From Civil Rights to Palestine, the Democratic Party Has Always Lagged Behind Its Activist Base

Pro-Palestine organizers at this year’s DNC join a long tradition of social movements pushing party elites left.

Naomi Dann

Protesters take part in the National March on Washington, D.C., To Support Palestine on March 20, 2016. (Molly Riley/AFP/Getty Images)

This week in Philadelphia, activists and delegates at the Democratic National Convention (DNC) are demonstrating their solidarity with the Palestinian people. Sporting yellow buttons and signs that read I support Palestinian human rights” and Palestinians should be free,” the hundreds of activists outside in the streets and delegates on the convention floor demonstrate a real shift in U.S. opinion on Israel/​Palestine.

For many social movements, the Democratic Party of today is as much an obstacle to progressive change as it was in 1964. While some have hailed this year’s platform as “the most progressive in history,” there is little sign of that in the planks on Palestine.

Yet the Democratic Party platform fails to reflect this shift. The platform drafting committee rejected amendments naming Israel’s nearly 50-year-old military occupation of Palestinian lands and illegal settlement enterprise as obstacles to peace, and calling for the rebuilding of Gaza. As the platform went to a vote on Monday, Florida delegates Ali Kurnaz and Ahmed Bedier raised a Palestinian flag on the convention floor in protest.

Kurnaz, a Bernie Sanders delegate from Florida, tells In These Times, I found the courage to stand on my chair and raise the Palestinian flag as high as I could hold it, despite Clinton delegates trying to pry it from my hands. My protest was directed towards the Democratic Party platform, which intentionally left out the Sanders amendments that would have acknowledged the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the impending uninhabitability of the Gaza Strip … Why can’t the most progressive platform in the history of the Democratic Party [admit that reality]?”

The platform’s disregard for Palestinian desire for freedom and dignity puts the Democratic establishment on the wrong side of history, and out of step with the views of a large majority of the party’s base — not for the first time. The DNC has often been a site of contestation between party elites and grassroots organizers over movements for equality and justice.

In 1964, civil rights activists founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) to challenge segregation and advocate for voting rights. They had faced harsh backlash and violence for their efforts to register black voters, and wanted an alternative to the racism of the state’s Democratic leadership. The MFDP elected 68 delegates and sent them to the DNC, demanding to replace the segregated delegation of Missouri’s regular Democratic Party, which they argued was illegally and undemocratically elected.

The advocates drew nationwide attention with picket lines outside the convention, but the national Party resisted their demands. In an effort to quell protests, President Lyndon Johnson had the FBI and Secret Service corral the MFDP delegates and called a news conference to distract media outlets while MFDP co-founder Fanny Lou Hamer spoke on the convention floor. After negotiations, the MFDP rejected a poor compromise measure to seat just two delegates, and left the convention. But their campaign had forced the Party, and the public, to choose sides in a moral dilemma that struck at the heart of its professed values.

While the MFDP left the convention without winning their demands, their efforts highlighted the undemocratic and violent nature of the system of segregation that disenfranchised Black voters and maintained white dominance in the South. The demands of the civil rights advocates were clear: full equality, justice and political self-determination.

With hindsight, we see the MFDP’s action at the 1964 DNC as a historic moment highlighting the urgent need to end segregation. The MFDP is widely credited with helping to lay the groundwork to shift policies, leading to Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act in 1965. The Democratic Party, by rejecting the MDFP, stood on the wrong side of history, and the tens of thousands of civil rights activists and their boycotts, sit-ins, marches, and other direct actions became a paragon example of a nonviolent social justice movement. For me, as a descendant of white Southern Jews who were largely silent as civil rights advocates agitated in their town of Meridian, Mississippi, in the 1960s, it is clear that such disruptive tactics were and remain necessary to bring about change.

Today, many of those same tactics are being used by the movement for Black lives, by struggles for immigrant justice, by the climate justice movement and by the Palestine solidarity movement. These nonviolent tools are how social justice movements work: They shift public opinion by highlighting the injustices of the status quo in order to force short and long-term policy change.

For many of these movements, the Democratic Party of today is as much an obstacle to progressive change as it was in 1964. While some have hailed this year’s platform as the most progressive in history,” there is little sign of that in the planks on Palestine. The party establishment refuses to call out Israel’s occupation and settlements in its platform, and instead includes a condemnation of any effort to delegitimize Israel, including at the United Nations or through the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions [BDS] Movement,” a nonviolent, grassroots campaign for Palestinian rights. The Democratic nominee for the presidency has gone out of her way to run what Glenn Greenwald called one of the most anti-Palestinian, pro-Israeli-aggression presidential campaigns in modern history.”

Like the rejection of MFDP delegates, the party’s present tension with the activist base is a pivotal moment that underlines the efforts of party leaders to delay progressive political change. The high-profile fight over Palestine on the platform drafting committee shows the inability of Democratic Party leadership to admit the reality: that Israel’s military rule over Palestinians, which just entered its fiftieth year, is a violent, undemocratic, institutionalized system of segregation and discrimination. That demands of Palestinians don’t differ much from those of the Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party: full equality, justice and political self-determination. And that, once again, the supposedly progressive party is behind the times.

Over the last several years U.S. public opinion on Israel/​Palestine has been changing, with key Democratic constituencies becoming more critical of Israel’s actions and more sympathetic to Palestinian demands for freedom and equality. A recent Pew Poll found that, for the first time, more liberal Democrats sympathize with Palestinians (40%) than Israel (33%). This shift is in part a result of Israel’s increasing state violence and racism against Palestinians, as well as the efforts of the growing BDS movement.

As the Palestine solidarity movement has accelerated, so too have efforts to quell it, with state governments across the country seeking to undermine their constitutionally protected use of nonviolent tactics and demonize BDS. Over 20 states have introduced legislation seeking to suppress the growing BDS campaign. On June 5, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order that would create a blacklist of companies and organizations that abide by boycotts related to Israeli human rights abuses. And now the Democratic Party has entered the fray, joining the Republicans in using their platforms to specifically condemn BDS.

Millennials like myself care about Palestinian rights for the same reasons we care about racial justice, economic justice and climate justice both here in the U.S. and across the globe. The world that we are inheriting is broken in innumerable ways, and we recognize that, for the sake of our collective future, unjust systems that perpetuate inequality must be dismantled. As Israel’s biggest military, financial, and diplomatic backer, the U.S. has a moral responsibility to use its leverage to pressure Israel to end its illegal and abusive policies towards the Palestinians. The first step in that direction is recognizing that the current status quo must end.

The sort of change we’re looking for won’t just happen from within the political establishment; it requires grassroots campaigns that inspire the public with a vision for justice and equality, and that challenge political leaders to act on that vision. 2016 can, and must, be another pivotal moment where the rejection of a social movement at the DNC backfires against the status quo, and helps organizers build the energy and power necessary to take on fearmongering, bigotry and racist state violence in the U.S. and in Palestine. All of our futures depend on it.

Naomi Dann is a writer focusing on Israel/​Palestine and U.S. foreign policy, and the media coordinator at Jewish Voice for Peace. She is writing in her personal capacity. Jewish Voice for Peace is a non-partisan 501 © 3 organization and does not support or endorse candidates or parties.
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