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.
This article was first posted by Jacobin.
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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