AOC Should Play a Stronger Role in Pushing for Palestinian Rights

Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s recent comments to a pro-Israel group were defensive and confusing. But her progressive record on foreign policy and Palestine is an indication that she could play a much stronger role in standing up for Palestinian rights.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) walks to the House floor on Capitol Hill on February 4, 2021, in Washington, DC. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images)

Showing integrity and compassion on the question of Palestine is a rarity in American politics, and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) has stood out as an elected official that has done so. She has called out Israeli aggression, pushed for legislative action to defund Israel’s ongoing annexation of Palestinian land, publicly withdrawn her participation in an event commemorating former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, and defended fellow representative Ilhan Omar against charges of antisemitism — charges that had nothing to do with antisemitism and everything to do with being an outspoken supporter of Palestinian rights.

But at a recent event with a pro-Israel group, Ocasio-Cortez unfortunately showed less of her characteristic bravery. In explaining the “what” and the “how” of reaching a just peace between the Israeli state and Palestinians, she said:

When we talk about establishing peace, centering people’s humanities, protecting people’s rights, it’s not just about the “what” and the end goal, which often gets a lot of focus, but I actually think it’s much more about the “how” and the way that we are coming together, and how we interpret that “what” and how we act, the actions that we take to get to that “what” — and so what this really is about is that it’s a question, more than anything else, about process.

After that convoluted head-scratcher — disappointing in its implication that a fair “process” was more important than the ultimate goal of a just peace — she said: “We value the safety and the human rights of Israelis, and we value the safety and human rights of Palestinians in a process that is similar and on equal footing.”

“That being said,” AOC continued, “I think there’s just this one central issue of settlements. Because if the ‘what’ that has been decided on is two-state, then the action of settlements — it’s not the how to get to that ‘what.’”

AOC’s point that Israel’s creeping annexation via building Jewish-only settlements undermines a peaceful solution is not wrong (though whether a two-state solution is desirable or realistic is debatable). Yet even apart from the frustratingly vague obfuscation in AOC’s comments, there are two glaring problems with this framing.

First, there’s no separating the “what” and the “how.” From the beginning, the push to colonize Palestine has used settlement, displacement, terror, and ultimately ethnic cleansing as the means to establish an apartheid state. It was never the intention of the “peace process” of the past few decades to reach a compromise, let alone a just peace. As I’ve argued before, “Israel entered into bilateral negotiations . . . in order to defuse and control Palestinian resistance, remake their public image to the world, and, most importantly, to codify and entrench the power imbalance on the ground.”

In fact, the intended “what” of maintaining the oppression and occupation of Palestinians has very much determined the “how” of the peace process: one where Palestinian demands have been omitted from discussions or tabled until some future day that would never come.

Second, to liken the “human rights of Israelis” with the “human rights of Palestinians” strips out the context of colonizer versus colonized, oppressor versus oppressed. There is no equivalency when one party is backed by a highly militarized state power and the other has been stripped of all social, economic, and physical rights. Just as using the term “all lives matter” is meant to undermine the movement for racial justice under the cover of universality, so too have defenders of Israel fallen back on the refrain of Israel’s right to safety and self-determination, as though it was not the power in charge. 

Why Speak With JCRC?

It’s not hard to imagine why AOC would be vague and defensive in the discussion: she was hosted by the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York (JCRC-NY), an organization that is explicitly dedicated to lobbying and mobilizing support for Israel.

In fact, it begs the question: Why agree to participate in the event at all?

Not only did the discussion dodge the question of justice for Palestine, but it also provided a green-washed cover for Israel. Ocasio-Cortez went so far as to praise Israel’s wastewater circulation as a model that could be used in a Green New Deal. Needless to say, whatever Israel’s technological advances may be, they do not benefit the Palestinians subjected to Israel’s brutal treatment.

As journalists Ramzy Baroud and Romana Rubeo argue in Al Jazeera, Palestinians in Gaza have been “unable to establish a proper water management system. . . . Israel has repeatedly bombed its water infrastructure, including water pipes, wells and other facilities, and the debilitating Israeli siege has prevented the local authorities from fixing it and building a water desalination plant.” As a result, Gaza residents depend on water that is contaminated with seawater and chemicals.

