OF THE MANY BAD pieces of legislation being discussed in Washington at the moment, there are two particularly pungent anti-BDS bills presently winding their way through Congress—H.R. 246 and S. 120. If a Congressional freakout about the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement feels familiar, it’s because the Senate already passed a bill targeting BDS in early February before it stalled out in the House. But rather than concede defeat, pro-Israel advocates and their Congressional allies have opted for what Lara Friedman, President of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, has correctly identified as a “tactical shift,” a canny softening of language designed to get more Democratic buy-in.
The initial bill, S. 1, that advanced through the Senate included provisions encouraging states to pass laws prohibiting government contractors from engaging in political boycotts of the State of Israel or Israeli-controlled territory; at least 24 states, according to Friedman, have already put variants of such laws into effect. Even though the Supreme Court unanimously decided that boycotts qualify as protected political speech in 1982, a slim majority of Democrats (including Minority Leader Chuck Schumer) voted in support of the measure. House Democrats, on the other hand, seemed more wary of putting such a bill on Donald Trump’s desk. But after just a few weeks, the circumstances have changed.
Before, the Democratic leadership and more hardline pro-Israel Democrats might have been content to let S. 1 die a quiet death in the House, a failed Republican scheme to divide and shame the Democrats amidst the Trump-induced government shutdown. But after the flimsy allegations of antisemitism against BDS-supporting Rep. Ilhan Omar blew up, 57 Democrats and 52 Republicans between the Senate and the House have found a way to resuscitate the effort by co-sponsoring the two new bills. Thanks to the eager participation of these key Democrats, the new anti-BDS bills have removed the poison pill boycott language, instead simply offering a broad condemnation of BDS and its supporters, which reads like a not-so-subtle smear of certain members of the Democratic caucus.
If Nancy Pelosi ends up letting the new House bill go up for a vote, she, and a significant chunk of the Democrats in Congress, will have successfully done the dirty work of the Republican Party and the Israeli government, for little political gain. As the Israeli military continues to to shoot unarmed protesters in Gaza and the thrice-indicted Benjamin Netanyahu romances yet another ultranationalist world leader, the leadership of the Democratic Party has decided to focus their energy on making an example out of Ilhan Omar and the growing number of Americans disillusioned with US policy in Israel and Palestine.
Rather than acknowledge and engage with the emergent Democratic left wing, party leaders have aligned with their stated enemies. Ten years ago, these leaders might logically have feared the hammer of AIPAC retribution. But there’s an opening now that didn’t exist previously. As both the Israeli government and the American pro-Israel movement make plain their right-wing nature, Democrats are squandering an opportunity to go in precisely the opposite direction—to meaningfully change American policy, and to protect critics of the Israeli government and the Israel lobby.
In the weeks since Ilhan Omar first drew the attention of the Israel lobby and its fellow travelers, there has been nothing short of a sea change on how Israel and Palestine are discussed in Democratic politics, at least among the party’s base and its professional rank and file. The first sign of this shift was in the responses to the antisemitism accusations made against Omar; among the nearly dozen major 2020 contenders, not a single one lined up to condemn her, even though virtually all but Bernie Sanders have deep ties to pro-Israel donors and institutions. The Congressional Black Caucus, whose leadership has been close to the Israel lobby for awhile now, privately told the Democratic Party to back off the freshman from Minnesota. Last week, a MoveOn.org survey found that 74 percent of the advocacy group’s supporters wanted Democratic presidential candidates to skip the AIPAC Policy Conference altogether, prompting an official call for Democrats to boycott the event—something no mainstream progressive group has ever done before. It is no wonder that candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Beto O’Rourke are feeling emboldened to call out Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption and his embrace of racists.
Omar’s remarks alone did not create these fissures. Netanyahu pissed off the Congressional Black Caucus, for example, back in 2015 when he accepted an unusual invitation from the Republicans to condemn sitting President Barack Obama from the floor of Congress. This came just a few years after Netanyahu scolded Obama during an Oval Office press conference, saying that a peace process “is not gonna happen,” and just a few years before Obama signed off on a $38 billion military aid package to Israel. These incidents created valuable political currency for Netanyahu: on Thursday, Netanyahu shared a video of the eight-year-old White House exchange on Twitter with critical narration from PBS still in the audio, as if wide-eyed liberal horror at Israel wagging the dog of American power was a badge of honor.
This kind of political capital is invaluable to Netanyahu right now. The longest-tenured Israeli prime minister has led successively more right-wing Knesset coalitions since he first assumed office in 2009. Taming an ever-more-extreme base while staring down the barrels of multiple corruption and fraud indictments, Netanyahu’s reelection campaign has been far more vicious than any of his previous runs for office. He has leaned harder on racism, inviting an ultranationalist party into his coalition, and on his reputation as Israel’s best line of defense against a hostile gentile world. The inroads that he has made in the Republican Party, and in the Trump White House, have been indispensable in this regard. The embassy move to Jerusalem, the withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, the recognition of the Golan Heights as sovereign territory, and legislation criminalizing the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement have all been excellent gifts to Netanyahu, helping to keep his political fortunes alive. He’s now polling quite well.
