As deadly violence erupts in Israel, with Hamas raining rockets on Israeli civilians and the Israeli military striking at Hamas targets in heavily populated areas, President Biden has expressed full support for Israel even while calling for a cease fire. Yet voices harshly critical of Israel are louder than ever in the Democratic Party — mostly from its newly strong progressive wing.
"Apartheid states aren’t democracies," tweeted New York’s Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, repeating a now-familiar charge against Israel. Another progressive representative from New York, Jamaal Bowman, issued a statement that made a passing mention of Hamas rockets but focused on abuses and violence toward Palestinians while urging the Biden administration to seek de-escalation.
What accounts for this shift? Partly, it’s the fact that the Israel/Palestine problem seems more intractable than ever. Partly, it’s the tendency of Republicans, especially the Trump administration, to flaunt support for Israel as a partisan issue.
But the rise in anti-Israel attitudes also has to do with the new progressivism that now has a strong presence in the Democratic Party — an outlook focused on racial and cultural identities, the oppression of nonwhite people by white European power structures, and the "intersection" of various oppressions. For many progressives, the struggle for the rights of Palestinians in the territories occupied by Israel is inseparable from the struggle for Black and Hispanic civil rights in the United States.
Underscoring this theme, Bowman tweeted his statement on the situation in Israel with the comment, "Enough of Black and brown bodies being brutalized and murdered."
Rep. Rashida Tlaib, the Palestinian-American congresswoman from Michigan, made the U.S.-Israel parallel more explicit: "What they are doing to the Palestinians is what they are doing to our Black brothers and sisters here," she told a crowd last week at a "Free Palestine" rally in front of the State Department. While some Twitter commenters suggested that "they" was an anti-Semitic dog-whistle, it is likely Tlaib was referring to white oppressors.
Yet, as Israeli-American commentator Liel Leibovitz points out in the Jewish magazine Tablet, this projection is misguided and misleading. Much of the Jewish population of Israel is made up of people with Middle Eastern roots who can also be considered "brown." It also includes a large community of Black Ethiopian Jews.
The conflict in Israel has complex historical roots whose specifics are hotly disputed. It is about competing claims to the land, between a people returning to its ancient roots after centuries of exile and persecution and a people that has lived on that land for generations. In recent decades, the Palestinian leadership has rejected several conflict-ending deals; the Israeli leadership has shown intransigence in developing Israeli settlements that displace more Palestinians. Even many strong supporters of Israel acknowledge that the government of Benjamin Netanyahu has compromised Israel’s unique character as both a Jewish state and a multiethnic, multireligious democracy by pushing a law that recognizes only Jewish self-determination and embracing blatantly racist anti-Arab parties. Meanwhile, Hamas continues to reject peaceful coexistence and still calls for the ethnic cleansing of Jews.
Today, innocent lives are being destroyed and devastated by war. The Biden administration is right to pursue immediate de-escalation; beyond that, solutions remain tragically elusive. But such solutions certainly cannot be found by treating the conflict in Israel as a proxy for American racial politics.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine.