Is pro-Israel advocacy in crisis? How the Gaza conflict exposed political fault lines


WASHINGTON (JTA) — When a Jewish Democratic congressman initiated a letter last week demanding increased assistance for the Palestinians following the latest Israel-Gaza war, he laid bare a tectonic shift in how Democrats relate to Israel.

The letter spearheaded by Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland was asking a Republican lawmaker to stop blocking aid to the Palestinians, not seeking assistance for Israel. Raskin secured the signatures of congressional leaders and pro-Israel stalwarts.

He did so without the fingerprints or even tacit approval of the influential Israel lobby AIPAC. That would have been unimaginable 15 years ago, when any proposed Middle East legislation or letter crossing a Congress member’s desk would mean an immediate call to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which long represented Jewish communal and Washington consensus.

The Democratic Party is no longer a redoubt of unquestioning support for Israel. Stalwart pro-Israel lawmakers who for decades would blame only the Arab side when conflicts broke out are saying Israel is at fault, too. 

The latest war between Israel and Hamas brought this shift to the front and suggested the pro-Israel community needs to reassess its tactics and long-held assumptions about bipartisan support for Israel.  

AIPAC is coming to terms with this extraordinary moment. In a statement to its membership, it warned about “anti-Israel” arguments making inroads into Congress.

“An anti-Israel campaign is underway to demonize Israel, cast Israel as morally equivalent to Hamas, and challenge the vital security aid we fight for each year to ensure Israel has the resources to defend itself,” AIPAC’s president, Betsey Berns Korn, said in a message to activists on May 20, as the war wound down. “This moment highlights a fight that will define our work for years to come.”

Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, seen in February 2021, spearheaded a letter seeking assistance to the Palestinians following the latest Israel-Gaza war. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Lawmakers flouted two taboos that AIPAC had effectively policed for decades:   

— In recent weeks, some of Israel’s best friends in the Democratic caucus questioned Israel’s choices before and during the Gaza War. For years, lawmakers who wanted to earn the pro-Israel label almost always avoided public criticism of Israel, especially during wartime. 

— In the final days of the war, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont attempted to kill a major precision-guided missiles deal with Israel. They failed, but even in the recent past, no lawmaker — even the few openly critical of Israel — would touch defense assistance.

The Jewish caucus in Congress, which once spoke with a single influential voice, has split into factions. Some members represent an increasingly vocal section of the Jewish community that is critical of Israeli policies, while others are still loyal to pro-Israel conventions. 

While Republicans steadfastly supported the Israeli government throughout the recent crisis, greater skepticism of Israel among Democrats was on display throughout the fighting.

Several Democrats in Congress have accused Israel of apartheid. At the height of the war, on May 13, Democrats heatedly debated on the House floor who was at fault for the Israel-Hamas clash. Over 500 alumni of President Joe Biden’s presidential campaign wrote him a letter last month urging him to consider limiting defense assistance to Israel and pressure the country to ease conditions for the Palestinians. (Biden has defended Israel’s conduct during the war and steadfastly says he will not touch aid.)

The split extends to the Jewish caucus. There are 25 Jewish Democrats in the House: During the war, 12 joined to write a letter, as Jews, calling for an immediate cease-fire, something AIPAC would never countenance. On the flip side, four Jewish lawmakers called for an end to antisemitic rhetoric and referred to party colleagues who liken Israeli practices to apartheid without naming them. There was no overlap between the signers of the two letters.

Some of Israel’s best friends in the Democratic Party called for a cease-fire from, including Sens. Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Chris Coons of Delaware, as well as Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York. They lacerated Hamas, but also criticized Israel. Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, considered for a moment delaying the sale of missiles to Israel.

Halie Soifer, CEO of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, called Menendez, Coons and Meeks “staunch supporters of Israel.” She said they are “voicing not only their support of Israel’s right to self-defense against attacks launched by a terrorist organization, but also their support for Palestinian rights and safety and for the administration’s efforts to bring about a cease-fire.” 

Jeremy Burton, who directs Boston’s Jewish Community Relations Council, also said it is possible for an official to be pro-Israel and still criticize Israel. But what disturbed him more, he said, was a shift among progressives during the impassioned May 13 debate.

“They were being pro-Palestinian without being pro-Israel,” he said. “That’s the shift.”

Congress members like Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Cori Bush of Missouri expressed support exclusively for the Palestinians. 

It’s a shift some progressive lawmakers with closer ties to the pro-Israel movement have noticed.

