Politics

Fetterman, unbending on Israel, confounds his progressive brethren

John Fetterman was walking past a group of pro-Palestinian protesters at the Capitol this month when, according to his aides, they accused him of having blood on his hands for supporting Israel in its war against Hamas.

The Pennsylvania Democrat then went into his Senate office and grabbed an Israeli flag, his staff said, so he could wave it at the activists while they were being arrested.

The video of him doing just that quickly went viral. Not only because of the surrealness of a shorts-and-hoodie-clad senator taunting protesters being cuffed by U.S. Capitol police, but also because, at its core, the image shocked progressives who assumed the senator was their ally.

Fetterman is known for draping himself in the pro-LGBTQ+ rainbow flag at Pride festivals, endorsing Bernie Sanders for president, and sticking it to the establishment. But when it comes to Israel, he has not simply bucked his progressive brethren, he has made it a point to show he rejects the activist left’s position.

While other pro-Israel Democrats have modified their stances amid weeks of gruesome fighting in Gaza, Fetterman has literally wrapped himself in an Israeli flag and hung up photos of the nation’s hostages outside his office. On X, formerly known as Twitter, he’s called “Free Palestine” graffiti that was sprayed outside a high school in a largely Jewish neighborhood in Pittsburgh “reprehensible.” He’s told a pro-Palestinian activist to her face that she should “be protesting Hamas.”

The more critical interpretation for Fetterman’s unabashed embrace of Israel, expressed by progressives, is that he has made a political calculation. In the 2022 Senate race, he earned the support of Democratic Majority of Israel, one of the more forceful pro-Israel super PACs in politics. Fetterman, the reasoning from pro-Palestinian liberals goes, is trying to keep that faction in his corner.

“He took a good amount of money from DMFI,” said Jules Berkman-Hill, a volunteer with the progressive Jewish group IfNotNow, who added that other pro-Israel groups supported him financially. “Those are all organizations that are opposing a political solution right now, and I think that speaks volumes.”

But those who have followed his career say people shouldn’t be surprised: It was always wrong to pigeonhole Fetterman ideologically.

“Whether it’s a positive or negative, I don’t think he necessarily cares about being in any club,” said Larry Ceisler, a Pennsylvania-based public relations executive.

The more sympathetic explanation, offered by Fetterman’s allies, friends and longtime observers, is that he has always been pro-Israel; he unequivocally laid out his position in last year’s Senate race; and he has been deeply affected by communities close to home.

Pennsylvania has the fifth-largest Jewish population of any state in the nation. Even more critically, his aides said the 2018 massacre at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, where a gunman killed 11 people, left him distraught and forced him to confront the presence of violent antisemitism so close to home.

The synagogue is a 15-minute drive from Fetterman’s house. While it was still in the midst of an active shooter situation, staffers said, he got calls from people who lived nearby asking him if he knew what was going on. Adam Jentleson, Fetterman’s chief of staff, described the tragedy as “the formative event on this issue for him.”

It changed him politically, too. In the immediate aftermath, Fetterman forged a close relationship with a top GOP politician in the state. Fetterman was the Democratic lieutenant governor nominee at the time, running against Republican Jeff Bartos. Despite their feud, Fetterman personally dialed Bartos, who is Jewish, to warn him of the horror that would soon blanket the news.

“John and I became friends because he called me the morning just minutes after the shooting started at Tree of Life,” said Bartos. “He’s like, ‘I’m so sorry to be the one to call you, but I just got off the phone with the governor. There’s a shooting happening right now at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. It’s going to be bad.’”

Later that day, Bartos said he reached back out to Fetterman to thank him. “I said I’m calling to let you know that you’re a mensch. And he chuckled and said, ‘Is that a good thing or a bad thing?’”

The Pennsylvania electorate didn’t split over the Tree of Life shooting. The war is different. Still, Fetterman’s supporters and other people who have closely followed his career said it is no coincidence that the positions where he has parted ways with progressives have often been issues that matter to constituents in his home of western Pennsylvania. His biggest departure from the left prior to Israel came on energy policy: He opposes a ban on fracking, a major priority for that region of his state.

He also has privately and, at times, publicly chafed at what he sees as progressive litmus tests and academic left-wing language. Last year, he described himself as “pro-policing” and said the call to “defund the police” was an “absurd phrase.”

“There’s a lot of things about John, honestly, that never fit into the traditional progressive image,” said Jentleson. “And this has always been one of them.”

Progressives who long viewed Fetterman as one of their own have had to reconcile their adoration for the senator with his irreverence toward their position on the war. Their backlash has been swift.

Last month, pro-Palestinian activists shut down the street in front of Fetterman’s office in Philadelphia for hours, parading around a giant puppet of him wearing a shirt that read “silent on genocide.” A group of Fetterman’s former campaign aides also signed on to a letter that called his unabashed embrace of Israel in the war a “gutting betrayal.”

Beth Miller, political director of Jewish Voice for Peace Action, said Fetterman’s “positions on Israel have always leaned toward the hawkish.” But, she added, “I am still a bit shocked by the level of disdain that he has been giving to a growing anti-war movement.”

It’s that trollish style that frustrates Fetterman’s opponents the most.

Matt Howard is a board member of the group About Face: Veterans Against the War, the group of activists that Fetterman ridiculed earlier this month as they were arrested at the Capitol.

“I honestly felt frustrated,” Howard said. “If he disagreed with them, that’s one thing. It didn’t totally make sense to me that he would resort to mocking folks.”

Another member of the group, Brittany DeBarros, said Fetterman smirked and waved sarcastically at her during the arrests. Earlier in the day, she had prodded him on camera over his refusal to back a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas (to which he told her to go protest Hamas). She disputed the idea that activists verbally attacked him first.

But to people on the other side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Fetterman’s in-your-face approach has been a revelation: Ideologies — or at least the public perception of them — aren’t rigid and allies can be found in unexpected places.

“He gets out there and fights for his views,” said Mark Mellman, president of DMFI, “whatever the issue.”

Myah Ward and Nicholas Wu contributed to this report.

Those who know and have followed the senator say no one should be surprised by his recent posture. But still, many are.  

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