Tensions among Democrats grow over Israel as the left defends Palestinians

By Lisa Lerer and Jennifer Medina

In 1988, when James Zogby, 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.” 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 U.S. 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 long-standing 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 decadeslong 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 post messages against the “colonization of Palestine” with the hashtag #PalestinianLivesMatter.

With President Joe 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.

On Thursday, a group of leading progressive members of Congress offered a rare break from party unity, giving fiery speeches on the House floor that accused Biden of ignoring the plight of Palestinians and “taking the side of the occupation.” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., directly challenged the president, who 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.

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 Ocasio-Cortez and other liberals took the House floor on Thursday, other Democratic lawmakers offered their “unwavering and steadfast support” for Israel.

“Please don’t be fooled by false choices: Israel or Hamas,” Rep. Ted Deutch, a D-Fla., said in a floor speech. “If I am asked to choose between a terrorist organization and our democratic ally, I will stand with Israel.”

Yet even Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, offered a rare rebuke Saturday. Known for his saunch support of Israel, Menendez condemned recent strikes that killed Palestinian civilians and destroyed media offices.

The Biden administration did not respond to a request for comment about the criticism from the left.

The debate within the Democratic Party reflects a longstanding divide among American Jews, a mostly Democratic and secular group, who are enmeshed in their own tussle over how to view the Israeli-Palestinian tensions. An older generation sees Israel as an essential lifeline amid 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% of Jewish adults under 30.

For some Jewish Democrats who consider themselves firm supporters of Israel, the relationship between former President Donald Trump and Israel’s right-wing prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, added a crassly partisan element to an already complicated issue. The former president closely aligned his administration with the embattled prime minister and delivered a long-sought Israeli goal of moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.

In return, Netanyahu promoted 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 Trump’s electoral support.

As many as a quarter of Jews in the United States vote Republican, the survey showed, a marked increase in the past several years. The shift has been driven largely by Orthodox Jews, whose numbers remain small but continue to grow.

The Pew survey showed that among Republican Jews, nearly three-quarters said they felt a strong attachment to Israel, while only 52% of Jewish Democrats expressed the same belief. Jewish Democrats are also much more likely to say that the United States is too supportive of Israel.

The shifting views on Israel and the Palestinians have not gone unnoticed by Jewish Democrats. In synagogue email exchanges and private WhatsApp groups, American Jews fret about whether there is wholehearted support for Israel in the party, posting details about solidarity marches and encouraging their members to stand united.

During his first four months in office, 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, Biden finds his administration buffeted by conflicting forces within his coalition.

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

As the fighting has exploded, Biden has relied on a familiar playbook. On Saturday, he spoke with Netanyahu and made his first call to Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority.

In some ways, the shift in the Democratic Party began under the Obama administration, when Democratic officials, including Biden, pressed for the Iran nuclear deal. Netanyahu defied President Barack Obama’s wishes and 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 Netanyahu’s policies.

Ron Dermer, a 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 U.S. 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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