Palestine Is No Longer the Third Rail for Democrats

Today’s cease-fire is a victory and a relief for Palestinians. But with Palestinians still under siege, the struggle against ethnic cleansing and occupation isn’t over. For Democrats, “progressive except Palestine” still won’t cut it.

Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) confronts President Joe Biden about his administration's continued support for Israel on a tarmac in Detroit, Michigan, on May 18, 2021. (Nicholas Kamm / AFP via Getty Images)

On May 18, amid the growing carnage of the Israel’s eleven-day assault on Gaza, Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D‑MI) — the only Palestinian American member of Congress — confronted President Joe Biden on a tarmac in Detroit over his administration’s continued support for Israel. According to the New York Times, Tlaib told the president he was enabling crimes against humanity and failing to protect Palestinian lives.

Less than a week earlier, while Israeli air strikes flattened residential buildings and killed hundreds of civilians, members of the US Congress did something they had never done before on the House floor: openly criticize the state of Israel. Progressive Democrats took issue not only with Israel’s assault on Gaza but with its longstanding reality of occupation, ethnic cleansing, and, yes, apartheid.

Rep. Mark Pocan (D‑WI) had organized the bloc in support of Palestinian rights; Tlaib spoke first. ​“To read the statements from President Biden, Secretary Blinken, General Austin, and leaders of both parties, you’d hardly know Palestinians existed at all,” Tlaib said. She continued:

There has been no recognition of the attack on Palestinian families being ripped from their homes in East Jerusalem right now or home demolitions. No mention of children being detained or murdered. No recognition of a sustained campaign of harassment and terror by Israeli police against worshippers kneeling down and praying, celebrating their holiest days, in one of their holiest places. No mention of Al-Aqsa being surrounded by violence, tear gas, smoke, while people pray. . . . Above all, there has been absolutely no recognition of Palestinian humanity.

Wearing a keffiyeh, Tlaib was giving voice to millions of Palestinians left voiceless by the media and within the halls of power, and to the many millions more who stand with Palestine. ​“If our own State Department can’t even bring itself to acknowledge that the killing of Palestinian children is wrong,” she said, ​“I will say it for the millions of Americans who stand with me against the killing of innocent children, no matter their ethnicity or faith.”

For decades, the US media and political class have parroted Israel’s claims of victimhood, despite Israel being an occupying state power acting against an occupied people. The details change, but the story remains the same: Israeli forces attack civilians — in this case, violently evicting Palestinians from the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, firing tear gas, stun grenades, and rubber-coated steel bullets at worshippers in the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and emboldening Israeli mobs across the country. Hamas retaliates with low-grade steel rockets. Then Israel responds by raining all-out war on Gaza with state-of-the-art weaponry, funded by billions in US dollars, in the name of ​“self-defense.”

In the wake of these latest strikes, however, this consensus may finally be crumbling. Today’s cease-fire, if it holds, will end eleven days of relentless air strikes that have left at least 243 Palestinians dead, including at least 64 children. Many on the left wing of the Democratic Party have been left with the same question as Tlaib: ​“How many Palestinians have to die for their lives to matter?”

A Rift in the Party

Joe Biden has always been a pro-Israel hawk. Even in the face of this latest carnage, his unwavering loyalty is unsurprising. But as exposure to Israel’s crimes in the Gaza Strip has increased, the US public has grown more sympathetic to Palestine — particularly younger Americans. In March, well before the current assault began, Gallup found 53 percent of Democrats favored putting more pressure on Israel (rather than on the Palestinians) to resolve the Middle Eastern conflict. That number is up 10 points from 2018, and likely much higher today.

“I remember the Israel-Palestine media debate during the 2nd intifada, the 2006 Lebanon War, the 2008-9 + 2014 Gaza Wars,” the American journalist Peter Beinart tweeted on May 15. ​“It feels different this time. There are far fewer commentators with any progressive, or even centrist credentials, defending Israel’s behavior.”

