Like most organizers and activists for Palestinian rights, I have followed closely as candidates in this year’s primary elections, who had been outspoken about Israel’s crimes, won primaries in their states, in victories that could usher much-needed change in Congress next year. First was New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a grassroots organizer of Puerto Rican descent who has accused Israel of engaging in massacres. Ocasio-Cortez ousted an established incumbent, Democratic caucus chair Joe Crowley, in what has been described as the biggest upset victory in the 2018 mid-term elections. Then came Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian American Muslim woman best known nationally for having been detained after disrupting a Trump presidential campaign speech. Tlaib’s mother proudly draped her in a Palestinian flag upon hearing of her victory. And then there were three, as Minnesota’s Ihlan Omar, the Somali immigrant who had tweeted about Israeli apartheid, and who, as early as 2012, spoke of Israel’s “evil deeds,” was also declared winner of her district’s Democratic primary.
Drawing attention to the apartheid Israeli regime is far from hating Jews. You are a hateful sad man, I pray to Allah you get the help you need and find happiness. https://t.co/SvEXjlxlEN
— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) May 31, 2018
Ocasio-Cortez and Tlaib are both members of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), and Omar is a member of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (DFL), making all three of them members of Democratic Party groups that are left of center of the mainstream party’s platform. The DFL’s better known member is Representative Betty McCullom, who last year introduced HR 4391, the “Promoting Human Rights by Ending Israeli Military Detention of Palestinian Children” act.
Yet the victorious Tlaib and Ocasio-Cortez were immediately pressured by constituents and supporters to be even more forthcoming in their positions on Palestine. This is a clear indication that, even in today’s racist, anti-brown-immigrant, and Islamophobic climate, voters are interested in critical issues beyond identity politics. Shortly after winning the nomination, Ocasio-Cortez found herself caught in a protracted tug-of-war over her strongly-worded tweet about Israel committing a “massacre” which she had later retracted, leading some Palestine-rights activists to criticize her harshly, while others expressed caution, patience, a call for education.
And even as a jubilant crowd was still cheering Tlaib’s victory, the Detroit-born daughter of Palestinian immigrants was being taken to task over the fact that she was a J Street “endorsee.” Electronic Intifada co-founder Ali Abunimah was accused of “raining on Tlaib’s parade” because he reminded us that identity alone is an insufficient qualification. Recalling how he had been criticized for pointing out former President Barack Obama’s dismal record on various progressive issues, despite his being the black son of an African immigrant, Abunimah wrote: “Though I risk hearing the same thing now, I am no more willing to overlook the disturbing political views of a candidate just because she is Palestinian American.”
The “disturbing political views” Abunimah had in mind are encapsulated in the fact that Tlaib had been endorsed by J Street, the Zionist lobby nicknamed by Palestine rights activists a “AIPAC lite.”
There is nothing “light,” however, about a J Street endorsement, when it comes to support for Israel. Specifically, the J Street site explains: “To be eligible for JStreetPAC endorsement, a political candidate must demonstrate that they support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, active US leadership to help end the conflict, the special relationship between the US and Israel, continued aid to the Palestinian Authority and opposition to the Boycott/Divestment/Sanction movement.” As well as:
“One of our core principles for our endorsements is that the candidates support aid to Israel.”
Nor are J Street’s endorsements given “lightly,” but rather, as the site explains, are the result of interviews over a couple of weeks with the candidate, and a subsequent vetting, based on their answers.
Which should make one think twice before applauding J Street endorsed “progressive” (except for Palestine) politicians such as WA Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, who is not only a J Street endorsee, but actually went on a J Street sponsored trip to Israel. That trip coincided with Israel’s assault on unarmed civilians during the Great Return March, and upon her return, Jayapal co-issued a statement calling upon Palestinians to “show restraint.” In an earlier OpEd, I pondered how exactly Jayapal expects Palestinians to exercise restraints, as they protest the violation of their human rights. Should we bleed less profusely when shot at by snipers with high-powered rifles, I wondered, or maybe we should wait another seventy years before demanding justice? And does Jayapal have any suggestions on how Palestinians can exercise more “restraint” in demanding their human rights than through the BDS call—a call for non-violent, civilian, grassroots, non-cooperation with the oppressor, the illegal occupier, a state that recently enshrined apartheid as one of its Basic Laws? Yet Jayapal has been described by House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi as “a rising star in the Democratic Caucus,” in a sobering reminder of where the Democratic Party still stands.
When Tlaib’s J Street endorsement was publicized, the soon-to-be Congresswoman did not attempt any political maneuvering, seeking to fudge her stance for fear of alienating the powerful Zionist lobby. Asked whether she supports one or two states, Tlaib insisted “One state. It has to be one state. Separate but equal doesn’t work,” and she elaborated on her political conviction that the only solution that would bring justice to Palestinians is the one-state solution. Asked about another fundamental Palestinian right, Tlaib continued: “I support right of return absolutely.” And, distancing herself even further from most politicians, she also explained that she supports BDS, and “If you don’t support freedom of speech, you’re in the wrong country.” In doing so, Tlaib was taking a firm and uncompromising stance for justice, rather than hiding behind the formulaic statements that are the daily currency of American politicians. Her integrity cost her J Street’s endorsement, while her popularity grew by heaps and bounds amongst the progressive left, rather than the centrists.
And it is this outspokenness, this insistence on considering genuine solutions, rather than continuing the charade of politics as usual, while seeming concerned, that is endearing today’s rookie politicians to an otherwise utterly disillusioned American people.
Being anti-Trump is not enough, it has never been enough. Today’s voters are no longer fooled by theatrics, the centrist opposition to Trump which nevertheless cozies up to apartheid, so long as it is overseas, and impacts a disenfranchised people. Advocating the two-state solution is tantamount to advocating two apartheid states where now there is only one, from the river to the sea. And a commitment to continuing military aid to Israel is a commitment to funding war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. As we buoy our new representatives who are pushing the Democratic party to the left, we must put pressure on last year’s “rising stars” of the corrupt establishment , asking them to either step up, and advocate justice for all oppressed people, including Palestinians, or make room for the real progressives.
And yes, since we are dealing with politicians, we must also be cautious. In an OpEd in the Forward, advocacy professional Carly Pildis expressed “horror” at Tlaib’s and Omar’s views, even as she called upon Zionist Jews to congratulate Omar and Tlaib (misspelled three times as Tlabib in the essay, which suggests this was not a typo), and pounce on them early next year: “If you want Omar to see that Israel is not an Apartheid state, go to her next town hall and make your case. If you are upset that Tlabib would vote against military aid to Israel, set up a lobby meeting with her staff and share stories of how the Iron Dome saves lives.” Pildis concludes with: “Let’s send our congratulations to Ms. Tlabib and Ms. Omar, and let them know we look forward to meeting them as soon they unpack their offices. We have much to discuss with them, and the over 80 new Members of Congress who will be joining them for the 116th Congress.”
Similarly, we will need to meet with our representatives, not just Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib, and Omar. We can start with the list of JStreetPac endorsees, and ask them why they support a racist state that mirrors the worst of what they are opposing in the US. We can explain to them that the tide has finally turned to the point where expressing support for Palestinian rights is no longer “politically suicidal,” and an endorsement from J Street is a liability, rather than an asset.