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Sen. John Fetterman faces a left-wing backlash over his stance on Israel. He isn't budging.

The progressive senator from Pennsylvania has resisted calls from some of his supporters and former staffers to call for an immediate cease-fire in the region.
Sen. John Fetterman (D-PA) at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. on May 10, 2023.
Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., at the U.S. Capitol on May 10. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

In the wake of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel, which killed more than 1,400 people, Democratic leaders — including President Joe Biden — have largely given their full-throated support for the country’s right to retaliate.

That includes Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., one of the Senate’s leading progressives.

“I unequivocally support any necessary military, intelligence, and humanitarian aid to Israel,” he said in a statement two days after the attack. “The United States has a moral obligation to be in lockstep with our ally as they confront this threat. I also fully support Israel neutralizing the terrorists responsible for this barbarism.”

Even though Fetterman’s stance has largely been in line with that of his party — and his past comments about the conflict — he has perhaps faced more open opposition than any of his colleagues. 

And it has come from people who have been his supporters and, in some cases, his former staffers. 

“You fight more with your family than you do your friends,” a Democratic operative who worked on Fetterman’s 2022 campaign said. 

“When you represent a large, diverse state and have pockets of really progressive, lefty people — and really conservative people on the other spectrum — you’re going to run afoul of somebody sometimes,” this person added. “Sometimes it’s going to be people who are in your base.”

The episode offers a window into a rift developing on the progressive left over the latest intensification of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with a senator whose rise coincided with the growth of the progressive movement in one of the country’s most pivotal presidential swing states facing a defining moment of his early Senate career.

A fight among friends

The criticism doesn’t show any sign of slowing down.

On Thursday, roughly 200 pro-Palestinian demonstrators demanding that Fetterman support an immediate cease-fire in the region shut down a street in front of his Philadelphia office. Some paraded a large puppet depicting him wearing a shirt that read “silent on genocide,” The Philadelphia Inquirer reported

It was the second protest in front of that office in as many weeks, and it was in addition to smaller protests the same day at Fetterman’s other Pennsylvania branches. 

Fetterman was confronted face to face Sunday at an event in Pittsburgh by a prominent labor attorney and contributor for the Russian state-controlled outlet Russia Today, who pressed him about backing a cease-fire; he was later physically removed from the venue. (A Fetterman aide said the person who removed the man wasn’t a member of Fetterman’s team.) 

What’s more, a group of former Fetterman campaign staffers published a letter that said his unequivocal support for Israel “has felt like a gutting betrayal,” The Intercept reported last month.

Cecily Harwitt, an organizing consultant who attended a protest at Fetterman’s Philadelphia office, said activists have taken aim at him “because his entire brand and persona is standing up for oppressed people.”

“A lot of other senators haven’t lived their whole life by that value. So it’s just that much more disappointing that he’s coming out, saying we can’t talk about a cease-fire [and] essentially writing a blank check to Israel to do whatever it wants,” she said, noting her Jewish faith and her backing of Fetterman in his campaign. “Progressive voters are his core base. It doesn’t make any sense.”

In Gaza, the Hamas-run health agency has announced more than 8,000 Palestinian deaths over the last few weeks.

“I know that he has changed his mind on things in the past when presented with new information,” Harwitt said. “I hope he does the same thing now.”

But Fetterman — who declined to be interviewed — hasn’t buckled. On the social media site X, he has dismissed calls for a cease-fire, saying: “Hamas does not want peace, they want to destroy Israel. We can talk about a ceasefire after Hamas is neutralized.” He added: “If not for the horrific attacks by Hamas terrorists, thousands of innocent Israelis and Palestinians would still be alive today.”

After he met last week with survivors of the Oct. 7 attack and family members of the hostages held by Hamas, Fetterman hung photos of the hostages on the wall outside his Senate office. When a conservative journalist posted an image showing “Free Palestine” written on a wall outside a high school in Pittsburgh’s primary Jewish neighborhood, he promoted an image of the hostage posters hanging outside his office.

“This is reprehensible,” Fetterman said. “The only thing that belongs on a wall right now is this.”

Vocally pro-Israel during the campaign

Fetterman insiders and allies who spoke with NBC News insisted the blowback doesn't represent widespread dismay with his handling of the outbreak of violence in the Middle East. Rather, they said, it is the result of a few loud voices who have dominated the discussion on social media.

They noted that Fetterman’s support for Israel was made crystal clear during last year’s Senate primary campaign and that his pro-Israel posture has been shaped in part by rising antisemitism he has witnessed in recent years, including the Tree of Life synagogue massacre in 2018, the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history. It took place just 15 minutes from his home near Pittsburgh, and it “deeply affected him,” said Adam Jentleson, Fetterman’s chief of staff.

“It does seem to have caught some people by surprise,” Jentleson said of Fetterman’s staunch support for Israel, adding, however, that “those people weren’t really paying attention when he staked out his strong support of Israel during the campaign. He never was particularly subtle about that at the time.”

