'How has he become more based than half the GOP?'

Democrat John Fetterman’s Israel support brings fans on the right, critics on the left

Many US progressives feel stunned and betrayed by the Democratic senator’s outspoken backing of the Jewish state since Oct. 7, while Republicans are also surprised – pleasantly

Luke Tress is a JTA reporter and a former editor and reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., holds a small Israeli flag as he heads to the chamber for a vote, at the Capitol in Washington, January 25, 2024. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., holds a small Israeli flag as he heads to the chamber for a vote, at the Capitol in Washington, January 25, 2024. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

JTA — Mehdi Hasan, the prominent journalist and pro-Palestinian commentator, summed up the feelings of many progressives in January when he posted, “A lot of folks don’t recognize John Fetterman these days.”

Hasan was responding to a statement by Fetterman criticizing anti-Israel activism at Harvard University. It was the latest in a string of comments and actions since October 7 that have made the Pennsylvania Democratic senator one of the most vocal supporters of Israel in Washington — and one of the most surprising.

When he entered office last year, the tatted-up, hoodie-wearing Fetterman, who once endorsed Bernie Sanders, was an icon for Democrats who appreciated his liberal positions and brash style. But since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war, Fetterman has employed that persona on behalf of Israel’s military campaign, winning praise on the right and scorn from his erstwhile supporters on the left.

“How is it possible that John Fetterman in the last few months has seemingly become more based than half of the senate GOP???” Donald Trump Jr. posted on X, formerly Twitter, in January, days after Hasan’s post.

“Based” is a complimentary slang term, and the effusive praise represented a pivot for the younger Trump, who once took heat for calling Fetterman a “vegetable.” Below his post lauding Fetterman was a video of the senator speaking to the Orthodox Union and mocking South Africa for accusing Israel of genocide at the International Court of Justice.

“Now we’re talking about genocide, and now South Africa, now, is bringing that kind of a trial,” Fetterman said in the clip. “Maybe South Africa oughta sit this one out when they’re talking about criticizing Israel. Sit it out!”

In the immediate aftermath of the October 7 massacre in which thousands of Hamas-led terrorists butchered 1,200 people in Israel and abducted 253 to the Gaza Strip, Fetterman said the United States had a duty “to be in lockstep with our ally,” Israel. Months later, Fetterman has maintained that posture, which has increasingly become an outlier among Democrats as the war approaches the six-month mark and criticism of Israel mounts in the party.

Fetterman’s approach has stood out not so much for his positions — he recently said he agreed with “99 percent” of a speech by Sen. Chuck Schumer taking Israel’s leadership to task — but for the unapologetic way he expresses them. And those who know him, and support his stance on Israel, say his approach isn’t really a surprise — contrary to what Hasan wrote, this is the Fetterman they recognize.

“People believe that wearing shorts and a hoodie makes you a progressive. Wearing shorts and a hoodie makes you someone who wears shorts and a hoodie,” said Jill Zipin, the founder and chair of Democratic Jewish Outreach Pennsylvania, a political action committee. “Sen. Fetterman has always been an independent Democrat in his positions. Some of his positions are progressive, some of his positions are more centrist.”

She added, “He knows himself and his moral compass and he doesn’t change his views with the prevailing winds.”

Posters of Israelis taken hostage in the October 7 attack by the Gaza-ruling Hamas terror group are seen in the office of Democratic Senator John Fetterman of Pennsylvania, November 8, 2023. (Screenshot X, Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Since Hamas’s October 7 onslaught on Israel launched the war, Fetterman has been one of the most visible supporters of Israel among Democrats, perhaps rivaled only by New York Rep. Ritchie Torres. He has draped himself in an Israeli flag, met with hostage families and wallpapered his office with posters of Israeli hostages. In November, he waved an Israeli flag while walking past pro-Palestinian protesters outside the US Capitol.

His social media is peppered with expressions of unequivocal support for Israel. On Monday, amid growing pressure on Israel not to invade the city of Rafah on Gaza’s border with Egypt, along with warnings of oncoming famine in Gaza, Fetterman posted on X, “Egypt should make it clear to Hamas that they own this humanitarian crisis and to surrender.”

And the post pinned to the top of his personal account on the platform reads, “At any point, Hamas could have ended this burgeoning tragedy to surrender and release every hostage… Hamas instigated and owns this humanitarian catastrophe.”

