John Fetterman Keeps Defending the Indefensible in Gaza

Pennsylvania Democrat John Fetterman has always been staunchly pro-Israel, but the events of the last few months have shined a particularly harsh light on his indifference to Palestinians.

Senator John Fetterman, speaks during a hearing in the Senate in Washington, DC, on December 6, 2023. (Ting Shen / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

When he was running for Senate last year in Pennsylvania, there were plenty of things for the Left to like about Democrat John Fetterman. He was the only statewide candidate who’d endorsed Bernie Sanders back in 2016, he seemed to care a lot about organized labor, and he combined solidly progressive stances on social issues with a refreshingly populist style of political communication.

In 2022, he’d already started to get worryingly vague about such basic points of a Bernie-derived policy platform as Medicare for All. But in the context of his race against the clownish right-wing Republican Mehmet Oz, aka “Dr Oz,” it was easy to ignore that part. Watching Fetterman and his team rhetorically grind Oz into the dust was too much fun for many left commentators (myself included) to give him as hard a time as we should have about his political shortcomings.

To any progressive paying close attention, though, a fly in the ointment too big to ignore was that Fetterman’s position was awful on Israel/Palestine. As I noted at the time, “When it comes to Palestine, Fetterman might as well be Dr Oz.” He was on record back in April against imposing any new conditions on US aid to Israel — a country that rules over millions of people permanently denied Israeli citizenship or basic rights like access to regular civilian courts when they’re accused of crimes, and which even last April was keeping well over two million Palestinians locked in the twenty-five-mile-long open-air prison camp that is the Gaza Strip.

Even in a world where the Israeli government had heeded various warnings and headed off Hamas’s attack on October 7, this would be an ugly blotch on whatever record Fetterman would otherwise be able to claim of standing for justice. But in the last three months, Israel has committed atrocities in Gaza on a level that dwarf anything it’s done since the original“Nakba” (catastrophe) that drove hundreds of thousands of Palestinians out of the country during the creation of the state.

Israel’s brutal campaign of collective vengeance started almost immediately after October 7. Since then, about 90 percent of Gaza’s civilian population has been displaced from their homes. Tens of thousands have been killed — a much higher number than the entire estimated civilian death toll of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, even though Ukraine has a much larger population and Russia has been rightly condemned for its frequent violations of the laws of war.

Israel has denied the necessities of life to most Gazans since the war began, and starvation and disease may ultimately kill more Palestinians there than the bombs — though the bombs are killing plenty. Anyone who follows a large number of Gaza-based Palestinians on social media has likely seen several instances of people saying things like “this may be my last post” and being killed in an air strike shortly thereafter. Senior officials in the Israeli government keep talking about the “voluntary” mass removal of the Palestinian population from Gaza — and indeed from the country — as the ultimate goal of the war. Most recently, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich openly advocated a postwar scenario where there are “100,000 or 200,000 Araba in Gaza and not two million.”

And through it all, Fetterman has continuously doubled down on his enthusiasm for the Israeli state. He told Politico at the end of December that whatever “diversity of opinions” existed among Senate Democrats with regard to the onslaught on Gaza, and however much the caucus might “splinter” on the issue, he would always be “the last man standing to be absolutely there on the Israeli side on this with no conditions.”

Is Ethnic Cleansing OK When “Progressive Nations” Do It?

In an interview a week earlier with the New York Times, Fetterman expressed surprise that so many of his former supporters seemed shocked by his position. “I do find it confusing,” he told the Times, “where the very left progressives in America don’t seem to want to support really the only progressive nation in the region that really embraces the same kind of values I would expect we would want as a society.”

In terms of the substance of the argument, this is the thinnest possible reed on which Senator Fetterman could hang his enthusiastic support for a state currently engaged in ethnic cleansing of an internal noncitizen population. It’s a fairly popular rhetorical strategy, though, and so it’s probably worth spending a moment explaining why it makes so little sense. Fetterman isn’t being terribly original. I’ve heard many apologists for the Israeli government using variations of this point — think about all the right-wing sneering about “Queers for Palestine” or about secular leftists in the West “siding with radical Islam.”

