The Memo: In Democratic divide, two visions of Israel
The Democratic divide on Israel was thrown into sharp relief Tuesday when President Biden and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) got into an animated exchange on the tarmac at a Michigan airport.
Tlaib, whose grandmother still lives in the West Bank, has been forcefully critical of what she sees as a craven and timid White House response to Israel during the current bloodshed.
Biden, for his part, has stuck to the traditional approach of past presidents, Democratic and Republican alike — emphasizing the strength of U.S. support for Israel and couching any criticism in careful, diplomatic language.
But Biden and Tlaib are emblematic of a much deeper fault line.
There is a growing gulf between older, more centrist Democrats and younger, more progressive members of the party. It’s not just about the current conflict. It’s about two starkly different visions of Israel itself.
For many people of Biden’s generation, the Israel of their youth was a cherished cause of the left — the Middle East’s sole democracy, rising from the indescribable horrors of the Holocaust and facing constant threat of elimination from the hostile nations that surrounded it.
But for younger progressives, present-day Israel bears no resemblance to that brave but fragile enterprise.
Israel has been the occupying power in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, for more than half a century. The last clear existential threat it faced was in the Arab-Israeli war of 1973 — which lasted less than a month, almost 48 years ago.
“The Occupation has existed since 1967, but every year and decade it goes on, it looks less like an excusable temporary reality and more like a permanent system of injustice,” Logan Bayroff, vice president of communications at the progressive lobby group J Street, told this column.
That’s one reason a younger generation is far more likely to see Israel as the bully rather than the bullied in the Middle East. Many of them see it being facilitated in that role by Washington, both in terms of its military budget and its diplomatic efforts.
Right now, some Democrats are seeking to block a recently agreed sale by the U.S. to Israel of $735 million in weaponry. Progressives are also pressing for more stringent conditions on the $3.8 billion in military aid that the U.S. provides to Israel annually.
There are, too, plenty of people on the American left who are inclined to see parallels between the Palestinian cause and the struggle for social and racial justice at home.
“Until we can defend the rights of Palestinians just as we do Israelis, we have no leg to stand on when it comes to justice or peace,” Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) tweeted on May 10, just as the current conflagration was taking hold.
Tlaib and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) have both accused Israel of enforcing “apartheid.”
The generational lines are not clear-cut when it comes to Israel. One of the most vigorous critics of recent Israeli policy has been 79-year-old Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
But longtime observers have no doubt that the ground is shifting, in part because so many young American liberals view the entire conflict through a very different lens than older counterparts like Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).
“People whose views were formed in the ‘50s and ‘60s and ‘70s — Biden, Schumer, Pelosi, the Clintons — whatever the range of views among them, they had this idea of tiny little Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East, the miraculous recompense for the Holocaust,” said Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said professor at Columbia University and the author of “The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine.”
“Those views are foundational. But I don’t know any 25-year-old today who believes that.”
Khalidi sees one of the dividing lines in these competing visions as the 1982 war when Israel invaded Lebanon. He says the view of Israel as the “Goliath” in the region has been copper-fastened since then by the imagery from two Palestinian uprisings, or intifadas, and Israeli military actions in general.
“You have kids throwing stones at tanks. Who is powerful in this picture?” Khalidi asked rhetorically. “You can’t unsee what you see, you can’t un-know what you know.”
There are plenty who would push back on that idea. Hamas has fired almost 3,500 rockets into Israel during the current strife. The organization, whose charter is virulently anti-Semitic, does not accept Israel’s right to exist. What nation would accept such actions without striking back, the pro-Israel side asks?
But beyond those big themes, there are more specific reasons for the growing enmity between present-day Israel and the American left.
Pro-Israel Democrats lament the influence of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for several reasons – his ultra-hard line with the Palestinians, his willingness to align himself with Republicans, including former President Trump, and his efforts to unpick the Iran nuclear deal.
One Democratic strategist who asked for anonymity to speak candidly, recalled the “very warm” feelings among American Democrats toward Israel during the premierships of Yitzhak Rabin and then Shimon Peres in the 1990s.
“That just kind of crashed,” the strategist lamented. “With Netanyahu, he has been consistently resistant to Democratic administrations, while the base of the Democratic Party has been consistently frustrated by the lack of progress on Middle East peace. And, as a result, the finger-pointing in the political narrative has shifted from the Palestinians to Israel.”
Criticism of Israel isn’t all confined to the left of the Democratic Party, either. Twenty-eight Democratic senators demanded a cease-fire earlier this week in a letter spearheaded by 34-year-old Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.).
The overall situation saddens many advocates within the American Jewish community.
“The message about the positive aspects of Israel has been drowned out, and what most often comes out in the media domain and the commentary domain are the difficult aspects of it,” said Joel Rubin, executive director of the American Jewish Congress. “It’s quite shocking to see how a country that is diverse and has a lot of modernity to it is crowded out. It is very hard in a crisis moment for Israel’s message to penetrate what we are seeing in the media narrative about this fighting.”
There are, too, some political dangers for Democrats in continuing down a path of strident criticism of Israel. Republicans have been seeking for years to make inroads with Jewish voters, who have traditionally favored Democratic candidates.
Some in the GOP have sought to cast the critics of Israel as giving aid and comfort to Hamas. More generally, Republicans are trying to seize the mantle as Israel’s defenders.
On Tuesday, 20 GOP senators introduced a resolution “reaffirming the United States’ unwavering commitment to our ally Israel and its right to take whatever means are necessary to stop the murder of its citizens.” Among the signatories were several potential 2024 presidential contenders, including Sens. Rick Scott (Fla.), Tom Cotton (Ark.), Ted Cruz (Texas), Josh Hawley (Mo.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.).
But for progressive Americans, including Jewish Americans, there is increasingly no way they can reconcile their own values with those of figures like Netanyahu — however much they hope for better days for Israel.
J Street’s Bayroff bemoaned “the ideology of Netanyahu and the Israeli right, as it has embraced more of the tactics of a right-wing ethnonationalism. … You could call it ‘illiberal democracy.’”
“That ideology,” he added, “is anathema to American liberals and progressives who want to build a diverse, liberal democracy rooted in equal rights for everyone.”
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.