Washington Watch: Passing the torch

Younger, more progressive Jews are increasingly disillusioned with an Israel led by right wing extremists who profess adoration for an American president they adamantly oppose.

July 4, 2018 20:37
4 minute read.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez embraces New York gubenatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon

Progressive challenger Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez embraces New York gubenatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon at her victory party in the Bronx after upsetting incumbent Democratic Representative Joseph Crowly on June 26, 2018. (photo credit: SCOTT HEINS/GETTY IMAGES/AFP)

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who over threw a veteran Democratic congressman in a stunning upset last week, and Donald Trump, who beat a rival thought to be a shoo-in for president, have a lot more in common that you might think.

Both come from New York’s outer boroughs, were elected in their first run for office, stand near the far side of their respective political spectrum, consider themselves agents of change and want to shake up the body politic.

They also have many dissimilarities – he lost the popular vote by nearly three million while she won by a whopping landslide and without the help of a hostile foreign power.

George Penn, who owns the Phase One Barbershop in the Bronx neighborhood where Ocasio-Cortez grew up, summed it up in a Washington Post interview. Voters threw out 10-term Democrat Joe Crowley in favor of a newcomer half his age because “when you see nothing is really changing, you say, let me try something new.”

Trump rode that horse to the White House in 2016 and Democrats are hoping he and his congressional acolytes have botched the job so badly that they can ride a blue wave back into power in at least one chamber if not both houses of Congress.

Her election also signals the need for Democrats, as JFK would say, to pass the torch to a new generation of leaders. The current House Democratic leadership are all closing in on 80.

Ocasio-Cortez, 28, is on track to be the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. I know a bit about her district, and nothing at all. Most of the Queens sections were represented in the Sixties and Seventies by Benjamin S. Rosenthal; I was his legislative assistant for nine of those years. The district was largely white and about 40% Jewish, the new 14th is about 4% Jewish, multiracial and multiethnic, not unlike Ocasio-Cortez.

Her controversial views on Israel won’t impact her election but could give heartburn to many other Democrats. After 60 Palestinians were killed in protests at the Gaza border this spring, she called it a “massacre” and said Palestinians “deserve basic human dignity, as anyone else.”

The Anti-Defamation League criticized her for comparing the Hamas-sponsored demonstrations to the American civil rights movement.

“I had a lot of Jewish Americans who thanked me” for speaking out on Gaza, she said.

Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the left-leaning peace lobby J Street, said, “we celebrate” a new generation of candidates who oppose “the policies of Netanyahu’s far right coalition.”

Ocasio-Cortez’s victory is a harbinger of trouble ahead for Israel under its present leadership.

She represents a new generation of progressives whose view of Israel is influenced by its long occupation, not its history of precarious survival. They have much to learn about Israel. The Gaza “demonstrations” were organized by Hamas not just to play for world attention and sympathy but also to use human shields to infiltrate terrorists into Israel to murder civilians and try to kidnap soldiers and others.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in partnership with the Republican Party, has weaponized support for Israel. Together they have turned it into a partisan competition to see which party can be more pro-Israel. Republicans are winning, and they’re doing it without the help of American Jewry.

Israel is no longer a top priority for most Jewish voters except in time of existential crisis, and today’s Jewish state is a regional nuclear and economic superpower that outweighs all its adversaries combined.

The more Israel and its leaders align themselves with Trump and the far right of the GOP, the more progressives – including Jews – will turn away. Evangelicals, whose prophetic views of the region align closely with Israel’s far right, are driving the Israel agenda these days, not AIPAC and the Jewish old guard. Were it not for the Christian right so critical to Trump, the US Embassy would still be in Tel Aviv.

By allowing Israel to become a partisan issue – indeed, encouraging the shift – both the Netanyahu government and the American Jewish establishment represented by AIPAC have done more to endanger Israel’s security than anything Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah or the Syrians could ever accomplish.

Ocasio-Cortez and other progressives have endorsed the anti-Israel Boycott Divest and Sanction movement, which started out as a protest against far-Right Israeli policies but has been co-opted by antisemites and others who have turned it into a movement to delegitimize the Jewish state. They need education, not denunciation.

Younger, more progressive Jews are increasingly disillusioned with an Israel led by right wing extremists who profess adoration for an American president they adamantly oppose. Instead they see Israel turning toward theocracy and apartheid and away from democracy and peace and reconciliation with Palestinians.

The message for Israel in the election in the 14th congressional district of New York and the challenge facing the Jewish state today is reestablishing the historic bipartisan consensus built on the pillars of shared values, human rights, democracy and security. That can’t be done until both nations elect leaders who can put the welfare of their nations and its people ahead of their lust to advance their personal fortunes and power.

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