Fetterman’s office did not respond to a request for comment. But the leaders of several Jewish Democratic party organizations said they felt the freshman senator was unequivocal in his support for Israel due to his moral convictions and penchant for sticking to his guns.

Mark Mellman, president of the Democratic Majority for Israel advocacy group, said his group had worked with Fetterman on a position paper about Israel during his campaign for Senate. Fetterman stressed his support for Israel during that campaign, and since then, Mellman said, he hasn’t changed his stance.

“I think he developed a viewpoint on this set of issues and he stuck to that viewpoint from a moral point of view,” Mellman said.

Another factor in Fetterman’s pro-Israel policy may have been the impact of the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, which occurred a 15-minute drive from Fetterman’s home. The attack, his aides have said, forced the senator to grapple with antisemitism, Politico reported in December. Fetterman visited the synagogue and met with survivors of the shooting the month before the Hamas attack on Israel.

John Fetterman, right, meets Jewish community members ahead of a commemoration for the 11 worshipers killed by a gunman at the Tree of Life synagogue, October 27, 2023, in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

“It had a big impact on that entire community and he’s a part of that community,” said Zipin of the shooting.

It’s unclear how Fetterman’s Israel advocacy will influence his standing in Pennsylvania, especially because he has about four years left in his term. A January poll by Quinnipiac University found that voters were statistically split on Fetterman’s job performance, but Israel did not appear to factor in: According to the survey, 26% of voters approved of his support for Israel, while 14% disapproved; most voters said it had no impact on their opinion of him.

In terms of the Jewish vote, Zipin said most Jews in Pennsylvania are Democrats, as in the rest of the country, and that the state’s Jewish community has always been supportive of Fetterman. Her organization endorsed his 2022 campaign and held multiple campaign events to support him. There are around 299,000 Jews in Pennsylvania, making up about 3% of the electorate, according to a 2021 study.

“Jewish voters in Pennsylvania and beyond appreciate his messages of solidarity with Israel, his leadership in demanding the release of the hostages and the fact that he has placed the blame squarely with Hamas,” said Halie Soifer, CEO of the Jewish Democratic Council of America. “Among Jewish voters in particular it has always been understood that he is a supporter of Israel so this did not start with October 7 and it also doesn’t make him an outlier in the Democratic party.”

Fetterman’s support for Israel, however, has angered progressives who considered him an ally on other issues, and who now staunchly oppose Israel. Nathan J. Robinson, the editor-in-chief of the progressive magazine Current Affairs, accused Fetterman of being one of the politicians who “lie and betray us.”

Democratic Senator John Fetterman of Pennsylvania holds up an Israeli flag as he walks by a group of pro-Palestinian demonstrators being arrested for rowdily protesting for a ceasefire in Gaza, outside the US Capitol in Washington on November 9, 2023. (Screen capture/X)

That indignation extends to some of his former staffers, who accused him of “a gutting betrayal” in an anonymous letter published less than two weeks after the war began in The Intercept, a left-leaning publication.

“These are not the values that we believed you to hold, and these are not our values,” the former staffers wrote. “On the trail, your overarching promise was to ‘Forgotten Communities’ — people and places that get overlooked, written off and left behind. You can’t be a champion of forgotten communities if you cheerlead this war and the consequent destruction of Palestinian communities at home and abroad.”

The Jewish Democratic party operatives pushed back on the characterization of Fetterman as a progressive, noting that he has split with leftists on other issues, such as immigration and fracking. Fetterman told NBC in December that he is “not a progressive.”

His position has also drawn the ire of progressive Jews who oppose Israel’s Gaza campaign. Eva Borgwardt, IfNotNow’s national spokesperson, said Fetterman’s conduct was “shameful” and a “moral catastrophe.”

Fetterman has also won unlikely supporters. The right-wing Zionist Organization of America, which honored a string of Republican officials in recent galas in New York and Florida, has applauded Fetterman for siding with Republicans in voting against a measure calling for a Palestinian state. ZOA President Morton Klein said some of the organization’s board have called for honoring Fetterman, and that he himself was surprised by the senator’s firm pro-Israel stance.

Before October 7, Klein, who lives in Pennsylvania, said that in his circle, the senator was viewed as “a bit of an oddball.” Now, he said, a different take on Fetterman prevails.

“Now they see he’s not so bizarre, he’s a man who has moral integrity,” Klein said. “It’s definitely helped his image among the people I talk to.”

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