Progressives and Democrats must agree to disagree among themselves about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Otherwise, they could split apart in mutual recriminations. This could lead to losing the chance to regain political power and implement a progressive agenda around issues about which they mostly agree—including defeating Trump, combating climate change, taxing the wealthy, mass incarceration, universal health care, free or debt-free college, a woman’s right to choose, reinstating the Paris Climate Accord and the Iran Nuclear Treaty, and many other vital issues.
Progressives who oppose Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory are not anti-Semitic, and progressives who support settlements as necessary for Israeli security are not racists. Using slurs of “anti-Semitism” or “racism” against fellow progressives only splits the progressive movement into toxic factions, undermining the unity necessary to defeat Trump and the Republicans and implement a progressive agenda.
THE FIGHT IN THE HOUSE DEMOCRATIC CAUCUS
Reportedly the House Democratic caucus descended into a heated internal argument on Tuesday over a proposed resolution implicitly or explicitly criticizing Muslim Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s comments on Israel and Palestine. Through the years, I’ve seen more than one progressive group descend into similar internal rancor over the issue.
There should be room among Democrats and progressives for differing views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Multi-issue progressive organizations—whether Congressional Democrats, or groups like People’s Action and the Democratic Socialists of America – should not require a unified position from all members.
THE NEED FOR SENSITIVITY ON CHARGES OF RACISM AND ANTI-SEMITISM
That said, in advocating and organizing for their respective positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, more pro-Palestinian and more pro-Israeli progressives must be attuned to the sensitivities of the other side and be careful with their language.
For example, on its face, Rep. Omar’s tweet that AIPAC’s political influence in the U.S. is “all about the Benjamins” [i.e. political contributions] isn’t materially different than saying that the Koch Brothers’ influence in blocking climate change actions, or the NRA’s influence in blocking gun safety regulation, is largely about lobbying and political contributions.
But in carelessly choosing such language to attack the political influence of AIPAC, Omar showed extreme insensitivity to the history of anti-Semitism and its blood-libel that a conspiracy of rich Jews controls the world through their money and secret political power. Omar may not have intended to be anti-Semitic, but it’s hard for many Jews, including many progressive Jews, not to feel hurt and even defamed, particularly when they’re attacked as “racists”.
The inverse is also true. Pro-Israeli progressives and Democrats attacking Omar as an anti-Semite and demanding a Congressional resolution directly or indirectly denouncing her are equally insensitive. Many progressive, both Jewish and gentile, are critical of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory. And many on the more pro-Palestinian left are non-white, with a tendency to feel sympathy for what they perceive as oppression of the mostly non-white Palestinians by the mostly white Jewish Israelis. Those progressives are equally hurt and even feel defamed when called “anti-Semites” or even “Jewish anti-Semites”.
This problem on among progressives isn’t new. There’s a long history of splits on the left over Israel and Palestine.
Prior to World War II and the Holocaust, Zionism was a large but minority movement among Western Jews. In a period of growing anti-colonialist movements in European colonies in Africa and Asia, some saw the idea of transplanting white European Jews to a Middle East already inhabited by non-white Arabs as an alliance with European colonialism.
The horrors of the Holocaust changed all that. Hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees literally had nowhere to go, and no Western country wanted to take most of them. Escaping to Palestine became the only option.
Post-Holocaust, the vast majority of Jews and Western gentiles alike supported the creation of the State of Israel as a Jewish homeland. Even the Soviet Union supported the U.N. resolution creating Israel and partitioning Palestine.
Post-Holocaust, “Never Again” became the motto for most Jews—Jews would have their own State, protected by their own army and security forces, and could never again be subject to extermination by anti-Semitic hatred. Early Israeli governments followed a democratic socialist policy, increasing sympathy among much of the Western left.
But the creation of Israel as a Jewish state ignored that the land was already occupied by Palestinian Arabs and the partition meant displacing hundreds of thousands of them. Brutal atrocities were carried out on both sides, by Palestinians to force Jews out of their villages and off their land and by Jews to force Palestinians out of their villages and off their land. Approximately ¾ million Palestinians became refugees from their own land during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War that followed the partition. Generally authoritarian Arab regimes used anti-Zionism to distract their own people from their own oppression and prevent them from rebelling.
This only increased after the 1967 War which led to the Jewish Settlement movement. At the same time, The Palestinian Liberation Organization, founded in 1964, identified itself with the third-world anti-colonial, pro-independence anti-imperialist movement, with which much of the Western left sympathized. That’s why Nelson Mandela, who was a friend to Jews and a supporter of Israel’s right to exist within secure borders, was also an ally of the PLO and a political friend of Yasser Arafat.
These different views on Israel—a vital Jewish homeland to some, and a Western colony to others—divided the anti-Vietnam War movement in the ‘60s, weakening its power, and helping lead to Nixon’s victory in 1968 and Reagan’s victory in 1980, much as similar issues are dividing progressives today and strengthening the Republican right.
Many on the left—including many in the black liberation movement and many of its Jewish supporters—identified with the Vietnamese liberation movement and saw the Palestinian liberation movement as a similar movement against Western colonialism. Other anti-Vietnam War protesters, both Jewish and non-Jewish, saw Israel as a necessary homeland for the Jews in light of a 2000 year-long diaspora, worldwide anti-Semitism, and the Holocaust aimed at exterminating all Jews. While agreeing on the Vietnam War and Civil Rights, more than one anti-war meeting broke up in a shouting match between pro-Palestinians and pro-Israelis, and organizations even split apart over this issue.
THE DANGER OF DIVIDING PROGRESSIVES AND DEMOCRATS
Today, this disagreement threatens to split and weaken progressives and Democrats again, making it harder to defeat the Republican right and eventually to implement progressive policies on issues like climate change, economic inequality, and racial and gender injustice.
To win, progressives and Democrats must agree to disagree about Israel. No more calling each other “anti-Semitic” or “racist” because of different views on this issue. No more demanding that the leadership of multi-issue progressive organizations take one side or the other.
For those to whom the Middle East is a defining issue, by all means argue for and organize around your issues. But don’t demand that all other progressives agree with you, much less call them anti-Semites or racists for not agreeing.
If it’s too soon for a peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians, it’s not too soon for a non-aggression pact between pro-Palestinian and Pro-Israeli progressives and Democrats. Indeed, it’s essential to defeating Trump and the Republicans and saving American democracy from Trumpism and the planet from climate change that progressives and Democrats not allow themselves to be torn apart by differences on the single issue of Israel and Palestine.