With the Senate’s imminent passage of the grandiosely titled Strengthening America’s Security in the Middle East Act of 2019, it’s now official: Israel/Palestine will be a major political wedge issue in the 116th Congress and the 2020 election season. And it’s not going to be pretty.
This new Senate bill is essentially a package of previous bills that appears on the surface to be boilerplate Middle East legislation. But with the addition of a provision by Sen. Marco Rubio that seeks to stifle support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, this legislation is nothing short of a Republican line drawn in the sand.
BDS — the movement mobilized in response to a Palestinian civil society call for economic activism in support of Palestinian human rights — has long been a flash point for advocacy on the issue of Israel/Palestine. Over the past several years, there have been attempts on a state and federal level to fight BDS on a legislative level. While this new Senate bill does not criminalize BDS outright, it does encourage the passage of state laws that would require government contractors to certify they don’t participate in boycotts. More than two dozen states have passed such legislation in the past four years — laws that clearly violate the First Amendment right of free speech, as the ACLU and myriad other legal experts have pointed out.
In fact, the legality of these laws has already been successfully challenged in court. In Arizona, a US District judge issued an injunction blocking enforcement of its anti-BDS laws. Last December, a lawsuit was filed in federal court on behalf of a speech pathologist in Austin, Texas, after she was told that she could no longer work in the school district for refusing to sign an oath vowing that she “does not” and “will not” engage in a boycott of Israel.
Of course, the patently unconstitutional nature of these laws is immaterial to Senate lawmakers, who know full well that this legislation will have precious little impact on the “strength of America’s security in the Middle East.” Rather, the bill is a clear attempt by Republicans to divide Democrats over the politically fraught issue of Israel/Palestine, with BDS as the ultimate litmus test.
This Senate legislation is also a clear salvo at the new House of Representatives, which now includes the first US politicians to publicly support BDS: Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, a Somali refugee; Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, a Palestinian-American; and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. Not surprisingly, Omar and Tlaib, both Muslim, have already been cynically singled out by GOP politicians for accusations of anti-Semitism.
Republicans have made no secret of their intention to use divisions over BDS as fodder for their divide-and-conquer tactics. Norm Coleman, the national chairman of the Republican Jewish Coalition and a former senator from Minnesota, openly stated to The New York Times, “I don’t see much hope for changing where Tlaib and Omar are, but there is a battle in the Democratic Party…. It is a message to Jews who still care about Israel, to say, ‘You’ll be much more comfortable in the Republican Party.’”
After yesterday’s vote, however, it’s far from certain that the GOP’s strategy will succeed. It’s worth noting that every potential 2020 presidential candidate — Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Sherrod Brown, Kirsten Gillibrand, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders — voted against the bill. Moreover, during Tuesday’s Senate debate, Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland delivered a long and passionate denunciation of the bill. Liberal Zionist organizations, such as J Street and the rabbinical organization T’ruah, have issued statements condemning the legislation on free speech grounds. While these politicians and organizations still use clearly Zionist talking points and take pains to mention that they personally oppose BDS, their refusal to take the Republican bait is noteworthy.
In yet another sign of the increasing divide, a new group calling itself Democratic Majority for Israel has now incorporated in Washington, DC. According to its flashy new website, the group plans to “maintain and strengthen support for Israel among Democratic leaders including presidential and congressional candidates as well as with the grassroots of progressive movements.”
Suspiciously, however, while it proudly touts its “progressive policy agenda,” the new organization declines to identify any particular policy regarding Israel/Palestine. On the contrary, according to its “guiding principles,” Democratic Majority for Israel pointedly avoids any position beyond states “celebrating Israeli democracy and the right of the Israeli people to determine their own future without outside parties imposing solutions.” This new project claims it is separate and independent from AIPAC, the prominent and powerful pro-Israel lobbying group. However, a recent article in the Forward points out that of Democratic Majority for Israel’s “15 board members, 11 have either worked or volunteered for [AIPAC], donated to it or spoken at its events.” Moreover, the group’s president, Mark Mellman, has made it clear that Democratic Majority for Israel is actively trying to build a Democratic wing that will stand “unwaveringly” with Israel:
Most Democrats are strongly pro-Israel and we want to keep it that way. There are a few discordant voices, but we want to make sure that what’s a very small problem doesn’t metastasize into a bigger problem.
It’s not yet clear how many prominent Democrats will be attracted to this new project, but it has already gained the support of Rep. Hakeem Jefferies of New York, the fourth-ranking Democrat and a potential future Speaker of the House. In announcing his fealty to Democratic Majority for Israel, Jefferies praised the “special relationship between the United States and Israel” that is “rooted in shared values, an important strategic partnership in the Middle East, perhaps the world’s toughest neighborhood,” concluding, “I look forward to working with the Democratic Majority for Israel as it advances the unbreakable US-Israel bond into the future.”
How to respond to the new “divide-and-conquer” atmosphere currently sweeping the Democratic party? As ever, it will come down to money versus people power. In the end, it’s fair to view these new political maneuvers as the tactics of a once-formidable Israel advocacy machine that knows its power is on the wane. While it would certainly be foolhardy to underestimate the strength of the Israel lobby, there is a certain air of desperation surrounding these political efforts to stem the growth of the popular movement responding to the Palestinian civil society call for BDS.
It is clear that the growing movement of support for Palestinian human rights is increasingly popular with young people — including young Jews. Additionally, we now have members of Congress showing solidarity with Palestinians, and the first-ever congressional bill advocating for Palestinian human rights will soon be reintroduced. Bottom line: those who defend the oppressive policies of the state of Israel have every reason to be concerned.
It remains to be seen whether Republicans’ new political wedge tactics will succeed in weakening the Democratic Party. At the very least, they will force Democratic leaders to come clean on precisely where they stand on the issue of Israel/Palestine. With the 116th Congress now under way and the 2020 presidential campaign just out of the gate, the stakes could not be higher.
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