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Why are Israel supporters so worried about a tiny boycott of Israeli president’s speech to Congress?

Many more lawmakers refused to hear Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech in 2015. But Isaac Herzog is no Netanyahu

When Ilhan Omar announced “there is no way in hell” that she would attend Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s Wednesday address to a joint session of Congress, there was anticipation that many of her colleagues might join her boycott.

The progressive Democratic from Minnesota listed nearly a dozen reasons to skip the speech. Among them: Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, the extremists who hold prominent posts within the Israeli government, and its judicial overhaul plan, which many fear will invest an outsized portion of power in right-wing lawmakers.

Those arguments, plus a recent poll, which showed that a plurality of Democrats sympathize more with the Palestinians than the Israelis in the Middle East conflict, might have seemed to have been enough to prompt more than “The Squad,” a group of progressives that has tried to push their Democratic colleagues leftward, to absent themselves.

But as of Tuesday morning, only five Democrats, all of them Squad members, have committed to skipping the speech: Omar, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Cori Bush and Jamaal Bowman. It is unclear if Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts will attend.

Still, some wonder if this is a watershed moment in the intra-party shift on Israel, with an increasing number of Democrats wanting to have nothing to do with the Jewish state. It at least seems more alarming than the larger boycott of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — reviled on the left in both Israel and the U.S. — when he addressed Congress in 2015 to oppose the Iran nuclear deal backed by President Barack Obama.

Herzog holds a largely ceremonial post, is the former leader of Israel’s former leader of Israel’s Labor Party, which has historically represented the country’s liberal establishment and spearheaded the Oslo Accords, and is working to blunt the sharpest edges of the judicial plan.

What does it say about the hardening and growth of opposition to Israel among Democrats when backs turn on Herzog? Is any Israeli acceptable to the Democratic left?

“The boycott of the Israeli President is part of an ongoing effort to mainstream the extreme delegitimization of Israel,” said Ritchie Torres, a New York congressman who has been taken to task by the left and faced social media harassment for his strong defense of Israel.

Boycotts by the numbers

The number of lawmakers boycotting Herzog matches the number who boycotted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech to Congress last week. It does not approach the 58 Democrats who boycotted Netanyahu eight years ago when Republican congressional leaders broke protocol by inviting him over President Obama’s wishes.

Herzog, though, is widely seen as a peacemaker, in contrast to the polarizing Netanyahu. He comes to the U.S. to press some political points, but also to remind Americans of their alliance with Israel and to commemorate the Jewish state’s 75th anniversary. A boycott of his speech, as opposed to Netanyahu’s, may seem more like a boycott of Israel itself.

Jewish leaders and liberal groups have attempted to downplay Omar’s efforts, and to take pains to show their own support for Herzog and Israel.

“I’d be careful not to overstate the impact of the very small handful of Democrats who are reportedly not attending the speech,” said Logan Bayroff, a spokesperson for J Street, a lobbying group that takes progressive stances on Israel. “I think it’s clear that the most mainstream position in the Democratic Party right now, including among progressives, remains pro-Israel, pro-peace and pro-democracy.”

‘Not a reason for panic’

Malcolm Hoenlein, vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and its longtime former leader, said while the growing voices of Israel critics should not be dismissed, “it’s certainly not a reason for panic.” He added that Jewish groups should be encouraged to put in greater effort in identifying and supporting candidates running for office who are pro-Israel.

Senior Congressional Democrats issued statements announcing they would attend the Herzog speech. “As the most senior Jewish Member of Congress, I look forward to President Herzog’s visit to Washington,” Rep. Jerry Nadler, dean of the informal congressional Jewish Caucus, tweeted, “particularly his address to Congress, where I’m eager to hear his perspectives on strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship and how Congress can best support a democratic Israel.”

The Jewish Democratic Council of America said in a statement that they are “proud that the vast and overwhelming majority of Democrats share our steadfast commitment to Israel’s security and will ensure this continues now and in the future.”

Resistance to Omar’s movement also came from Netanyahu’s foes in Israel. The coalition of organizations behind the protest movement there released a letter on Monday to all members of Congress, urging them to push back against Netanyahu but not boycott Herzog.

“Please remember that President Yitzhak Herzog, an honorable man and true patriot, does not represent the government of Mr. Netanyahu and does not echo the worldview or interests of his extremist, messianic government,” they wrote.

The racism remark

Omar might have recruited more Democrats to her boycott of Herzog had it not been for an incendiary comment from another member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which put Israel’s critics in Congress on defense.

Pramila Jayapal, chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, on Saturday called Israel a “racist state” for its treatment of Palestinians. On Sunday she walked back the remark amid backlash from her colleagues and party leadership. House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries and his team put out a statement saying, “Israel is not a racist state.” Another group of 43 Democrats signed onto a joint statement declaring, “We will never allow anti-Zionist voices that embolden antisemitism to hijack the Democratic Party.”

Jayapal’s remark seemed to play into the hands of Republicans, who have pointed to anti-Zionist Democrats as the reason the party can’t be trusted to support and protect Israel. The Republican leadership on Tuesday will introduce a resolution to force House Democrats to go on the record on Israel.

“Unfortunately, the anti-Israel caucus of the Democratic party continues to gain strength,” said Sam Markstein, the Republican Jewish Coalition’s national political director. “Radicals inside the Democratic party are ruining the bipartisan support that has always existed for Israel.”

Jayapal has not said whether she will attend Herzog’s speech.

Jewish support for the boycott

At least one Jewish group defended the boycott, in spite of the contrast between Netanyahu and Herzog.

Jews For Racial & Economic Justice, a New York-based progressive advocacy group, praised Ocasio-Cortez and Bowman for skipping Wednesday’s event.

“President Herzog is not Netanyahu, nor is he part of Netanyahu’s far-right political alliance,” it said in a statement, “but in delivering a joint session speech, Herzog speaks as a representative of the Israeli government — a government actively engaging in apartheid, land theft, and violence against Palestinians.” The group called Herzog “simply a more palatable representative to cover up the violent reality on the ground.”

Herzog will likely receive a warm bipartisan welcome on Wednesday before a Congress that overwhelmingly supports the U.S. alliance with Israel as a crucial strategic and military ally in the Middle East.

But Israel supporters in the audience will still worry that the few will become many. Torres points to Britain as he continues to caution American Jews about anti-Israel sentiment in Congress.

“Members of Congress would do well not to import the politics of Jeremy Corbyn, who made the British Labor Party a shadow of its former self,” he said.

This post was updated. 

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