On her first day in Congress last month, Michigan Democrat Rashida Tlaib wore a Palestinian thobe, an embroidered hand-stitched dress that often signifies a person’s native Palestinian village. Her appearance inspired a viral #TweetyourThobe hashtag, inviting Palestinians around the world to share photos of their own thobes.
But it was more than a fashion statement for Tlaib.
She was sending a message: The first Palestinian-American woman to enter Congress is not afraid to speak her mind about her heritage — and about Israel’s harsh treatment of Palestinians. In fact, she’d been making waves for months, announcing in December 2018 that she wouldn’t be joining an annual summer junket to Israel organized by the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Instead, she is organizing her own congressional delegation to the occupied West Bank, rejecting a free trip that has become a rite of passage for new members of Congress looking to make their names on foreign policy.
“I know this is something my colleagues don't usually get to experience, and I think it's an essential part of taking a fully informed, human-centered and realistic approach as policymakers,” Tlaib told VICE News. “I hope it inspires us to choose values rather than sides.”
Tlaib joined Ilhan Omar, the newly elected Democrat from Minnesota, in becoming the first two members of Congress to endorse the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement — or BDS — a Palestinian-led initiative calling for boycotts of Israeli goods, divestment from companies doing business with Israel, and government sanctions over Israeli human-rights abuses. Their endorsements of BDS are a major achievement for a Palestinian rights movement that has largely been confined to college campuses and has been branded anti-Semitic by leading members of both parties, including Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.
For much of the past 50 years, Democrats and Republicans have appeared to be in lockstep in their support for Israel. But in supporting BDS, the stars of the Democratic freshman class of 2019 have broken the unspoken rule that criticism of Israel should be kept quiet. The movement is now the target of Republican-led legislation in the Senate designed to highlight emerging fault lines in the Democratic Party.
Tlaib and Omar are part of a small and influential group of freshman Democrats who aren’t afraid of criticizing Israel and challenging the nature of America’s decades-long relationship with it. First-term New Mexico Democrat Deb Haaland and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the progressive star representing parts of Queens and the Bronx, have both remained silent on BDS but haven’t shied away from voicing sharp criticism of Israel. While Democratic leaders like House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland defended Israel’s deadly crackdown on Palestinian protesters in May, Haaland called Israel’s actions “murder,” and Ocasio-Cortez called it a “massacre.”
“The Democratic Party is caught between a base ready to move forward on Palestinian rights and an establishment weary of what that means for donors who are more conservative.”
They’re driving a change in conversation about Israel in Washington and forcing Democratic leadership to choose between listening to an activist base increasingly critical of Israel or sticking with the status quo. The Democratic base is looking to do for Palestinian rights what they’ve done on issues like Medicare for All and what Ocasio-Cortez is now doing with the Green New Deal: push once-fringe ideas into the heart of the party platform.
“The Democratic Party is caught between a base ready to move forward on Palestinian rights and an establishment weary of what that means for donors who are more conservative,” said Yousef Munayyer, the executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights.
The Democratic Party’s more critical view of Israel is being pushed by a base that’s younger and populated by people of color and women, constituencies more likely to show sympathy for Palestinians. A 2018 Economist/YouGov poll found that 46 percent of men believe Israel is an ally, compared to only 29 percent of women. The poll also found that white people and older people were far more likely to see Israel as an ally than youth and black and Hispanic Americans.
In addition, American Jews, who voted for Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections by a 76-19 percent margin, are growing increasingly alienated from Israel’s right-wing leadership.
The growing distance between Israel and the Democratic Party has been years in the making. Democratic voters have looked askance as Israel has aggressively pursued its settlement building on Palestinian land, mounted harsh military campaigns against Palestinians, orchestrated high-profile rebukes of Democrats like President Obama, and aggressively courted Republicans.
“There is obviously a new generation less connected to Israel and to the bonds between the two communities in Israel and the United States.”
The divide became even more apparent following the massacre of 11 Jewish worshippers in Pittsburgh last October, when Israeli officials doubled down on their support for Trump, even as many American Jews blamed the president for empowering white supremacists like the shooter.
“There has been tremendous evolution of Israel politics in the Democratic Party over the last several years, tremendous movement away from pro-Bibi, Israel-is-always-right positioning, the mainstay of American politics on a whole until four or five years ago,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, executive director of J Street, a liberal Israel advocacy group.
These cracks in the perennial pro-Israel consensus have already prompted the establishment of a new group with ties to AIPAC, called Democratic Majority for Israel. Led by establishment Democrats like former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, its sole focus is keeping Democrats pro-Israel.
For Israelis keen on maintaining bipartisan support for the Jewish state, the growing partisan divide is cause for alarm.
“There is obviously a new generation less connected to Israel and to the bonds between the two communities in Israel and the United States,” said Oded Eran, a former deputy chief of the Israeli embassy in Washington and a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. “There is a recognition in the [Israeli] government…that the demographic changes plus the erosion of the views on Israel in the young liberal generation in the United States need to be attended to.”
