Progressives and Palestinians

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Last year three established human rights organizations with reputations for reliable findings produced fact-based public reports demonstrating Israel’s apartheid nature. Notably, B’tselem, Israel’s own human rights organization, produced its report in January of 2021. Amnesty International followed in February and Human Rights Watch in April. In many ways these reports describe in real life what Oscar Wilde sought to portray in his novel, A Portrait of Dorian Gray, the anti-human behavior of an otherwise adored identity.

The Israeli government reacted in two ways:  (1) They denounced these reports as anti-Semitic. For instance, according to the Israeli foreign minister, Amnesty International in particular wasn’t “a human rights organization but just another radical organization which echoes propaganda without seriously checking the facts. Instead of seeking the truth, Amnesty echoes the same lies shared by terrorist organizations.” This reaction ignored the fact that Amnesty’s report “stemmed from a five-year analysis of Israeli civilian and military law.” The findings also matched those of the two other respected human rights groups mentioned above, as well as the conclusions of former president Jimmy Carter in his 2006 book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. At the time of its publication, Carter was denounced by Israel and its allies in the United States with similar charges of anti-Semitism.

All of this must have caused the Israeli authorities much frustration, considering that they cannot shut down the organizations issuing the reports. This was apparently the case even with B’tselem, which is internationally supported and respected. However, there were other Palestinian-run human rights groups, including the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees, and the Defense for Children-Palestine, located in the Israeli-controlled Occupied Territories. These proved vulnerable to Zionist authorities looking to vent their anger. This was the second, somewhat belated reaction to the human rights reports. (2) In August of 2022, “Israeli forces raided the offices of seven Palestinian human rights groups causing extensive property damage and issuing military orders to shut them down. This followed Israel’s earlier characterization of those organizations as ‘terrorist’ and ‘unlawful.’” Here, it turned out, it was the Israelis who were “echoing propaganda without seriously checking the facts.” According to United Nations observers, “these designations and declarations are illegitimate and unjustifiable and no concrete and credible evidence substantiating Israel’s allegations has ever been provided.”

There was one other action that may or may not be directly connected to Israel’s defiance of the apartheid charge but is worth noting in this context. On 11 May 2022, Israeli soldiers killed the Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in the occupied city of Jenin. Abu Akleh worked for Al Jazeera and had successfully reported on Israeli human rights abuses, among other topics, for years.

Progressive Except For Palestine (PEP)

A number of American politicians of liberal orientation, at least when it comes to domestic affairs, have defended Israeli behavior over the years and refuse to face the evidence for its apartheid character. For instance, Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, declared “By identifying Israel’s very establishment as the foundation for this accusation, Amnesty International has joined a growing chorus of vicious voices intent on denying Israel’s right to exist through slander, misinformation.” A group of selectively “progressive” members of the House of Representatives, including “U.S.  Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (FL-23) led Reps. Brad Schneider (IL-10), Lois Frankel (FL-21), Elaine Luria (VA-02), Kathy Manning (NC-06), Josh Gottheimer (NJ-05), Dean Phillips (MN-3), Brad Sherman (CA-30), and Jake Auchincloss (MA-04)” released a joint statement stating “We wholly reject Amnesty International UK’s report which is sadly, a biased report steeped in antisemitism and is part of Amnesty’s broad, decades-long campaign to criminalize and delegitimize the world’s only Jewish state.”

There were a small number of progressive Democrats who did support and promote the Amnesty report. These included Congresswomen Betty McCollum, Cori Bush, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib. Their stance reflected an effort to “push human rights issues to the fore within the Democratic Party, to shake Washington’s unconditional support for Israel.”

Then, in September 2022, addressing a Palestine Advocacy Day event, Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib brought forth this challenge. Her exact words were: “I want you all to know that among progressives, it becomes clear that you cannot claim to hold progressive values yet back Israel‘s apartheid government.” Tlaib’s assertion was a denial that one could be PEP.

