The radicalization of the Democratic Party

If Israel and its supporters are to begin challenging negative attitudes toward the country on the Left, they must begin to speak the language of the Left.

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN speaks as former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders listen at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, last week. (photo credit: REUTERS/SHANNON STAPLETON)
SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN speaks as former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders listen at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, last week.
Recent years have seen a rise in radicalization of attitudes toward Israel within the US Democratic Party. A recent Gallup poll found that between 2001 and 2019, support for Israel among those who described themselves as liberal democrats – those on the Left of the party – fell from 15% to just 3%.
This drop in support for Israel among the grassroots has been coupled with a number of rising radical voices at the upper levels of the party. The 2018 elections to the House of Representatives brought a wave of younger, more radical Democratic representatives who are more vocal in their criticism of Israel. This vocal criticism of Israel often crosses the line to antisemitism. For example, in February 2019, Congresswoman Ilhan Omar tweeted that support for Israel in the US Congress was “all about the Benjamins.” Omar's comments play on the old antisemitic trope that Jews control politics through money.
What has led to this deterioration of attitudes toward Israel on the Left? There are several, often interrelated, factors at play.
First, those on the Left tend to see themselves as the defenders of the underdog. As Israel has successfully transformed itself from a vulnerable state of Holocaust survivors and refugees into a strong military and economic power, so its image in the minds of many on the Left has changed. Where once many on the Left supported Zionism and the creation of the State of Israel as a step toward achieving justice for a persecuted people, today many on the Left view Israel as a belligerent state which has brought suffering to a region to which it doesn’t truly belong.
This image of Israel is particularly contrasted with the image of the Palestinians who are imagined as stateless and impoverished victims who have no agency over their own collective decisions and actions.
Related to the desire to support the underdog, is the “oppressed vs. oppressor” distinction. According to this theory, the world is placed into the binary of “oppressed” or “oppressor,” with the “oppressed” meriting unquestioned support and the “oppressor” being resisted and fought against.
Feeding off the history of European imperialism and colonialism, those perceived as being of “white” European origin are typically cast as oppressors while those of non-white, non-European origin are cast as “oppressed.” Applied to the Arab-Israeli conflict, Israelis are the former and the Palestinians the latter. This is the lens through which many on the American Left view the conflict.
In casting Israelis as oppressors, the Left increasingly seeks to draw parallels between the creation of the State of Israel and the European colonization of the New World. Israeli Jews are accused of invading, colonizing and stealing a foreign land from an indigenous, non-white population and subjecting that population to continued discrimination and mistreatment, as was the case with European settlers in America, Australia or New Zealand.
In pushing this narrative, what its proponents ignore is that, far from being “white” European settlers, a majority of Israeli Jews are “brown” people who have their family histories in the Middle East and North Africa.
Even the claim that Jews who emigrated to modern-day Israel from Europe are white settlers is a dubious one, given the long history of antisemitic persecution that plagued the continent for much of the last 10 centuries and culminated in the Holocaust. Claims that Israeli Jews are somehow “white European settlers” also fly in the face of the fact that the Jewish people as a religion, nation and culture is indigenous to the Levant, as demonstrated by their language, genetics, history and religious heritage in the region.
Connected to the “oppressed vs. oppressor” distinction is the idea of “intersectionality.” Intersectionality is the view that all perceived oppression is interlinked. Sexism, racism, homophobia, religious persecution or any other form of injustice or discrimination are all seen as part of the same system of global oppression.
In this way, for example, the struggle for racial equality in the United States might be equated with the struggle for LGBT rights in both the US and other parts of the world. Similarly, the struggle for equality between the sexes might be equated with the perceived Palestinian struggle for rights and independence.
Left-wing pro-Palestinian activism has attempted to use intersectionality as a tool by which champions of seemingly unrelated causes can be rallied around the perceived Palestinian struggle against Israel. Rashida Tlaib attempted this during an interview with Britain’s Channel 4 News in 2018, in which she claimed that during a visit to Israel and the disputed territories, her grandmother was “shifted into a line with all the other brown people.”
Whether or not her claim has any factual basis is immaterial as her account is inherently flawed. First of all, her comments clearly ignore the fact that a majority of Israeli Jews are themselves “brown people,” so “brown people” being “shifted into a line” simply because of their skin color is a highly unlikely scenario in this part of the world.
What Tlaib is attempting to do is use intersectionality to draw a parallel between the experiences of Palestinian Arabs and discrimination faced by ethnic minorities in the West, particularly the US, and claim them as equals. As we have already dispelled, Palestinian Arabs are subject to security restrictions not because of the color of their skin, or even because of their religion, but simply because of violence and acts of terrorism perpetrated against Israelis by Palestinian terrorist organizations which operate largely from within the Palestinian civilian population.
So what can be done in the face of such narratives? That there are rising leading “stars” in the Democratic Party whose criticism of Israel often feeds into antisemitism, and that positive attitudes toward Israel have all but collapsed on the radical Left of the party, is a worrying trend.
Yet it is not irreversible. If Israel and its supporters are to begin challenging negative attitudes toward the country on the Left, they must begin to speak the language of the Left. Israel advocacy often focuses on highlighting perceived positive characteristics such as Israel’s record as a democracy, technological pioneer and progressive state.
These things may all be true, but they are not effective when addressing the Left. For many on the Left, that Israel pioneered drip irrigation technology doesn’t change the notion that it is a settler-colonial state that should ideally never have been established.
In order to challenge such views, Israel advocacy should shift to instead highlight the Jewish people’s indigenous ties to Israel, the historical experiences, stories and identities of the Jewish people as distinct from “white” European history, and the history of Islamist and Palestinian violence and rejectionism, which have been the biggest single contributors to the current situation of the Palestinian people.
Nadav Lawrence is an intern at the Institute for Zionist Strategies.