Former U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak's second bid to become Pennsylvania’s junior senator in Washington has both support and opposition in the Jewish community.
Once again, former U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak is challenging Pat Toomey to become Pennsylvania’s junior senator in Washington. And once again, as he takes on the now-incumbent Sen. Toomey in the 2016 election, Sestak will face questions from the right over whether he is sufficiently pro-Israel.
At the same time, he is garnering significant support from prominent Jewish Democrats in the area.
Sestak, a retired U.S. Navy admiral and Democrat who served two terms in Congress and narrowly lost to Toomey in 2010, spoke at a 2007 event hosted by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which critics have accused of having ties to terrorist organizations and not condemning terrorism.
The decision became a big issue in the Jewish community during the 2010 campaign, with Jewish Republicans coming out strongly against Sestak. Now some are already working to revive the issue of Sestak’s ties to CAIR as well as of his signing a congressional letter in 2010 urging Israel and Egypt to ease the blockade on Gaza. He later expressed some regret, saying at a local Orthodox Union event that if he could do it over again, he would have sent an individual letter.
In the 2010 race, the majority of Jews in the state supported Sestak. Two separate polls found widespread support for the Democratic candidate. One poll, sponsored by J Street, the dovish lobbying group, found that 71 percent of Jews backed Sestak, while 23 percent went for Toomey.
A separate poll, sponsored by the Republican Jewish Coalition, found that 62 percent of Jewish voters backed Sestak and 31 percent voted for Toomey. Both polls surveyed 600 Jewish voters in Pennsylvania by telephone on Election Day.
At this early stage, Republican Jewish leaders are pointing to the so-called Gaza-54 letter and the CAIR links, while Sestak supporters focus on his legislative record of supporting Israel.
Before speaking at the CAIR event, Sestak, then serving in the House of Representatives, faced questions from some in the Jewish community during a forum at a synagogue in Havertown, and the backlash continued when he went ahead with his plans to speak. He has not apologized for the appearance — the invitation was accepted by one of Sestak’s staff members, a former CAIR employee — saying he was addressing some of his constituents.
At the time of the speech, the FBI had cooperated with CAIR to learn more about the Muslim community, but the government agency later cut ties with the group after a 2009 trial against the Holy Land Foundation, during which prosecutors presented evidence that CAIR was part of a group organized by the Muslim Brotherhood to support Hamas.
The Anti-Defamation League has said CAIR “continues to offer a platform to conspiratorial Israel-bashers and outright anti-Semites.”
Critics of Sestak have said that by speaking at the CAIR event, he was helping raise money for the group, but Sestak tried to make a distinction, saying he spoke before the fundraising portion of the event.
“Regardless of what you say in such a context, it’s doing a favor to an organization,” said Benyamin Korn, a former editor of the Jewish Exponent who now is a leader of the Philadelphia chapter of Religious Zionists of America and recently co-authored an opinion piece criticizing Sestak. “The relationships with CAIR that became an issue during his last race for the Senate, as far as we are aware, still have not been resolved.”
Sestak, like other Democrats, also recently criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his speech before Congress.
“I wish” House Majority Leader Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) “had not extended the invitation,” Sestak said in a radio interview. “I wish that Mr. Netanyahu had not come here. I understand he represents his country and he has the absolute right to accept an invitation. That said, the bottom line of all I said is, the No. 1 interest of anything we do is in the interest of the security of the United States of America — Israel is part of that.”
In response, the Republican Jewish Coalition released a statement saying, “Sestak, who has a history of inflammatory statements and actions on Israel, is already digging himself a hole in his race for a Senate seat.”
Despite the campaign that critics have started to mount against Sestak, who kicked off his campaign this month by walking across Pennsylvania, still has strong supporters in the Jewish community.
Sestak's campaign released a statement explaining that as he has "said many times, I would lay down my life gladly for Israel as I would for America, both while I was serving 31 years in the U.S. Navy, and today."
It goes on to detail his connections to Israel, including "at least six visits to Israel as a naval officer with my ships" and "helping to secure Israel’s missile defense during the Gulf War."
Real estate developer Alan Casnoff, a past president of Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, recently held a fundraiser for Sestak in Center City at which Sestak answered questions about his support for Israel. There were about 70 people in attendance, the majority of them Jewish, Casnoff said.
“He’s unique in that he understands the defense issues better than most people,” said Casnoff. “He’s a three-star admiral. He has dealt with the Israel Defense Forces — he has friends in the Israel Defense Forces.
His wife, Susan, also recently spent two weeks in Israel working with the Israeli Defense Forces on energy efficiency at installations and integrating environmental considerations in training, according to Sestak's campaign.
"This doesn’t sound to me like a person who is anti-Israel in any way, shape or form,” said Casnoff.
In the 2010 race, the National Jewish Democratic Council described Sestak as a “true friend of Israel,” and pointed to his support of bills providing economic and military aid to Israel and sanctions against Iran.
Meanwhile, some observers say they don’t see the CAIR speech as cause for concern.
“I think his speaking to CAIR was an unfortunate circumstance, although in his speech to CAIR” he said “the appropriate things about denouncing terrorism directed against Israel,” said Robin Schatz, director of government affairs for the Philadelphia Federation, which does not endorse political candidates. “I think he is not an enemy of Israel the way he has been portrayed, and his voting record I think supports that.”