TEL AVIV – “Some of the Democratic Party’s brightest new stars believe Israel is a rogue state that should be treated like apartheid South Africa.”
So opens an analysis piece published by Buzzfeed News on Wednesday, documenting the dramatic shift in attitudes toward Israel inside the Democratic Party. Support for Israel is no longer a bipartisan issue, the article asserts, and the stage on which this paradigm shift will play out is the Democratic presidential primary.
“The young progressives who have ascended to power within the Democratic Party over the last few years want to force what were once fringe views into the mainstream, and significantly change US policy toward Israel,” the article’s authors, Emily Tamkin and Alexis Levinson, write.
They cite a Pew Research poll last year that found just 27% of Democrats said they sympathized with Israel, down from 38% in 2001. (Republican sympathy, meanwhile, has climbed from 50% to 79% in the same time frame.) Younger voters are also drastically less supportive of Israel than older voters.
According to Tamkin and Levinson, Democrats — and in particular, Democratic 2020 hopefuls — will now find themselves pitted against pressure from opposing sides: On the one hand, there are pro-Israel organizations such as AIPAC coupled with the “Democratic old guard” on Capitol Hill — Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Bob Menendez, and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Eliot Engel — who are ardent supporters of Israel. On the other hand, candidates will need to withstand pressure from the increasingly vociferous progressive wing of the party, including those who oppose the anti-BDS bill purportedly on First Amendment grounds such as senators Bernie Sanders and Dianne Feinstein, and further, those who, like the new Muslim members of Congress Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, are outspoken supporters of the BDS movement itself:
They are part of a revitalized progressive wing that represents a new generation of potential Democratic voters looking to force presidential candidates to grapple with what it actually means for the US to support Israel in the run-up to 2020. That wing is demanding that Democrats who are seeking the presidency debate the country’s stance toward Israel — in the same way that they would debate something like health care policy — rather than treating it as a foregone conclusion.
The Buzzfeed piece cites one Republican congressional source as saying that Democrats had likely blocked the vote on the anti-BDS bill to protect those who wanted to vote in favor but didn’t want to alienate progressives. “The truth of this is the Democrats who see this as [a] tough vote have their eyes on the primaries,” the source said.
It also cites one Waleed Shahid from Justice Democrats, a group that calls for more open criticism of Israel and was involved with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s meteoric rise, saying that “every 2020 presidential contender will be asked how can they stand by Benjamin Netanyahu when he openly supports Trump’s border wall and compares it to his own draconian policies.”
The article charts the breakdown of Israel as a bipartisan cause back to 2015 with the rift between then-president Barack Obama and Netanyahu over the latter’s decision to address Congress against the nuclear deal — a speech that was boycotted by a host of Democrats. It then moves to 2016, with rising star and Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, who made headlines by skipping AIPAC’s annual policy conference — a move that was practically unprecedented in Washington. Sanders made headlines again by appointing three vehemently anti-Israel figures to the DNC platform drafting committee: Cornel West, James Zogby, and Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the first Muslim elected to Congress. West once said that with Israel’s founding, Jews “landed on the backs of some Arabs.” He also said the crimes of terror group Hamas “pale in the face of the US supported Israeli slaughters of innocent civilians.”
Zogby, the president of the Arab American Institute, has in the past said the BDS movement is a “legitimate and moral response to Israeli policy.” He also rationalized Palestinian terrorism against Israelis, wondering “why the perpetrators [of terrorist acts] acted as they did or why there are people whose anger and despair bring them to support this or that crime.”
Buzzfeed News interviewed Zogby, who said that he expected at least some of the 2020 Democratic candidates to “stake a claim” on the question of support for Israel and he expects Israel to be one of the “contentious issues in shaping the party’s platform.”
Whereas only two years ago, words like “occupation” and “settlement” were taboo, the writers assert, now “the line will be drawn significantly to the left of ‘settlement.’”
“The debate is set to move ever leftward as 2020 approaches,” they write.
The article also included quotes from Omar Barghouti, co-founder of the BDS movement, who said he also expected “some Democratic candidates to engage with BDS,” either on free speech grounds or “in support of this time-honored, nonviolent form of resistance to oppression, as Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib have done.”
Tlaib recently caused an outcry by accusing proponents of the anti-BDS bill of forgetting which country they represent, a remark critics said smacked of the dual loyalty anti-Semitic canard thrown at American Jews. In a tweet, the American Jewish Committee then accused Tlaib of being a dual loyalist and accompanied the tweet with a picture of the congresswoman wrapped in a Palestinian flag.
If Democratic hopefuls “want to win young left-leaning voters, the candidates may find that they have to give different answers” to Israel-centric questions such as aid, whether or not the U.S. should support Israel’s right to defend itself, and whether the U.S. embassy should be in Jerusalem, the article stated.
Much of the debate will be framed in the discourse of intersectionality, the darling concept du jour adopted by liberal progressives. “Young people and people of color in particular feel a sense of solidarity with Palestinians, and argue that the progressive movement, if it is to be intersectional, must include Palestinian rights,” Tamkin and Levinson write.
In this vein, millennials like Yonah Lieberman, founding member of IfNotNow, an organization of progressive Jews with the stated mission of ending “American Jewish support for the occupation,” can draw equivalencies between the Palestinian cause and everything else — from economics to climate change and universal health care.
“For us, for young American Jews, we don’t see a distinction between supporting Palestinian freedom and supporting a Green New Deal. We don’t see a distinction between believing that the occupation is a moral crisis and believing that health care is a human right,” Lieberman told Buzzfeed News.
Tamkin and Levinson cite “President Donald Trump’s embrace of Netanyahu” as being a major contributing factor to alienating the left. A progressive Senate Democratic aide told BuzzFeed News, “Just the fact that Trump has made it possible for more and more Democrats [who] have aligned with this kind of AIPAC-defined, pro-Israel [position] but still would define themselves as liberals — made it possible for them to recognize that what Netanyahu is doing in Israel has nothing to do with liberalism.”
The aide also said that the right to engage in BDS would become “Democratic consensus.”
“[T]he right to boycott, the right to peaceful, nonviolent, economic protest is a protected right,” he said.