In May, Israel’s long-standing policy of settlement expansion in the occupied territories of Palestine drew sharp rebuke from prominent corners of the American political establishment. That criticism was an unexpected departure from the typically supportive posture toward Israel among both politicians and U.S. media, as the forced displacement of Palestinian residents from Sheikh Jarrah revealed emerging fissures among American public intellectuals on the Palestinian question.
On May 13, nearly two dozen House Democrats from the center and left wings of the party levied impassioned pleas for Palestinian rights on the House floor and aimed direct critiques at the Israeli Defense Forces’ (IDF) violent attacks on Palestinian residencies, which killed 213 Palestinians. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, the only Palestinian American in Congress, conditioned America’s promise “to support equal human rights for all” on their ability to “end the apartheid system” of Zionist governance in Israel. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez, who generally tends toward the establishment line on Israel, expressed his deep concern about “Israeli military actions.”
James Zogby, the founder of the Arab American Institute who pushed for inclusion of Palestinians’ causes in the 1988 Democratic Party platform, said recently that “the base of the party is moving in a very different direction than where the party establishment is.” Likewise, a new group seems to be developing within the Democratic Party, one with no significant ties to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobbying group whose efforts have helped deliver $146 billion in U.S. aid to Israel. This group includes thought leaders, political representatives, and community groups who are beginning to represent and mobilize the pro-Palestine and contra-establishment elements of the Democratic Party base.
The Palestinian cause is being championed by a bloc of activists and movement leaders who are challenging long-standing American institutions and cultural mores. Abire Sabbagh, the community engagement coordinator at the New Jersey-based nonprofit Palestinian American Community Center (PACC), sees a growing awareness among activists of “where American tax dollars are going” and the connections between the IDF and American police departments. Sabbagh also pointed out a historical basis for solidarity which connects “the genocide and ethnic cleansing of Indigenous Native Americans” with the founding of Israel.
Ken Conca, a professor of international relations in the School of International Service at American University, thinks the backdrop of last summer’s Black Lives Matter movement and the broader calls for racial justice “helped reframe the [Palestinians’] story as one of injustice, discrimination, and occupation,” a connection that has been echoed by some in Congress. In an op-ed for The New York Times, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders alluded to last summer’s protests to say that “Palestinian lives matter,” while Rep. Cori Bush explicitly connected the Palestinians’ cause to “the fight for Black lives.”
For the Museum of Palestinian People (MPP), the revitalization of longstanding solidarity between the Black and Palestinian causes is welcome. Their clientele, largely a mix of Washington, D.C. politicos and activists, is expanding and developing an affinity between the Black Lives Matter (BLM) and Free Palestinian causes. Tala Aloul, a volunteer at the MPP, notices frequent social media posts that read: “If you support BLM, you should support Palestine. Oppression is oppression.”
However, Conca noted that the increase in support for Palestinians isn’t “a watershed moment” so much as a reflection of an ongoing trend among liberals and those further on the left in how they perceive Palestinian issues. In fact, nothing about U.S. policy toward Israel has really changed. Despite the factional breakdown among American elites, the State Department hewed close to its line of support for Israel’s right to “self-defense.” Congress even approved a U.S. arms sale to Israel during the attack on Gaza. House Foreign Affairs Chairman Gregory Meeks, whose Committee has jurisdiction over the arms deal, flirted with opposition in advance of Congress’ approval deadline, but party leadership ultimately secured his backdown.
These shifting dynamics within American civic and political institutions also correspond with breakdowns in Israeli domestic politics. After 15 years in office, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was dislodged by a coalition led by Yair Lapid, a political centrist and secularist, and Neftali Bennet, a former Netanyahu protégé and participant in the Qana massacre of 102 Lebanese civilians. In a last-ditch effort to preserve his standing, Netanyahu, for whom hostility toward the Palestinians has long been a reliable political tool, greenlit the forced settlement of Sheikh Jarrah.
This time, that tool backfired for Netanyahu. In addition to triggering a new American wave of support for Palestinians, the forced ethnic displacement in Sheikh Jarrah also created more solidarity among Palestinians across the occupied territories. The scenes of Israeli Arabs clashing with Israeli non-Arabs clashed with the usual narrative fixation on Hamas. Conca pointed out how this essentially “punch[ed] holes in the traditional ‘two peoples, one land’ and religious lens” that often characterizes how Israel is viewed by American mainstream politics and media.
“The unity among Palestinians—in Israel, in Jerusalem, in Palestine—simply could not be ignored,” he said.
Despite displays of support from within the American political establishment, there have still been social costs primarily borne by Palestinian Americans. Shortly after the ceasefire brought an end to the national media coverage of Sheikh Jarrah, the PACC received calls to their office threatening physical violence, which the Passaic County prosecutor’s office is investigating as a hate crime. Sabbagh said the caller was emboldened by “our country’s blind … physical, moral, [and] financial support to Israel.” Andre Sayegh, the mayor of nearby Paterson, New Jersey, called the incident “another disgraceful [effort] to dehumanize Palestinians.”
The true test of a group’s effectiveness is its ability to create change and mobilize resources behind its core causes. Conca believes that “influencing congressional decisions on budgetary outlays is probably the strongest tool” advocacy groups have at their disposal. Sabbagh agrees, noting that coalitions stand a much better chance of pressuring the government to change its policies toward Israel, including imposing sanctions, discontinuing funds, and condemnations for human rights violations. For many, those changes are a moral imperative.
“How can you allow people to drown in student debt and loans, have people die because they can’t afford or get health insurance, but send this much money to a country that murders and ethnically cleanses an entire population of people?” Sabbagh asked.
For Democrats, friction within the party over the Palestinian question doesn’t look like it will go away anytime soon. This past month, Rep. Ilhan Omar engendered public backlash from within her own party after disfavorably comparing American and Israeli policies to those of Hamas, Afghanistan, and the Taliban. The public spat revealed fissures between senior House Democrats like Reps. Jerrold Nadler and Debbie Wasserman-Schulz, who signed a letter calling on Omar to clarify her comments and leaders of the party’s more progressive wing, like Rep. Pramila Jayapal, who came to Omar’s defense. In April, Minnesota Rep. Betty McCollum introduced a bill to add conditions to U.S. aid to Israel. It remains to be seen if a similar bill could be taken up in the Senate. In the interest of finding additional ways to pay for the Build Back Better initiative, the Biden administration could condition aid to Israel on their compliance with international human rights law. This is not likely, but may be politically expedient.
As legislators and constituents continue to build bonds outside of the old party networks, there may be no slowing the change in attitudes among the political elite toward how the U.S. deals with Israel and the Palestinians. Likewise, party leadership may ultimately have no choice but to listen to those changing concerns.