Josh Gottheimer has been publicly critical in recent days of those he saw as insufficiently criticizing Hamas for its attacks on Israelis. | Alex Brandon/AP
Progressive and moderate House Democrats scuffled over the war in Israel during a closed-door caucus meeting on Wednesday, with one lawmaker accusing another of saying a “shit thing” about Muslims.
The exchange started when Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.) talked to her fellow members about a vigil she attended virtually in the wake of this weekend’s deadly attack by Hamas, according to six people familiar with the events that transpired.
As Wild told fellow House Democrats that she didn’t want any religious community to feel ostracized — noting that Muslim leaders weren’t present at the event she participated in — Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), a moderate Jewish Democrat and Israel hawk, loudly interjected.
Accounts differ, however, on whether Gottheimer was referring to Muslims or made an ill-timed remark in an unrelated conversation, with some attendees overhearing him saying “because they’re all guilty” and others saying he stated “because they should feel guilty.” A spokesperson for Gottheimer strongly denied that he was talking about Muslims.
“Congressman Gottheimer never said anything about Muslims in today’s caucus meeting, a community he cares deeply about. Congressman Gottheimer said that the members of Congress who have not yet condemned Hamas terrorists should feel guilty,” said his spokesperson Chris D’Aloia.
Gottheimer later told other Democrats at the meeting that his comments were taken out of context and made as part of a separate conversation with an attendee about condemnation of Hamas. The lawmaker has been publicly critical in recent days of those he saw as insufficiently criticizing Hamas for its attacks on Israelis.
But others in the room were taken aback by his remarks, which they saw as insensitive to Muslims. One Democratic lawmaker shouted out: “Joshua!”
Rep. Greg Casar (D-Texas), a first-term progressive lawmaker, and others walked up to confront Gottheimer. The two argued back and forth, according to witnesses, with Gottheimer saying that more people should talk about how Hamas is responsible and Casar countering that Gottheimer didn’t know whether Muslim leaders in Pennsylvania had failed to do that.
Eventually Casar told Gottheimer that his remarks were a “shit thing to say,” sources said, and called the centrist “shameful.” Gottheimer insisted to Casar that the comments weren’t directly aimed at him.
Amid the spat, Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and other progressive lawmakers were spotted leaving the party meeting together.
The dustup shined a bright light on the longtime fracture within the Democratic Party over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s a divide that the party had largely skirted following the bloody surprise terrorist attack this weekend — but one that threatens to roil Democrats further as the war in the Middle East progresses in the weeks ahead.
A Casar spokesperson declined to provide a comment for the story.
“Congressman Gottheimer is furious and deeply disappointed with Members of Congress who have yet to condemn Hamas terrorists for brutally murdering, raping, burning alive, kidnapping, torturing, and beheading innocent babies, children, women, men, and grandparents — including Americans,” said D’Aloia, the Gottheimer spokesperson. “Congressman Gottheimer said that those members who have not condemned Hamas terrorists should indeed feel guilty. Of course, Congressman Gottheimer doesn’t blame innocent Palestinian civilians — he blames the terrorists.”
The White House itself has been acutely aware of Democratic schisms on the matter, even as President Joe Biden casts a very public show of support for Israel. In a speech Tuesday, Biden forcefully denounced Hamas’ attack as “pure, unadulterated evil,” pledging that the United States’ “has Israel’s back.” On Wednesday, he noted that in calls with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu he had stressed that Israel, with all its anger and frustrations, had to “operate by the rules of war.”
While a handful of progressive lawmakers have publicly pushed for a cease-fire, de-escalation and even stripping government support from Israel, most Democrats in Congress have largely stayed behind the president as he sidestepped those calls.
Biden also has urged lawmakers in both parties to provide emergency funding for Israel and condemned Hamas for the killing of more than 1,000 Israelis and the kidnapping of hundreds more.
Several progressive and more establishment-minded Democrats said that party unity has been palpable so far due in part to the gruesome nature of the attacks on Israel that took place.
“It was so grotesque that it ended up uniting people even if they have different views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. With the exception of a few of the [Democratic Socialists of America] chapters, you really haven’t seen any difference of opinion when it comes to this,” said a Democratic House member who was granted anonymity to speak freely.
Indeed, party leaders have worked to project consensus. House Democratic Caucus Chair Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.) noted Wednesday: “The Democratic caucus can be unified behind our values, behind our purpose, behind the policy that we support. And that doesn’t always mean we have unanimity.”
But those lawmakers and others in liberal circles said that they expected the political terrain to become more volatile for Biden as the war in Israel drags on.
“There are a couple of people, a handful of people, who are not part of the present, unanimous posture of progressives and Democrats,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of liberal Jewish advocacy group J Street. “That’s where we are today in the immediate aftermath of this attack. I’m not going to say that’s where things will be in a week, two weeks, three weeks, but that’s where we are today.”
As Biden has rallied forcefully to Israel’s defense, there have been blunt conversations with stakeholders behind the scenes. Progressive congressional offices privately spoke with the White House about the war in Israel, according to a congressional aide familiar with the conversations. They’ve specifically discussed the need for restraint, avoiding a wider conflict, minimizing civilian casualties and opening humanitarian corridors, the source said.
And White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said this week, in response to a question about Democrats calling for a cease-fire, that such remarks are “repugnant” and “disgraceful.”
Within the progressive left, chasms over the war in Israel are already publicly appearing.
Rep. Shri Thanedar (D-Mich.) declared in a separate statement Wednesday that he was leaving the DSA over their stances on Israel. “DSA’s inability to look at what has happened as terrorism is very upsetting and shocking,” he said in an interview.
But the Metro Detroit chapter of the group disputed Thanedar’s statement, with its co-chair Mikal Goodman telling POLITICO a majority of the group had actually voted to expel him over a month ago over his foreign policy stances.
“His views are not — and have never been — representative of Detroit DSA,” Goodman said in an email.
Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) has also taken heat from some in her party over what her critics saw as insufficient condemning of Hamas attacks on civilians. But in a Wednesday statement she said: “I do not support the targeting and killing of civilians, whether in Israel or Palestine. The fact that some have suggested otherwise is offensive and rooted in bigoted assumptions about my faith and ethnicity.”