Rep. Cori Bush doubles down on Israel criticism as primary opponent calls for nuance
In recent weeks, Missouri Congresswoman Cori Bush has emerged as one of the sharpest critics of the Israeli government in Congress and a vocal advocate for a cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war.
Her criticism of Israel's military actions following Hamas' Oct. 7 attack, which killed at least 1,400 people, has ignited outrage and exposed a rift among Democrats over how to respond to the Israel-Hamas war. Some of her statements have sparked a backlash within her Missouri congressional district, which includes all of St. Louis and some of its suburbs.
But even though she's faced blowback, and a serious primary challenge, because of her words about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Bush argues that it's her responsibility as a member of Congress to speak out for people she sees as oppressed — even if it makes others uncomfortable.
"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 in an interview with NPR.
Bush's role in politics is rooted in activism, particularly the protests that emerged after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014. She's long seen commonalities between Black people in the United States and Palestinians.
"My beliefs are rooted in my experiences as an activist in the movement to save Black lives," Bush said at a virtual press conference last month.
Democrats divided over calls for a cease-fire
When Michigan Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib faced a censure vote on Tuesday in response to her controversial language over the Israel-Hamas war, Bush didn't hesitate to rise in support of her fellow Democrat.
She said those supporting the Republican-led censure, which ultimately received the support of 22 Democrats, were "blatantly attempting to silence the only Palestinian American representative" in Congress.
Her impassioned defense of Tlaib is not the first time Bush has expressed solidarity with Palestinian Americans — or Palestinians in general. As the war pushes into its second month, Bush and a small but growing faction of Democrats are calling for a cease-fire. Last month, Bush introduced a House resolution urging the Biden administration to push for a cease-fire, which so far has more than a dozen co-sponsors, including Tlaib, New York Congressman Jamaal Bowman, Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar and Washington state Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal.
Bush says a cease-fire is supported by a number of world leaders and groups, including Amnesty International. The Biden administration, however, has said a cease-fire would give Hamas time to regroup — and instead has urged the use of humanitarian pauses which it says would allow aid and people to safely move within Gaza.
Bush argues there is growing support for a de-escalation of the violence. A recent poll from NPR/PBS NewsHour/Maristshows there is a large gap by age and race on whether the U.S. should publicly support Israel in the war against Hamas.
"There is an opportunity to speak about supporting that cease-fire from a position of strength," Bush said. "And this isn't a fringe position."
Bush statements spark a backlash
Bush has received harsh criticism for her condemnation of Israeli military actions, which Gaza officials say have killed more than 10,000 people. In a tweet on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, she stated she can't be silent about what she described as "Israel's ethnic cleansing campaign."
That characterization is overwhelmingly rejected by most of her fellow Democrats. The Israeli government says it's aim is to destroy Hamas so it can never attack again but says the group uses innocent people in Gaza as human shields, placing fighters and bases among civilians.
Bush argues that Israeli military actions in Gaza and the resulting displacement of Palestinian civilians in her view meet a UN Commission of Experts' definition of "ethnic cleansing."
"I am not going to pitty pat anything. I am not going to sugarcoat anything," Bush said. "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."
Yet some residents of her district, including some who previously supported Bush, have expressed disappointment and anger over her statements. Earlier this month, a group of St. Louis Jewish organizations issued a statement condemning her use of the term, ethnic cleansing, and accused her of "fanning the flames of antisemitism."
"I think 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 Bush constituent who has family in Israel. "And I think what we've seen in the last month is that that's starting to fall apart."
Bush said she's since talked with people who signed onto that statement and said other faith-based and social advocacy groups in her district support her call for a cease-fire.
"Palestinians and Israelis should not be in a situation where there should be contention," Bush said. "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."
Facing a primary challenger
The scrutiny of Bush's comments about Israel's military actions comes in the midst of her reelection campaign. In 2022, she won reelection comfortably, fending off a primary challenge by a landslide. But last week St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell made this startling announcement: He was withdrawing as a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate primary — and instead running against Bush.
"It's a dangerous world. I think we need folks who understand the nuance and complexities of it," Bell said in an interview with NPR.
While Bell stressed that other factors besides Bush's position on the conflict in the Middle East went into his decision to enter the race, he acknowledges they did play a role.
"I think [her] comments show a lack of understanding of the nuance and complexities of an issue that's literally hundreds of years in the making," he said.
While Bush is perhaps the most prominent person from the Ferguson protest movement to be elected to Congress, Bell too is seen as a political success story who emerged from those social justice protests, and has often stressed his ability to work with opposing groups to achieve policy change.
Bell's list of endorsements includes some from Jewish leaders who supported Bush in the past.
But not all of Bush's constituents see things the same way. St. Louis resident Omar Badran, a Palestinian American, says it's meaningful to him that there's a high-level leader like Bush who is willing to stand up for Palestinians — even when it's hard.
"For her to have the moral backbone to do that tells me she has the courage to stand up for what's right," Badran said.
Copyright 2023 St. Louis Public Radio