WASHINGTON (JTA) — In the span of two days, one Jewish lawmaker became the first to call on Israel to join a ceasefire, another called the Palestinian death toll “unacceptable” and a third said Israel’s conduct was a “moral failure.’
The 35 Jews in the U.S. House of Representatives and in the Senate — all but two of them Democrats — have been among the most stalwart in defending Israel since Hamas’ Oct. 7 massacres launched the war. Last month, three Jewish lawmakers, including two progressives, spearheaded a letter from more than half of House Democrats supporting President Joe Biden’s robust backing for Israel. All 24 Jewish Democrats in the House signed it.
Now — as the war enters its sixth week, the Palestinian death toll rises and the humanitarian crisis intensifies — anguished expressions of dissent from Reps. Becca Balint of Vermont and Dean Phillips of Minnesota, and Sen. Jon Ossoff of Georgia, suggest that wall of support might be crumbling.
Phillips, Ossoff and Balint each said that the massacres Hamas carried out, killing 1,200 people and taking more than 200 captive, recalled the horrors of the Holocaust. “These events call to mind the Einsatzgruppen SS, the Nazi death squads who hunted and massacred our relatives across Eastern Europe 80 years ago,” Ossoff said on the Senate floor.
But they said they have been haunted by the subsequent carnage, in which the Hamas-controlled Gaza Health Ministry has said that more than 11,000 Palestinians have died, including thousands of children. It’s not known how many among that number are combatants, and how many among the dead were victims of misfired rockets aimed at Israel.
On Thursday, Balint became the first Jewish member of Congress to endorse a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war.
“What is needed right now is an immediate break in violence to allow for a true negotiated ceasefire,” she said in an op-ed for VTigger, a Vermont news site. “One in which both sides stop the bloodshed, allow critical access to humanitarian aid and move towards negotiating a sustainable and lasting peace.”
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democrat who is a leader of the “Squad,” the most left-wing faction in the House, immediately seized upon Balint’s support, noting her Jewish identity.
“Rep. Becca Balint is now the first Jewish member of Congress to come out in favor of a ceasefire in Gaza,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted. “She is incredibly brave, taking a stance rooted in her commitment to human rights and protection of the innocent.”
Balint’s appeal differs in some ways from the ceasefire promotion that Ocasio-Cortez champions, in two substantive ways: Ocasio-Cortez this week spearheaded a letter to Biden urging him to press Israel into a ceasefire. Balint’s appeal was to Israel, and not to Biden to exert pressure on Israel.
Balint also said in her op-ed that a condition of a ceasefire must be the removal of Hamas from power — which is Israel’s objective in the war.
“A lasting bilateral cease-fire can only work if Hamas does not continue to rule in Gaza,” she wrote. “Hamas is a terrorist organization, and its stated goal is to annihilate the state of Israel. It can’t remain in power in Gaza.”
Ocasio-Cortez’s letter, which got 24 signatures, makes no such condition.
Later in the day, Ossoff took to the Senate floor to excoriate Israel’s conduct. He did not call for a ceasefire — he said Israel must pursue Hamas. But he was unstinting in his criticism of Israel’s conduct of the war and its resistance to Biden Administration pleas to allow in humanitarian assistance.
“The extent of civilian death and suffering in Gaza is unnecessary,” he said. “It is a moral failure and it should be unacceptable to the United States.”
Ossoff was especially galled that Israel seemed to be rebuffing Biden administration appeals to allow in relief and to curb violence by a group of Israeli West Bank settlers who have seized the moment to attack Palestinian communities.
“Requests by the United States that the Israeli leadership conduct a more targeted campaign, that they permit and provide a safe passage for aid essential to the sustenance of innocent life, that they clearly define objectives, that they prevent extrajudicial killings by extremists in the West Bank, that they present a credible plan for Gaza’s future governance have mostly been ignored,” Ossoff said.
He raised the specter of conditioning U.S. defense assistance to Israel on its compliance. “I do not accept that the total deprivation of millions of innocent civilians is necessary for Israel to secure its objectives or in the national interest of the United States, and where the United States is committing arms funds and support to those efforts, we must guard our principles and our interests,” he said.
On Friday, Phillips, who is mounting a long-shot primary challenge to Biden and is known for his moderate positions, released a statement outlining his vision for a way out of the war that did not spare Israel or its leadership. He too called on Israel to dismantle Hamas’ fighting capacity.
“Israel has every right and expectation to target Hamas terrorists and dismantle their capability of destroying the state of Israel,” he said. “But that response has taken an unacceptable toll on Palestinians, many of whom are subject to Hamas terror — not supporters of it.”
He took aim in particular at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who he said had “exacerbated” policies of “repression and illegal settlement on Palestinian lands.” He said Israelis should hold elections soon. Netanyahu also has low approval ratings within Israel.
Phillips presented a five-point plan to create a “future of peace.” The document was notable considering Phillips has been a leader in Congress in terms of calling out fellow Democrats for Israel criticism that he believed was antisemitic.
Until now the only Jewish Democrat forcefully criticizing Israel’s response has been Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the unofficial leader of congressional progressives. But he has refused to call for a ceasefire and has distanced himself from fellow progressive who do.
The shifts by Jewish lawmakers comes amid accelerating volleys of sentiment by people in and close to the U.S. government. Hundreds of Biden administration staffers have signed statements criticizing the administration’s handling of the Israel-Hamas war and calling for Biden to do more to support the Palestinians, the New York Times reported this week.
Also this week, more than 100 former staffers for Barack Obama issued a letter praising Biden’s “moral clarity” for backing Israel and endorsing his request for a $14 billion emergency assistance package to Israel.