At the top of the Democratic Party, everything still looks solid for the Israel lobby this year. With Biden’s selection yesterday of Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) as his running mate, the Israel lobby scored again. In Prof. Stephen Zunes’s analysis of her positions, he notes the Jewish Telegraph Agency dubbed her “more AIPAC than J Street” for good reason.
Indeed, from the top, it appears to be more of the same old. But if we view the Democratic Party as a pyramid, with its apex being the DNC and its presidential ticket, its middle layer being its elected officials, and its bottom layer being its base, then the foundations of the Israel lobby’s hold on the Democratic Party is quite evidently crumbling.
The Top: Business as usual
In presumptive presidential nominee Joe Biden, the Israel lobby has a throwback candidate to a bygone era when Democrats and Republicans equally fell over themselves to praise Israel, and the best that can be said about Kamala Harris’s record in the Senate is that she voted against a bill last year that encourages states to unconstitutionally deny contracts to people who support BDS campaigns for Palestinian rights.
“Biden/Harris 2020: At least they won’t jail us for supporting BDS” could well be the Palestine solidarity movement’s bumper sticker for this election. For the first time, this year’s Democratic Party platform includes a plank supporting the First Amendment right to engage in BDS.
This assertion is not inconsequential. The Trump administration threatened to sic the Department of Justice on SJP chapters, pursued investigations through the Department of Education to intimidate universities to crack down on student organizing for Palestinian rights, and issued an Executive Order to conflate criticism of Israel with antisemitism in order to quash BDS organizing.
But the Democratic Party’s support for the constitutional right to support BDS is the only redeeming feature of an otherwise horrid platform that refuses to even name Israel’s military occupation, much less condemn it. Last month, Mondoweiss broke the story that the platform committee of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) sidelined proposed amendments submitted by Palestinian-American delegates and even voted down a weaker version.
In an indication of how much pro-Israel Democrats are enamored of the Biden/Harris ticket, pro-Israel former Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY) told Jewish Insider that “he supported Biden from the very beginning ‘because of his unwavering support for Israel,’ and the selection of Harris as his running mate gives him ‘a partner who reflects his commitment, his values and his experience’ on Israel.”
The Middle: The Squad and progressive electoral success
Let’s start with the great news. Last night, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) easily turned back her primary opponents, despite Israel lobby groups throwing in several million dollars to unseat her. Omar’s victory caps an unprecedented primary season with candidates unabashedly supportive of Palestinian rights either defending their seats or even scoring shocking upsets by defeating well-entrenched pro-Israel Representatives.
Marie Newman kicked off the trend in March in Illinois’s 3rd Congressional District by taking down Rep. Dan Lipinski. Newman, an ally to her district’s large Palestinian-American constituency, defeated a solidly pro-Israel veteran congressman in what one pro-Israel insider called “a big loss and embarrassment for pro-Israel Democrats.”
Then in June, Jamaal Bowman soundly defeated Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), the powerful pro-Israel chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, in a monumental collapse for the Israel lobby which punctured its aura of invincibility.
Earlier this month, Cori Bush eked out a stunning upset of Rep. Lacy Clay (D-MO), who shamelessly engaged in racist and Islamophobic electioneering in a failed bid to derail her campaign. Bush, an activist who cut her teeth in the streets of Ferguson, doubled down on her support for BDS in response to Clay’s provocations.
And let’s not forget that the Israel lobby also spent big bucks to try to knock off other members of The Squad and failed miserably with Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) handily defeating their opponents. Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), the other member of The Squad, who is also outspoken in support of Palestinian rights, does not face a primary or general election opponent.
The significance of this year’s primaries cannot be overstated. Prior to this year, defeating the Israel lobby’s preferred candidate in one election would have seemed nearly unthinkable. The cumulative effect of the races spotlighted above is nothing short of a political earthquake.
All Democrats will have to take heed of the neon-bright warning signs that Lipinski, Engel, and Clay missed. Hew to pro-Israel orthodoxies and face the wrath of a progressive challenger who embraces Palestinian rights as part of their platform and understand that no amount of money from the Israel lobby can save you from defeat.
The demonstration effect of these campaigns has surely been registered by many elected Democrats. Its impact in the next Congress should be palpable immediately.
The Base: Turning support for Palestinian rights into political power
As documented meticulously by Prof. Shibley Telhami for the Brookings Institution, over recent years Democrats have come to support Palestinian rights, with majorities supporting BDS and one democratic state if the two-state paradigm is not attainable. This changing sentiment within the base of the party is what enables and empowers candidates to run and win on a platform supportive of Palestinian rights.
The challenge now for supporters of Palestinian rights is to build on this momentum and win over the top of the pyramid. This will be an infinitely harder task but one well worth undertaking in the hopes that the 2024 platform and presidential candidate will unambiguously adopt Palestinian rights.
Jewish Voice for Peace undertook an important step in that direction by launching its affiliated political advocacy arm Jewish Voice for Peace Action this year. Its strategic decision to throw down in the electoral arena has been validated by the number of candidates who have flocked to its banner seeking their endorsement.
Palestinian-Americans and non-identitarian supporters of Palestinian rights can and should set up similar institutions, in addition to contemplating establishing PAC’s and super PAC’s, to take full advantage of the electoral opportunities that are presenting themselves.
An important example of what this type of organizing looks like is taking place tomorrow. Palestinian-American delegates to the 2020 DNC are organizing a webinar for fellow delegates, featuring Profs. Cornel West and Judith Butler, to educate them about why the Democratic Party is inadequately supporting Palestinian rights. The webinar is also open to the public.
Through a sophisticated, well-financed, and coordinated set of such institutions, it is not hyperbolic to envision capturing the top of the pyramid in 2024.
*The writer is an active member of the Farifax County (Virginia) Democratic Committee.