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Tensions Among Democrats Grow Over Israel as the Left Defends Palestinians

In 1988, when James Zogby, the founder of the Arab American Institute, pushed Democrats to include a mention of Palestinian sovereignty in their platform, party leaders responded with a clear warning, he recalled: “If the P-word is even in the platform, all hell will break loose.” Eager to stave off an angry confrontation at the convention, the issue was shelved without a vote.

Now, with violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories forcing the issue back to the forefront of American politics, divisions between the leadership of the Democratic Party and the activist wing have burst into public view. While the Biden administration is handling the growing conflict as a highly sensitive diplomatic challenge involving a longstanding ally, the ascendant left views it as a searing racial justice issue that is deeply intertwined with the politics of the United States.

For those activists, Palestinian rights and the decades-long conflict over land in the Middle East are linked to causes like police brutality and conditions for migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. Party activists who fight for racial justice now post messages against the “colonization of Palestine” with the hashtag #PalestinianLivesMatter.

With President Biden in the White House, traditional U.S. support for Israel is hardly in question from a policy perspective; he has made his support for the country clear throughout his nearly 50 years in public life. Still, the terms of the debate are shifting in Democratic circles.

had asserted that Israel had a right to defend itself. “Do Palestinians have a right to survive?” she asked in an impassioned address. “Do we believe that? And if so, we have a responsibility to that as well.”

Less than 24 hours later, on Friday, nearly 150 prominent liberal advocacy organizations issued a joint statement calling for “solidarity with the Palestinian residents” and condemning “Israeli state violence” and “supremacy” in Jerusalem.

The statement was signed not just by groups focused on Middle Eastern and Jewish issues but by groups dedicated to causes like climate change, immigration, feminism and racial justice — a sign that for the party’s liberal faction, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has moved far beyond the realm of foreign policy.

“The base of the party is moving in a very different direction than where the party establishment is,” Mr. Zogby said. “If you support Black Lives Matter, it was not a difficult leap to saying Palestinian lives matter, too.”

Leaders of the country’s biggest pro-Israel lobby, American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, say they are confident of their support from the White House and Capitol Hill, pointing to continued congressional backing of several billion dollars in aid to Israel annually. Before Ms. Ocasio-Cortez and other liberals took the House floor on Thursday, other Democratic lawmakers offered their “unwavering and steadfast support” for Israel.

growing global anti-Semitism, while young voters struggle to reconcile the right-wing policies of the Israeli government with their own liberal values.

A survey released in the past week by the Pew Research Center found that two-thirds of American Jews 65 and older described themselves as emotionally attached to Israel, compared with 48 percent of Jewish adults under 30.

closely aligned his administration with the embattled prime minister and delivered a long-sought Israeli goal of moving the American Embassy to Jerusalem.

In return, Mr. Netanyahu promoted Mr. Trump among Republicans and conservative Christians in the U.S., lifting his standing with the evangelical leaders who wield so much influence over the voters who proved vital to Mr. Trump’s electoral support.

Mr. Biden devoted little attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, an intractable issue that had bedeviled his predecessors. But the violence in recent days, the worst in years, has proved just how difficult that will be. And now, Mr. Biden finds his administration buffeted by conflicting forces within his coalition.

“Neglect is not a policy,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of the pro-Israel, pro-peace advocacy group J Street, who would like to see Mr. Biden more engaged in the region.

As the fighting has exploded, Mr. Biden has relied on a familiar playbook: full-throated support for Israel’s right to defend itself, and no mention of the Palestinians. He has expressed regret for deaths on both sides and has voiced hopes for “restoring a sustainable calm.”

spoke against the deal to a joint session of Congress, at the invitation of Republicans. The appearance angered many Democrats, particularly supporters of Israel who oppose Mr. Netanyahu’s policies.

Ron Dermer, the former Israeli ambassador to the United States, suggested in the past week that Israel should focus more on the “passionate and unequivocal” support of evangelical Christians instead of American Jews, who he said were “disproportionately among our critics.”

But many Jewish progressives say their criticism comes from a place of love and idealism. They argue that the Israeli and American governments would be wise to tune out some of the partisan language and move beyond what they call the false choice of being either pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian.

“What most American Jews desire is to see Israelis and Palestinians living in dignity, in a just and equitable society,” said Rabbi Sharon Brous, the leader of IKAR, a large progressive synagogue in Los Angeles. “It is imperative that we support a third way,” she said, “recognizing the generational trauma and suffering of both peoples and creating a just and shared future for everyone.”

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