Israel Is Bullying Progressives on Borrowed Time

Israel’s naked attempt to enforce an unflagging pro-Israel consensus, as it did in stoking backlash against Rep. Pramila Jayapal’s sensible recent comments that the country is a “racist state,” may work in the short-term. But the future belongs to Palestine.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) attends a news conference about the American Dream and Promise Act on Capitol Hill on June 15, 2023, in Washington, DC. (Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

For a telling anecdote about the changing orientation of American liberals and progressives towards Israel, look to the recent dustup surrounding Rep. Pramila Jayapal.

Chair of the House Progressive Caucus, Jayapal joined other liberal House colleagues this month in addressing a Netroots Nation conference. There, Palestinian American protestors confronted Rep. Jan Schakowsky, who is a Jewish liberal Zionist who also supports Palestinian rights. But the demonstrators viewed her support for Zionism and a two-state solution as an inadequate response to the mass killings of Palestinians (over 150 this year) and the quashing of their demand for political rights and justice. They disrupted the proceedings, chanting pro-Palestinian slogans, declaring Israel a racist state.

In an attempt to defuse their anger, Jayapal addressed them:

As somebody that’s been in the streets and participated in a lot of demonstrations, I think I want you to know that we have been fighting to make it clear that Israel is a racist state, that the Palestinian people deserve self-determination.

A political uproar ensued, in which both Republicans and Democrats attacked Jayapal for her remarks. But the political climate has shifted since then: the Israeli Knesset’s passage of right-wing antijudicial legislation this week despite mass protests brought forward staunch pro-Israel journalist David Rothkopf to support Jayapal in the Daily Beast:

A week ago, only nine people in the U.S. Congress dared stand up to the lie that Israel was not a racist state. This despite decades of denying fundamental human rights to Palestinians in territories over which it asserted power simply because they were Palestinian.

Rothkopf’s comments are a reminder that despite the backlash faced by Jayapal, the Democratic Party is increasingly riven by a rising tide of opposition to Israel and Zionism itself. The Israel lobby may police speech concerning Israel and spend tens of millions to defeat “errant” Democratic candidates, including Jews, Muslim Americans, and African Americans, but it cannot undo the damage done by Israel itself. Israel’s naked attempt to enforce a pro-Israel consensus may work in the short term, but the future belongs to Palestine.

Progressive House Democrats have been increasingly willing to buck the lobby. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez successfully (but temporarily) blocked a $750-million appropriation for Israel to buy Iron Dome missiles. The ensuing backlash from the Israel lobby forced her to apologize for her role and to support the funding. She clearly was intimidated, threatened, and cowed into submission by extremely powerful pro-Israel forces, which angered progressive Democrats.

Since that imbroglio, US-Israel relations have reached a nadir. Last week, former US ambassadors to Israel during Democratic administrations Martin Indyk and Dan Kurtzer called for eliminating US military aid to Israel. These are no radicals: they are members of the US foreign policy elite with deep ties to the Israel lobby. This sort of break would have been unthinkable in any prior period in US-Israel relations, vindicates Ocasio-Cortez’s opposition to military appropriations to Israel, and strengthens congressional efforts to curtail or eliminate such support.

Both representatives Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar have publicly declared support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and Representative Tlaib has supported a one-state solution. They are the first House members who have ever taken such a stance. Despite the Israel lobby mounting pro-Israel candidates against them, they have both won reelection.

A recent Gallup Poll found, for the first time in the history of its polling, that more Democrats support Palestine than Israel, a sea change in the views of rank-and-file Dems. Despite the massive efforts of the Israel lobby to combat this rising sentiment, Israel’s racism, mass violence, and ethnic cleansing have made clear to most Democrats that it is no longer worthy of support.

This declining US support isn’t lost on the Israeli government, especially the far-right ministers of the most extremist government in the country’s history. The destruction of a bipartisan pro-Israel consensus has increasingly driven Israel into the hands of the most extremist elements of US politics, including Trump Republicans and Christian evangelicals. But the rejection of Trumpism highlighted by the 2020 election of Joe Biden and an increasing erosion of support among young evangelicals confronts Israel with the prospect of running out of domestic allies.

The gradual abandonment of moving in lockstep with Israel will embolden political leaders in other countries to recalibrate their own relations with Israel. This will include a far more robust and critical approach to Israeli transgressions in global bodies like the United Nations Security Council and International Criminal Court. Such international intervention is the only way to bring radical change to Israeli policy.

Jayapal Strengthens Congressional Opposition to Israel

Jayapal has taken party criticism of Israel to a new level. While rank-and-file House members like Tlaib may call Israel “a racist state,” no member of the Democratic House leadership has ever dared do so. Until now.

As leader of the Progressive Caucus, Jayapal has the clout to promote its agenda among more conservative House Democrats. She has wielded that power carefully and been leery of being too far ahead of the party consensus. This is all the more proof that she is aware of the changing mood in the party and ready to acknowledge it publicly with her statement about Israel being a racist state.

After she faced a fierce backlash, she “clarified” her remarks, saying she intended to say that Israeli government policies were racist, but not that “Israel as a nation is racist.” It was a distinction without a difference.

When the policies of a nation for nearly a century are marked by the ethnic cleansing of nearly one million indigenous Palestinians (the Nakba), followed by systemic discrimination against its remaining Palestinian minority, and occupation of Palestinian lands in defiance of international law, it is the nation itself that is and has been racist.

The media were quick to label her subsequent statement as an apology or retraction. It wasn’t. That Jayapal refused to back down suggests confidence that her original remarks reflect the views of a growing number, if not the majority, of Democrats.

Jayapal Caves on Apartheid Vote

Jayapal did, however, cave to pressure after the GOP majority took advantage of the controversy, putting forward a nonbinding resolution that declared Israel was not an apartheid state. Among the aye votes was Jayapal. She decided to throw a sop to the Israel lobby over a meaningless congressional resolution, keeping her powder dry for the fights she views as actually important.

But her vote was an unnecessary abandonment of principle. It served as a reminder that progressive politicians will compromise their values under the illusion that doing the wrong thing is justified by doing it for the right reasons. The resolution was an empty gesture, not only because it had no impact on US foreign policy but because almost everyone except the Israeli government and its global apologists know that Israel is a racist apartheid regime “from the river to the sea.”

Still, overall, Jayapal’s actions suggest that the unflaggingly pro-Israel consensus within the Democratic Party is over. Israel maintains a massively wealthy and powerful lobby that is happy to repeatedly justify an incredible range of human rights abuses against Palestinians, but its days of impunity will soon be over.