If Palestine is no longer the third rail of US politics, then putative progressives who continue to toe the Israeli line should now find themselves in the minority on the Left. Rep. Betty McCollum (D‑MN) introduced a bill in April prohibiting Israel from using US aid to detain children or unilaterally annex Palestinian villages in the West Bank. In the midst of Israel’s latest assault, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D‑NY), Tlaib, and Pocan in the House introduced an unprecedented resolution to block a $735 million sale of US missiles to Israel, with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I‑VT) following suit in the Senate. 

Tlaib and Ocasio-Cortez’s fellow ​“squad” members Ilhan Omar (D‑MN), Ayanna Pressley (D‑MA), and Cori Bush (D‑MO) spoke out about Israel’s history of ethnic cleansing and ongoing apartheid policies on the House floor.

Bush, a leading organizer of Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson, Missouri, before being elected to Congress in 2020, has drawn parallels between the Palestinian struggle and the racial justice movement in the United States. Citing the activist Bassem Masri, who participated in the Ferguson demonstrations, Bush notes that the same military equipment that police unleashed on activists in Missouri is used by Israeli forces to brutalize Palestinians.

“That harassment, that extortion, that brutalization by a heavily militarized presence in our community — that’s what we fund when our government sends our tax dollars to the Israeli military,” Bush said May 13. ​“St. Louis sent me here to save lives. That means we oppose our money going to fund militarized policing, occupation, and systems of violent oppression and trauma. We are anti-war. We are anti-occupation. And we are anti-apartheid. Period.”

Statements like these point to a growing rift over Israel within the Democratic Party.

Democrats Must Be Pressured

This rift doesn’t mean elected officials critical of Israel are a homogenous bloc, or that we should expect them to be. While members of the squad are calling out apartheid by name — something unheard of even a few years ago — other progressive Democrats are couching their recognition of Palestinian humanity in denunciations of the region’s ​“cycle of violence.” Most support Israel’s right to defend itself and US funding for Israel’s Iron Dome.

Within the squad, only Tlaib, Omar, and Bush have spoken in favor of the Palestinian movement for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS). Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D‑NY) has made his opposition to BDS explicit, saying, in a discussion with the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, ​“I do not support the BDS movement.”

The latest assault on Gaza, as well as the attacks on Palestinian citizens of Israel, has forced US politicians to pick a side or face political consequences. While the situation is complicated, many on the Left are making the matter of apartheid straightforward. When New York City mayoral candidate Andrew Yang condemned Hamas without mentioning the Israeli assault on the Al-Aqsa Mosque, for example, Ocasio-Cortez called him out, describing his subsequent decision to attend an Eid event ​“utterly shameful.” Yang backtracked, admitting his statement was ​“overly simplistic” and ​“failed to acknowledge the pain and suffering on both sides.”

Bowman has also been willing to criticize his Democratic colleagues, recently taking Rep. Ritchie Torres (D‑NY) to task for an op-ed in support of Israel that Torres claims earned him the wrath of a ​“twitter mob”:

My brother Ritchie, this is not about a Twitter mob. This is about justice, humanity, and equality. This is about Palestinians deserving peace, land, and self-determination, like everyone else. This is about Palestinians having their land and homes taken from them and our ignorance of Palestinian pain. . . . The Palestinians are an occupied people. They are an oppressed people. Innocent people and children are suffering as America supports the occupation and denies Palestinian freedom.

More pressure still needs to be applied to other progressive politicians — including Rep. Ro Khanna (D‑CA), who cosigned a letter sponsored by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in April affirming the United States’ commitment to Israel with no humanitarian conditions, and Sen. Ed Markey (D‑MA), who disappointed his former staffers and supporters by blaming ​“both sides” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Meanwhile, a new report from Alex Kane in the Intercept finds many Democrats remain reluctant to restrict US aid to Israel.

But now is not the time to sit on the fence. Today’s cease-fire is a victory and a relief for Palestinians, but as Israeli police storm Al-Aqsa Mosque the very same day and Palestinian residents of Sheikh Jarrah continue to be under siege, the struggle against ethnic cleansing and colonial occupation continues. As South African anti-apartheid activist Desmond Tutu famously put it: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”