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Democrats’ New House Leader Has Record of Defending Human Rights Violations

Hakeem Jeffries’s support for the Israeli right wing is a blow to the party’s progressive base.

Democratic leader Rep.-elect Hakeem Jeffries speaks during a news conference on January 5, 2023, in Washington, D.C.

Soon after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced she was stepping down as Democratic leader in the House of Representatives, Democrats chose Rep. Hakeem Jeffries as their new leader. In contrast to the mayhem on the Republican side of the aisle, Jeffries was unopposed and has been widely praised by observers on Capitol Hill. Unfortunately, in choosing Jeffries, the Democratic Party has sent a clear message to its constituents that human rights and international law are not a priority for them. Indeed, Jeffries’s right-wing views regarding Israel and Palestine in particular underscore that he opposes many of these widely held principles.

While virtually all members of Congress are supportive of Israel on some level, a growing number of Democrats have allied with moderate Zionist groups like J Street, which oppose the occupation and illegal settlements and support the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Jeffries, however, has repeatedly aligned himself with right-wing Zionist organizations, like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). He has also used his support for Israel’s right-wing governments as a means to attack and discredit the United Nations and reputable human rights groups supported by the majority of rank-and-file Democrats.

Jeffries has been highly critical of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as well as Israeli human rights groups like B’tselem, for their recognition of Israel’s imposition of an apartheid system on Palestinians. Despite the overwhelming evidence in human rights reports that Israel’s policies meet the international definition of apartheid, Jeffries has dismissed the conclusions as “demonstrably false” and “dangerous” while claiming that the reports were based not on evidence but were simply “designed to isolate Israel.”

In 2017, Jeffries sided with President Donald Trump in criticizing outgoing President Barack Obama’s refusal to veto an otherwise unanimous, modest and largely symbolic UN Security Council resolution regarding Israeli settlements. He voted for a Republican-backed measure declaring that the resolution — which reiterated previous Security Council calls for Israel to stop expanding its illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank — was “anti-Israel” and insisted that the United States should veto any United Nations resolution critical of Israel or promoting an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement.

Despite the right-wing Israeli government’s categorical refusal to end its occupation and allow for Palestinian self-determination, Jeffries asserts that the only way to address the conflict is through bilateral negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians in a peace process brokered solely by Israel’s biggest supporter, the United States — a strategy that has been unsuccessful for nearly 30 years.

He has expressed no objections to supporting the Israeli government — the entire cabinet of which refuses to recognize Palestine’s right to exist, rejects previous agreements with the Palestinians and supports increased violence against the Palestinians.

In an effort to block international efforts against Israel’s occupation and colonization of the West Bank, Jeffries has supported legislation that formally defines “Israel” as “territory controlled by Israel,” including the occupied territories. His opposition to campaigns for Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) includes not just those campaigns targeting Israel, but even those solely targeting the Israeli occupation and illegal settlements.

In 2018, Jeffries co-sponsored a bill which would have effectively criminalized support for boycotts against Israel or companies doing business in the country or its occupied territories. The Israel Anti-Boycott Act would have made it a crime to support or even furnish information about a boycott directed at Israel or the Israeli occupation supported by any entity of the United Nations, the European Union, or other international governmental organization. The penalties were draconian, including fines of up to $1 million and up to 20 years imprisonment. Opposition by the Obama administration, the American Civil Liberties Union and others eventually led to his bill’s defeat.

He has even inserted himself in campus politics, condemning the Brooklyn College political science department for hosting feminist scholar Judith Butler to talk about BDS targeting the Israeli occupation.

Despite denying basic freedoms to Palestinians under Israeli control, Jeffries has declared that, “The special relationship between the United States and Israel is anchored in our shared democratic values.”

Jeffries has gone as far as defending Israeli war crimes. In response to international outrage at Israel’s 2014 war on the Gaza Strip, which killed nearly 1,500 civilians — roughly one-third of whom were children — he insisted it was all legitimate self-defense, saying, “Israel has a right to defend itself in the same manner as any other nation in the world, and the United States should continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with our close ally until quiet has been restored.” He further insisted that the civilian deaths were not Israel’s responsibility but the fault of the Palestinians themselves, accusing Hamas of using “human shields.” However, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the United Nations — while documenting a number of other war crimes committed by Hamas — found no evidence of any Palestinian deaths from the use of human shields.

Jeffries’s positions have also underscored a degree of extremism, as the overwhelming majority of U.S. Middle East scholars support a more even-handed U.S. policy towards Israel and Palestine. In support of Trump’s diplomatic efforts in the region, Jeffries co-sponsored a resolution praising the so-called Abraham Accords, which resulted in two small Gulf monarchies recognizing Israel in return for major arms transfers, and Morocco recognizing Israel in return for U.S. recognition of its illegal occupation of Western Sahara. A poll of U.S. Middle East scholars shows that nearly three-quarters of those surveyed recognized the Abraham Accords have actually had a negative impact on the prospects of peace, with less than 5 percent saying they had a positive impact.

Polls have shown that a majority of Americans, including 72 percent of registered Democrats, agreed with the statement that, “The United States should not provide unrestricted financial and military assistance to the Israeli government if it continues to violate US policy on settlement expansion in the West Bank.” However, Jeffries rejects the notion that military aid to Israel should be conditional on its human rights record or adherence to international law, insisting that there be “no conditions” to U.S. military aid. In 2021, he even signed a letter declaring that such unconditional aid to Israel’s right-wing government “is a specific investment in the peace and prosperity of the entire Middle East,” making the bizarre claim that it “makes the region a safer place and bolsters diplomatic efforts aimed at achieving a negotiated two-state solution, resulting in peace and prosperity for both Israelis and Palestinians.”

Jeffries worked to successfully suppress a bill introduced last year by fellow Democrat Rep. Betty McCollum that would ensure that the nearly $4 billion in annual U.S. military aid to Israel is not used to illegally annex Palestinian land, demolish Arab homes and forcibly remove Palestinians, or detain children in Israel’s labyrinthian military judicial system.

Indeed, Jeffries’s selection was a major defeat for the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. According to former Rep. Robert Wexler, who has traditionally defined “pro-Israel” as unconditional support for that country’s right-wing leadership, “the pro-Israel camp needs someone just like Hakeem to lead us into the future,” adding, “if the pro-Israel community wanted to create a Democratic leader for the future, we would create Hakeem Jeffries.”

In choosing Jeffries over the increasing number of Democratic House members who reflect their constituents’ more moderate views regarding Israel and Palestine, the Democratic leadership has indicated that they have little regard for human rights and international law, as well as a dismissive attitude towards the views of the majority of Democrats who support such principles. House Democrats made a similar mistake when backing Rep. John McCormack in the 1960s despite his vocal support for the Vietnam War, contributing to alienation with the two-party system. Such a gamble could alienate younger and progressive voters whose turnout is needed to win back the majority. It is fair to assume that the leadership believes it can go as far to the right as it wants since the fear of Republicans will compel voters who do care about human rights and international law to vote Democratic anyway.

However, given how recent elections have been decided by relatively small margins, bringing someone like Jeffries into leadership may end up hurting the Democratic Party, which needs high turnout to win in swing districts and swing states. Since rank-and-file Democrats, particularly younger voters, are increasingly uncomfortable with unconditional U.S. support for Israeli apartheid, the decision to promote someone like Jeffries to lead the party in the House of Representatives could come back to haunt them.

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