It’s true that, on average, the Palestinian population, especially in Gaza, is more religious and more socially conservative than the Israeli population. The full truth about this is complicated, since the most religious and conservative enclaves within Israel are very religious and conservative, and the political parties which represent that population have exercised quite a bit of political power from within various coalition governments. To pick an obvious example, it’s not as if same-sex marriage is legal within the “green line” separating Israel’s original territory from the Palestinian lands it conquered in 1967. But overall the Israeli population is vastly more secular and Israel’s laws within the green line are far more socially progressive than the ones in Palestinian areas that have been granted limited autonomy under the Israeli occupation — especially Hamas-run Gaza.

The real question is: What of it? How is that supposed to be relevant to anything in the context of talking about Israel’s atrocities against the noncitizen Palestinian population?

To spell this out, Israel is not fighting to impose secularism or liberalism on the population of Gaza. Whether the survivors of the current atrocities are allowed to stay in Gaza under direct Israeli occupation or whether — as some have suggested — they’re mass-transferred to the Sinai desert, neither scenario will lead to gay pride marches or secular education among the survivors. As obscene as it would be to endorse mass displacement and the indiscriminate mass murder of tens of thousands of innocents as a way of spreading progressive social policies, the Israelis have never pretended that this is a thing they’re trying to do. In context, talking about comparative levels of progressivism is a head-spinning non sequitur.

This would be true even if it made the slightest sense to call Israel a progressive nation. But it doesn’t — at least if you believe that ethno-religious pluralism and equal rights for everyone regardless of faith or ancestry are “progressive” values.

Belief that any sufficiently internally progressive nation has a right to engage in ethnic cleansing against groups it rules over would be truly grotesque. But the premise itself is absurd in this case. Would we consider the United States, for example, a progressive nation if it had achieved equal rights for women and gay people but also passed a law declaring it to be “the nation-state of” white Christians everywhere but not ethnic and religious minorities who actually live within the country?

If not, surely Israel’s grotesque nation-state law should count against its internal progressivism. So, for example, should the law forbidding Palestinian citizens of Israel who marry Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza from living together with their spouses inside Israel.

But the most important point here is the fact that Israel has ruled over millions of Palestinians since 1967 without ever once offering them Israeli citizenship — because doing so would undermine what Israeli commentators often openly call the “Jewish character” of the state. That’s apartheid, and anyone who thinks apartheid is compatible with progressivism is using the word “progressive” in a way with which I’d prefer to have nothing to do.

Fetterman and the End of “Progressives Except for Palestine”

Last year, when I wrote an article for Jacobin called “John Fetterman Is Right About Many Things – but He’s Dead Wrong on Palestine,” some readers took me to task for imposing a “purity test” in the middle of an election on a candidate who, however flawed, was surely far better than his opponent.

The problem with that argument is that there’s always an election coming up. Even if the last election was the day before yesterday, there’ll be a new one coming up. And probably whatever Democrat you’re criticizing is under attack from the Right and you can argue that now isn’t the right time — so the can is perpetually being kicked down the road.

What I find encouraging is how little of that pushback I’m seeing against criticisms of Fetterman’s Palestine position now. Even the fact that the gap between him and his supporters on this issue has gotten so much attention in outlets like Politico and the New York Times is a positive development.

Once upon a time — and it wasn’t so long ago — leftists who took an interest in electoral politics took it for granted that otherwise promising politicians would be bad on this. “Progressives Except for Palestine” were so common that they got their own acronym: “PEPs.”

Now, thanks to the leadership that’s been shown by members of Congress like Cori Bush and Rashida Tlaib and democratic socialist elected officials in places like New York, the grassroots pressure coming from the Left’s activist wing, and the general weakening of the American public’s support for Israel in the face of the most recent atrocities against the Palestinian population, all that’s starting to change.

Someone like Fetterman can no longer expect a “well, what do you expect from a mainstream politician?” pass on his awful views on these issues. He’s starting to feel the heat. We’re seeing an expectation being formed that of course progressive politicians will face friction with their base if they’re bad on Palestine. At long last, in other words, the era of the PEPs might be coming to a close.

It’s about time.