Some of the Democratic Party’s brightest new stars believe Israel is a rogue state that should be treated like apartheid South Africa.
It’s the latest sign that, after 50 years, support for Israel is no longer a bipartisan cause — a dramatic change that will be felt in the wide-open Democratic presidential primary. The young progressives who have ascended to power within the Democratic Party over the last few years want to force what were once fringe views into the mainstream, and significantly change US policy toward Israel.
“I think every 2020 presidential contender will be asked how can they stand by Benjamin Netanyahu when he openly supports Trump’s border wall and compares it to his own draconian policies,” said Waleed Shahid, communications director for Justice Democrats, an assertive progressive group that calls for more criticism of Israel, which rose to prominence in 2018 with its early backing of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Much of the debate will center on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, or BDS, which has the support of two young, new Muslim members of Congress — Rashida Tlaib from Michigan and Ilhan Omar from Minnesota.
They are part of a revitalized progressive wing that represents a new generation of potential Democratic voters looking to force presidential candidates to grapple with what it actually means for the US to support Israel in the run-up to 2020. That wing is demanding that Democrats who are seeking the presidency debate the country’s stance toward Israel — in the same way that they would debate something like health care policy — rather than treating it as a foregone conclusion.
IfNotNow, a progressive organization whose goal is “to end American Jewish support for the occupation” (but takes no position on BDS) will launch a “public push to get 2020 candidates to not attend [the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s] annual conference in March,” founding member Yonah Lieberman told BuzzFeed News. By not attending AIPAC, he said, presidential hopefuls would “show the growing progressive coalition that they stand with us.”
In 2016, Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders made headlines by skipping the conference. To have candidates skip the conference as the rule, and not the exception, would be a departure from the norm.
The Democratic Party’s progressive wing has long pushed for more criticism of Israel policy. Young people and people of color in particular feel a sense of solidarity with Palestinians, and argue that the progressive movement, if it is to be intersectional, must include Palestinian rights.
But the issue has remained a low public priority and one actively suppressed by party leaders as when, in one visible moment, the chair of the Democratic convention refused to recognize a voice vote against recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in 2012. Changing Democratic demographics and increasingly open Republican support for permanent Israeli occupation of the West Bank has increasingly shifted Americans’ views of Israel along partisan lines.
A Pew Research poll last year found just 27% of Democrats said they sympathized with Israel, down from 38% in 2001. (Republican sympathy has climbed from 50% to 79% in the same time frame.) And younger voters are dramatically less supportive than older voters, according to the 2018 poll — just 32% of adults age 18 to 29 said they sympathized with Israel more than the Palestinians, compared to 56% of voters aged 50 to 64 and voters over 65.
It’s a dispute that saw its spark on a debate stage in Brooklyn in 2016, when Bernie Sanders declared: “We are going to have to treat the Palestinian people with respect and dignity,” a line that prompted a host of takes from left-leaning outlets and authors, and which was followed by the appointment of three critics of Israel by Sanders to the DNC platform drafting committee.
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