Israel has never been so openly politicized in the United States as it is right now. Yesterday afternoon Senate Democrats voted to block the progress of a bill that would punish those who support Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel. It was the second time in three days that the Democrats joined together on that procedural vote, saying that the shutdown should come first.
Democrats are expressing the fear that the party will split over Israel, just as Republicans want. The Senate leadership has indicated that it will push the bill again soon in an effort to show which party cares about Israel and which party is harboring “anti-semitic” and “racist” forces, in the words of Colorado Senator Cory Gardner.
The anti-boycott bill has gotten wide coverage, from Common Dreams to Vox, where Zack Beauchamp’s excellent explainer on the legislation concludes by citing the pro-Palestinian attitudes among young progressive Americans in polls.
“Israel has never been so divisive in modern political history… the Democratic Party can no longer be counted on to back any bill merely because it’s seen as ‘pro-Israel.’”
Mainstream Democrats fear that division. Josh Rogin writes in the Washington Post that Israel is now going to be an issue in the 2020 elections, and a “growing problem” for Democrats:
And each of the dozen or more Democratic lawmakers potentially running for president will have to take a position, one that either hurts them with progressives in the primary or moderates in the general election. And that’s the point. One can lament the end of congressional bipartisanship on Israel, but the truth is that has been the case for many years.
[Senate Majority leader Mitch] McConnell is attempting to show that, on Israel, Republicans are actually largely in agreement, whereas Democrats have a growing problem. The political battle over foreign policy leading up to 2020 has begun, and McConnell just fired the opening salvo.
Amir Tibon in Haaretz also sees “a real threat to the continuation of bi-partisan support for Israel in American politics.”
In the current political environment, Israeli diplomats and groups like AIPAC face a double challenge. One part of this challenge is the growing “progressive wing” within the Democratic Party which is very critical of Israel, and now includes two members of the House of Representatives who openly endorse BDS. The second part of the challenge is attempts by Republicans to paint the entire Democratic Party with a single brush when it comes to Israel, ignoring the real differences between the few who are truly anti-Israeli and those who have nuanced positions on specific policy questions.
Here are some highlights of the debate so far.
The lobbying against the bill was led by Palestinian solidarity groups such as the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights and Jewish Voice for Peace and the Presbyterian Church’s Israel Palestine Mission Network, all of which support boycotts, but also crucially by the ACLU, which repeatedly denounced the bill on free speech grounds.
It’s as if the Senate doesn’t have other matters to address — like a government shutdown. We urge Senators to stay strong in defense of the First Amendment and continue to vote no.
Israel supporters divided bitterly over the legislation, and AIPAC lost a Senate vote, twice. “[T]he historically nonpartisan American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) called on lawmakers to advance the bill as quickly as possible, making its most partisan legislative push since it urged lawmakers to vote against the Iran nuclear deal in 2015,” Al-Monitor reported.
The liberal Zionist group J Street clearly represents the Democratic Congress, against AIPAC. J Street respects the rights of Americans to boycott, and blasted an AIPAC email for “blatant falsehoods,” such as the claim that the bill would not target individuals.
In fact the bill would give a Congressional seal of approval to anti-BDS laws passed by 26 states that penalize individuals and groups that support boycott. The poster child for the cause has been the case exposed by the Intercept of a Texas elementary school teacher who lost work because she refused to sign a pro-Israel “loyalty oath.”
Amazingly, the issue of loyalty got into the debate, when the new congresswoman from Detroit, Rashida Tlaib, who is Palestinian and supports BDS, tweeted of the Senate bill:
They forgot what country they represent. This is the U.S. where boycotting is a right & part of our historical fight for freedom & equality. Maybe a refresher on our U.S. Constitution is in order, then get back to opening up our government instead of taking our rights away.
Tlaib was greeted with an onslaught of criticism, reminiscent of the anti-Corbyn vitriol in Britain over the Israel issue. The Israel Policy Forum and the American Jewish Committee were angered by the imputation of dual loyalty. “[T]he charge evokes classical anti-Semitic tropes about dual loyalty–in this case applied to some lawmakers who are not even Jewish–that have no place in our political discourse,” the AJC said. (When you have time, check out all the reasonable voices that have raised just that issue, whose side are you on).
Tlaib gained surprising support from some liberal Zionists–surely because of her other big moment this week, her “impeach the motherfucker” line. Though it was in that connection that Michelle Goldberg at the New York Times wrote that neocon Daniel Pipes is “overtly bigoted” against Palestinians.
Rashida Tlaib was echoed by Jon Tester of Montana on the Senate floor yesterday. He said he had to be for America first:
I am telling you, I am a big supporter of Israel, but I took an oath of office to protect this country first, and we are turning our back on this country.