These allies add that he has been singled out for more direct protest compared to his Democratic colleagues because of his reputation as a prominent progressive. They’ve also noted praise he has received from center-left Jewish groups that have been encouraged by his unwavering commitment in light of the increased violence. And, while they point to Fetterman’s call for immediate and sustained humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip, they question the prudence of demanding a cease-fire after Hamas broke the previous cease-fire agreement to launch its early October attack.

“We’re very grateful that he called out Hamas and called out its barbarism while at the same time calling for swift implementation of humanitarian aid,” said Jill Zipin, a co-founder of Democratic Jewish Outreach PA. “From our perspective, and his perspective, there’s nothing progressive about a terrorist organization or terrorism.”

Jentleson said Fetterman was “profoundly” moved by his conversations last week with survivors of the Oct. 7 attack and family members of the hostages and added that he has yet to hear a well-argued case for why there should be an immediate cease-fire.

“We’re here because Hamas just broke a cease-fire,” he said. “And there’s no reason to believe that they would not break another one.”

Fetterman’s detractors, though, don’t believe his views on Israel are sincere; rather, they say he’s playing politics.

“I don’t think this is a sincerely held belief by the senator or his staff,” said Waleed Shahid, a progressive strategist. “And I don’t even think Fetterman is alone in that … I think a majority of Democrats in Congress fear the electoral and political consequences from groups like (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) and (Democratic Majority for Israel) if they were to offer even a little bit of criticism of the Israeli government.”

Both camps have pointed to a 2022 Jewish Insider report to bolster their argument. During the apex of the Democratic Senate primary campaign last year in Pennsylvania — home to one of the largest Jewish electorates of any state — Fetterman told the news outlet he was “eager to affirm” his “unwavering” commitment to the U.S.-Israeli relationship. 

“I would also respectfully say that I’m not really a progressive in that sense,” he added of his position on Israel, adding later, “I want to go out of my way to make sure that it’s absolutely clear that the views that I hold in no way go along the lines of some of the more fringe or extreme wings of our party.”

Fetterman was interviewed amid questions over where he stood on Israel — and as a fellow Pittsburgh-area progressive, Summer Lee, now a member of Congress, faced a wave of spending against her in a competitive primary campaign from AIPAC. (Lee is one of several House Democrats who back an immediate cease-fire in Gaza.)

“There were certainly concerns … during the primary,” Brett Goldman, co-founder of Democratic Jewish Outreach PA, said of Fetterman. “But all of those concerns have definitely been allayed amongst the Jewish community.”

“He’s emerged as a really strong champion for Israel and for the Jewish community in Pennsylvania,” he added. “And I think [that] sort of surprised many people, as well.” 

Mark Mellman, the president of Democratic Majority for Israel, told Jewish Insider at the time that Fetterman was proactive on the issue, with his campaign agreeing to a briefing with the organization and making tweaks to a draft position paper on Israel after it received feedback from the group.

Critics have pointed to that report as evidence that Fetterman allowed an outside group to author his policy position on Israel, which Fetterman’s allies strongly rejected. Jentleson called that view “absurd and very cynical,” as well as inaccurate. Mellman also dismissed the notion that his group wrote Fetterman’s policy points.

“I think it’s obnoxious,” he said. “The reality is the man is an intelligent, thoughtful person. With agency. He heard from a variety of people about the issues.”

A larger divide on the left 

Surveys this month have shown how younger voters — a key constituency for both Fetterman and Democrats — have differed in their views about Israel in comparison to the electorate at large. A Quinnipiac University poll found that 41% of voters ages 18 to 34 said their sympathies lie more with the Israelis compared to the Palestinians, while 26% said they felt more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause — both numbers departures from the significantly stronger support for the Israeli cause among voters over 35. That same survey showed 51% of younger voters disapproved of sending weapons and military hardware to Israel, the highest of any age group polled.

Though the pushback to Fetterman has been more intense, he isn’t alone among progressive senators. Hundreds of former staffers for Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., signed letters asking them to back the push for a cease-fire, while Warren faced a similar letter protest outside her Boston office.

Pennsylvania has also seen its share of controversy and contention over the outbreak of violence. Several prominent donors have expressed outrage with how the University of Pennsylvania responded to the Hamas attacks, with some pushing for the university’s president to resign. Meanwhile, pro-Palestinian protesters descended on Philadelphia City Hall and disrupted a meeting at which the City Council was voting on a resolution to condemn the terrorist attacks in Israel and expressed outrage that the council wasn’t more explicitly highlighting the suffering Palestinians have endured.

Jentleson wrote an email to staff members to clarify what kind of activism is in and out of bounds. Signing on to letters anonymously — without being identified as a Fetterman staffer — is OK, he wrote. But promoting one’s status as a current Fetterman staffer to counter his positions is prohibited.

“There are people across the ideological spectrum on this who I just think should not be talking about it, because I don’t think hardly anybody is an expert on what to do here,” the Democratic operative who worked on Fetterman’s campaign said. “And there’s just a lot of posturing.”