The Democratic Party Has an Israel Problem. These Progressives Are Trying to Solve It.

As the brutal attacks on Gaza continue, cracks are beginning to show in the Democratic Party’s unequivocal fealty to Israel.

Daphna Thier

Protesters stage a demonstration in support of a cease-fire against the Palestinians in Gaza in the Cannon House Office Building on October 18, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Following the October 7 Hamas attack that killed roughly 1,400 people in Israel, and led to the taking of around 200 hostages, Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Cori Bush (D-Mo.) identified the Israeli blockade and the ongoing occupation and apartheid regime as the root causes of the atrocities.

That stance set them apart from their Democrat colleagues in Congress, including most progressives, many of whom released statements of unequivocal support for Israel after the initial attacks. Over the past week, as Israel has carried out devastating air strikes on Gaza killing thousands of civilians, Bush and Tlaib — alongside other progressives and pro-peace groups— have been rallying other members to join them in signing on to a resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire.

Since Israel’s current bombing campaign on Gaza began earlier this month, human rights groups and other pro-peace organizations have helped lead rallies across the United States to show support for the Palestinian people. Organizations such as Adalah Justice Project, Al-Awda, Palestinian Youth Movement, IfNotNow, Jewish Voice for Peace and the Democratic Socialists of America have all organized protests and turned out participants.

This week, dozens of protesters were arrested outside the White House, and two days later hundreds were arrested for occupying a U.S. House office building demanding an immediate cease-fire. Thousands have participated in phone banks and mail-ins to Congress, signing petitions and writing open letters. Tlaib has been circulating the resolution widely for endorsement by grassroots activists and dozens of organizations have now signed on.

In response to the Hamas attack, Israel has unleashed a merciless bombing campaign that so far has killed more than 3,700 people in Palestine, a third of whom are children, while also cutting off water and electricity, limiting food and fuel for civilians. At least 1,300 people have been reported still missing under the rubble, with no way to dig them out. The Israeli military’s bombing of Gaza has been relentless and indiscriminate — several days ago they confirmed having dropped roughly 6,000 bombs — amounting to an intentional war on an unarmed civilian population in a way that can only be recognized as a war crime under international humanitarian law.

Outside of Gaza, dozens of Palestinians have already been killed in the West Bank in crackdowns on protests and nightly raids, according to the Palestinian health ministry. Hundreds more have been arrested, including nonviolent activists and Gazan workers in the West Bank. Palestinian citizens of Israel and some Jewish leftists who have been critical of the bombing have received threats, been arrested and lost their jobs.

However, for days following the Hamas attack, most Democratic congresspeople heeded the White House call for total loyalty to Israel. Tlaib’s comments calling for a cease-fire and an end to military occupation and apartheid drew harsh criticism, and even a motion to censure her by Republicans, while fellow Democrats rushed to issue unwavering statements of support and avoided calling for de-escalation. A leaked U.S. State Department memo even warned against using the phrases de-escalation” or cease-fire.”

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President Joe Biden landed in Israel this week to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and show his support. This trip came despite open admissions from Israel’s leaders that the war was intended to flatten Gaza,” deal with human animals” and the children of darkness.” Biden stated from the onset that Israel has a duty” to respond to the Hamas attack. He accepted and promoted disinformation spread by Israeli officials about Hamas combatants beheading children, as well as other as of yet unsubstantiated allegations about women being raped and paraded before being killed.

Democratic House Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) told CNN on October 8 that our commitment to Israel’s security is ironclad.” He vowed to ensure Israel and the IDF had all the resources they needed for what was likely to be a prolonged engagement,” even greenlighting Biden’s ability to provide support without Congress’ approval. He made no mention of protecting Palestinian civilians.

The Democratic Party has been a longtime supporter of Israel. Though Israel is a state with many tools of governance at its disposal, Democrats have largely accepted the logic that the only way to respond to Hamas is through indiscriminate bombing of Palestinians in Gaza, as well as collective punishment through limiting access to clean water and food. Despite notable tensions between Democratic administrations and Netanayhu over the past decade, and the Israeli government at times openly siding with Republicans in Washington, the Democratic Party leadership has exhibited total deference to Israel and its allies in the United States. Jeffries himself has received nearly half a million dollars from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), as reported by The Intercept.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) is a longtime supporter of Israel and traveled to the country this week where he reiterated American support. We feel your pain, we ache with you, and we and our country will stand by you,” he said, fealties that have not been expressed to Palestinians. His home has also been the site of protest where around one thousand participants, including many Jewish New Yorkers, chanted, not in our name,” and dozens were arrested for civil disobedience. He has identified eliminating the threat of Hamas,” and returning hostages as the two goals of U.S. policy. He made no mention of ending the 16-year blockade on Gaza, where 2.4 million people, half of whom are children, have lived trapped and impoverished, struggling even before the bombing started with a blockade that denies them necessary supplies and access to healthcare. Schumer promised to lead the effort to give Israel the aid it needs to eliminate Hamas.”

