I will start with a confession: I am one of the millions of Americans who had never heard of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez before she won the Democratic primary in New York’s 14th Congressional District, where she was born, and where she has been a community organizer for years. However, since her meteoric rise to national prominence, I have read quite a bit about her, I am impressed by her activism for multiple progressive causes, and I am following with great interest the pressure and scrutiny she has been subjected to on the one issue liberals still can’t unite around: Palestine.
The tug-of-war began when Ocasio-Cortez posted a strongly-worded tweet about Gaza, then back pedaled from that during an interview, in which she claimed she would need to educate herself further on the topic of Israel and Palestine. Her initial tweet, posted during Israel’s deliberate mass killing of Palestinians participating in the Great Return March, read: “This is a massacre. I hope my peers have the moral courage to call it such. No state or entity is absolved of mass shootings of protesters. There is no justification. Palestinian people deserve basic human dignity, as anyone else. Democrats can’t be silent about this anymore.” However, in the interview she gave a few weeks later, she all but apologized for her statement, explaining that she was a novice, and supports “Israel’s right to exist” and “the two-state solution.” Ocasio-Cortez was roundly criticized by various pro-Palestine commentators and activists, including Lamis Deek, who took her to task with a tweet pointing out: “If this were the 1980s and you ran on the same platform, you’d not answer a question regarding South Africa by affirming the Afrikaner government’s ‘right to exist.’” Asad Abu-Khalil, who blogs as “the Angry Arab,” derided her comment on the occupation as “an increasing humanitarian crisis,” claiming: “The worst definition of “the occupation of Palestine” in my lifetime was offered by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.”
Clearly, Ocasio-Cortez is coming under extreme pressure from the well-oiled Zionist apparatus, liberal as well as hawkish, or she would not have back pedaled. Such pressure will not likely let up until she is firmly on one side of the fence, meaning when she can no longer claim that she is insufficiently informed. And the explanations are flowing fast. As a regular contributor to Mondoweiss myself, I was disappointed to see the website publish a lengthy mansplaining essay by Jamie Stern-Weiner, where he presumes to school Octavio-Cortez on the topic, by quoting from the book he edited, with articles that rehash the tired and failed arguments for two-states. Stern-Weiner’s book does not include a chapter on refugee return, because his experts didn’t make a conclusive argument about this important topic, hence he suggests that “it would seem reasonable for Ocasio-Cortez to withhold judgement.” Really? Withhold judgement, even though the Right of Return is a human right enshrined in international law, and one that has been discussed at great length by Palestinian experts, including the world’s foremost authority on the topic, Salman Abu-Sitta?
Ocasio-Cortez may not know enough about Palestine, but she needs to hear from real progressives, not from the various shades of Zionism that have long held the Democratic Party hostage. She needs to understand that whereas Palestine may not be a regular topic of conversation around the kitchen table in a Puerto Rican house, it is nevertheless an issue of national import, which no national politician can ignore, and over which she will come under ever greater scrutiny.
What is needed then, not just with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, but with all politicians whose heart is in the right place, is not strident condemnation when they seem fledgling, over-cautious. Rather, we need to support them for any statement they make that reveals that they grasp the fundamental injustice Palestinians are subject to. We have decades of evidence that while few if any progressive politicians have had their careers, prospects, and personal lives destroyed over their embrace of environmental issues or immigrant rights, they do frequently pay the highest price for supporting Palestinian rights. We have seen, over and over again, how these newly-elected politicians are aggressively courted by Zionists, as soon as they rise up from the grassroots to national political office. They will likely be pounced on by AIPAC, or AIPAC-lite, namely J-Street.
A prime example is Rep. Pramila Jayapal, from Washington state. Jayapal first started organizing locally, in Seattle, when she founded the “Hate Free Zone” in the immediate aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks. Following a solid decade of mostly-local work on behalf of immigrants, Jayapal rose to national prominence when she successfully ran for Congress in 2012. She has been described as a “rising star in the Democratic Caucus” by Nancy Pelosi. With her national electoral success, Jayapal has been courted—as indeed all members of congress are—by AIPAC. In 2017, family circumstances prevented Jayapal from going on the AIPAC-sponsored visit to Israel that is otherwise a rite of passage for all congresspeople during their first year’s recess. However, the following year, she went to Israel on a J-Street-sponsored trip, and she is an “endorsee” of J-Street, a full-fledged Zionist organization that nevertheless claims to be progressive, in that oxymoronic way that is the trademark of “liberal Zionists.”
The Palestinian community in Washington (and that includes me) is appalled at Jayapal’s J-Street sponsored visit to Israel, and some of the official statements she posted following that visit, in which she regurgitates Zionist hasbara by calling upon the refugees in Gaza to “show restraint.” How? Should they bleed less profusely, when shot at by Israeli snipers? Should they wait another seventy years? Nevertheless, disappointed as we are, some of us are meeting with her in early August, to give her the Palestinian perspective she would not get from her Zionist hosts. (I am preparing myself for that psychologically by reminding myself that “it wouldn’t be called a struggle if it was easy”).
There is a difference between pushing and condemning, prodding and chastising. And we need to understand that, unless we work with our politicians who show any indication of “getting it,” unless we support them when they seem to be daunted by the national scrutiny and the reach of Zionist influence, unless we educate them, then we might as well just give up the space to liberal “Progressives Except for Palestine,” who will be happy to support their work around immigrant and refugee rights, environmentalism, LGBTQ+ and labor issues, and more, but will “correct” them—guide them away—when it comes to Palestine. Ultimately, our just cause is the loser, unless we keep drudging on.
Today, we are witnessing this dynamic play out nationally with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. And though she is special, she is not exceptional. There are dozens of local grassroots organizers all across this country who could, like her, achieve national positions. And we should be there to support them, rather than shame them for the shell-shock they will no doubt experience, should they rise from the grassroots to the grasstops.