Left Politicians Are Showing How to Respond to the Horrors in Israel and Palestine

Democratic socialist politicians like Cori Bush and Rashida Tlaib are right about the violence in Israel and Palestine: we should both be mourning civilian deaths and calling for an end to the Israeli occupation.

Representative Rashida Tlaib in Washington, DC, 2019. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

After the last few days of bloodshed in Israel and Palestine, nearly every American politician has sung the same tune. The Hamas incursions into Israel were “unprovoked.” Israel “has a right to defend itself.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken went momentarily off-script and tweeted that he’d “encouraged Turkey’s advocacy of a cease-fire and the release of all hostages by Hamas immediately.” While that might be about what you’d expect a diplomat to tweet, it seems to have been far too diplomatic for the current mood in Washington. He quickly deleted it and replaced the cease-fire language, “Israel has the right to defend itself, rescue any hostages, and protect its citizens.”

Even the Republicans and conservatives who’ve spent the last several years pretending to be “antiwar” have been talking like Bush-era neocons. J. D. Vance, for example, immediately issued a statement not only intoning the same phrase as everyone else — “Israel’s right to self-defense” — but chillingly specifying that this right “includes striking back with overwhelming force.”

In other words, as Israel begins military operations, funded by generous US aid that will leave who knows how many thousands of Palestinian civilians dead, almost the whole mainstream American political spectrum is united in cheering it on. The only politicians offering any kind of real dissent are democratic socialists like Cori Bush and Rashida Tlaib.

They don’t always get this stuff right. I’ve criticized their foreign policy views when I’ve thought criticism was warranted. But right now they’re the only ones acknowledging Palestinian humanity and talking about the roots of the cycle of violence in the ugly realities of Israeli apartheid. It’s a breath of fresh air.

Israel’s Response to Hamas

Since Hamas fighters crossed the Gazan border and launched their attack, which killed hundreds of civilians, Israel’s military has already been busy retaliating in kind. Israel has already blown up apartment buildings in Gaza, making hundreds of families homeless and inflicting a number of civilian casualties we might not fully know for a long time. One heart-wrenching video has already been making the rounds of a Palestinian father holding a dead little girl in his arms and screaming about the loss. Expect a lot more of that as the assault continues.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has absurdly warned the two million Palestinians in Gaza, over half of whom are children, to leave before the ground forces show up because the Israeli army will be operating at “full force” throughout the territory. Of course, he himself is stopping them from doing that. Gaza is an open air prison camp in all but name. Most of the families that live there are refugees from Israeli ethnic cleansing in other parts of the country, and the Israeli military tightly controls all entrances and exits.

Even more disturbingly, Israel’s defense minister has said:

I have ordered a complete siege on the Gaza Strip. There will be no electricity, no food, no fuel, everything is closed. We are fighting human animals and we act accordingly.

It’s hard to read that as anything but a statement of intent to commit severe war crimes. Anyone who believes in human rights should be calling for an immediate end to all US military aid to Israel. Unfortunately, that’s exactly the opposite of the message we’ve been getting from pretty much every elected official in the United States — with a few shining exceptions like Bush and Tlaib.

Bush and Tlaib Get It Right

One of their Democratic colleagues, Ritchie Torres, accused the two congresswomen of “glorif[ying] as ‘resistance’ the the largest single-day mass murder of Jews since the Holocaust.” He called their statements “reprehensible and repulsive.”

But anyone who actually reads the statements knows that he’s lying. The first sentence of Tlaib’s statement reads, “I grieve the Palestinian and Israeli lives lost yesterday, today, and every day.” She goes on to say warn about “ignor[ing] the humanity in each other” and to state her particular abhorrence on anyone on any side killing children. Bush, it’s true, waited for the second sentence of her statement to say, “I strongly condemn the targeting of civilians I urge an immediate ceasefire and de-escalation to prevent further loss of life.”

They were right to include this condemnation, and it’s important to note that you don’t have to be anything close to an absolute pacifist to agree with them. Attacks on military targets are one thing; massacring random teenagers at a concert is quite another. Many Palestinians, including some who support a strategy of armed resistance to the occupation, have denounced Hamas’s tactics.

Certainly, anyone who wants a future post-Zionist state where everyone has equal rights regardless of religion or ethnicity will see Israeli Jews as part of that future and not think they deserve to be killed for the crimes of their government — just like the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC) didn’t target random white South African civilians during the struggle against apartheid in that country.

More broadly, why would you be a socialist or an internationalist in the first place if you didn’t think all human beings were born with the same moral status regardless of their citizenship, ethnicity, or background? The whole point is that everyone deserves to live with freedom, dignity, material security, and democratic rights. Bush and Tlaib made that perspective perfectly clear in their statements.

Clearly, what actually angers people like Congressman Torres is precisely that Bush and Tlaib aren’t pretending that civilians killed by Hamas are the only civilians who have been dying. They care, as they absolutely should, about all such deaths. They also aren’t pretending that the most recent Hamas attacks were some sort of “unprovoked” freak event that happened with no rhyme or reason, rather than a response to escalating Israeli annexations, settler pogroms against the stateless Palestinians, and countless other provocations.

Instead, Bush writes:

Our immediate focus must be saving lives, but our ultimate focus must be on a just and lasting peace that ensures safety for everyone in the region. . . . As part of achieving a just and lasting peace, we must do our part to stop this violence and trauma by ending U.S. government support for Israeli military occupation and apartheid.

And Tlaib says:

The failure to recognize the violent reality of living under siege, occupation, and apartheid makes no one safer. . . . As long as our country provides billions in unconditional funding to support the apartheid government, this heartbreaking cycle of violence will continue.

These sentiments might not be winning the congresswomen a lot of friends in Washington, DC, right now, but this is absolutely what genuine moral leadership looks like — and they’re putting their colleagues to shame. Anyone who sweeps the larger context of the latest outbreak of violence under the rug and repeats ritualistic phrases about “Israel’s right to defend itself” is revealing that they couldn’t care less about peace. They just want to keep going in the same direction and hope it leads to better results. It’s not going to.