Palestine Is on the Ballot

In numerous races across the country this year, Palestine is a key issue for voters. Popular opinion is on the side of a Gaza cease-fire, but pro-Israel billionaires are spending big to overcome that antiwar will.

US representatives Jamaal Bowman of New York and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan attend a news conference to support free speech on college campuses on Thursday, May 23, 2024. (Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

The Democratic voter greeted us with a friendly smile and a thoughtful silence. She glanced skeptically at our literature. “You’ve heard some bad things?” we asked, reading her body language. She nodded, relaxing a bit. We explained. The onslaught of negative information about our candidate was funded by groups opposing a cease-fire in Israel’s ongoing massacre of the Palestinians. Once she knew that, our voter, a middle-aged resident of Co-op City in the Bronx, was more than happy to support him.

My comrade and I were knocking on doors for democratic socialist and Green New Deal champion Jamaal Bowman in New York’s 16th District, where that congressman, who was endorsed by New York City Democratic Socialists of America (NYC-DSA) last week, faces a tough primary battle for reelection. After he named the Israeli response to October 7 what it is — a genocide — and called for a cease-fire, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and other pro-war groups threw millions of dollars behind his opponent.

Bowman’s campaign is defined by exactly the paradox we encountered at that door in Co-op City: his stance on Palestine has put his political career in danger by galvanizing well-funded forces against him, yet his position on the issue is also a deeply popular one.

He’s not alone. For the first time ever in American politics, Palestine is on the ballot all over the country, mobilizing billionaires and special-interest groups against the Left (many of whom, as Branko Marcetic has reported for In These Times, also have material interests against socialism). Yet the issue is also inspiring voters and candidates who oppose the war.

In recent years, left and progressive candidates have mostly avoided foreign policy, especially Israel, seeing the terrain as simply too risky, especially with no grassroots antiwar movement demanding or supporting such a criticism of the status quo. This time, with protests in the streets and encampments on more campuses than anyone can track, is different. Not only has AIPAC put Israel on the ballot, but the Left, too, has a positive case to make.

Socialist candidates in New York have been drawing participants to their canvasses and phone banks with “all out for Palestine” appeals. The calls for a cease-fire are on their campaign literature, and campaign volunteers are talking about Palestine on the doors.

The AIPAC money is hitting the Left hard in some races, simply by flooding the airwaves and mailboxes. Organizations seeking to unseat Bowman over Israel have conducted polls that show his opponent, George Latimer, with a sizable advantage: in late April, the Democratic Majority for Israel’s polling showed Latimer with a seventeen-point lead; a Bowman campaign poll shows the race is much closer than that. Whatever poll you believe, the pro-Israel billionaires have created a challenging field for Bowman.

Yet polling has also shown the district’s strong support for a cease-fire. The pro-Israel groups know they probably can’t win on their issue, but their money can buy a shower of negative ads — including $2 million spent in a single recent week — raising other doubts, for example, that Bowman is too divisive, too critical of Biden.

Such doubts are easily addressed in conversation, but money can distribute them widely and quickly, like aerial seeding of pernicious and intractable weeds. Then again, AIPAC’s involvement in the race is also motivating many inside and outside the district to get involved. Politico reported Monday that AIPAC’s ads “have been a boon” to Bowman, with his May donations surpassing $1 million in response to AIPAC’s ads — triple what he raised in April.

Though Bowman’s race has attracted the most money, pro-Israel groups and billionaires have also mobilized against democratic socialist supporters of Palestine in other races. AIPAC announced it would spend some $100 million attempting to unseat progressives.

One of these is Congresswoman Cori Bush, another democratic socialist Squad member. Her opponent, Wesley Bell, shouldn’t stand a chance: he’s the prosecutor who failed in 2020 to pursue charges in eighteen-year-old Michael Brown’s murder by white police officer Darren Wilson, a case that was one of the flash points of the Black Lives Matter protests that year. But groups like AIPAC are giving to him, as covertly as they can, making Bell more of a contender than he should be.

Solidarity PAC, an AIPAC equivalent in New York State races backed by hedge-fund billionaire Daniel Loeb, is also spending big against progressives and socialists. While Albany doesn’t make foreign policy, Israel and its allies pay close attention to New York state and local politics.

That’s partly for ideological reasons: they know anti-Zionism and antimilitarism are values that matter to the socialist movement and will only have more traction as socialists build more power. But there are also some policy issues at stake for these groups: socialist assemblyman Zohran Mamdani, for example, has introduced a bill called Not On Our Dime, to stop organizations that get nonprofit status (and therefore tax breaks) from funding the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the violent illegal settlements in the West Bank.

As Julia Rock of New York Focus reported in March, Solidarity PAC has been contributing to Mamdani’s opponent, as well as some incumbents, including the Bronx’s Michael Benedetto and Brooklyn’s Stefani Zinerman, both corporate Democrats facing DSA-backed challengers Jonathan Soto and Eon Huntley, respectively. Solidarity PAC is also contributing to Johanna Carmona against Claire Valdez, a United Auto Workers (UAW) member-leader who has been endorsed by the UAW, DSA, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. (Full disclosure, I have been contributing money and knocking on doors for these DSA challengers, as well as for Bowman). Solidarity is also backing incumbent Didi Barrett, a conservative upstate Democrat facing a robust challenge from Claire Cousin, who is endorsed by the Working Families Party.

The left candidates have not been intimidated. They participate in antiwar actions and post about them on social media. Cousin pointed out, in a statement, that a cease-fire passed the Hudson Common Council in her district unanimously, and that her district is “full of people like me who stand firmly against antisemitism and Israel’s war against the Palestinian people.” Huntley distributes a campaign flier that says, “Palestine is on the ballot this June,” explaining the candidate’s call for a permanent cease-fire and an end to US aid for “Israel’s war crimes.” Mamdani doubled down and relaunched a more comprehensive version of Not on Our Dime in the middle of primary season.

In some of the races that AIPAC has attempted to sway, the left candidate has simply proved too popular, and their grassroots funding too robust. That’s the case with congresswomen Summer Lee of Pennsylvania, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, and several state-level races in New York, including that of State Senator Jabari Brisport of Brooklyn.

It’s deeply disturbing that pro-war money might buy elections despite popular support for a cease-fire. But there’s another layer of contradiction here: Joe Biden knows that the cease-fire is popular and has now embraced a position close to that of the left politicians that AIPAC is targeting.

The presence of Palestine on the Democratic primary ballot is clearly affecting Biden’s calculations. Even though he has no real Democratic challenger, he needs young people, progressives, and Arab and Muslim voters to turn out in November if he is to beat Donald Trump. A majority of Americans support a permanent cease-fire and say they are more likely to back candidates who agree. Accordingly, at last, after far too many deaths, Biden has this week demanded that Israel accept a permanent cease-fire.

It seems unlikely to happen without much tougher conditions from the United States, and shamefully, the administration is already undermining it and blaming Hamas for Israel’s reluctance to stop its campaign of mass murder. But considering that this language of permanent cease-fire was too radical even for Bernie Sanders late last year, and is precisely the demand that mobilized AIPAC and other Israel proxy groups against the left, the president’s shift is significant.

Even if some of the left candidates lose, they will still have contributed something critical: breaking the taboo on the Democratic Party’s criticism of Israel. And with November looming, it’s just possible that they — along with everyone protesting in the streets, on college campuses, and dogging the politicians wherever they go — are even weakening Biden’s commitment to the slaughter.