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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Democratic rifts over Israel burst to the forefront in Congress

The Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on Oct. 30, 2018. The Pittsburgh community continues to be shaped by the 2018 shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue, which left 11 dead.

By Karoun Demirjian

Israel’s war against Hamas is exposing deep divisions among Democrats in Congress, as the most outspoken supporters of the Jewish state and vocal pro-Palestinian members on the left trade accusations of bigotry and feud over what role the United States should play in the hostilities.

The tensions burst into the open last week after 15 House Democrats drew rebukes for refusing to vote for an overwhelmingly bipartisan resolution that declared solidarity with Israel and condemned Hamas.

The situation is expected to escalate this week as the House debates an emergency $14.3 billion spending bill to provide security assistance for Israel. It will also consider a separate Republican-written resolution to censure Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., the only Palestinian-American member of Congress, for participating in a pro-Gaza rally this month at the Capitol, where she accused Israel of committing genocide.

The schism reflects a broader split in the Democratic Party, where a left-leaning coalition of younger voters and people of color are breaking with President Joe Biden over his staunch support of Israel, and primary battles are brewing between strong defenders of the Jewish state and progressives who promote Palestinian rights.

On Capitol Hill, the divide has been exacerbated by Republicans who are eager to exploit the rift among their political rivals. Speaker Mike Johnson plans to hold a vote this week pairing a bill to fund Israel’s war effort with cuts to the IRS that were a key part of Biden’s sweeping climate and health care law, a tough pill for Democrats to swallow. And some left-wing Democrats think Biden should have requested more humanitarian aid for Palestinian civilians in his proposed emergency spending plan.

The House also is expected to vote as soon as Wednesday on the measure to formally censure Tlaib, who has harshly criticized Israel and expressed skepticism of U.S. intelligence findings that Israel was not culpable for a recent hospital bombing in the Gaza Strip. At the rally at the Capitol, she pleaded for a cease-fire, saying, “We are literally still watching people commit genocide and killing a vast majority just like this, and we still stand by and say nothing.”

The measure, which is sponsored by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., accuses Tlaib of “antisemitic activity, sympathizing with terrorist organizations and leading an insurrection” at the Capitol.

Even the most pro-Israel Democrats appear disinclined to back Greene’s resolution.

“The language is extreme and over the top,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., noting that the measure falsely refers to the pro-Gaza rally and sit-in, which was organized by Jewish anti-war groups, as an “insurrection.”

Several other Democrats scoffed at the idea that a lawmaker who once compared coronavirus mask and vaccine mandates to the treatment of Jews by Nazis during the Holocaust and promoted a conspiracy theory that space lasers controlled by Jews were responsible for wildfires in California, as Greene did, could credibly accuse a colleague of antisemitism.

But Wasserman Schultz said she had “deep concerns” that Tlaib was engaging in “inflammatory conduct” and savaged Democrats who have refused to condemn Hamas.

“I understand there are usual suspects that are not pro-Israel, that object to Israel’s policies, but we should all be against slaughter,” she said, referencing the 1,400 civilians and soldiers killed and 222 hostages seized when Hamas raided Israel. “If you’re not against slaughter, you don’t have a soul.”

Her words infuriated Democrats who voted against last week’s resolution, some of whom responded in kind.

“To dehumanize someone else, you have to relinquish a piece of your own humanity,” said Rep. Summer Lee, D-Pa., questioning why Wasserman Schultz and the resolution had not expressed similar outrage over the deaths of Palestinians. “It’s not us who are without a soul. I would say that she should maybe do some introspection.”

Gaza’s Health Ministry, which is run by Hamas, has said that more than 8,000 people have been killed in Israeli strikes since Oct. 7. That figure could not be verified independently, and Biden has said he had “no confidence” in the figures.

Similar spats have been playing out throughout House Democratic ranks. Last week, Rep. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter, that Democrats who had voted against the measure expressing solidarity with Israel “are despicable and do not speak for our party.”

“I’m frankly impressed by the overwhelming support that the House of Representatives showed for Israel,” Rep. Dan Goldman, D-N.Y., said of the resolution. “It’s important that we continue to have conversations with those people who are not currently supporting us.”

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