bombed the Gaza Strip
in response to rockets fired by the Palestinian militant group Hamas
on Thursday night, Rep. Rashida Tlaib
, a Detroit
Democrat and Congress
' only Palestinian American, delivered a tearful plea for solidarity with Palestinians
living under Israeli military occupation on the House floor.
“Can you help me understand the math: How many Palestinians must die for their lives to matter?” Tlaib asked, wearing a traditional Palestinian “keffiyeh” scarf around her neck. “Life under apartheid deprives Palestinians of human dignity.”
Democratic Reps. Mark Pocan (Wis.), Ayanna Pressley (Mass. ), Ilhan Omar (Minn.), Betty McCollum (Minn.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
(N.Y.), Cori Bush (Mo.), André Carson (Ind.), Jes “Chuy” Garcia (Ill.), and Jan Schakowsky (Ill.) all joined Tlaib in delivering critical remarks during what could be Congress’ first-
This group of 11 lawmakers, including Rep. Marie Newman (Ill.), who co-sponsored the absentee speeches, made a point of objecting to Palestinian militant groups' targeting of Israeli civilians at times.
But their main departure from traditionally bipartisan, pro-Israel orthodoxy was that the US should use its clout as Israel's primary benefactor to prevent disproportionate retaliation by Israeli forces and encourage an end to the ethnocratic occupation of territory captured in 1967.
The pro-Palestinian speeches, as well as a slew of other statements, bills, and policy initiatives, reflect a growing sympathy for the Palestinian cause among Americans in general, and Democrats
in particular, which is finally manifesting itself on Capitol
The changes are not yet transformative, as proponents of unconditional support for Israeli government policy continue to call the shots. The prospect of a US president or Congress willing to threaten withholding of financial or diplomatic aid to Israel in order to slow the growth of settlement in the occupied Palestinian territories, or other practices that violate international law, is exciting.
The face of Israeli politics
has become increasingly, and openly racist
Palestinian-American activist Yousef Munayyer
However, advocates for Palestinian freedom say that there is a growing bloc of pro-Palestinian dissenters in Congress, which represents a sea change from just a few years ago.
“There is a far stronger cohort of Democrats in the House and Senate
making statements that have not been made in the past, and that’s noticeable,” said James Zogby, founder and president of the Arab American Institute. “It’s reflective of the party’s shifting demographics and shifting attitudes.”
Perhaps no lawmaker exemplifies this shift more than Sen. Elizabeth Warren
(D-Mass.). In August 2014, Warren stunned many progressives
with her impassioned defense of Israeli bombardments of Gaza, including the targeting of schools and hospitals, on the grounds that Palestinian militants used those sites to launch attacks. The position placed her to the right of then-President Barack Obama
Warren also questioned the idea of putting tougher conditions on US aid to Israel in order to persuade it to change its policies.
Nearly seven years later, Warren has changed her tune. In late April
, she expressed openness to limiting military aid to Israel as a means of achieving a two-state solution, calling it “irresponsible not to consider all of the tools we have at our disposal.” A few weeks later, she was one of only a few members of Congress to openly condemn the Israeli government’s illegal expulsion of Palestinians from Gaza.
Meanwhile, efforts to condition aid to Israel are gaining traction in Congress, albeit slowly. Newman, a freshman progressive lawmaker who ousted a more conservative Democrat with the help of Chicago's Arab American and Muslim communities, spearheaded a letter with 24 co-signers calling on Biden to pressure Israel to halt the evictions in Sheikh Jarrah that sparked the current round of violence.
McCollum has also introduced legislation that would “ensure that United States taxpayer funds are not used by the Government of Israel to support the military detention of Palestinian children
, the unlawful seizure, appropriation, and destruction of Palestinian property, forcible transfer of civilians in the West Bank, or further annexation of Palestinian land in violation of international law.”
In late April, roughly three-quarters of the House, including a majority of Democrats, signed a letter promoted by the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) reiterating their belief that the US’ annual $3.8 billion aid to Israel should remain unconditional.
Nonetheless, some pro-Palestinian advocates found solace in the fact that more than 75 Democrats refused to sign the letter, which would not have happened in the past.
In light of recent events, Zogby speculated that “you would not get that same number of signatures on that AIPAC sign-on letter today.”
A number of factors, according to progressive Middle East experts, explain Congress's small but growing faction of outspoken Israel critics.
We would be in a very different place today if it weren't for young, Jewish progressives.
Arab American Institute's Dr. James Zogby
The dramatic rightward shift in Israeli politics during Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
's 12-year tenure is perhaps the most important reason.
During a 2015 reelection campaign, Netanyahu's rejection of a two-state solution and efforts to capitalize on racism
toward the country's minority Arab citizens drew criticism from some Democratic lawmakers. A few months later, the prime minister chose to defy Obama by delivering a speech to Congress opposing the Iran nuclear deal
And Netanyahu's close relationship with President Donald Trump
only cemented his image as a right-wing bogeyman whom liberals could condemn as "racist" without fear of major political repercussions.
