Grassroots activism behind America’s pro-Palestine shift
At last week’s virtual J Street conference, US Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren broke a political taboo when they expressed a willingness to leverage US military aid as a way of pressuring Israel to respect Palestinians’ human rights. Sanders said that the US “must be willing to bring real pressure to bear, including restricting US aid, in response to moves by either side that undermine the chances for peace,” while Warren showed a willingness to restrict military aid as a “tool” to push Israel to “adjust course.”
Generally, Sanders’ increasingly pro-Palestinian stances are more progressive than those of Warren, although both are still hovering within the mainstream Democratic discourse: Showing willingness to criticize Israel, as long as it is coupled with equal, if not even more pointed, criticism of the Palestinians.
Arab scholar Seraj Assi explained this dichotomy in an article published in Jacobin magazine. “Sanders’ stance on Israel-Palestine could undoubtedly be more progressive. He has consistently voted in favor of US military aid to Israel, which subsidizes occupation, settlement expansion, and systematic violence against Palestinians. He still opposes the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) campaign, signing onto an anti-BDS letter to the UN Secretary-General in 2017 and reiterating his opposition to BDS (in 2019),” Assi wrote. However, as Assi himself indicated, Sanders’ position on Palestine and Israel cannot be judged simply based on some imagined ideal, but within the context of America’s own political culture; one in which any criticism of Israel is viewed as “heretical,” if not outright anti-Semitic.
Sanders’ influence on the overall Democratic political discourse is also palpable. He has paved the way for more radical, younger voices in the US Congress, who now openly criticize Israel while remaining largely unscathed by the wrath of the pro-Israel lobby, particularly the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
Gone are the days when AIPAC and other pro-Israel pressure groups shaped the domestic American political discourse on Israel and Palestine. Nothing indicates that the tide has completely turned against Israel, as this is nowhere close — yet. However, a decisive US public opinion shift must also not be ignored. It is this popular shift that is empowering voices within the Democratic Party to speak out more freely without jeopardizing their political careers, as was often the case in the past.
In order to decipher the roots of the growing anti-Israeli occupation, pro-Palestinian sentiments among Democrats, these numbers could be helpful. While Sanders, Warren and other Democratic officials who are willing to criticize Israel still vehemently reject BDS, the grassroots Democratic Party membership does not hold the same view. An early 2020 Brookings Institute poll found that, among Democrats who had heard about BDS, “a plurality, 48 percent, said they supported the movement, while only 15 percent said they opposed it.” This indicates that grassroots activism, which directly engages with ordinary Americans, is largely shaping the public’s views on the movement to boycott Israel. Ordinary Democrats are leading the way, with their representatives merely trying to catch up.
Other polls are also indicative of the fact that the vast majority of Americans oppose pro-Israeli efforts to promote laws that criminalize boycotts as a political tool, as such laws, they rightly believe, infringe on the constitutional right to free speech. Expectedly, 80 percent of Democrats lead the way in opposing such measures, followed by 76 percent of independents and 62 percent of Republicans. Such news must be disturbing for Tel Aviv, as it has heavily invested, through AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups, in branding BDS or any other movement that criticizes Israel’s military, occupation and systematic apartheid in Palestine as anti-Semitic.
Israelis find this new phenomenon quite confounding. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been repeatedly criticized, even by mainstream Israeli officials and media pundits, for turning Democrats against Israel by unabashedly siding with former President Donald Trump and his Republican Party over their domestic rivals. Hence, Netanyahu has turned the support of Israel from a bipartisan issue into a Republican-only cause. A February 2020 Gallup poll perfectly reflected that reality, as it found that a majority of Democrats (70 percent) support the establishment of a Palestinian state, in comparison with 44 percent of Republicans.
The rooted support for Israel among establishment Democrats is too deep and well-funded to be erased in a few years, but the pro-Palestine, anti-Israeli-occupation trend continues unabated.
The last year has been particularly difficult for the Israeli lobby, which is unaccustomed to electoral disappointments such as Trump’s loss to Democrat Joe Biden. Last June, for example, the lobby painted itself into a corner when it rallied behind one of its most faithful supporters, Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, depicting his Democratic primary opponent, Jamaal Bowman, as “anti-Israel.” Bowman is hardly anti-Israel, even though his position is moderate in comparison to the extremist, one-sided views of Engel. In fact, Bowman made it clear that he continues to support US aid to Israel and openly opposes BDS. However, unlike Engel, Bowman was not a candidate whose love for Israel is blind, unconditional and ever-lasting. To the embarrassment of the lobby, Engel lost his seat in the US Congress, which he had held for more than 30 years.
Ordinary Democrats are leading the way, with their representatives merely trying to catch up.
Unlike Bowman, Cori Bush, a grassroots activist from Missouri who last year ousted the pro-Israel Rep. William Lacy Clay, has defended the Palestine boycott movement as being a matter of freedom of speech, despite a relentless smear campaign that described her as having an “anti-Israel agenda” merely because she appeared in a photograph with a pro-Palestinian activist. Last August, Bush — a black woman from a humble background — became the House representative for Missouri’s first congressional district, despite all the pro-Israeli efforts to deny her.
It is important to acknowledge the role played by individuals in the undeniable shift within the American political discourse on Palestine and Israel. However, it is ordinary people who are making the real difference. While the Israel lobby still wields the weapons of money and propaganda, politically engaged grassroots activism is proving decisive in garnering American solidarity with Palestine and is slowly translating this solidarity into political gains.
- Ramzy Baroud is a journalist and the editor of The Palestine Chronicle. He is the author of five books. His latest is “These Chains Will Be Broken: Palestinian Stories of Struggle and Defiance in Israeli Prisons” (Clarity Press). Twitter: @RamzyBaroud