For this public statement, she was immediately attacked with the same distorting rhetoric used against Jimmy Carter, Amnesty International, and other human rights organizations. Jonathan Greenblatt, head of the Zionist American organization, Anti-Defamation League, claimed that Tlaib “doubles down on her antisemitism by slandering Israel as an apartheid state.” The fact that Tlaib specifically identified apartheid with the character of Israeli policies and laws (all ultimately reformable) and not Judaism was omitted. The same distortion of Tliab’s words was made by numerous Democratic politicians. Typical was the reaction of Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY), the most senior Jewish lawmaker in the House, “I fundamentally reject the notion that one cannot support Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state and be a progressive.” Nadler continued. “I would happily put my progressive record and credentials up against anyone’s. It is both wrong and self-defeating for progressive leaders to abide such an offensive litmus [test].” Tliab is herself Palestinian American and much of her family resides in the Occupied Territories. She knows firsthand that the Zionist governmental structure of Israel is not democratic. Nadler might suspect this as well, but his political interests preclude ever admitting it. By the way, in terms of universal Jewish values, Israel is not particularly “Jewish” either.

Contradictory Behavior

The issue of ignoring the facts made public by an array of human rights organizations and now reinforced by the reported repressive behavior of the Israeli authorities, is an important one for American politicians who claim to be progressives. This is so, if for no other reason than “human beings strive for internal psychological consistency to function mentally in the real world.” American politicians and other supporters of Israel who deny there is any apartheid problem face the cognitive dissonance that comes with “holding two or more contradictory beliefs, thoughts, or values at the same time.”

Consider the defensive reactions of those with progressive self-images whose political or religious positions demand of them that they publicly support an apartheid state. When they are criticized for taking contradictory positions, they “do all in their power to achieve consistency.” They will rationalize, use confirmation bias to avoid contradictory evidence, and demonize those whose criticisms cause their distress. Insisting that Israel is a democratic state while labeling those who deny this as anti-Semites is a good example of just such mental gymnastics.


The issue of consistency has, at least momentarily, made more apparent the difference between domestic and foreign policy.

In the U.S., there are traditionally two views of foreign policy. One is known as “realist” and it supports the alleged need to accept harsh realities about the world of nation states and design a foreign policy accordingly. Past and present attempts at regime change, ignoring the issue of human rights when setting policy and accepting as allies various abusive nations, and similar morally blind behavior can be considered elements of a “realist” foreign policy. The other view is known as “idealist.” A foreign policy that takes into consideration human rights records and does so despite the other country’s being a traditional friend or foe, would be an example of this type of foreign policy.

At the moment the Democratic Party, no doubt in reaction to the near fascist turn of the Republicans, is moving domestically in a progressive (idealist) direction. There are increasing, though not overwhelming, numbers of democrats who would like to see U.S. foreign policy reflect the progressive values of domestic policy, thus bringing the two under the same guiding principles. While the uncritical support of apartheid Israel stands out like a proverbial sore thumb in this regard, it simultaneously draws public attention to the larger problem of lack of consistency. In the end, all our interests, both at home and abroad, are best served by the promotion and protection of human rights rather than the present hypocritical posturing that attempts to justify being PEP.


Supporters of Israel have adopted the tactic of labeling critics of the Zionist state, almost all of whom are active progressives, as anti-Semites. There is something both absurd and chilling about this position. On the one hand, based on the evidence, it is the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians that is racist. Keep in mind that apartheid is officially a crime against humanity. Yet the Zionists label those critical of Israel on this very point, as themselves racists (anti-Semites). It is an absurd charge. On the other hand, the Zionist response is chilling. Their demand is really that the world make an exception for the horrid behavior of the Israeli state. However, If you allow for exceptions to who is and is not deserving of human rights, as do those who espouse a PEP stance, you make possible a dehumanizing scenario. With fascism on the rise, there are plenty of folks, both at home and abroad, who are ready to deny those same rights to progressives.

There is a fitting message that is prominently displayed at the U.S.  Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. It is a quote from German Lutheran pastor, Martin Neimöller:

“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

To be a progressive, indeed, to be a decent human being, requires that one speaks out for Palestinian human rights.

Lawrence Davidson is a retired professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, PA.