“The way forward is for responsible progressives to speak about the moral case for why Israel has the right to exist, just like we speak about the Palestinian case and the moral case for Palestinian rights,” Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., told The Washington Post on Monday.

The shift long predates the war

Interviews with more than a dozen pro-Israel officials, lawmakers and congressional staffers said the shift long predated May’s fighting. Among the causes they cited are Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s embrace of Republicans, the unquestioning support for Israel from the deeply polarizing President Donald Trump, generations of Americans who have never seen Israel as anything but an economic and military powerhouse, and a social media universe that drives the discourse into polarizing simplifications.

Rep. Brad Schneider, D-Ill., said acrimony and disagreement among pro-Israel groups created space for hostile groups to make their case. 

“The grassroots in the pro-Israel movement is somewhat fractured,” said Schneider, a longtime pro-Israel volunteer and Jewish organizational leader before his election.

He referred to J Street, the Jewish lobbying group that counsels tough love when it comes to Israel and now has the allegiance of at least half of the Democratic caucus in both chambers.

“We’ve seen that with battle lines drawn between AIPAC supporters and J Street supporters,”  said Schneider, who said he worked with both groups. “I think because of the disagreements within the pro-Israel community there have been opportunities for those who are antagonistic to Israel to make inroads.”

Burton, the Boston JCRC director, blamed polarization and the magnification of the extremes via social media.

“There is a fundamental brokenness in America’s ability to deal with holding the center, engaging in differences, reaching compromise, having bipartisanship on foreign policy, writ large,” he said.  

Last year’s summer of racial tension in the United States accelerated a tendency on the left to identify Israel with racism and harsh policing of people of color. The organization Black Lives Matter tweeted that it “stands in solidarity” with the Palestinians. Bush, an anti-racism activist serving her first term in Congress, tweeted that she identified with Palestinians “as someone who has been brutalized by police.”

Meanwhile, younger Democrats have never known Israel as anything other than powerful, Schneider said.

“I’m of a certain generation that grew up understanding the challenges Israel faces, I watched Israel face the existential threat of the Yom Kippur War” in 1973,” he said. “For people who don’t have that benefit, who see Israel as strong, whether that is young Jews today, or members of Congress who haven’t been in Congress for a decade or longer, the message is getting complex and the nuance is getting lost.”

Pro-Israel Democrats may also hesitate to take on what they see as unfair Israel criticism within the party because of the pressure to present a united front against Trumpism, said a former Obama administration official familiar both with the party and the pro-Israel movement. 

“A Republican Party that has gone literally authoritarian — talk about a threat to American Jewry,” said this former official, who asked to remain anonymous to speak candidly and is concerned by the intensification of Israel criticism among Democrats. “Authoritarianism is a huge problem for Jews, even if the authoritarian is pro-Israel.”

Israel plays favorites

Netanyahu has been indelibly identified with the GOP since 2015, when he accepted an invitation from a Republican leader to speak to Congress to berate then-President Barack Obama for his Iran policy. A number of Democrats boycotted the speech.

Netanyahu’s perceived partisanship only intensified after Trump’s election: Trump shattered multiple taboos in U.S. Israel policy, and essentially adopted Netanyahu’s agenda. He moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, recognized Israel’s claim to the Golan Heights, defunded Palestinians, quit the Iran nuclear deal and fashioned a peace plan that would hand Israel a huge chunk of the West Bank.

Netanyahu paid it back, calling Trump the most pro-Israel president ever and defending Trump when his statements seemed antisemitic or at least insensitive to Jewish fears. 

Mustering majorities

While Democrats have been in turmoil over Israel, Republicans have stood steadfastly by its government. Matt Brooks, the executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, takes to Twitter frequently citing Democratic deviations from pro-Israel orthodoxies and adding, “There is only one pro-Israel party!!”

That’s not tenable for AIPAC, which is committed to bipartisanship, said Steve Rosen, the lobby’s longtime foreign policy director who has worked for conservative organizations since leaving the group.

“AIPAC was really invented not by political scientists and theoreticians like me, but by practical people, real estate people, people in businesses who went by trial and error,” Rosen said. “What quickly became apparent is that the essence of its work was bipartisan. Because AIPAC’s function is to deliver majorities on pro-Israel legislation and resolutions and the like, and to deter or defeat problematic ones, it has to muster majorities.”

Jewish voters remain overwhelmingly Democratic — another reason that AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups are not about to align with one party or the other.

