At a recent virtual J Street Conference, US Senators, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren broke yet another political taboo when they expressed willingness to leverage US military aid as a way to pressure Israel to respect Palestinian human rights.
Sanders believes that the US “must be willing to bring real pressure to bear, including restricting US aid, in response to moves by either side that undermine the chances for peace,” while Warren showed a willingness to restrict military aid as a “tool” to push Israel to “adjust course”.
Generally, Sanders’ increasingly Pro-Palestinian stances are more progressive than those of Warren, although both are still hovering within the mainstream Democratic discourse – willingness to criticize Israel as long as that criticism is coupled with equal – if not even more pointed – criticism of the Palestinians.
Seraj Assi explained this dichotomy in an article published in Jacobin Magazine: “Sanders’ stance on Israel-Palestine could undoubtedly be more progressive. He has consistently voted in favor of US military aid to Israel, which subsidizes occupation, settlement expansion, and systematic violence against Palestinians. He still opposes the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) campaign, signing onto an anti-BDS letter to the UN Secretary-General in 2017 and reiterating his opposition to BDS”, years later.
However, as Assi himself indicated, Sanders’ position on Palestine and Israel cannot be judged simply based on some imagined ideal, but within the context of the US’ own political culture, one in which any criticism of Israel is viewed as ‘heretical’, if not outright anti-Semitic.
Sanders’ influence on the overall Democratic political discourse is also palpable, as he has paved the way for more radical, younger voices in the US Congress who now openly criticize Israel, while remaining largely unscathed by the wrath of the pro-Israel lobby, mainly the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
Gone are the days when AIPAC and other pro-Israel pressure groups shaped domestic American political discourse on Israel and Palestine. Nothing indicates that the tide has completely turned against Israel, as this is nowhere close, yet. However, a decisive US public opinion shift must also not be ignored. It is this popular shift that is empowering voices within the Democratic Party to speak out more freely without jeopardizing their political careers, as was often the case in the past.
In order to decipher the roots of the anti-Israeli occupation, pro-Palestinian sentiments among Democrats, these numbers could be helpful. While Sanders, Warren and other Democratic officials who are willing to criticize Israel but vehemently reject BDS, the public within the Democratic Party does not hold the same view. An early 2020 Brookings Institute poll found that, among Democrats who had heard about BDS, “a plurality, 48%, said they supported the Movement, while only 15% said they opposed it.”
This indicates that grassroots activism, which directly engages with ordinary Americans, is largely shaping their views on the Movement to boycott Israel. Ordinary Democrats are leading the way, while their representatives are merely trying to catch up.
Other numbers are also indicative of the fact that the vast majority of Americans oppose pro-Israeli efforts to promote laws and legislations that criminalize boycotts as a political tool, as such laws, they rightly believe, infringe on the constitutional rights to free speech. Expectedly, 80% Democrats lead the way in opposing such measures, followed by 76% independents, then 62% among Republicans.
Such news must be disturbing for Tel Aviv as it has heavily invested, through AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups, in branding BDS or any other movement that criticizes Israel’s military , ation and systematic apartheid in Palestine, as anti-Semitic.
Israelis find this new phenomenon quite confounding. Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has been repeatedly criticized in the past, even by mainstream Israeli officials and media pundits, for turning Democrats against Israel by unabashedly siding with former President Donald Trump and his Republican Party against their domestic rivals. Hence, Netanyahu has turned the support of Israel from being a bipartisan issue into a Republican-only cause.
A February 2020 Gallup poll perfectly reflected that reality as it found that a majority of Democrats, 70%, support the establishment of a Palestinian State, in comparison with 44% Republicans.
The rooted support for Israel among establishment Democrats is too deep – and well-funded – to be erased in a few years, but the pro-Palestine, anti-Israeli-occupation trend continues unabated, even after the defeat of Trump at the hands of Democratic candidate, now President, Joe Biden.
The last year, in particular, was possibly difficult for the Israel lobby, which is unaccustomed to electoral disappointments. Last June, for example, the lobby painted itself into a corner when it rallied behind one of the most faithful Israel supporters, Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, depicting his opponent, Jamaal Bowman, as ‘anti-Israel’.
Bowman was hardly anti-Israel, though his position is relatively more moderate than the extremist one-sided views of Engel. In fact, Bowman had made it clear that he continues to support US aid to Israel and openly opposed BDS. However, unlike Engel, Bowman was not the perfect candidate whose love for Israel is blind, unconditional and ever-lasting. To the embarrassment of the lobby, Engel lost his seat in the US Congress, one which he had held for more than 30 years.
Unlike Bowman, Cori Bush, a grassroots activist from Missouri who has ousted the pro-Israel candidate, Congressman William Lacy Clay, has defended the Palestine boycott Movement as being a matter of freedom of speech, despite a relentless smear campaign describing her as ‘anti-Semitic’ for merely appearing in photos with pro-Palestinian activists. Last August, Bush – a black woman from a humble background – became US Representative for Missouri’s 1st congressional district, despite all pro-Israeli efforts to deny her such a position.
Indeed, it is important to acknowledge the role played by individuals in the undeniable shift within the American political discourse on Palestine and Israel. However, it is ordinary people who are making the real difference. While the Israel lobby still wields the dual weapon of money and propaganda, politically engaged grassroots activism is proving decisive in garnering American solidarity with Palestine, while slowly translating this solidarity into actual political gains.