Don’t Believe The Hype. 2020 Won’t Be About Israel.
There’s a narrative emerging on the left that’s surprising only because it’s so commonplace on the right: the idea that the Democratic Party is abandoning Israel.
Thus, when freshmen congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar came out in support of the boycott effort against Israel, known as BDS, you saw commentary from Republicans jubilant that they could now call the Democratic Party the Party of BDS; interestingly, you saw the same commentary from the left, which now had reason to hope that one day, the Democratic Party would become the Party of BDS.
A recent BuzzFeed article took things one step further, predicting that these two congresswomen would be setting the agenda for what BuzzFeed called “The Great Foreign Policy Debate Of The Democratic Primary.”
Quoting a series of left-wing activists, including Omar Barghouti, one of the founders of the BDS movement, as well as one unnamed “Republican congressional source,” the article concluded that Tlaib and Omar are “pushing the progressive groups that back them to take more aggressive stances on the issue than they might otherwise, a posture which could make it a litmus test in 2020 defining what it means to be a progressive Democrat.”
Of course, the unnamed Republican source agreed.
But the far-left is just as wrong to be jubilant as the right. The truth is, the Democratic Party is as pro-Israel as it’s ever been. Every Democratic contender, both announced and likely, is on the record supporting a two-state solution to the conflict.
What’s more, Senators Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker, and Amy Klobuchar have all opposed the boycott. So have Beto O’Rourke, Tulsi Gabbard, Andrew Cuomo, Jay Inslee, Eric Garcetti and Bill de Blasio.
It’s true that most of the Senate Democratic caucus voted against an anti-BDS bill that would allow states to penalize support for the boycott. Some Democrats who supported a version of that bill last year, like Chuck Schumer, still voted against it because it failed to solve the shutdown. Others like Gillibrand, Sanders and Dianne Feinstein also opposed those bills because of First Amendment concerns. “It’s absurd that the first bill during the shutdown is legislation which punishes Americans who exercise their constitutional right to engage in political activity,” Sanders tweeted.
Two federal courts have agreed with Sanders, declaring such bills to be unconstitutional violations of the First Amendment.
But this hasn’t stopped Republicans from cynically conflating opposition these bills with support for the boycott, smearing the Democratic Party as anti-Israel. In this vein, Marco Rubio alleged, absent any proof, that “a significant # of Senate Democrats now support #BDS.”
The shutdown is not the reason Senate Democrats don’t want to move to Middle East Security Bill.
A huge argument broke out at Senate Dem meeting last week over BDS. A significant # of Senate Democrats now support #BDS & Dem leaders want to avoid a floor vote that reveals that.
— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) January 7, 2019
Opposition to our bill isn’t about free speech. Companies are FREE to boycott Israel. But local & state governments should be FREE to end contracts with companies that do.
Many claim they oppose BDS. But shielding BDS from counter-boycotts is de facto support of BDS.
— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) January 8, 2019
Needless to say, Rubio — like Barghouti — is wrong about this. Many American Jews who view BDS as anti-Semitic oppose legislating against it, for the simple reason that we don’t ban things just because we don’t like them.
Equating opposition to anti-BDS bills with support for BDS is asking you accept that standing up for the Constitution of the United States is anti-Israel, as ridiculous a claim as there ever was.
It’s true that bipartisan support for Israel seems to be faltering. But it’s not because the Democrats are anti-Israel; it’s for the opposite reason entirely. Bipartisan support for Israel is faltering because the two parties have different ideas of what it means to be pro-Israel.
Sanders, who is firmly supportive of Israel’s right to exist, has been much more willing to be critical of Israel than past Democratic contenders. It was something that distinguished him from Hillary Rodham Clinton in the 2016 primaries, and Sanders has since shown himself willing to criticize Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. After dozens of protesting Palestinians were killed at the Gaza border, Sanders initiated a letter, signed by 12 other senators (including Warren), criticizing the Trump administration’s Palestinian policy and challenging Israel’s blockade of the strip.
But this hardly makes him the BDS-supporting anti-Zionist that the left — and the right — want him to be. It makes him someone who doesn’t see criticism of Israel as conflicting with support for Israel, just like the vast majority of American Jews.
The surest sign that Sanders is toeing a line on Israel may be that his protégée, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has not joined Omar and Tlaib when the two declared themselves to be supporters of the boycott. Ocasio-Cortez, one of the most prominent and talked-about new legislators, has an enormous amount of star and legislative power. And yet, since a few initial stumbles on the topic, she has remained silent about Israel and BDS, despite both being in the news.
If Ocasio-Cortez comes out in support of BDS, we can start talking about the party moving in that direction. But I don’t think she will.
The truth is, Israel is simply not a priority for most Americans. You would be hard pressed to find someone who voted for Sanders over Clinton simply because of Israel.
And if the Democratic Party is more willing to be critical of Israel while remaining suspicious of the threat the BDS movement poses, these are good things that are consistent with the views of most American Jews — as well as with the moniker “pro-Israel.” As a recent survey by the Mellman Group concluded, American Jews see no conflict between being critical of Israel and being pro-Israel. And they saw no conflict between being Democrats and being pro-Israel. The opposite: “American Jews see Democrats as a pro-Israel party,” the survey concluded. “Nearly two-thirds (64%) of Jewish voters believe Democrats are ‘pro-Israel,’ including 84% of those who identify themselves as Democrats.”
Democrats aren’t the anti-Israel party; they are the party that, like the vast majority of American Jews, believe being pro-Israel means holding Israel to the same standards we hold ourselves.
Enough with the hysterics. And let’s not let the right dictate the terms of this debate.
Batya Ungar-Sargon is the opinion editor of the Forward.