Some Republicans, meanwhile, are not as amenable to AIPAC’s policies as they once were; they are heeding activists and influencers to AIPAC’s right. The late Sheldon Adelson, a major GOP funder, broke with AIPAC in 2007 over its embrace of the two-state outcome. In 2012, AIPAC headed off a bid to remove the two-state outcome from the Republican Party platform. In 2016, the proposal sailed through. Evangelicals are usually more hawkish on Israel than the Jewish majority.

Weathering “Goliath” moments

A senior official at a pro-Israel organization said “old codgers” would find all of this familiar: The American media and political spheres cast Israel as Goliath during and after the 1982 Lebanon War. The United States at the time did not simply contemplate punishing Israel for its military adventurism by suspending defense assistance — that’s exactly what President Ronald Reagan did.

The official, who asked for anonymity to speak candidly, said if anything, the situation was worse then: In 1982, Israel was being raked over the coals both in the White House and on Capitol Hill. Today, Biden has made abundantly clear that he will not touch assistance to Israel.

“There is no shift in my commitment and the commitment to the security of Israel, period.  No shift. Not at all,” Biden said on May 21, when he was asked about Democrats like Tlaib pressing him to be more confrontational with Israel. “Until the region says, unequivocally, they acknowledge the right of Israel to exist as an independent Jewish state, there will be no peace.”

The visibility of Israel critics in social media exaggerates their influence, the official said.

“He made as strong a statement as any president has made from the White House, just a few days ago in support of Israel,” the official said of Biden. “So I think it’s important to have all that context because I think it’s lost in the Twitterfied world we live in.”

Rep. Kathy Manning of North Carolina speaks at a hearing on Capitol Hill, March 10, 2021. (Ting Shen-Pool/Getty Images)

Rep. Kathy Manning, D-N.C., said the minority of Democrats who were hypercritical of Israel was small, fewer than a dozen lawmakers.

“The vast majority of members and also including Democratic members are still largely supportive of Israel, and it comes from the top,” she said, referring to Biden and supportive remarks from Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker. 

Manning, before her election in 2020, was the first woman to chair the Jewish Federations of North America. She was one of the four Jewish Democratic House members who wrote the letter saying that using terms like “apartheid” and “terrorist” to describe Israel is antisemitic.

Leaders like Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the majority leader, have criticized the lawmakers who have targeted Israel, but also defended them when the pro-Israel lobby goes on the attack. Hoyer and Pelosi lashed out at AIPAC for “twisting words” during the war for an ad it posted taking Omar, the Minnesota congresswoman, to task for accusing Israel of terrorism.

Abraham Foxman, the retired national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said the Jewish community should resist giving oxygen to extremists in both parties. The majorities in both parties remain pro-Israel, he said, and the community should reinforce that tendency.

“We should spend time embracing those who support us rather than engage our energies with ‘the Squad,'” he said, referring to the small cadre of progressives led by Ocasio-Cortez.

Mark Mellman, president of the Democratic Majority for Israel, said his group draws support not just from party veterans, but from progressives of color.

“Support for Israel cuts across the leadership,” he said, “but it also is among younger members and older members and black and Latino and white members, and that’s great.”

The future of pro-Israel activism in Washington depends on Israel itself, said a veteran AIPAC and Democratic activist who asked to speak anonymously because he had clients in the pro-Israel community.

West Bank annexation, for instance, would be a game-changer, said the activist. Netanyahu’s pledge last year to annex parts of the West Bank precipitated what until the most recent war was the most pronounced congressional criticism of his government.

“It’s going to depend on Israel,” the activist said.

Soifer, the Jewish Democratic Council of America leader, said the pro-Israel community was adjusting.

“There’s a new pro-Israel paradigm in the Democratic Party that rejects the false dichotomy of the past,” she said. “The overwhelming majority of Democrats strongly support Israel’s security and right to self-defense against Hamas terrorist attacks while also supporting Palestinians’ safety and human rights.”

A red line, Soifer said, remained defense assistance to Israel.

“This is certainly not the time to threaten U.S. military support for Israel,” she said, referring to the bid by Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders to nix the sale of precision-guided missiles.

J Street’s president, Jeremy Ben-Ami, said defense assistance deserved scrutiny. The bottom line for being pro-Israel, he said, is “are you in a camp that says the United States has Israel’s back when it faces serious security threats?” But that didn’t mean every arms transfer to Israel was merited.

“I’m sure Bernie Sanders is in that camp, I know that we’re in that camp — but you have to look closely at what we’re providing,” Ben-Ami said. “At the end of the day, the definition of being pro-Israel can’t be ‘are you willing to write a blank check?’ just because it’s labeled ‘security.’”

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