Rep. Bush’s Israel criticism has drawn attention and provoked a primary challenge
U.S. Rep. Cori Bush has broken the political mold in Missouri on a number of fronts.
She’s the first Black woman to represent Missouri in Congress. She is the most high-profile person to come out of the Ferguson protest movement to be elected to office. And there’s another way that the St. Louis County Democrat has stood out from most of her counterparts: She’s been one of the few people in Missouri politics who has sharply criticized Israel's monthlong bombing campaign in Gaza that has killed thousands of civilians.
“I fight for all of humanity, be it Israeli or Palestinian or Black, white, in whichever country — I fight for every single person,” Bush said in an interview this week. “I have been the same person this whole time. My stance on Israel and Palestine and my stance on not wanting to support and fund human rights abuses from any country's government has been the same for years.”
Bush’s views on the longstanding Israeli-Palestinian conflict have come under intense scrutiny in the month since Hamas killed more than 1,400 Israelis and took about 240 hostages. She’s been one of the leading American political voices calling for a cease-fire — something she says is popular with the public, even though it’s not gaining significant momentum in Congress.
She’s also drawn fierce criticism for some of her public statements, including calling for an end to “Israeli military occupation and apartheid.” And she’s decried Israel Defense Forces air and ground attacks, which Gaza officials say have killed more than 10,000 people. In a post on X, Bush wrote that she won't be silent about what she labels “Israel’s ethnic cleansing campaign.”
Those comments spurred a letter from some St. Louis Jewish groups and leaders condemning the remarks. And Bush’s criticism of Israel is a reason why she’s facing a Democratic primary challenge from St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell — whom many of Bush’s supporters helped get elected to his post in 2018.
“What I would say to those who have traditionally supported Cori Bush is that I believe you probably supported her because you believed that she held moral positions,” said Marc Jacob, a University City attorney who has family in Israel. “And I think what we've seen in the last month is that that's starting to fall apart.”
But Bush is also receiving support from across the 1st Congressional District, which includes St. Louis and some suburbs. Voters like St. Louis resident Jo Ely see Bush’s advocacy for the Palestinians when so many of her counterparts are backing Israeli military action as a courageous move that will stand the test of time.
“When it comes to foreign policy issues, we don't really pay attention until it's glaring at us on our social media feeds or is in the news. But in my line of work, I often see the outcome of those policies,” said Ely, a social worker who assists refugees and immigrants. “Violence just creates more violence and trauma. And the physical and mental impact of that stay with so many people. And I appreciate that Cori is at least speaking out. And I wish more politicians would.”
Forged in Ferguson
In many respects, Bush’s activism for Palestinians came from her time in Ferguson. During an October press conference to promote a House resolution calling on the Biden administration to push for a cease-fire, Bush stated her “beliefs are rooted in my experiences as an activist in the movement to save Black lives.”
Cassandra Butler, a political scientist who lives in Ferguson, recalls seeing Palestinians on social media platforms showing support for protesters who were outraged when a police officer shot and killed Michael Brown.
“That commonality of truth telling or oppressed people wanting to be heard and seen, and their truth told, is common across the world,” Butler said. “African Americans are oppressed people. And Palestinians are oppressed people. We found that we had kinship there.”
Omar Badran, an entrepreneur who lives in downtown St. Louis, said that many Palestinian Americans like himself participated in the protest movement after Brown’s death. Having a prominent political figure like Bush speak out for Palestinians is meaningful, he said, especially when other Missouri political leaders have defended Israel.
“I think there is really a disconnect when it comes to the Congress and the wants and needs of the American people,” Badran said. “I feel like she's always championing causes near and dear to her heart, whether it be popular or unpopular. And they always seem to fall on the right side of what's best for the people, what's best for the downtrodden, what's best for the underserved communities.”
Since the Oct. 7 attacks, Bush emerged as a leading advocate for a cease-fire in Gaza. Many of Bush’s congressional colleagues have rejected the idea, with Democratic Sen. Bernie Sanders saying on Sunday he’s not sure a cease-fire is possible “with an organization like Hamas, which is dedicated to turmoil and chaos and destroying the state of Israel.”
Bush said calls for a cease-fire are popular, gaining support from prominent organizations like Amnesty International — and world leaders, including Pope Francis. Bush added that she’s calling for a cease-fire “to save lives.”
“So our position is: Go as hard as you can to save as many lives as you can and to get our hostages home because the indiscriminate bombings even hurt our hostages,” Bush said.
Bush statements spark intense criticism
Bush argues that Israeli military actions in Gaza and the resulting displacement of Palestinian civilians in her view meet a United Nations definition of ethnic cleansing.
“Part of my job is to actually speak to what is happening so we can actually get to the root so that we can actually fix the problem,” Bush said. “I am not going to sugarcoat anything, because the people of St. Louis did not send me to Congress to pacify people and to make people feel comfortable. They sent me to D.C. to make sure that I'm speaking for those who are marginalized and oppressed.”
Her comments prompted some St. Louis-area Jewish leaders and organizations to write a letter calling Bush's words “insensitive, incorrect, and fanning the flames of antisemitism.”
Bush said “repeatedly that she supports the Jewish community, is listening to our fears and concerns, and stands against antisemitism. She then issues public statements that directly contradict what she told us in private,” the letter stated.