But it wasn’t just Democratic leadership or conservative politicians who reflexively got in line behind Israel’s actions. Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.), who ran on a progressive platform in 2022, said he was against a cease-fire and supported Israel in neutralizing the terrorists responsible for this barbarism.” He described the Hamas attacks as unprovoked,” and said he would unequivocally support” military aid to Israel at this time.

Other progressive members from the Squad” including Reps. Summer Lee (D-Pa.) and Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) issued condemnations of Hamas, and later signed on to the cease-fire resolution, but didn’t initially mention Israel’s transgressions predating the Hamas attack.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) similarly joined Cori’s Bush’s call for a cease-fire. But in a CNN interview on Oct. 16, when asked how Israel should deal with” Hamas, she responded by saying that she supports Israel’s right to defend itself and would support funding the Iron Dome missile defense system, reversing her position from two years ago when she voted present” on the issue. While supporters of Israel say Iron Dome serves defensive-only purposes, the U.S.-financed system constitutes a massive subsidy to Israel’s military, which frees the government up to spend even more on its deadly offensive capacities.

Commitment to Israel runs deep in the U.S. Congress, and the pressures even under normal circumstances to support the Israeli regime are great. Over the summer, well before the recent violence, Congress overwhelmingly voted in favor of a resolution to affirm the United States as a staunch partner and supporter of Israel,” clamping down on the Congressional Progressive Caucus chair Pramila Jayapal’s (D-Wash.) comments that Israel is a racist state.” Jaypal later apologized for the statement and voted in favor of the resolution. 

In the absence of a stronger anti-war movement and sustained demands from the public to change policy toward Israel, progressives in Congress could revert to buckling to the status quo of unconditional support for the Jewish state.

Despite this pressure, there has been a shift in recent years, among both the U.S. Jewish community and the wider public, with some progressive Democrats openly naming apartheid” in Israel on the floor of Congress and admonishing U.S. support for the occupation of Palestinians. But in the absence of a stronger anti-war movement and sustained demands from the public to change policy toward Israel, these progressives could revert to buckling to the status quo of unconditional support for the Jewish state.

The resolution introduced on Monday by Bush cites the casualties on both sides, and urges the White House to call for an immediate deescalation and cease-fire in Israel and occupied Palestine” and to send humanitarian aid to Gaza. As of Friday, the fellow signatories include Reps. Lee, Bowman, Ocasio-Cortez, André Carson (D-Ind.), Delia Ramirez (D-Ill.), Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.), Jesus Chuy” García (D-Ill.), Jonathan Jackson (D-Ill.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.), Maxwell Frost (D-Fla.) and Alma Adams (D-N.C.). Reps. Jayapal, Greg Casar (D-Texas) and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who had released their own independent, more reserved letter a day after the resolution was put forward, have also since signed on to the call for cease-fire.

While support is growing for a cease-fire, the number of signatories pales in comparison to a bipartisan resolution that says Congress stands ready to assist Israel with emergency resupply and other security, diplomatic and intelligence support,” which currently has 381 sponsors.

These lopsided figures may not reflect public sentiment, which appears to be shifting toward support for those under attack in Gaza and the West Bank.

Recent polls show that record numbers of American voters sympathize with Palestinians. A CBS/​YouGov poll shows that more respondents want to see humanitarian aid sent to Palestinians in Gaza than weapons and supplies sent to Israel. That poll also shows that a majority of Americans disapprove of Biden’s handling of the conflict so far. Meanwhile, a Data for Progress poll shows that a full 66% of likely voters agree that the U.S. should call for a cease-fire and de-escalation of violence. These figures illustrate that Democratic candidates who don’t back a cease-fire and humanitarian aid for Gazans could face electoral consequences next year.

Potential voters are actively communicating to public officials that they want to see support and compassion for Palestinians reflected in policy, through mass rallies, union resolutions, phone banking and mail-ins. This type of pressure from below can move politicians in Washington, just as it has already helped lead more progressives in Congress to back the cease-fire resolution.

The zeal of the Israeli government for additional bombing of Gaza, and the continued support by the Biden administration and other U.S. political leadership, reflects how powerful the support for Israel is in Washington. But sustained organizing and resistance to those policies by movement groups is beginning to show cracks in that doctrine of fealty to Israel.

As the Palestinian-led advocacy group Adalah Justice Project recently posted on Instagram, Now is not the time to fear but to stand boldly and unabashedly with the people of Gaza who are facing a genocide in front of the world’s eyes.” 

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Daphna Thier is a labor educator and organizer based in Brooklyn. She works at the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee and is a member of DSA. She is a contributing author of the volume Palestine: A Socialist Introduction.

Illustrated cover of Gaza issue. Illustration shows an illustrated representation of Gaza, sohwing crowded buildings surrounded by a wall on three sides. Above the buildings is the sun, with light shining down. Above the sun is a white bird. Text below the city says: All Eyes on Gaza
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