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Jewish Democrats contend with a wave of progressives who criticize Israel

By Charles Dunst

NEW YORK (JTA) – After Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shocked the political world by defeating longtime New York Rep. Joseph Crowley in a Democratic primary last month, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez quickly aligned himself with the former political outsider, saying on a radio show that “she represents the future of our party.”

If so, that future appears to include the kind of sharp criticism of Israel once considered taboo in both major parties.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez appears on “Meet the Press,” July 1, 2018. (William B. Plowman/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images)

Ocasio-Cortez ran on a platform of Medicare for all, fully funded public schools and a universal jobs guarantee. But she has also been critical of Israel, calling its military’s killing of Palestinian protesters in May a “massacre.”

The Democratic Socialists of America, of which Ocasio-Cortez is a member, supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel. Ocasio-Cortez has remained silent on the issue.

In Minnesota, Democratic congressional candidate Ilhan Omar calls herself an “intersectional feminist” and Israel an apartheid regime. In Virginia’s 5th Congressional District, Democratic nominee Leslie Cockburn is the co-author, along with her husband, of Dangerous Liaison: The Inside Story of the U.S.-Israeli Covert Relationship, a scathing 1991 attack on the Jewish state.

“It seems to me that some criticism of Israel is part of a package among young progressives along with health care for all and jobs for all,” Democratic strategist Brad Bannon told Newsweek.

That puts Democrats who are both liberal and pro-Israel in a bind. Whether the result of “intersectionality,” which links Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians to other left-wing causes or a willingness to call out its right-wing government, progressive criticism of Israel may make for some hard choices come Election Day.

According to a Pew Research Center survey, the percentage of Democrats saying they sympathize more with Israel than the Palestinians has declined from 38 percent in 2001 to 27 percent in 2018 – the lowest level of support on record. Support for Israel further decreased among self-identified “liberal” Democrats from 48 percent in 2001 to 19 percent in 2018. In the same time period, their support for Palestinians rose from 18 percent to 35 percent.

Although the Pew survey received notable criticism, the general trends it notes have been shown elsewhere.

Some credit Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., with normalizing such criticism of Israel. The 2016 Democratic presidential candidate recently called on the U.S. to adopt a more balanced policy toward Israel and the Palestinians. In late March, Sanders’ office posted three videos to social media harshly criticizing Israel for what he deemed its excessive use of force in Gaza and the Trump administration for not intervening during the border clashes.

Ilhan Omar at the premiere of “Time For Ilhan,” a film about her run for a congressional seat in Minnesota, at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City, April 21, 2018. (Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival)

Last year, Perez appointed as his DNC deputy Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, who in addition to being dogged by ties to the antisemitic Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan implied that U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East is “governed” by considerations of what is good or bad for Israel. (Ellison, who was the first Muslim elected to Congress, is running for attorney general in Minnesota and is not seeking re-election. Omar is seeking his seat.)

Left-wing activists have also drawn Democratic politicians into Israel controversies. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, a potential 2020 presidential candidate who has recently tacked left, penned a glowing Time magazine write-up of controversial progressive heroines and Women’s March leaders Tamika Mallory and Linda Sarsour. Mallory, in a non-apology  steeped in intersectional progressive terminology, has since defended her own relationship with Farrakhan following his recent antisemitic rants. Sarsour, who argued that Zionism and feminism are incompatible,  is a prominent supporter of BDS.

“There’s a lot of evidence that defining liberalism through an intersectional lens has had the effect of casting Israel as an ‘oppressor’ and thus a nation worthy of condemnation even as its actual policies on issues associated with intersectionality are infinitely better than those of its neighbors,” KC Johnson, a history professor at Brooklyn College, former Fulbright instructor at Tel Aviv University and regular Washington Post contributor, told JTA in an email interview.

The Republican Jewish Coalition is expected to make the rise of the Democratic left a target of its activism. RJC spokesman Neil Strauss told JTA that anti-Israel rhetoric in Democratic politics is a means to securing left-wing support.

“Democrats running in competitive primaries, some in swing districts, are getting left-wing, base votes by attacking Israel,” Strauss told JTA. ”Make no mistake about it, Scott Wallace, Leslie Cockburn, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and other candidates attacking Israel, one of our closest allies and the only democracy in the Middle East, is bad for U.S.-Israel relations. It is also a bad political strategy. We proved this when we educated the voters of PA-01 about the fact that the foundation that Wallace was in charge of, and which bears his family name, gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to organizations that support BDS and terrorism against Israel. The prestigious Cook Political Report moved his race from toss-up to lean Republican and specifically cited our ads in their write-up.”

Halie Soifer, the executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, said there is no contradiction between Zionism and Democratic politics.

“Given President Trump’s alignment with neo-Nazis and in his politicization of Israel as a partisan issue – not to mention his radically right-wing domestic agenda – we are confident that the overwhelming majority of the Jewish  electorate will continue  to  support Democrats in the upcoming election,” Soifer told JTA. “JDCA is supporting  Democratic candidates who  share our policy platform and values, and  we have, in some instances, spoken out against candidates who are not aligned with our views.”

Rabbi Jill Jacobs, the executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, said the Pew study was flawed, insofar as it suggested that support for either Israel or the Palestinians implies a lack of advocacy for the other.

Linda Sarsour speaking at the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health’s inaugural commencement ceremony at the Apollo Theatre in New York City, June 1, 2017. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)

“We need to stop asking questions, in polls and otherwise, that suggest that one must choose between the human rights of Israelis or Palestinians,” Jacobs said. “The only defensible position is one that stands up for the human rights of both – and insists that these are not in conflict. That means working toward two states and opposing the occupation and the growth of settlements that entrench it. This is the position of the Israeli left who should be the natural partners for the Democratic Party – in contrast to the Republican Party, which has allied itself with Likud, the Jewish Home party and the rest of the pro-settlement, pro-occupation hard right.”

Yet others see the Democrats continued embrace of progressive figures and Israel critics like Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, Ellison, Sarsour and Mallory as further divorcing their party from Israel, leaving liberal Zionists – a majority among American Jews – in political turmoil.

“Democratic base voters are more hostile to Israel than at any point in decades, which will produce a less supportive House Democratic caucus next year,” Johnson told JTA. “As the 2020 presidential primaries take shape, it’s easy to imagine more ideologically flexible contenders (such as Kirsten Gillibrand or Kamala Harris [the California senator]) sharply criticizing Israel to boost their standing with progressive activists.”

“Liberal Zionists,” Johnson warns, “will need to more effectively communicate how Israel’s policies on women’s issues, LGBT rights and civil rights are consistent with a Democratic Party increasingly oriented around identity politics.”

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