Left Candidates Have to Do Better on Palestine

Ocasio-Cortez missed an opportunity to push a left position on Israel. But it’s not too late to change that.

Corey Robin July 19, 2018

Congressional nominee Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stands with Zephyr Teachout after endorsing her for New York City Public Advocate on July 12, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images).

This arti­cle was first post­ed by Jacobin.

Palestine is not some obscure question that you can simply say, “Sorry, I don’t know much about that.”

Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez had a bad moment late last week.

Appear­ing on the reboot of Fir­ing Line, Oca­sio-Cortez was asked by con­ser­v­a­tive host Mar­garet Hoover to explain her stance on Israel. The ques­tion left Oca­sio-Cortez tongue-tied and equiv­o­cat­ing. Here was the exchange:

MH: You, in the cam­paign, made one tweet, or made one state­ment, that referred to a killing by Israeli sol­diers of civil­ians in Gaza and called it a mas­sacre,” which became a lit­tle bit con­tro­ver­sial. But I haven’t seen any­where — what is your posi­tion on Israel?

AOC: Well, I believe absolute­ly in Israel’s right to exist. I am a pro­po­nent of a two-state solu­tion. And for me, it’s not — this is not a ref­er­en­dum, I think, on the state of Israel. For me, the lens through which I saw this inci­dent, as an activist, as an orga­niz­er, if six­ty peo­ple were killed in Fer­gu­son, Mis­souri, if six­ty peo­ple were killed in the South Bronx — unarmed — if six­ty peo­ple were killed in Puer­to Rico — I just looked at that inci­dent more through … through just, as an inci­dent, and to me, it would just be com­plete­ly unac­cept­able if that hap­pened on our shores. But I am —

MH: Of course the dynam­ic there in terms of geopolitics —

AOC: Of course.

MH: And the war in the Mid­dle East is very dif­fer­ent than peo­ple express­ing their First Amend­ment right to protest.

AOC: Well, yes. But I also think that what peo­ple are start­ing to see at least in the occu­pa­tion of Pales­tine is just an increas­ing cri­sis of human­i­tar­i­an con­di­tion, and that to me is just where I tend to come from on this issue.

MH: You use the term the occu­pa­tion of Pales­tine”? What did you mean by that?

AOC: Oh, um [pause] I think it, what I meant is the set­tle­ments that are increas­ing in some of these areas and places where Pales­tini­ans are expe­ri­enc­ing dif­fi­cul­ty in access to their hous­ing and homes.

MH: Do you think you can expand on that?

AOC: Yeah, I mean, I think I’d also just [waves hands and laughs] I am not the expert on geopol­i­tics on this issue. You know, for me, I’m a firm believ­er in find­ing a two-state solu­tion on this issue, and I’m hap­py to sit down with lead­ers on both of these. For me, I just look at things through a human rights lens, and I may not use the right words [laughs] I know this is a very intense issue.

MH: That’s very hon­est, that’s very hon­est. It’s very hon­est, and when, you, you know, get to Wash­ing­ton and you’re an elect­ed mem­ber of Con­gress you’ll have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to talk to peo­ple on all sides and vis­it Israel and vis­it the West Bank and —

AOC: Absolute­ly, absolute­ly. And I think that that’s one of those things that’s impor­tant too is that, you know, espe­cial­ly with the dis­trict that I rep­re­sent — I come from the South Bronx, I come from a Puer­to Rican back­ground, and Mid­dle East­ern pol­i­tics was not exact­ly at my kitchen table every night. But, I also rec­og­nize that this is an intense­ly impor­tant issue for peo­ple in my dis­trict, for Amer­i­cans across the coun­try, and I think what’s at least impor­tant to com­mu­ni­cate is that I’m will­ing to lis­ten and that I’m will­ing to learn and evolve on this issue like I think many Amer­i­cans are.

Let’s be clear. This is not good. Prompt­ed about her use of the word mas­sacre,” Oca­sio-Cortez doesn’t stay with the expe­ri­ence of the Pales­tini­ans. Instead, she goes imme­di­ate­ly to an affir­ma­tion of Israel’s right to exist, as if Israelis were the first order of con­cern here, and affirm­ing that right were the nec­es­sary tick­et to say­ing any­thing about Pales­tine. Asked about her use of the phrase occu­pa­tion of Pales­tine,” Oca­sio-Cortez wan­ders into a thick­et of abstrac­tions about access to hous­ing and set­tle­ments that are increas­ing in some of these areas.” She apol­o­gizes for not being an expert on a major geopo­lit­i­cal issue. She prof­fers lib­er­al plat­i­tudes about a two-state solu­tion that every­one famil­iar with the sub­ject knows are just words and clichés designed to defer any gen­uine reck­on­ing with the sit­u­a­tion at hand, with no con­crete dis­cus­sion of any­thing the US could or should do to intervene.

