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Missouri Rep. Cori Bush's criticism of Israel's actions in Gaza sparks pushback

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Missouri Congresswoman Cori Bush is one of the leading critics of Israel's military actions in Gaza. That stance is igniting sharp criticism and dividing her constituents as she seeks reelection next year. St. Louis Public Radio's Jason Rosenbaum has more.

JASON ROSENBAUM, BYLINE: Cassandra Butler, a political scientist who lives in Ferguson, thinks Cori Bush's criticism of Israel comes from what Butler argues are similar situations faced by Palestinians and African Americans.

CASSANDRA BUTLER: And so African Americans as oppressed people and Palestinians as oppressed people - we found that we had that kinship there.

ROSENBAUM: Before getting elected to the House in 2020, Bush participated in the protest movement in Ferguson sparked by a police officer shooting and killing 18-year-old Michael Brown. She's long argued there are commonalities between the Black experience in the U.S. and the Palestinian experience. Bush's stances on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have come into sharper focus recently, especially after Hamas killed about 1,400 Israelis and took more than 200 people hostage last month. She's the lead sponsor of a House resolution urging President Biden to push for a cease-fire. And she's decried the Israeli military assault, which Palestinian health officials say has killed more than 10,000 people.

In a tweet, she said that she can't be silent about what she labels as, quote, "Israel's ethnic cleansing campaign." That characterization is rejected by most of her fellow Democrats. And the Israeli government says its aim is to destroy Hamas so it can never attack again but that the group places fighters and bases among civilians. Biden's administration has said a cease-fire would give Hamas time to regroup and instead has urged the use of humanitarian pauses to allow aid and people to safely move within Gaza. Bush says her advocacy for a cease-fire is about saving lives.

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CORI BUSH: Because the people of St. Louis did not send me to Congress to pacify people and to make people feel comfortable.

ROSENBAUM: But Bush's statements have sparked criticism and backlash in Missouri's first congressional district, which takes in the city of St. Louis and its surrounding suburbs. Jewish organizations have denounced her use of the term ethnic cleansing and have said her words contribute toward, quote, "the flames of antisemitism." One of her constituents, Marc Jacob, has relatives in Israel. And he says he's outraged by Bush's comments.

MARC JACOB: 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. And I think what we've seen in the last month is that that's starting to fall apart.

ROSENBAUM: Bush won reelection in 2022 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 candidate for the U.S. Senate and instead running against Bush. While Bell stressed that his entry into the race went beyond Bush's statements on Israel, they did play a role.

WESLEY BELL: And I think those comments show a lack of understanding of the nuance and complexities of an issue that is literally hundreds of years in the making.

ROSENBAUM: Not all of Bush's constituents see things the same way. St. Louis resident Omar Badran is Palestinian American. He says it's meaningful to him that there's a high-level leader like Bush who is willing to stand up for the Palestinians, even when it's hard.

OMAR BADRAN: For her to have the moral backbone to do that tells me that, you know, she has the courage to stand up for what's right.

ROSENBAUM: There's also a lot of time before voters actually head to the polls throughout Missouri's first district, and other issues may be more top of mind by then.

For NPR News, I'm Jason Rosenbaum in St. Louis.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Since entering the world of professional journalism in 2006, Jason Rosenbaum dove head first into the world of politics, policy and even rock and roll music. A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, Rosenbaum spent more than four years in the Missouri State Capitol writing for the Columbia Daily Tribune, Missouri Lawyers Media and the St. Louis Beacon. Since moving to St. Louis in 2010, Rosenbaum's work appeared in Missouri Lawyers Media, the St. Louis Business Journal and the Riverfront Times' music section. He also served on staff at the St. Louis Beacon as a politics reporter. Rosenbaum lives in Richmond Heights with with his wife Lauren and their two sons.
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