Furthermore, Netanyahu's grip on power reflects a wider reactionary shift in Israeli politics, making it more difficult for the Israeli government to sell Americans on the country's status as an LGBTQ- and vegan-friendly oasis of liberalism.
For example, in 1988, the Israeli Knesset outlawed the political party of far-right extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane, citing an Israeli law that prohibited explicitly racist parties.
Some of Kahane's supporters now not only hold Knesset seats, but are also poised to serve in Netanyahu's next governing coalition. Young Jewish supremacists aligned with Kahane were also leading the charge to expel Palestinians from Sheikh Jarrah and, later, terrorize Palestinian citizens in cities near Tel Aviv.
“The face of Israeli politics has become increasingly, brazenly racist,” Yousef Munayyer, a Palestinian activist in Washington born in the ethnically mixed Israeli city of Lod, said. “The entire Israeli political spectrum is now dominated by the right.”
The shifting political winds in Israel have made it easier for the American public to recognize what many Palestinians say has always been the case: that Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories and discrimination against Arab citizens contradict American values of freedom, equality, and individual rights regardless of race or background.
Because so much of the Israeli government's argument is based on portraying the two countries' bond as arising from a shared set of liberal, democratic values, Israel's deterioration as a liberal bastion has had political ramifications.
“The myth of shared values is dispelling itself,” Munayyer said.
Simultaneously, a nascent left wing in America, energized in recent years by Sen. Bernie Sanders
' (I-Vt.) presidential candidacy and the Black Lives Matter
movement, has mobilized to demonstrate that pro-Palestinian voters
are a constituency with clout.
According to Zogby, the emergence of a vocal and organized community of Jewish Israel critics, ranging from the moderate J Street to more radical factions such as IfNotNow and Jewish Voices for Peace, has created space
for Arab Americans and other non-Jews to criticize the Israeli government without fear of being labeled an antisemite.
“We would be in a very different place right now if it hadn’t been for young, Jewish progressives,” Zogby said.
Sanders, a secular Jew who grew up on an Israeli kibbutz, has spoken passionately about his Jewish pride as well as his support for Palestinian rights and statehood. During a presidential primary debate with Hillary Clinton in Brooklyn in 2016, he surprised many observers with his pointed criticism of the Israeli government, and he remains one of Congress' leading voices for Palestinian rights and statehood.
Of course, the Democrats whose positions on Israel-Palestine matter the most are far more conservative.
The White House
of President Joe Biden
, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi
(D-Calif.), and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer
(D-N.Y.) continue to support the Israeli government's narrative
that its actions are solely those of a normal, liberal nation-state defending its citizens from terrorism.
And, before the pro-Palestinian Democrats took the floor, a different group of more moderate Democrats delivered speeches vehemently defending Israel's actions.
The pro-Israel wing of the party, on the other hand, is showing signs of trepidation.
Under pressure, the US government agreed to a security council meeting about the conflict this Sunday, despite its usual role as a diplomatic shield for Israel.
When asked to defend the Israeli military's killing of Palestinian children in airstrikes
on Monday, State Department spokesperson Ned Price appeared flustered.
“I understand we don’t have independent confirmation of facts on the ground yet, so I’m very hesitant to get into reports that are just emerging,” he responded, clearly uncomfortable, adding, “Obviously, the deaths of civilians, whether Israeli or Palestinian, are something we would take very seriously.”
Right-wing pro-Israel advocates have correctly identified bipartisan support for Israel as a critical bulwark against tighter conditions on US aid to Israel and other deviations from the blanket-level US support that these advocates see as critical to Israel's security.
Faced with the prospect of more strident Israel critics gaining even a foothold within the Democratic Party
, pro-Israel donors across the country have scrambled to intervene in several pivotal primary elections
against left-leaning Democrats.
The Democratic Majority for Israel, a super PAC run by Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, spent $1.4 million in the 2020 presidential primary attacking Sanders.
While Sanders lost for entirely different reasons, these right-wing pro-Israel organizations have suffered a number of high-profile defeats in other races. DMFI’s generosity failed to prevent then-House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel from losing to Israel critic Jamaal Bowman in New York’s Democratic primary
last June, despite the district’s large and active Jewish community.
Similarly, despite a cash infusion from pro-Israel political action committees, pro-Israel attorney Antone Melton-Meaux was unable to unseat Omar in Minnesota
's Democratic primary in August.
Now, DMFI and the like-minded Pro-Israel America have intervened in the contentious Democratic primary to succeed Housing
and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge in Ohio
's 11th Congressional District, supporting Cuyahoga County Councilwoman Shontel Brown against former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner, a Sanders ally who supports imposing stricter conditions on US aid to Israel.
Turner has a significant fundraising advantage, but DMFI's status as a super PAC exempt from regular campaign fundraising limits may help balance the scales.
A Turner victory in the Democratic Party's primary on Aug. 4 would be a major setback for the Democratic Party's historically dominant pro-Israel consensus.
“DMFI went after her right away,” Zogby explained, “and we'll see how the race goes.”