The discussion also gave the Israel lobby a “Progressive Except Palestine” pass, allowing JCRC’s Michael Miller to talk about issues of hunger, education, antisemitism, and hate crimes, while barely registering the plight of millions of Palestinians suffering under the boot of Israeli occupation and apartheid rule or permanently displaced by it. “I’m very pleased,” Miller said to AOC, “that you see in Israel what we see in Israel in terms of its potential for being of value around the world.”

The answer to why the discussion happened in the first place probably has something to do with one of Miller’s questions at the event, in which he asked Ocasio-Cortez why she hasn’t sufficiently engaged with the Jewish community. No matter that AOC marched against antisemitism in 2020, worked with the Jewish Community Council food bank in the Bronx, visited the Jewish Association Serving the Aging, worked with the Jewish Center of Jackson Heights, has met with J Street, or has consulted with leftist Jewish groups like Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow.

Behind the spurious allegation that AOC does not have enough of a relationship with the “Jewish community” is really an insistence that she develop closer ties with pro-Israel advocates. We’ve seen this script before during the years-long campaign to smear Jeremy Corbyn as an antisemite. The lesson we ought to learn from across the pond is that getting unnecessarily defensive, or trying to appease the unappeasable, provides no real defense at all.

No Longer a Third Rail

For decades, standing up for Palestinian rights has been political poison in US politics, with media and lobbying groups helping to silence legitimate criticism of Israel. But that is beginning to change. As the New York Times recently admitted: “Politicians speaking on Israel-Palestine used to worry primarily about attacks from pro-Israel media and activist groups; now progressives are starting to feel some heat from the pro-Palestinian side.”

A growing number of leftist politicians on Capitol Hill, as well as visible members of the American Jewish community, are talking about the Israeli oppression of Palestinians, reflecting an important radicalization within the progressive movement.

Two recent additions to the “Squad,” socialists Cori Bush and Jamaal Bowman, both defeated pro-Israel lawmakers to win their seats in the House of Representatives. Bush’s campaign released a statement reaffirming her commitment to Palestinian justice mere days before her primary in August: “Cori Bush has always been sympathetic to the BDS [Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions] movement, and she stands in solidarity with the Palestinian people, just as they have stood in solidarity with Black Americans fighting for their own lives.”

AOC hasn’t been as vocal or consistent as Representatives Ilhan Omar or Rashida Tlaib in championing the rights of Palestinians. But she has played a positive role and has clearly articulated the need to take up justice abroad, not just at home. As she has put it: “Foreign policy is also domestic policy.” Her record on foreign policy and Palestine indicates that she could play a much stronger role in pushing for Palestinian rights and in helping the broader left grapple more seriously with the struggle for Palestinian liberation.

A new generation of socialists and elected left politicians need not agree on all the debates: whether a one-state or two-state solution is viable in Israel-Palestine, for instance, or whether to boycott Israeli goods as a means to pressure the Israeli state. But we do need to put Palestine more squarely in the center of a social justice agenda. Because a Left that does not address colonial oppression abroad is ultimately defanged in its struggle against oppression at home.

In order to do so, we need to differentiate between oppressor and oppressed and visibly stand with Palestinians struggling for their own liberation. Left leaders like AOC can do a lot of good by showing support for Palestinian struggles, by speaking out against the silencing of criticism of Israel in the United States, and laying out the history of colonization and occupation of Palestine. AOC has made the connections between the colonization of Puerto Rico and Palestine. She should continue to do so and build on it further.

When asked about the safety and security of Israel’s borders, AOC could respond: “It’s impossible to have peace without justice. Israel’s borders were drawn over another people’s land. Militias confiscated land and used terror and massacres to create the Israeli state. They continue to oppress and dispossess its people. Israel is not a helpless victim of Arab aggression but a powerful state backed by billions of dollars in US aid.” She could, as Bernie Sanders has done, argue that the United States should leverage aid to Israel to enforce human rights standards. She could support legislation to end funding to child detention and home demolitions.

To give left politicians like AOC the strength to take on the Israel lobby, and to speak unequivocally for Palestinian rights, we also need to keep building a strong movement on the ground that electeds can be in communication with and stand accountable to. AOC has shown a great willingness to do so throughout her tenure, including listening to Palestinian organizations when she accepted an invitation and then — based on those conversations — withdrew her participation in an event to commemorate Rabin.

Rather than decrying an inexorable “path to the center,” as though AOC’s trajectory has already been predetermined, or using social media to score gotcha points, we need a socialist movement that can organize around its principles without scorning those who sometimes fall short. And we need our elected officials to continue to listen in order to lead.