U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree said her recent decision to join a small group of fellow progressives to oppose a symbolic resolution condemning a Palestinian-led boycott movement of Israel was based on free speech concerns and not taking a side in the Israel-Palestine conflict.
The six-term Democrat from Maine’s 1st District was one of only 17 House members to oppose a measure in July. Debate over it has centered on two Muslim-American congresswomen who opposed the measure, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Michigan, a daughter of Palestinian refugees, and Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minnesota, the first native of Somalia to serve in Congress.
They support the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. That stance led Israel to bar Tlaib and Omar from visiting on Thursday after President Donald Trump, in an unprecedented step, urged the U.S. ally to do so. Tlaib later rejected Israel’s conditional allowance for her to visit for humanitarian reasons.
Besides Pingree, every New England representative supported the resolution. She says she doesn’t support the boycott, but it was an outlier in Congress and Maine’s congressional delegation, which typically takes low-key positions backed by pro-Israel groups.
The Maine congresswoman cited free speech as the main reason for her vote, though two Jewish groups who are often at odds backed the resolution. The resolution was worded to condemn BDS — the Palestinian-led effort to apply economic pressure to Israel to secure Palestinian independence — while including language meant to support First Amendment rights.
In short, it says the House opposes the boycott, urges Israel and Palestine to negotiation, affirms the free-speech rights of U.S. citizens and reaffirms the official American policy of supporting a two-state solution. The bill was crafted to ensure wide support and address free-speech concerns.
Two Jewish groups that are often at odds — the liberal J Street and the more conservative American Israel Public Affairs Committee — backed the measure. J Street said the bill balanced “strong opposition” to the BDS movement without infringing on First Amendment rights. AIPAC, has made opposing BDS a stronger legislative priority.
Still, Pingree said in a statement that she personally doesn’t support the boycott of Israel, her vote was cast to “uphold free speech.”
“In my time in Congress, I have cast votes in support of Israel and to address the humanitarian situation in Palestine — always with the goal of achieving a two state solution,” she said.
Freshman Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat from Maine’s 2nd District, felt differently. He also opposes BDS and backs a two-state solution, but said in a statement the situation is “incredibly complex” and said the U.S. should “focus on policies that promote reconciliation between Israel and Palestine rather than on blunt policy instruments that place blame for the current strife solely on Israel.”
Pingree’s record stands out among the state’s delegation on Israel, which has never been a major issue in state politics. Maine has a small Jewish population, with an estimate housed by the Jewish Virtual Library estimating less than 13,000 lived in the state this year. There is still a strong Jewish history in the state with active communities in most major cities.
Maine’s U.S. senators, Republican Susan Collins and independent Angus King, support a version that is likely to pass in the upper chamber. Collins and King have reliably voted in favor of pro-Israel measures, according to the American Jewish Congress.
They were among the 72 Senate co-sponsors of a 2018 bill extending security aid to Israel and opposed a 2016 United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory. The two split on the Iran nuclear deal struck under former President Barack Obama in 2015. Collins opposed it and King backed it.
Pingree’s votes and actions have varied more. The Arab American Institute gave her a +4 rating on their voting scorecard in 2012, indicating a slight lean toward the pro-Palestinian side. Mike Michaud, a Democrat who represented the 2nd District from 2003 to 2015, was rated +2.
Instead of attending Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 2015 speech before Congress, Pingree watched from her office with constituents. She said while she supported “a strong U.S.-Israeli relationship,” the speech shouldn’t have happened shortly before Israeli elections and without Obama’s consent.
Pingree voted for funding Israel’s missile defense system in 2015 and she and Golden are co-sponsoring a bill this session supporting a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Reactions to the vote have poured into Pingree’s office, but supporters of her vote were easier to find than detractors. Many people, including Jewish leaders in Maine, did not want to talk about the vote, though a letter to the Portland Press Herald earlier this month from a former president of a Jewish group in Portland accused Pingree of voting against Israel’s right to exist.
But Sally Bowden-Schaible, a founder of the Buddhist Alliance for Non-Violence and Human Rights in Israel-Palestine and Maine Voices for Palestinian Rights, backed Pingree and said the groups had been in contact with her on the issue for years, contacting Pingree’s office when similar bills come up and encouraging their members to do so.
“I think of her as someone who has a lot of moral courage,” Bowden-Schaible said of Pingree.
Molly Curren Rowles, the executive director of the Jewish Community Alliance of Southern Maine, said in an email that Pingree’s vote “raised concerns for many people” and the congresswoman’s office “has heard directly from Jewish and non-Jewish constituents who feel dismayed by her vote.”
She didn’t elaborate on those concerns or return further emails and phone calls, though Rowles said Maine’s Jewish community “is not monolithic” with “a range of beliefs and views.”
“We value and draw strength from this diversity,” Rowles said.