Democratic divisions over Israel laid bare as war continues

Palestinians rescue a young girl from the rubble of a destroyed residential building following an Israeli airstrike, Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2023. Fatima Shbair/AP

Democratic divisions over Israel laid bare as war continues

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As the conflict in Israel continues, Democrats’ simmering divisions over the Middle East are beginning to surface following Hamas’s surprise attack over the weekend.

While President Joe Biden has been pledging support for one of America’s closest allies, some Democrats behind the scenes are concerned what seems like unwavering support for Israel now could be temporary as the war continues among their left flank. In recent years, the party has been grappling with a more vocal left wing, which has been generally more sympathetic to Palestinians and has called for limiting financial support to Israel.


At a pro-Israel rally in Boston on Monday, Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) was booed by the crowd after he called for a de-escalation of violence, per a video of the event. Immediately following, Rep. Jake Auchincloss (D-MA), who is Jewish, said the complete opposite.

“Israel didn’t ask America to de-escalate on Sept. 12, 2001,” he said, and the crowd cheered.

Israel declared war against Hamas, the first time it had declared war since 1973, shortly after the attacks on Israeli civilians on Saturday. The conflict has killed at least 2,500 people in Israel and Gaza since the first terrorist attacks by Hamas. The State Department has said that at least 27 Americans are among the dead in Israel.

With each passing day, as the scale of the violence intensifies, more progressive lawmakers are describing the conflict in starkly different terms from Biden. Liberal Democrats are criticizing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s move to cut off resources to Gaza, saying it will cause more loss of civilian lives. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who is Jewish, accused the country of violating international law by cutting off food and electricity in Gaza on Wednesday.

“The targeting of civilians is a war crime, no matter who does it. Israel’s blanket denial of food, water, and other necessities to Gaza is a serious violation of international law and will do nothing but harm innocent civilians,” Sanders said in a statement. “We must also insist on restraint from Israeli forces attacking Gaza and work to secure UN humanitarian access.”

The tensions among the party are much more clear on the House side. Several of the “Squad” members, a group of a handful of progressive Democratic House representatives, released statements in the hours after the attacks, criticizing Israel over its past treatment of Palestinians. Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO) called for an end to U.S. aid to Israel, while Ilhan Omar (D-MN) also said there should be an end to “unconditional” military aid to the region. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), the only Palestinian American member of Congress, slammed what she called Israel’s “apartheid system” and said it led to the “resistance.” Reps. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) and Bush also called for “an immediate cease-far and de-escalation.”

Initially, another Squad member, Rep. Alexandria Ocacsio-Cortez (D-NY), offered a more cautious response, criticizing Hamas’s attacks and urging de-escalation. However, the New York congresswoman took her comments a step further on Thursday, posting a video on X, formerly Twitter, to call for the United States to prevent the “ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.”

“Support Israel, yes, in its defensive capabilities, right, in that context. But, it also means that the United States has the responsibility to ensure accountability to human rights, to prevent the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians,” she said in the video.

Those comments were widely condemned by members of the party, strategists, and donors. In a statement, Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ), who is Jewish, slammed comments from Bush and Tlaib, saying, “It sickens me that while Israelis clean the blood of their family members … they believe Congress should strip U.S. funding to our democratic ally and allow innocent civilians to suffer.”

In a show of unity over the weekend, all 24 Jewish House Democrats, even some who identify as progressives, signed a statement saying they “are united in standing with and supporting our ally Israel as it responds to terrorist attacks from Gaza.”

Many Democrats are dismissing the views of more liberal lawmakers, calling them a small and powerless faction of the party.

“Let’s all remember that although they receive outsize media attention for the fringe backbenchers that they are, Rashida Talib and Cory Bush and Ilhan Omar, AOC, they are not powerful lawmakers, and they get a lot of attention from the press,” said Jon Reinish, a Democratic strategist. “In terms of actual power of the purse, in terms of legislative power, they are out on an island on their own.”

Even if Democrats on Capitol Hill remain mostly united, it appears opinions from the electorate have shifted. Polling conducted by Gallup earlier this year found, “After a decade in which Democrats have shown increasing affinity toward Palestinians, their sympathies in the Middle East now lie more with the Palestinians than the Israelis, 49% versus 38%.”

Pro-Palestinian support has remained strong along college campuses, which traditionally have been a large source of Democratic votes in recent years. A letter by the student coalition at Harvard holding “the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence” has sparked growing criticism. Earlier this week, the law firm Winston & Strawn rescinded a job offer to a student at the New York University School of Law after the student wrote in a newsletter that “Israel bears full responsibility for this tremendous loss of life.”

“Both parties have their fringe. What has been incredibly dismaying to see and could in the days and months become a real problem for Democrats and people like Biden, Schumer, and Jeffries is the far-left academia that is festering hatred for Israel and in many places the Jewish people,” Reinish said. “It’s been really disappointing to see elected officials who have taken endorsements and use Democratic Socialists of America as their political engines and stand with terrorists over American allies of the Jewish people.”


More divisions could become more clear when the House eventually takes up a bipartisan resolution to condemn Hamas and reaffirm Israel’s right to self-defense. Earlier this summer, nine Democrats voted against a bipartisan resolution that said Israel is “not a racist or apartheid state” and vowed that the U.S. “will always be a staunch partner and supporter of Israel.”

“This is a major inflection point in our party, and it has been for years,” said a Democratic operative in Washington, D.C., who preferred to stay anonymous. “I just pray when it comes down to it, we don’t have any problems with the party getting on board with financial and military support in the days and weeks to come as Israel rightly retaliates and we see more casualties and rubble in Gaza.”

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