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Votes on War Force Washington Democrats To Reckon With Faith, Conscience and Politics

Landsman said he cast his censure vote out of concern for the “survival of the state of Israel” because of how some extremists use the phrase that earned Tlaib her rebuke.

That vote weighs on him too. Landsman grew visibly emotional while discussing it with RNS, saying he had spent “a lot of time” with Tlaib having “incredibly emotional conversations” as “two human beings who are suffering and are hurting.” (Tlaib did not respond to requests for comment for this story.)

“Did I want to take that vote? No,” he said.

Landsman’s angst is a window into the tangle of religion, geopolitics and political pressure that Democratic lawmakers — be they progressives or moderates — have navigated since Hamas militants attacked communities in southern Israel on Oct. 7, leaving around 1,200 dead and hundreds kidnapped, as well as resulting in a subsequent Israeli assault into Gaza that has killed more than 15,000 and displaced more than a million. Activist groups and powerful lobbies have applied ample pressure to Democrats, but some say they have resorted to voting their conscience regardless of how it might hurt them politically — including imperiling their own reelection.

Many have cited the influence of powerful pro-Israel groups such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, known as AIPAC, which sponsored a trip to Israel with 24 Democrats last August, including a visit to a kibbutz on the Gaza border. The delegation boasted several freshmen from vulnerable districts — including Landsman, who beat Republican incumbent Steve Chabot by just a few points in November 2022.

In early October, before the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas, AIPAC featured Landsman in a nearly three-minute video praising the trip and talking about the risk of living so close to the border. A few weeks later, several other lawmakers from that trip joined Landsman in breaking ranks to vote for Israel aid and to censure Tlaib, and analysts were quick to note that most of them took AIPAC money during the 2022 election cycle.

But Landsman was one of the few who hadn’t taken AIPAC money in that cycle — in fact, the group had endorsed his opponent.

And his work on faith outreach for former Gov. Strickland means he is in touch with an array of religious communities in his home state. The morning of the censure resolution vote, he fielded calls from frustrated Arab American and Muslim American friends. These relationships, he said, are precisely what makes these votes so difficult.

“It’s been hard,” he said. A hobbyist boxer, Landsman sat for an interview in his office in front of a portrait of the heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali and noted that his divinity school roommates included a Muslim, a Southern Baptist and a Methodist.

Landsman took pains to note that he “led the charge” to condemn a bill introduced by GOP Rep. Ryan Zinke that would have expelled Palestinians from the U.S., introducing a formal resolution saying the bill “dangerously conflat(ed) Palestinians with Hamas and its actions.”

In what many observers call a war of Arab and Israeli nationalism, rather than a religious war, faith has played an unusually large role in American politicians’ reaction to the conflict. That’s no less true of Democrats’ progressive wing.

Rep. Cori Bush speaks at a news conference with Rabbis for Ceasefire in mid-November 2023. (RNS photo/Jack Jenkins)

On Nov. 13, at a Rabbis for Ceasefire news conference outside the U.S. Capitol, U.S. Rep. Cori Bush, who previously served as a Christian pastor, said: “We are rabbis. We are pastors. We are Congress members. We are surviving family members. We are human beings. And we are bound by our faith to demand a cease-fire now.”