Still, while there’s a growing number of lawmakers willing to criticize Israel, the Democratic Party leadership remains wedded to the status quo of backing Israel uncritically. Rep. Hoyer recently endorsed Israel’s bid to have the U.S. recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in 1967 and annexed in 1981, and New York Rep. Eliot Engel just last week criticized Tlaib’s planned delegation to the West Bank, calling her “closed-minded.”
Engel, a pro-Israel politician, was among a slate of recent high-profile appointments by Nancy Pelosi that outlined a similarly hawkish view toward israel. Pelosi tapped him to lead the House Foreign Affairs Committee, where he’ll have to work with Rep. Omar. Pelosi also tapped New York Democrat Nita Lowey, who applauded the U.S. embassy move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, to head the House committee that writes legislation on U.S. foreign aid, including U.S. military aid to Israel.
At the same time, the Republican base has become more fervent in its support for Israel — 87 percent of Republicans sympathize with Israel, up from 59 percent in 2001, according to a Gallup poll conducted last March. Christian evangelicals, who comprise a core part of the Republican base, see U.S. support for Israel as a biblical imperative. The Republican Party has also become more reliant on billionaire pro-Israel donors like casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam, who together gave the GOP $113 million during the 2018 elections.
The GOP-Israeli alliance has only intensified in the Trump era, as the president moved the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, and closed the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s diplomatic mission in Washington.
“I don't think there’s been a country more supportive of Trump than Israel. That has contributed a lot to the acceleration of the divide,” said Munayyer.
“Recently, we've seen bad faith and disingenuous efforts by Republicans to turn boycotts into a wedge issue, and to threaten Americans' right to free speech.”
The partisan cross-currents over Israel have come to a head in recent weeks as Republican leaders in the Senate advanced legislation targeting the BDS movement. Sponsored by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the Combating BDS Act would give federal blessing to individual states that penalize companies and contractors that choose not to do business with Israel or Israeli-owned enterprises. It’s a provision the ACLU has condemned as a violation of the First Amendment, arguing that states do not have a legal right to impose political litmus tests on companies seeking state business.
Rubio’s provision is part of a Republican strategy to get Democrats on the record against congressional efforts targeting the BDS movement in order to paint them as anti-Israel. The GOP’s crackdown mirrors the Israeli government’s Strategic Affairs Ministry, which spends millions of dollars lobbying against BDS around the world, often by equating it with anti-Semitism.
“Recently, we've seen bad faith and disingenuous efforts by Republicans to turn boycotts into a wedge issue, and to threaten Americans' right to free speech,” Tlaib told VICE News, adding that “economic boycotts have defined historic social justice and human rights movements in the United States and beyond.”
Tlaib recently joined with Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Bernie Sanders and other top Dems in criticizing the bill as a violation of free speech.
Tellingly, though a majority of senators voted 76-22 to advance the Combating BDS Act, not a single yes vote came from a presidential candidate in the Democratic Party.
“That every Democratic presidential candidate either voted no or did not vote for this law is a sign of a fundamental shift in political calculus on Israel in Washington, and that shift is not favorable to Israel,” said Mike Merryman-Lotze, Middle East program director at the American Friends Service Committee, which advocates for Palestinian rights.
The bill, which is expected to be sent to the House this week, is already stirring a similarly tense debate there.
“That every Democratic presidential candidate either voted no or did not vote for this law is a sign of a fundamental shift in political calculus on Israel in Washington.”
In many ways, Tlaib’s declaration of support for the BDS movement alongside Omar has blasted through a red line that won’t be easily put back in place. It has its roots in fundamentally different stances on how the U.S. should view Israel, a key Middle East ally that receives over $3 billion in U.S. military aid every year, more than any other country in the world.
Instead of seeing Israel as a democracy in a sea of Middle Eastern tyranny, as establishment Democrats and Republicans do, a growing bloc of Democratic members of Congress are willing to criticize Israel’s human rights violations despite the risk of being deemed anti-Semitic.
“The right-wing, extremist government of Benjamin Netanyahu and its apartheid-like policies are at the core of what is alienating Democrats and a growing number of Americans,” said Congresswoman Betty McCollum, a Democrat from Minnesota who authored a bill during the last session of Congress to prevent U.S. military aid to Israel from subsidizing the abuse of Palestinian children. “What has changed is that there are now members of Congress who are not willing to ignore the Israeli government’s destructive actions because they are afraid of losing an election.”
Mairav Zonszein is an Israeli-American journalist who writes about Israeli politics, American foreign policy, and human rights. Alex Kane is a New York-based freelance journalists who writes on Israel/Palestine and civil liberties issues.
Cover: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., left, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., second from left, and Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, second from right, wait for other freshman Congressmen to deliver a letter calling to an end to the government shutdown to deliver to the office of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2019. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)