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Tensions boil over as Democrats’ Israel divide deepens

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida set off an uproar in the House Democratic Caucus when she bluntly described her view of members who wouldn’t back a resolution affirming support for Israel in its war against Hamas.

“Someone who votes against this, I would think, doesn’t have a soul,” Wasserman Schultz, a prominent Jewish member, told CNN ahead of the vote.

The comments ricocheted across the House Democratic Caucus – especially for the 15 House Democrats who didn’t vote for it, all of them members of color, some of them Muslim-Americans. The issue was raised directly to House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, according to multiple lawmakers.

“I think it is outrageous for Democrats to criticize Democrats on these votes,” Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington state, who abstained from voting on the resolution because it didn’t mention the loss of innocent Palestinian lives or need for humanitarian aid, told CNN.

Jayapal, the leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said she expressed her frustrations to House Democratic leadership, but said they’re not resolved yet: “We’re still working on it.”

The internal dust-up over Wasserman Schultz’s remarks, which has not been previously reported, is just one of many examples of how the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas has inflamed underlying tensions within the House Democratic Caucus over Israel – a debate that has fallen along ideological, generational and even racial lines. Democratic leaders have been eager to keep a lid on the tensions and have intervened directly, including after Rep. Andre Carson of Indiana – a Muslim American – called Rep. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey a “punk” and a “coward” for calling the opponents of the Israel resolution “despicable.”

But the tensions are still palpable – with 22 Democrats joining Republicans to censure Michigan Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian American, over her use of a phrase many see as a call for the destruction of the Jewish state. Tlaib’s allies are enraged at supporters of the censure resolution, including Rep. Cori Bush of Missouri who said that House members are putting “targets on the backs of actual people, most of whom are Black or Brown.”

“It is outrageous. I am embarrassed for those Democrats who voted to censure their own colleague. Who voted against free speech. It is an embarrassment,” Jayapal told CNN after Tuesday’s vote.

The issue involving Wasserman Schultz brought leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus in the fold. Some in the CBC told the Florida Democrat that referring to people of color as “soulless” is a trope that was used to justify slavery, one House Democrat told CNN. The congresswoman told them she didn’t realize the implication of her words, the lawmaker added.

Wasserman Schultz declined to comment, saying she doesn’t discuss private conversations with other members.

As the war persists and the humanitarian crisis grows, the division within the House Democratic Caucus is becoming more pronounced, a reflection of the larger divide among Democratic voters in the country over President Joe Biden’s handling of the crisis and his resolute support of Israel.

An array of House Democrats are pushing unequivocal support for Israel, while a number of progressives have grown increasingly critical of the offensive impacting Palestinian civilians and are upping pressure on the Biden administration to call for a ceasefire.

Democratic leaders are now trying to carefully balance the competing viewpoints in their diverse caucus, with some lawmakers on both sides of the delicate issue now facing threats for their positions amid a backdrop of rising antisemitism and Islamophobia.

“We got to bring ourselves together, because this is now dividing us in this country. And the hate that we are seeing is scaring the s*** out of me,” said Rep. Debbie Dingell, a Michigan Democrat who opposed censuring Tlaib. “The death threats that are out there, the division in the communities, it’s not OK.”

Tlaib defended herself in an emotional speech in advance of the censure vote Tuesday.

“I can’t believe I have to say this, but Palestinian people are not disposable,” Tlaib said. “We are human beings, just like anyone else.”

In the middle of it all is the top Democrat in the House, Jeffries, who is trying to balance the various factions of his caucus and keep members listening to each other.

In his statement marking one month since the war between Israel and Hamas broke out, Jeffries said, “If the end goal following the defeat of Hamas and safe return of all hostages is a just and lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinian people, as I believe it should be, ad hominem attacks against colleagues will never accomplish that objective.”

As the war has unfolded, Jeffries has met with small groups of Democratic members across the ideological spectrum, including those representing the Congressional Black Caucus, Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Congressional Progressive Caucus and Jewish members, according to a source familiar.

He has walked a careful line when it comes to Tlaib, a member of the influential and progressive “squad.” He forcefully condemned the GOP efforts to censure her and urged members to vote against the resolutions. But, he also put out a lengthy statement strongly rejecting the kind of rhetoric Tlaib used – though he did not specifically call her out by name.

Jeffries helped put together a security briefing last month for squad members, which was conducted by Capitol Police and the House Sergeant at Arms, a Democratic aide told CNN. And he is also dealing with a push by Jewish House members to have a more prominent seat at the leadership table. A group of members, led by Wasserman Schultz, is trying to form an official Jewish Caucus, and met with Jeffries in his office to discuss a number of topics on Tuesday.

“We are working together to discuss the details and get feedback from all of the Jewish Members because it is increasingly evident that we need a seat at the table on matters that are critical to our communities,” Wasserman Schultz said in a statement. “And we’ve had enthusiastic responses so far, as discussions continue.”

Tensions over policy and primary threats

House Democrats are also divided over the White House’s handling of the conflict, with some fully aligned with the Biden administration’s pro-Israel stance and others calling on the US to pressure the Israelis to show restraint.

Democrats say the divide is being reflected in their states – and is hurting the president.

“I think right now you can’t overstate how raw people feel on all sides of this conflict,” said Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a Michigan Democrat who is running for the Senate. “We have over 300,000 Arabs and Muslims, we have 70,000 Jews. The emotions are running very high.”

Slotkin added of Muslim voters: “They’re certainly threatening their voting power in swing states. And so I think it’s a very real factor for the White House and for anyone who’s on the ballot.”

At issue for progressives is the perception that the White House has been prioritizing Israel over Palestinians, who are being targeted as the result of terrorist actions of Hamas. As the death toll of Palestinians crossed 10,000 and Hamas still holds 240 hostages, progressives want to see the White House and leaders of their party strike a balance in calling out both the antisemitic and Islamophobic attacks that have unfolded in the wake of the war.

“We’re seeing thousands of children who have died. This is not war. This is chaos. And we have a responsibility to uphold our standards and commitment to human rights,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, an outspoken progressive.

To smooth things over with the left wing of the party – and as Biden faces cracks in key parts of his coalition in the wake of the war – the White House has been reaching out to some progressives on Capitol Hill, including Jayapal.

But it’s not just policy at issue. There’s also brewing tension in the party over outside spending groups that have attacked progressive members over their anti-Israel stance, which could alienate key Democratic voting blocs, as well as potential primary threats.

At a news conference last week, Jeffries was asked about a six-figure ad buy from the Democratic Majority for Israel, a pro-Israel group, criticizing Tlaib. Jeffries said, “Outside groups are gonna do what outside groups are gonna do. I think House Democrats are going to continue to support each other.”

One Democratic aide said there’s concern among progressive members “that leaders in the party aren’t having their back when it comes to outside groups attacking them, and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in efforts to unseat them, in the same way that leadership has had the back of incumbents in the past.”

Asked about the political ramifications of the Democratic divisions exposed by the war, Maryland Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin said, “Look, the truth is that at least now in 2023, I’m not very interested in the politics of this whole thing. I’m interested in America using whatever influence we have to stop the terrorism and to end the war and to bring peace to the region.”

CNN’s Edward-Isaac Dovere contributed to this report.

This story has been updated with additional developments.

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