Juan Cole writes incisively, in an opinion that is sure to gain an echo in the mainstream before long:
[Tlaib] wasn’t harsh enough. The senators who pushed this bill, foremost among them Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Ben Cardin (D-MD) have betrayed the Constitution. And so have the American Israel Public Affairs Committee staffers, who are attempting to gut the US Constitution on behalf of Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu. AIPAC should long ago have been made to register as the agent of a foreign power, and it is a consistent failure of the Department of Justice and the FBI that no pressure has ever been applied to the organization, which attempts to buy or bully representatives who should be standing up for their districts, not kowtowing to an international corrupt bully like Netanyahu.
Colorado Senator Cory Gardner has provided the red meat on the Republican side, baiting Democrats for being anti-Semitic and racist because they aren’t there for Israel.
We have heard the rhetoric. We have heard the very real comments from not fictitious Members of Congress but from actual Members of Congress who support an anti-Semitic movement….
[Let us take] strong action against a reprehensible and racist movement known as BDS.
While Rubio said yesterday that the Democrats are in “de facto” support of BDS.
If you oppose this bill, then you are in favor of shielding from counter-boycotts anyone who decides to take these actions. That is what you are for, which is de facto support for BDS, because what you are basically saying is to go ahead and boycott Israel and divest from Israel, but no one can do that to you…
[This bill] doesn’t do anything to infringe on anyone’s First Amendment right. All it does is protect the First Amendment right to be against BDS and to do to the boycotters what the boycotters are doing to Israel.
Yesterday and on Tuesday, Rubio admitted that the bill was about limiting an individual’s freedom to influence foreign policy:
[T]his is not some domestic debate…. They are trying to influence the foreign policy of another country. This is not traditional free speech… It is about foreign policy….The courts give broad discretion to Congress and the President in the setting of our foreign policy.
There is a wide fear now among liberals that the Israel issue is going to divide the Democratic Party just when it needs to stay unified. Rogin argues in the Washington Post:
But if McConnell’s strategy was to draw attention to the Israel policy divide inside the Democratic caucus, progressives eagerly took the bait. “First and foremost, McConnell is pushing Democrats to take a position on BDS,” a senior Senate aide told me.
But the Democratic leadership is in a bind. They can use the shutdown to avoid voting directly on anti-BDS legislation for now. But when it eventually comes up, it will likely pass (in some form) with the support of [NY Sen. Chuck] Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who recently shrugged off the Israel policies of what she calls the “extreme left.”
Israelis fear that the debate is only going to open up division at the highest levels of American government. It was a bad week for AIPAC, Tibon writes in Haaretz:
For Israeli diplomats and pro-Israeli groups such as AIPAC, this was not a good week. A vote on Israel-related legislation that splits almost exactly along party lines (four Democrats out of 47 supported the bill), and creates a partisan boxing match with Israel in the middle, is the exact opposite of the bi-partisan support that Israel officially wants to preserve, and that AIPAC sees as essential for its success.
Michael Koplow of the Israel Policy Forum is deeply concerned. He calls it the big BDS bang and fears that U.S. politics will never be the same:
The 116th Congress has barely gotten settled, and already BDS and efforts to combat it are wreaking havoc across the Democratic Party and between Democrats and Republicans. This week featured accusations of dual loyalty, allegations of secret support for BDS, and thinly veiled efforts to use Israel, and BDS specifically, as a wedge issue for political gain. This is almost certainly a preview of what is to come rather than an aberration, and it adds to the urgency that Democrats already feel to maintain the party’s historically pro-Israel bent while effectively beating back attempts to cast support for Israel as being the sole province of Republicans.
Rubio is wrong that a “significant number of Senate Democrats,” let alone any Senate Democrats, now support BDS, Koplow continues, but Democratic Senators want to see this go away.
[M]uch of the anti-BDS legislation puts Democrats in an uncomfortable position, where they are forced into a bad choice of either being on the side of absolute support for Israel or absolute support for free speech, but not both. While none of the senators support BDS, many of them would rather see the issue go away.
Democrats do indeed have a problem with some of their base on Israel, and Republicans are going to do all they can to make them take uncomfortable vote after uncomfortable vote, reaping whatever political wins they can rather than try and sustain bipartisan support for Israel as a policy goal. Praise the rock-solid support for Israel in the Republican Party all you want, but ask yourself how pro-Israel it truly is to accelerate a process through which Israel becomes a partisan issue rather than trying to stem the tide.
So, it’s just gotten started. And those who support BDS are getting a platform at last inside mainstream political life.
Thanks to Adam Horowitz, James North, and Dave Reed.