Even with­in the con­straints of Amer­i­can elec­toral pol­i­tics, there are bet­ter ways — bet­ter left ways — to deal with this entire­ly fore­see­able ques­tion. Not only was this a bad moment for the Left but it was also a lost oppor­tu­ni­ty: to speak to peo­ple who are not left­ists about a major issue in a way that sounds cred­i­ble, moral, and polit­i­cal­ly wise.

As soon as I saw this exchange, I post­ed about it on Face­book. I said a short­er ver­sion of what I said above. It pro­voked a bit­ter debate on my page. There were even more bit­ter debates on oth­er people’s pages.

The camps divid­ed in two: on the one hand, there were those who took Ocasio-Cortez’s com­ments as con­fir­ma­tion that she is no real left­ist, that she is turn­ing right, that she’s been absorbed into the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty machine, that she’s a fake, a pho­ny, and a fraud. For these folks, Ocasio-Cortez’s com­ments con­firmed their gen­er­al­ly dim view of elec­toral politics.

On the oth­er hand, there were Ocasio-Cortez’s defend­ers, claim­ing that she is only twen­ty-eight, that she had been set up by a right-wing jour­nal­ist, that pro­gres­sives shouldn’t crit­i­cize her, that the Left always eats its own, that those of us who are crit­i­ciz­ing her are sec­tar­i­ans ready to go after any­one the sec­ond they dis­ap­point us.

What I’m about to say doesn’t address the first camp. While I know and respect many of these folks — left­ists who either reject elec­toral pol­i­tics com­plete­ly or reject any involve­ment with the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty — theirs is not my posi­tion. Nor do I think this inci­dent is rev­e­la­to­ry one way or anoth­er for their posi­tion — had Oca­sio-Cortez said all the right things, I doubt it would con­vince skep­tics of elec­toral pol­i­tics that get­ting involved in Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty pol­i­tics is the way to go — so I don’t see any point in using it to engage in that question.

My com­ments are direct­ed to the lat­ter camp: the peo­ple who, like me, believe in elec­toral pol­i­tics, are on the Left, and think we may have an oppor­tu­ni­ty right now that we have not had in a long while.

There are some of us, many of us, who care deeply about the Israel/​Palestine issue from an anti-Zion­ist per­spec­tive and who are also real­is­tic about US elec­toral pol­i­tics. We’re not naïfs who think that the politi­cians we sup­port are going to come out right away, or right now, in sup­port of a sin­gle bina­tion­al demo­c­ra­t­ic state, which is the posi­tion we hold with regard to Pales­tine. We also real­ize that the Left that is begin­ning to think about elec­toral pol­i­tics is young (not in terms of age but polit­i­cal expe­ri­ence), and it will take us all some time to fig­ure out how to advance our posi­tions in a way that will win sup­port and trans­late that sup­port into policy.

And last, we know that despite the cen­tral­i­ty of Pales­tine to our pol­i­tics, it’s not cen­tral to the pol­i­tics of every­one on the Left, that peo­ple have mul­ti­ple con­cerns, and that it does no good sim­ply to hec­tor peo­ple and say this should be at the top of your list (along with a thou­sand oth­er issues that should be at the top of your list).

I know all of that, we know all of that.

But we also know a few oth­er things.

Soon­er or lat­er, every nation­al politi­cian in the US has to con­front the issue of Pales­tine. You can’t duck it. Not only is the Left mov­ing left on this issue, not only is the base of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty mov­ing left on this issue (it is, if you look at the polling), but it is also a major issue of inter­na­tion­al pol­i­tics and US for­eign pol­i­cy that every mem­ber of Con­gress has to have a posi­tion on.

Pales­tine is not some obscure ques­tion that you can sim­ply say, Sor­ry, I don’t know much about that.” Any per­son who aspires to be a mem­ber of Con­gress, par­tic­u­lar­ly from New York City, where this issue comes up as a local, nation­al, and inter­na­tion­al issue all the time — when we had the Boy­cott, Divest­ment, and Sanc­tions fight at Brook­lyn Col­lege in 2013, our top oppo­nents includ­ed mul­ti­ple mem­bers of the New York City con­gres­sion­al del­e­ga­tion: Jer­ry Nadler, Yvette Clark, Nydia Velazquez, and Hakeem Jef­fries — will have to be clear about where they stand. It’s not option­al: Oca­sio-Cortez has to have a position.

Not only does Oca­sio-Cortez have to have a posi­tion, but to be a cred­i­ble left­ist voice in Con­gress, she has to have a left­ist posi­tion on this issue. Now, before every­one con­cludes that means she has to call for a bina­tion­al state, there are many ways to talk left about Israel that are con­sid­er­ably bet­ter than the cur­rent lib­er­al pab­u­lum and that do not require an elect­ed offi­cial to com­mit polit­i­cal suicide.

There is the human rights ver­nac­u­lar that Oca­sio-Cortes her­self alludes to (a par­tic­u­lar­ly pop­u­lar approach, as soci­ol­o­gist Ran Green­stein point­ed out in the dis­cus­sion on my Face­book wall). There is the lan­guage of realpoli­tik, which peo­ple like Nathan Thrall have pushed. And oth­er ways still.

