Why the split inside the Democratic Party over BDS needs to happen

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The Israel Anti-Boycott Act was rolled out in Congress this summer by leading advocates for Israel, backed by the Israel lobby group AIPAC; but it is having trouble gaining Democratic support. “Democrats remain non-committal about anti-BDS bill,” Aaron Magid reports at Jewish Insider. Senators Dan Murphy (CT) and Tammy Duckworth (IL) and Rep. Joe Kennedy (MA) are all dithering about the legislation.

Their misgivings follow NY Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s celebrated withdrawal of her support for the bill, which the ACLU says threatens free speech with criminal penalties.

The reason for the politicians’ vacillation is obvious. The progressive Democratic base cares about Palestinian human rights, and progressives are generally not opposed to Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions as a means of persuading Israel to abide by international law; polling shows a majority of Democrats support economic sanctions to counter Israel’s settlement construction. Other polls show that young Democrats, blacks and Hispanics have more sympathy for Palestine than Israel.

Palestinian solidarity has surely been fostered inside the party base by resistance to Trump’s anti-immigrant/refugee policies, by the arrival of Black Lives Matter (which calls out “apartheid” in Palestine), and by the Women’s March, led by BDS supporter Linda Sarsour.

The marvel is that the BDS groundswell is occurring without any coverage by the mainstream press. The media is refusing to do the fundamental job of telling people what Palestinians are asking for– equal rights– Michael Brown writes at EI. It is no wonder that CNN and MSNBC have avoided hosting honest discussions of BDS: a Time Warner executive has written speeches for Netanyahu and a Comcast exec has raised money for the Israeli Defense Forces (as I regularly point out). 

Still BDS remains a dividing line inside the Democratic Party. The progressive candidate in the race for the Democratic nomination to be Illinois governor, Daniel Biss, dumped his running mate because he supports BDS two weeks ago. The former running mate didn’t cave. The Democratic Party platform committee came out against BDS in 2016 even though some Bernie Sanders surrogates supported BDS. And leaked emails showed that the Hillary Clinton braintrust spent way much too much time organizing opposition against BDS during her campaign, even while they were ignoring Wisconsin. Clinton was trying to please Haim Saban and other donors; and donor relations surely explain Biss’s swandive too.

Journalists avoid this story because the Democratic establishment fears the potential of this issue to divide the party– to split Clintonites from Sandersites and undermine the party’s ability to take on Trump. This is why Josh Marshall of TPM has slagged BDS supporters as anti-Semites. “Truly the last thing the Democratic Party needs right now is a toxic internecine fight over Israel,” he has written.

That fear on the part of party leaders is not a new one. The battle over Palestinian human rights has been put off again and again inside the Democratic Party since the 1960s, and always with the claim on the establishment’s part that the solidarity activists are radicals and troublemakers, who need to get out of the road in a hurry (think about Andrew Young, Jimmy Carter, Cynthia McKinney, Cornel West, etc).

Yet in those 50 years, we have seen countless other once-marginal progressive questions enter the mainstream and gain establishment approval, from women’s rights to same-sex marriage to the embrace of transgender rights. It is lost on none of us that the BDS call went out 12 years ago at a time when the transgender issue was not central to Democratic Party politics; yet BDS remains off-limits, even as party leaders endorse the boycott of North Carolina over transgender peoples’ access to bathrooms of their choice. The hypocrisy is glaring.

I believe that this division cannot be papered over any longer, and that Palestinian human rights will at last be taken up by major political figures.

Why the optimism? Too much has changed in the political landscape. The rightwing convergence of Netanyahu and Trump has had the effect of politicizing Israel support at last in the U.S. mainstream– Republicans back Likud, Democrats back liberal Zionists. The growing demands by people of color to be represented in the U.S. establishment signal that voices like Linda Sarsour and Keith Ellison will become less and less marginal. The Democratic Party is being challenged to take a stand against Islamophobia.  And meanwhile, it is clear that many national security leaders, including lately Gen. H.R. McMaster, have read the book The Israel Lobby, and don’t like the message.

As always I focus on the Jewish community because I think it has the most influence over the politics of Israel and Palestine; and there too change is upon us. Last June’s celebrations of 50 years of permanent occupation demonstrated to American liberals something that was obvious to Palestinians years ago: Israel has no intention of allowing the creation of a Palestinian state. Liberal Zionists are in crisis over their failure to save “the good Israel”, and are looking for a way forward. Many of them will end up supporting BDS.

This week the Jerusalem Post listed Rebecca Vilkomerson of Jewish Voice for Peace as one of the 50 most influential Jews in the world. Vilkomerson supports BDS; and there were no liberal Zionist leaders on that list. Though AIPAC was there, and the ADL too. Meantime, young Jews in IfNotNow are taking on the Jewish establishment, asking why “you never told me” about the occupation. Yes, these are still embryonic trends. But even some big Jewish donors are balking at funding Israel. The Jewish monolith on Israel is cracking, and that will give everyone else permission to dissent, including politicians.

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I for one will not forget the JVPs smearing and blackballing of Alison Weir and Helen Thomas. I had joined and donated as I thought they were for real but their masked slipped with those actions.

Sure is slow progress for any Palestinian. PEP needs to be shown constantly for what it is: pure hypocrisy.

@Phil You are an optimist. Liberal Jews are angry at Israel. They do dislike the Netanyahu government. With breaking the Kotel agreement Netanyahu has pretty much at this point gone out of his way to offend American Jews. But anger at a country over a few policies and wanting to see it destroyed are not the same thing. BDS hates Israel. BDS hates Israelis. BDS hates Zionism. American Jews are unhappy with some Israeli policies.… Read more »

“@ Phil”

Or, “Why the allrightniks will all become alt-rightniks

“Jeff b”, you’re a little late. “Yonah” and “Hophmi” have explained all that to Phil already.

Re: “I think most Democrats may hate Israel and still if they understand the choice is that clear will pick American Jews over Palestinian rights.” What does this mean? I think more democrats than republicans don’t hate Israel, but increasingly hate Israel’s policies and conduct regarding the non-Jews that Israel controls. I am not aware American Jews suffer from state discrimination or military occupation. I am aware most Americans do not favor any sort of… Read more »