What a Pittsburgh primary reveals about the politics around the Israel-Gaza war

For months, Democrats in Congress have been deeply divided over the handling of the Israel-Hamas War.

On Tuesday, a primary for a Pittsburgh-area congressional seat is expected to serve as one of the first tests of how those divisions could play out at the ballot box in 2024.

First-term progressive Rep. Summer Lee, who was among the early advocates calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, is facing a primary challenge from Bhavini Patel, a more moderate Democratic congressional candidate who has tried to closely align herself with President Joe Biden.

Patel is a 29-year-old municipal council member who also describes herself as a progressive. She has sought to use the war in the Middle East to define the differences between her and Lee and has framed the incumbent's criticism of Israel as detrimental to Biden’s re-election efforts and unrepresentative of a district that is home to a large Jewish community.

At one political forum, Patel accused Lee of “stoking hatred” and “anti-Semitism” with her rhetoric around the war, and alluded to the 2018 synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh — the deadliest attack on Jewish people in U.S. history.

In a statement to USA TODAY, Patel described Lee as a "fringe extremist," and herself as a "principled progressive."

U.S. Rep. Summer Lee (D-PA) (2nd R) speaks as Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) and other participants listen during a news conference on the Green New Deal in front of the U.S. Capitol on April 20, 2023, in Washington, DC. The lawmakers held a news conference to reintroduce the "Green New Deal Resolution," which was first introduced on April 20, 2021, as a non-binding resolution titled, "Recognizing the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal."

Lee, the first Black woman to represent Pennsylvania in Congress, has pushed back against those criticisms and argued during the January forum that critiques on how Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has conducted the war are not the same as anti-Semitism.

The election on Tuesday could reveal just how salient the issue of the war is for Democratic voters — particularly in swing areas of the country. Biden won the state in 2020 by about 80,000 votes.

Lee, 36, won her seat in 2022 by more than 10 points representing Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional seat after a state redistricting effort changed the boundaries. Prior to entering Congress, Lee served as a state lawmaker in Pennsylvania and as a community activist.

Despite her opposition to the war in Israel, Lee has received support from stalwart Democrats in the state. Sen. John Fetterman, one of the most pro-Israel Democrats in Congress, endorsed Lee, along with fellow Democratic Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey.

During a swing through Pennsylvania last week, Biden also thanked Lee during a speech and referred to her as someone who had his back.

This year, Lee is far from the only progressive facing a primary challenge. Others who have been vocal about a ceasefire, including Reps. Cori Bush of Missouri, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Jamaal Bowman of New York, are also facing moderate opponents.

Their criticisms of the way Biden has handled the war in Israel are expected to be major flashpoints in all three races — and Lee’s fate on Tuesday could signal how difficult their races will be.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Pennsylvania primary sets stage for Dem battle over Israel-Hamas war