to my lived experience in Holyoke, the way in which people talked about Puerto Ricans. People have talked about Holyoke my whole life, it used to be this thriving city and they have this false narrative that when Latinos came, when Puerto Ricans came, that was the downfall of our community.

While he’s not a supporter of BDS, Morse has said he’d oppose any effort to criminalize or suppress the movement.

Massachusetts Peace Action organizer Brian Garvey credited Bernie Sanders with helping to move the needle on the subject of Israel, as the Vermont Senator consistently embraced the the concept of conditioning aid to Israel on the campaign trial and brought up the plight of Gaza during one of the debates. “With Bernie we saw that the winds are changing and this can be an issues candidates run on and win on,” he said.

“Massachusetts needs to be on the cutting edge on these issues,” Garvey explained. “This state has led on issues like abolition, same-sex marriage, even healthcare. Now we need to lead on this. We are thrilled to see that Palestinian rights are becoming a mainstream topic especially among this next generation. People are no longer afraid to say, ‘Palestinian lives matter’ and our policy should reflect that.”

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When Ihssane Leckey says she “opposes all sanctions on nation-states,” including Israel, it’s not clear what she means. Would she support a ban on sending or selling arms to Israel? Apparently she DOES support Betty McCollum’s bill, which would ban Israel from using U.S. funds to detain, interrogate, or torture Palestinian children. These bans are the sort of “sanctions” that I understand BDS to advocate.

Democratic Majority for Israeli (DMFI) has been running ads against Alex Morse. That should drive us all to contribute to Alex’s campaign, which he has a good chance of winning with more financial support. His foreign policy statement says he is for equal rights for everyone.