“Talking about ethnic cleansing is literally like cutting to this most sensitive nerve for a lot of folks in the Jewish community,” said Amy Kuo Hammerman, the state policy advocate for Missouri for the National Council of Jewish Women. “And that's hurtful and unnecessary. Like, even if you agree 100% with what she believes in regards to policy — and there are a lot of Jews who do — for someone who is constantly known for her refrain of, ‘Remember, your congresswoman loves you?’ We really didn't feel the love.”
Bush noted in her interview this week that a letter came out on Tuesday from groups, including the Progressive Jews of St. Louis and Jewish Voice for Peace-St Louis, that are supportive of her push for a cease-fire. She added: “I should be able to love both communities, I should be able to love both and fight for both and push for security for both. And so, I will continue to do that.”
“We’ve heard from Jewish constituents all across the district who do support the positions I've taken. I appreciate the diversity within the St. Louis Jewish community, and I'll just continue to be engaged and I'll continue to represent every single one of my constituents,” she said.
St. Louis resident Isaac Pollack said he’s often found common ground with Bush on issues, including her support for public education and her fight against racial injustice. But the school administrator said some of her statements made him ask, “Where is my ally when I've tried to be a participant in the struggle in our city?”
“It's problematic, because the reason Israel exists is because, as Jews, we have a long memory,” said Pollack. “And we remember that every country that we've ever been welcomed into has eventually put us out. And that's why Israel exists, because after the Holocaust, there needed to be a place where Jews could trust anywhere in the world that we could go to.”
Yael Shomroni, a St. Louis County potter who is originally from Israel, said she supports Bush’s advocacy for Palestinians. And she rejected the idea that criticism of the Israeli government’s military actions is somehow out of bounds or antisemitic.
“Cori, of course, condemned Hamas. Her biggest crime is calling for a cease-fire,” Shomroni said. “Bombing civilians isn’t going to bring the hostages back.”
Bush easily fended off a primary challenger last year and cruised to reelection in the heavily Democratic district. Some of her supporters were stunned when Bell, the St. Louis County prosecutor, announced that he was abandoning his U.S. Senate bid and instead running in the 1st Congressional District.
In an interview, Bell said that “in order to move this region forward, it absolutely requires us to work together.”
“And so I think that our district deserves steady and more and more impactful leadership,” Bell said. “This is nothing personal against our congressperson. But I think that I've made a career of bringing people together, being transparent, and showing up.”
Bell said while there was more to his decision to run against Bush than her criticism of Israel, it did play a role.
“Those statements were offensive to a lot of folks, a lot of her constituents,” Bell said. “What I hoped is that when the congressperson got into office, that there would be more growth into the role of governing. And I think those comments show a lack of understanding of the nuances and complexities of an issue that is literally hundreds of years in the making.”
Bell said he hasn’t received any commitments that political groups supportive of Israel, such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee or Democratic Majority for Israel, will back his campaign. He did release a list of endorsements that included a slew of local Jewish leaders, including some who supported Bush in the past.
Bush said she was disappointed that Bell chose to challenge her. She said that when he was running for Senate, he asked for her endorsement — and questioned why he would do that if he was so upset over her long-standing criticism of Israel. Bell’s campaign said that he talked with Bush soon after he announced he was running for the Senate.
First District residents, such as Sara Borusiewich of St. Louis, who works in sales, was pleased to see Bell drop out of the Senate race to run against Bush. Borusiewich said Bush’s statements about Israel contributed to her disillusionment with the two-term congresswoman — adding that she’s become way too divisive in turbulent times.
“And that’s my biggest problem with her,” Borusiewich said. “We need a more unifying voice in the city of St. Louis.”
Others saw Bell’s decision to run against Bush as laying the groundwork for an ugly and divisive campaign at a time when emotions are already high over the war.
“It makes me angry that someone like Prosecutor Wesley Bell would decide to jump into this race … knowing that [Bush is] a champion on human rights,” said Neveen Ayesh of the Missouri chapter for American Muslims for Palestine. “Not just for Palestinians, but any humans.”
Bush supporter Montague Simmons doesn’t see Bell’s challenge in a vacuum.
The longtime St. Louis organizer noted that it’s coming at the same time that some Democratic organizations are going after members of Congress who are critical of Israel, like Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota.
Simmons said that people like Bush are at the cutting edge of popular opinion and that Democrats who are opposing her are out of step with what people want.
“And even though some of the people that are targeting them think of themselves as mainstream, they're very much to the right of where a lot of folks are living,” Simmons said.
Will Israel be decisive?
Whether Bell can beat Bush next August could depend on whether her statements about Israel erode support from the racially diverse coalition that elected her to office. Other candidates — including state Sen. Brian Williams — may get into the race, which could split the anti-Bush vote. And if Bush opponents can’t persuade Black and white progressive voters to abandon her, they may have a tough path to victory in the August primary.
Still, Olivette resident Mike Minoff, who works for a health insurance company, said it’s possible that Republican Jewish voters in the 1st District could turn out in large numbers to vote against Bush in the Democratic primary.
“Hopefully the Jewish voters in our district who typically vote Republican are going to say: ‘This is such an important cause. I'd rather vote in this one for the candidate running against Cori Bush and miss out on my opportunity to vote for the Republican challenger for secretary of state or for governor or lieutenant governor, or whatever,'” Minoff said. “I need to make sure that my voice is heard on my House of Representatives vote.”
Some voters who aren’t planning to vote for Bush, such as Overland resident Corbin Palakran, a truck driver, aren’t sure that Israel will be a determining factor in her reelection prospects. He said the only time he’s heard people in Overland talk about the Israeli-Hamas war is “because I started talking about it.”