Oca­sio-Cortez could talk about con­di­tion­ing aid on human rights improve­ments. She could talk about cut­ting mil­i­tary fund­ing to Israel. George H. W. Bush, after all, with­held loans to Israel because of the expan­sion of the set­tle­ments — not a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, but here in the US, in the ear­ly 1990s. All of these claims are well to the left of any cur­rent polit­i­cal dis­course in Con­gress and would force the debate for­ward and would be pro­duc­tive­ly polar­iz­ing. And maybe pro­pel Oca­sio-Cortez to even more of a lead­er­ship posi­tion on the Left.

This is not just about Pales­tine. This is about US for­eign pol­i­cy as a whole. It used to be that US for­eign pol­i­cy was the Left’s strong suit. Back in the 1970s, when it seemed as if the Left’s con­fi­dence in its eco­nom­ic poli­cies and posi­tions was flag­ging, its cri­tiques of US impe­ri­al­ism, mil­i­tary spend­ing, and the nation­al secu­ri­ty state were in ascen­dan­cy. Some of these posi­tions even made it into the left wing of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. Since then, the Left has got­ten very weak on this stuff. Not in terms of its moral­ism on for­eign pol­i­cy, or the anti­war ral­lies it will show up at, but in terms of being able to advance a posi­tion that would begin to com­mand nation­al assent, form pub­lic opin­ion, and then be trans­lat­ed into policy.

This is a prob­lem: it should be the eas­i­est thing in the world right now, for exam­ple, to go after run­away mil­i­tary spend­ing. Yet there’s hard­ly a cred­i­ble or potent left voice that is push­ing that agen­da, much less get­ting a hear­ing with­in even pro­gres­sive cir­cles of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. Indeed, in this age of alleged par­ti­san polar­iza­tion, autho­riza­tions of mas­sive increas­es in spend­ing for the Pen­ta­gon and the CIA pass both hous­es of Con­gress with hefty Demo­c­ra­t­ic majori­ties — with scarce­ly any­one notic­ing, much less protesting.

So, again, this isn’t about Pales­tine only. Or I should say, Pales­tine is the prover­bial canary in a coal mine. From Pales­tine you get into the ques­tion of the Mid­dle East as a whole, which leads to US for­eign pol­i­cy as a whole, and issues of bud­gets, spend­ing, war, peace, and all the rest. All the more rea­son for Oca­sio-Cortez to get up to speed on it.

Like it or not, Oca­sio-Cortez has been ele­vat­ed to a nation­al posi­tion of lead­er­ship and vis­i­bil­i­ty on the Left. If she wins in the gen­er­al elec­tion, as every­one believes she will, every sin­gle thing she says and does will be watched and scru­ti­nized. It sim­ply will not do to say, oh, she’s only twen­ty-eight, oh, the media is so nasty, oh, let’s not have cir­cu­lar fir­ing squads. The media is always nasty, the Left will always be crit­i­cal of its lead­ers, and one day, soon, Oca­sio-Cortez will no longer be twen­ty-eight. To com­plain about any of these things is like shak­ing your fist at the weath­er (weath­er in the old-fash­ioned sense; before cli­mate change).

Peo­ple have turned to Oca­sio-Cortez not sim­ply because she won but because she’s good at what she does: she’s smart, fast, fun­ny, and prin­ci­pled. Because she’s shown lead­er­ship. I under­stand the pres­sures she’s under. But as her star ris­es, the pres­sures will only increase. Oca­sio-Cortez needs to be not only strong but also clear on this issue. She needs to be as sub­tle, dex­ter­ous, and sharp as she is on oth­er issues, vir­tu­al­ly every night on Twit­ter. This isn’t a game, espe­cial­ly when it comes to Israel. Or, if it is a game, she needs to be a bet­ter player.

What has sus­tained me the most in these last sev­er­al years is the on-the-ground work of the activists, in Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca and oth­er groups, who have been mak­ing vic­to­ries like Ocasio-Cortez’s pos­si­ble. I’m con­fi­dent that those folks are talk­ing to her now about get­ting a bet­ter line on this, and I’m more than con­fi­dent that she has the polit­i­cal skills to get it.

There was a time, not so long ago, when there were left Democ­rats, in Con­gress, who had strong anti-impe­ri­al­ist pol­i­tics and posi­tions. There were even parts of the Left — par­tic­u­lar­ly the black left — that were crit­i­cal of Israel at a fun­da­men­tal lev­el. They didn’t get there from nowhere. They weren’t bet­ter peo­ple. There was sim­ply more of a move­ment, in the streets and at the grass­roots, artic­u­lat­ing and devel­op­ing those posi­tions. There is no rea­son we can’t do the same. I’m con­fi­dent we will.

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Corey Robin is a pro­fes­sor of polit­i­cal sci­ence at Brook­lyn Col­lege and the CUNY Grad­u­ate Cen­ter. He is the author of The Reac­tionary Mind: Con­ser­vatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin and Fear: The His­to­ry of a Polit­i­cal Idea.
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