Ihssane Leckey, a pro-BDS Democratic Socialist, is running in the Democratic primary in Massachusett’s 4th District. (Leckey campaign via Facebook)

With a wide-open field of nine contenders to succeed Democrat Rep. Joe Kennedy, some fear that a split of the pro-Israel/Jewish vote could let a pro-BDS candidate enter Congress.

By Sean Savage and Jackson Richman, JNS

The Democratic Party has undergone a shift in recent years, with a number of longtime incumbents falling to progressive upstarts. In heavily blue Massachusetts, the race to succeed Democrat Rep. Joe Kennedy (who is running for Senate) has become somewhat of a free-for-all, featuring candidates ranging from a Jewish former U.S. Marine captain with a Republican history to a suburban mother fed up with President Donald Trump to a progressive former Planned Parenthood senior leader and a Democratic socialist.

However, the campaign of Ihssane Leckey, a Democratic Socialist who has endorsed the BDS movement, is making many Jewish/pro-Israel observers in Massachusetts’s 4th District nervous.

Jeremy Burton, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, told JNS that the race is being closely watched in the Jewish community.

“The MA04 congressional race is of great interest to the Jewish community, more than the typical open seat, given that it has the largest Jewish population of any seat in New England. About 75,000 Jews live in the fourth,” he said.

The Democratic primaries in Massachusetts are held at the later end of the season, this year on Sept. 1.

Nine candidates are running with no run-off mechanism, meaning that a candidate can win without a majority of votes, but just a plurality. Statistically, a candidate could win the seat with less than 15 percent of the vote—meaning a likely winner could get in with somewhere around 25 percent of the vote.

“That means that it is highly likely that Democrats in the fourth will nominate someone who is not the preferred candidate of the vast majority of voters,” said Burton. “This leaves the door open to someone who doesn’t represent the mainstream of the district, whatever that is.”

While Massachusetts is largely known for its progressive leaders and Democratic politics, the state’s 4th District covers a widely diverse region—stretching from affluent Boston suburbs to the working-class former mill town of Fall River on the south coast, home to many Portuguese-speaking immigrants.

Despite the district’s diversity, candidates from Newton, a heavily Jewish suburb west of Boston, have seemingly dominated district’s politics in recent decades. Former Rep. Barney Frank served as the 4th District’s representative for more than 30 years until 2013 when he retired and was replaced by political scion Rep. Joe Kennedy, the grandson of Robert F. Kennedy, who is vacating the seat for a Senate run against Democratic incumbent Sen. Ed Markey.

Similarly, in the ongoing Democratic primary race, several leading candidates hail from Newton and neighboring Brookline to its east, also historically Jewish and affluent.

While there has not been any formal polling done on the race, an internal poll conducted by the Leckey campaign put her in third place at 11 percent, behind Becky Grossman (19 percent) and Jake Auchincloss (16 percent). Similarly, an internal poll by the Grossman campaign also found her in the lead at 13 percent.

Surveys and candidate forums, which most of the candidates have joined, have also been conducted by Jewish media, political groups and the community.

“Seven of the nine Democrats running, and both Republicans, have participated in at least one, if not all three, of these opportunities to get their views out to the Jewish community in their own words. Two of the nine Democratic candidates, Ihssane Leckey and Chris Zannetos, have declined all three opportunities to engage with Jewish media and organizational forums and surveys,” said Burton.

On the U.S.-Israel Relationship

With several of the candidates coming from a Jewish background, most talked about their Jewish identity and expressed warm views Israel and the U.S.-Israel relationship.

Becky Grossman, an at-large member of the Newton City Council and daughter-in-law of former DNC chair and AIPAC president  Steve Grossman, mentioned in the JDCA candidate forum how growing up, she knew that the U.S.-Israel relationship was  “a cornerstone of peace and security throughout the Middle East.”

Jake Auchincloss, also a Newton City Councilor and former Marine, blamed U.S. President Donald Trump for making Israel a partisan issue, saying that the “U.S.-Israel relationship is strongest when it has strong, bipartisan consensus.”

Other candidates at these Jewish outreach events included Ben Sigel, who serves on the board of directors for the American Jewish Committee in New England; Dave Cavell, a speechwriter for the Obama administration (who recently dropped out); Alan Khazei, founder of the nonprofit City Year; Natalia Linos, executive director of the François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University; and Jesse Mermell, a former aide to former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick.

However, Leckey, a former Wall Street regulator who was born in Morocco, has been notably absent from all of the events hosted by the Jewish community.

Leckey has been endorsed by a number of individuals and groups who support the BDS movement, including political activist Linda Sarsour, Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, IfNotNow and the Jewish Voice for Peace Political Action Committee.

On social media, Leckey has been critical of Israel, calling for U.S. foreign aid to be cut to the Jewish state.

In a June 30 tweet, she called Israel’s proposed plan to apply sovereignty to Judea and Samaria as “land theft” and suggested that foreign aid to Israel “must be conditioned to protect human rights and dignity.”

In a July 10, 2019 tweet she also criticized “Israel’s detention of Palestinian children.”

Despite these tweets, her campaign has largely steered away from discussing foreign policy or the Middle East. In a campaign ad, Leckey focuses on her modest upbringing, immigrant roots and fight against Wall Street bankers in order to “dismantle every oppressive system that denies us basic necessities to live.”

On Support of the BDS Movement

Pro-Israel groups have also sounded the alarm on her support for BDS.

“Ihssane Leckey is one of the most strongly anti-Israel candidates on the ballot anywhere in the country this year,” Democratic Majority for Israel spokesperson Rachel Rosen told JNS.

Andrea Levin, executive director of the Newton-based Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis (CAMERA), told JNS that while the organization is nonpartisan and doesn’t endorse political candidates, “we do endorse knowing the facts. Here there are facts on the public record that are relevant. For instance, seeking endorsement from the Democratic Socialists of America, Leckey responded ‘Yes’ on a questionnaire asking if she supports BDS. BDS is a radical, anti-Semitic campaign of lies about Israel whose aim is to cripple, isolate and destroy the Jewish state. This is the openly stated purpose of its founders and leading adherents.”

As the campaign heats up in its final weeks, the leading candidates in the race have come under increased scrutiny. Auchincloss, who has been endorsed by The Boston Globe, recently apologized for controversial past comments and social-media posts. A number of candidates, including Grossman and Leckey, have used their personal wealth to launch a campaign advertising blitz. Leckey has also been called out by former campaign workers who said that the candidate mistreated staff and created a “toxic work environment.”

Burton said that he encourages all Jewish and pro-Israel voters in the district to educate themselves ahead of the vote.

“We at JCRC are encouraging the community to educate themselves about the candidates, their positions, who they’ve engaged with during the campaign and who they are endorsed by,” he said. “We are encouraging everyone to self-educate—and then to get out and vote.”