On Wednesday, residents of New York’s 14th Congressional District awoke to a surprise. Their 10-term incumbent had been defeated in a primary campaign by a young woman backed by energetic voters who were tired of the old guard. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the surprise face of the summer of 2018 in America. Although her campaign focused on domestic issues, one tweet about Israel has made her controversial in the pro-Israel community.
On May 14 she called Israel’s actions on the Gaza border a “massacre” and said Democrats could not be silent anymore about the killing of Palestinians. “No state or entity is absolved of mass shootings of protesters,” she argued. “Palestinian people deserve basic human dignity, as anyone else.”
This one tweet isn’t as significant as it was made out to be. It’s not the first time Israel has been accused of a “massacre.” In 1953, Ariel Sharon led a raid on the village of Qibya in the West Bank, killing more than 60 people. The US State Department expressed “deepest sympathy for the families of those who lost their lives” and said the commanders, like Sharon, “should be brought to account.”
In 1953 the US government was excoriating Israel, in 2018 the US administration supports Israel wholeheartedly, and only rare voices, often considered fringe even within the Democratic Party, condemn Israel in harsh language.
However, there is a sense in the pro-Israel community that Jerusalem is losing support among key demographics in the US. A 2013 Pew survey found that while 40% of Jews 65 and older were “very attached” to Israel, only 25% of those 18-25 felt the same way. Younger American Jews are described as indifferent or “hostile.”
One problem is that supporters of Israel are also having a difficult time weathering Donald Trump’s presidency. Many left-leaning supporters of Israel have a hard time squaring their support for Israel with Trump’s support. A Reut Institute study in 2017 noted that “the present Israeli government’s strong support of the Trump administration” was thing that was “likely to place most American Jews and the Israeli government on two different sides.”
Overall a Gallup survey found that 83% of Republicans support Israel while only 64% of Democrats do. Among the Democratic party a recent study found that voters were equally likely to sympathize with Israel as the Palestinians. Another 2017 survey found that support for Israel was slipping among millennials and minorities, and that “the more Americans learn about Israel, the less they like it.” Even among Evangelicals a survey by LifeWay Research in 2017 showed that only 58% of those aged 18 to 34 supported Israel while 70% of those over 50 did.
All this points to a disaster in the making. The Trump administration and other various trends have made Israel a more partisan issue than in the past. The next US administration is likely to want to undo Trump’s policies. They can’t move the embassy back, but they could reverse the support at the United Nations and in other sectors.
Meanwhile, as key demographics, such as younger Americans and minorities, inevitably play a larger role in politics the new generation of politicians like Ocasio-Cortez will be more critical of Israel. She’s also critical on Twitter of Trump’s bombing of Syria and his tearing up of the Iran deal.
The problem Israel faces in the US is multi-layered. Israel is one of the few countries that provokes extreme reactions among some voters. For instance, very few voters care greatly about other countries, whether it is US-India relations or China or Morocco. Pro-Israel groups have worked hard over the years to encourage near-total support for the country in Congress.
When it comes to things like backing Israel’s battle against Hamas tunnels or the Iron Dome there is no debate. In 2014, for instance, under president Barack Obama, Congress voted 395-8 to support funding for Iron Dome. In April, 40 members of Congress from both parties called on the US to consider purchasing the Iron Dome.
So when people talk about fears of Israel losing support in the US the real story is much more complex. Even voices that are critical of Israel tend to support it on most issues. In May, 74 Democratic lawmakers sent a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urging his government not to raze a Beduin village in the West Bank.
It is often because these American politicians are so intimately familiar with Israel, and its supporters generally, that they get into the minutiae of urging Israel not to do certain things in the West Bank. This is very different than the support that Palestinians receive from politicians in Europe, which more often come from a milieu that is hostile to Israel.
The question facing those who care about Israel is whether to sound the alarm about some trends in the US and how to confront them. One problem is that pro-Israel voices spend a lot of time arguing with other pro-Israel voices over who likes Israel more. For instance the Obama administration received withering criticism for not vetoing a UN resolution condemning settlements.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center ranked the refusal to veto as one of the “top worst global antisemitic/anti-Israel incidents” of 2016. This seems to miss the forest for the trees. Obama and his administration were not antisemitic. They were only slightly critical of Israel.
A new book by Stuart Eizenstat on Jimmy Carter reveals his far more toxic relationship with Israel, including offensive Bible study classes he gave condemning “Jewish leaders who were very powerful” for killing Jesus. It’s important to take things in stride. US administrations in the 1980s and presidents like Carter, held far more controversial and critical views, than today’s American political landscape.
However in the forest of critical voices of Israel, who nevertheless often support Israel, there are hostile and antisemitic voices. They have often been allowed to fester without being challenged precisely because they are wrongly lumped in with others whose views are very different.
The extreme anti-Israel and antisemitic voices in the US have sought to exploit their connections to the American left by gravitating toward the new trend of “intersectionality.”
The concept posits that racism, sexism, homophobia and other bigotries and social justice causes are all connected. Those fighting against racism in the US are therefore part of a big tent of activists who fight a variety of causes. Increasingly the pro-Palestinian cause is always at the forefront of these young activist groups. For instance, in April a pro-Palestinian group petitioned to have the city of Durham cancel connections to Israel over police training. The activists claimed that “this training helps the police terrorize Black and Brown communities.”
Linking activists who fight against racism in the US with anti-Israel activists is part of the agenda, and pro-Palestinian groups have been successful. Linda Sarsour became a central face of the Women’s March and anti-Trump rallies. She also downplayed antisemitism, claiming “I want to make the distinction that while antisemitism is something that impacts Jewish Americans, it’s different than anti-black racism or Islamophobia because it’s not systematic.”
Most people would disagree. Antisemitism is one of the most systematic forms of hate, from the Inquisition and blood libels to the gas chambers, it was always systematic. But she was able to downplay antisemitism while linking anti-black racism to Islamophobia the same way the Durham petition sought to tar Israel while linking “black and brown” Americans as victims of US police, and thus victims of Israel’s police.
The capstone of intersectionality came this year when another Women’s March leader, Tamika Mallory, came to visit Palestinians as part of the US-based Center for Constitutional Rights. She has tweeted about Israel more often this year.
On May 14 she wrote “Palestine/Israel... it needs to be clear how many people have been SLAUGHTERED today while America celebrates.” Then on June 14, activist Shaun King, who usually writes about anti-black racism in the US, tweeted “in Israel, a homeowner sold his house to an Arab family. White supremacists are now surrounding the home and chanting that they want the neighborhood to be for white Jews.” Lihi Yona at +972 pointed out that King was wrong. Afula, where the protest took place, is not home to “white Jews,” it actually has a “clear Mizrahi (Jews from Arab and/or Muslim countries) identity.” Afula is home to Jews of color, not “white supremacy.”
The struggle in the US that Israel faces is fighting against the trend that seeks to paint Israel as “white” against “brown and black people,” while downplaying antisemitism and accepting anti-Jewish activists into the big tent of “intersectionality.”
Israel is a diverse country but there is an agenda to culturally appropriate Jewishness and deny Jews the right to be a minority in the US and a people of color in the Middle East.
It’s important to bifurcate between reasonable criticism of Israel and engaging with those critics, while isolating antisemites and getting progressive voices to do the same. That is the challenge, not merely dismissing every critical voice without looking more deeply at what is the source of the criticism.