All of these maneuvers have drawn praise from the highest echelons of the Democratic Party. The embassy move was celebrated by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer as “long overdue,” and House Majority Whip Steny Hoyer called for recognizing the Golan Heights back in January, months before the Trump administration actually did it. Save for the agreement with Iran, negotiated under a Democratic administration, you can find powerful Democratic officials routinely siding with the Israeli government and Republican leaders. That Hoyer, Schumer and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi took the podium at the AIPAC Policy Conference last week, after AIPAC cronies spent the better half of this month shouting flimsy allegations of antisemitism against Ilhan Omar, is a pretty apt summary of where the alliances of Democratic Party leadership reside.
Netanyahu’s escalating insolence is only the capstone of what has changed about Israel politics in the US in recent years. The pro-Israel cause has moved to be dominated by Christian Zionists, advocates of the forever war, Gulf State oil monarchies, and a number of influential donors like Sheldon Adelson and Haim Saban, all of whom share an interest in maintaining the current level and right-wing nature of American support for the Israeli government. Israel lobby groups like AIPAC were once easily able to grease the wheels of the Beltway by handing out piles of cash and cushy junkets to Israel, and with no viable pressure from the left, their contributions asked little of candidates besides supporting the status quo. There was no price to be paid for being pro-Israel.
The times have changed. A broad progressive coalition, formed from the wreckage of the financial crisis, the failure of the Iraq War, and the stagnation of the Obama years, has emerged with force in the Democratic Party. Insurgent candidates, derisively or affectionately designated the “Berniecrat” Democratic wing, won key midterm elections and shifted the 2020 policy debate dramatically to the left. Previously marginalized left-wingers have acquired meaningful support in the party. And as indicated by this coalition’s general support for Omar, and the fact that the 2020 field largely dodged the pile-on or joined the defense effort, emboldened progressives are not interested in the circular firing squad politics of antisemitism, and more engaged with broadly reimagining American foreign policy. Those MoveOn numbers did not come from nowhere, and rather than respond to what the ascendant progressive base wants, Democratic leadership has decided to link arms with Netanyahu and the Republicans by offering up their own party members as political prey and supporting pointlessly self-antagonizing legislation.
Confronted with the Donald Trump-Mitch McConnell government shutdown in early January, Republicans successfully muscled through a Senate bill (after the shutdown ended in early February) that encouraged state governments not to accept contracts with businesses supporting any boycott of Israel. The anti-BDS bill, as it is more popularly known, once again pit the ACLU and much of the Democratic rank-and-file against the Democratic leadership; Senate Democrats split almost evenly, with 24 voting for the measure and 23 against. Marco Rubio, who co-sponsored the bill, insisted on Twitter (with no evidence) that a “huge argument broke out at Senate Dem meeting last week over BDS. A significant # of Senate Democrats now support #BDS & Dem leaders want to avoid a floor vote that reveals that.” Virtually all Senate Democrats denied that such an argument had transpired, suggesting Rubio was really after a chance to both smear Democrats as Jew-haters and to get them to renounce BDS, as the Democratic Party recently added two proponents of BDS to their numbers in the House—Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib. At the time, it didn’t appear that the smear would stick; no one cared about the pro-Israel bill, and the Republicans just wanted out from under an unpopular government shutdown that their own party had induced. Meanwhile, Netanyahu got what he wanted: affirmation of his allies’ commitment to fighting the BDS movement, an effort into which his government and the Israel lobby have sunk hundreds of millions of dollars, and which happens to be core to his appeal to Israelis as Prime Minister.
It’s no mystery why so many Democrats, especially in the leadership, haven’t figured out the Republicans’ game by now. Pelosi, Hoyer, Schumer, and the whole mess of Democrats behind the new anti-BDS bills actually share the Republicans’ agenda, and they’re happy to keep taking pro-Israel dollars, defending the Israeli government no matter what, and throwing punches at anyone who raises even mild criticism, all in spite of where the party’s base is heading. Pelosi, speaking at AIPAC just last week, strongly praised all the new draft legislation on BDS, affirming that “we must also be vigilant against bigoted or dangerous ideologies masquerading as policy, and that includes BDS.”
And so this is where the priorities of the Democratic Party leadership lie: rather than take the opportunity opened up by Omar and an emergent left wing—a group that includes high-profile Jews, including the one inspiring the Berniecrat moniker—powerful Democrats would rather do the dirty work of the Republicans and Netanyahu, entrenching the status quo of effusive American support for Israeli control and domination of the lives of millions of Palestinians. The special interests that dominate Washington politics have willing Democratic supplicants—happy to go along with the program, even when it undermines the most energized part of the Democratic Party, let alone those who represent the morally correct position. There is only one real question left: when will this political malfeasance exact a price on its practitioners?
Noah Kulwin is a staff writer for Jewish Currents.