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The race to succeed the disgraced George Santos as the representative for New York’s Third Congressional District (NY-3) took a sharp turn east this weekend as Democratic candidate Tom Suozzi paid a visit to Israel and East Jerusalem to woo the district’s substantial Jewish voters.

Visits to show solidarity with Israel are not uncommon for U.S. candidates and elected officials, especially in the northeast. But these are no ordinary times for American Jews, who are reeling in the wake of the October 7 attacks by Hamas, which have triggered feelings of existential vulnerability.

For his part, Suozzi is no stranger to NY-3’s Jewish voters. A fixture of North Shore Long Island politics, Suozzi represented the district for three terms, demonstrating a strong — if not unimpeachable — pro-Israel voting record during his tenure. He also served as executive of Nassau County, which makes up most of the district, for seven years — a position that requires outreach to the area’s diverse religious communities, including 300,000 Jews who worship in its dozens of synagogues.

The state’s Republican Party, however, is betting that Suozzi’s pro-Israel bonafides fall short. It selected Mazi Melesa Pilip, a veteran of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), to run against Suozzi.

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So just how important is Israel to the race? And does Pilip have what it takes to defeat Suozzi? To answer those questions, we first have to address the question of just who is Mazi Pilip.

Who Is Mazi Pilip?

Until this month, Mazi Pilip was largely unknown outside her hometown of Great Neck, a predominantly Jewish area she represents in the county legislature. Her biography remains light on details. Television interviews and public addresses are scripted and controlled.

Born in Ethiopia, Pilip was airlifted in 1991 with her family and over 14,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in Operation Solomon. She trained as an occupational therapist and performed her required service in the Israeli military.

In Israel, she met and married Adalbert Pilip, a Ukrainian American Jewish medical student. They moved to the United States, where the couple had seven children.

The Pilip campaign says her life reflects the “American Dream” — typically an up-by-your-bootstraps, rags-to-riches story. Yes, her life is good: she’s married to a cardiologist and lives in one of the richest areas in the country. But we know little else about Pilip’s dream life in America, including employment and public service, until 2021 when she was elected to a part-time job as Nassau County legislator, representing Great Neck — an area home to a predominantly Jewish community since the 1960s.

Revealing how light her political record is, Pilip’s launch interview on Fox News earlier this month quickly pivoted from her service in the IDF to blasting The Squad. (The Pilip campaign’s strategy is to paint the centrist Suozzi as Squad-adjacent.)

But even Pilip’s IDF record appears embellished. The Pilip campaign continues to describe her as a former “IDF paratrooper,” but she has since said that she played a more modest role as a gunsmith.

Pilip’s 2021 victory as a tough-on-crime Republican was a harbinger of the red wave that would sweep Long Island the next year. But her political activity this year, including since being selected as NY-3 candidate, is almost entirely focused on Israel.

The Pilip campaign features a militaristic photo of her holding a gun while serving in the Israel Defense Forces — clearly depicting her as a defender of Israel. (Image Credit: Mazi Pilip Campaign)

In recent months, Pilip’s public activities listed on her social media accounts almost exclusively are about Israel. They include bake sales to buy drones for the Israeli military and a Zumba dance fundraiser for the IDF.

At a public rally in October, she introduced herself as a “proud IDF soldier” — making no reference to being an elected official. Strikingly, at her campaign “kickoff event” last week, the Israeli flag stood in the center, with the American and Nassau County flags on the sides:

Pilip’s singular focus on Israel may bolster support from Orthodox and Sephardic Jewish communities in Great Neck, which are deeply affected by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Great Neck is home to many dual U.S.-Israeli nationals. A local rabbi’s son, for example, is serving in the IDF. Students at the public Great Neck North School have fundraised and staged a walkout in support of the Israeli military.

But reform and conservative Jews in other parts of the broader NY-3 district may not be as bullish on Pilip. Notably, the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) will not endorse a candidate in the race.

With the election less than 50 days away, Pilip has also done remarkably little outreach to the congressional district’s many other communities. On Christmas, Pilip spent the day at the Jewish Community Center in Plainview, praying for Israeli hostages held by Hamas. A traditional local politician might spend part of Christmas or Christmas Eve at one of the district’s many churches or a Catholic Charities event.

Suozzi Responds to NY-3’s Changing Demographics

The outreach of the Suozzi campaign, in contrast, reflects the diversity of NY-3’s constituents. Today, NY-3 remains one of the country’s wealthiest congressional districts. But it is also increasingly diverse: 59 percent of its population is white and 23 percent are Asian, which includes a mix of Chinese, Korean, Indian, and Pakistani immigrants.

In fact, Pilip’s own area of Great Neck is home to fast-growing Chinese and Korean communities. (This year, she defeated a Chinese American Democrat, Weihua Yan.) Suozzi has held numerous events in recent weeks with Chinese American groups.

Suozzi is a centrist Democratic who has ably navigated the changing demographic tides. Part of this is by necessity. His hometown of Glen Cove, long an Italian American enclave, has seen a sharp growth in the Hispanic population over the past three decades.

In his failed 2022 gubernatorial bid, Suozzi ran on a centrist “common sense” platform, pledging to combat crime, roll back bail reform, and halt efforts at rezoning suburban communities. On these issues and Israel, Suozzi is largely indistinguishable from Pilip. But combatting inequality also featured in his campaign. He’s a Democrat, after all.

There were glimpses of an attempted balancing act in Suozzi’s visit to the Holy Land, where the congressional candidate — likely in a nod to his district’s large Catholic and growing Muslim populations — made a call for religious harmony. (Suozzi is an observant Catholic.)

Nationally, nearly 70 percent of Democrats and even a slight majority of Republicans and independents support a ceasefire after the killing of over 20,000 Palestinians in Israel’s Gaza war. Undoubtedly that includes not just Muslim voters, but also many Catholics, who are aghast by the Israeli military’s attacks on churches and killing of elderly Christians. The pope has described such violence by Israel as “terrorism.”

The Big Picture: It’s Suozzi’s Race to Lose

The Pilip campaign may keep its candidate under close guard, evading debates and potentially hard-nosed interviews and instead speaking to her base while relying on attack ads to hit Suozzi.

Along with experience, public speaking is among Pilip’s weaknesses — something she concedes. Pilip told a news outlet, “generally I prefer speaking in Hebrew, and I wish my English was just as good.”

Suozzi likely senses vulnerability. He’s accepted three debate invitations ahead of the February 13 special election and has challenged Pilip to agree.

The Pilip campaign, so far, has not identified any real vulnerabilities of Suozzi to capitalize on. Its claims that Suozzi has supported “The Squad” are not credible. While in Congress, he was a member of the centrist, bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus.

Practically speaking, there is no daylight between Pilip and Suozzi on Israel. In 2018, Suozzi introduced the SHEILDS Act, which sanctioned Hezbollah. He’s opposed the Israel boycott campaign known as Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS). A frequent attendee at AIPAC forums, Suozzi has spoken glowingly of Israel, stating: “Israel shares our views. They have a democracy, they have the rule of law, they have a strong Supreme Court…and they’re good friends of ours.”

Suozzi’s staunchly pro-Israel record is why AIPAC chose not to endorse the IDF veteran in this race. The powerful group’s abstention means that the two candidates are effectively tied when it comes to Israel, though Pilip will dominate Orthodox and Sephardic communities, which already lean right both here in the U.S. and in Israel.

But, factoring everything else, this race is likely Suozzi’s to lose.

Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News. Rafiq has contributed commentary and analysis on global issues for publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, the New York Times, and POLITICO Magazine.

He has appeared on numerous broadcast outlets, including Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio.

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