How the Battle Over Israel and Anti-Semitism Is Fracturing American Politics

The growing prominence of the B.D.S. movement — and the backlash to it — is widening fault lines from college campuses to Capitol Hill.

Nathan Thrall, New York Times, March 28, 2019

On June 9, 2016, the committee tasked with drafting the new Democratic Party platform held its second day of hearings at the Omni Shoreham Hotel, in the upscale Woodley Park neighborhood of Washington. The platform, which is rewritten every presidential-election year, is meant to express a consensus among Democrats on the major issues of the day. The afternoon session, on “America’s role in the world,” included discussions of platform language on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At stake was whether Democrats would reaffirm the party’s strongly pro-Israel position or make some concessions to the Palestinians.

Days before the hearing, The Associated Press declared that Hillary Clinton had crossed the threshold of delegates and superdelegates needed to secure the nomination. But Bernie Sanders had not yet conceded. And the Democratic National Committee, which normally chooses the platform-drafting committee, decided in May to allow the two leading candidates to select most of the committee’s 15 members: Sanders was allowed to pick five; Clinton, six; the D.N.C., the remaining four.

The group met in the hotel’s Palladian Ballroom, whose walls are covered in murals depicting Thomas Jefferson’s slave plantation, Monticello. The representatives chosen by Sanders who spoke during the Israel-Palestine hearing were all minorities, including James Zogby, the head of the Arab American Institute and a former senior official on Jesse Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns; the Native American activist Deborah Parker; and Cornel West, the African-American professor and author then teaching at Union Theological Seminary. The representatives selected by Clinton and the D.N.C. who spoke on the issue were all Jewish and included the retired congressman Howard Berman, who is now a lobbyist; Wendy Sherman, a former under secretary of state for political affairs; and Bonnie Schaefer, a Florida philanthropist and Democratic donor, who had made contributions to Clinton.

Sanders and Clinton each assigned one person to deliver expert testimony. Sanders’s expert was Matt Duss, who was then president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace and would go on to become Sanders’s foreign-policy adviser. Clinton’s expert, Robert Wexler, a former seven-term congressman from Florida who is Jewish, was introduced as “an outspoken advocate for the unbreakable bond between the United States and Israel.” Wexler spoke in favor of a two-state solution and argued against including the words “occupation” and “settlements” in the party platform. He also spoke against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (B.D.S.) movement, which seeks to exert economic, moral and political pressure on Israel to end its occupation of Palestinian territories, grant equal rights to Palestinian citizens of Israel and recognize the right of Palestinian refugees to return. “While some proponents of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement may hope that pressuring Israel will lead to peace, the truth is outside forces will not resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Wexler said. “Particularly when anti-Semitism is rising throughout the world, Democrats must condemn efforts to isolate and delegitimize Israel.”

The Sanders appointees had a different view. James Zogby took issue with Wexler’s opposition to mentioning the words “occupation” and “settlements.” In his opening testimony, Wexler called for a negotiated two-state solution in which Israel’s capital would be Jerusalem, long a flash point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, making no mention of Palestinian claims to the city, whose eastern and predominantly Palestinian half — including the Old City and the major Muslim, Christian and Jewish holy sites within it — has been occupied by Israel since 1967. Noting Wexler’s assertion that the platform shouldn’t include positions on which there still needed to be “delicate” negotiations, Zogby asked pointedly: “Should we leave Jerusalem out of the platform? I think that would fit your notion appropriately.”


A mock Israeli checkpoint demonstration at U.C. Berkeley’s Sather Gate in 2016 organized by Students for Justice in Palestine. (Tracy Lam/The Daily Californian)

Wexler appealed to the longstanding U.S.-Israeli relationship: “Whether one agrees with Prime Minister Netanyahu or not, one point he always makes is that Israel is our one ally that never, ever has asked and I can’t imagine would ever ask for an American to do their fighting for them. Israelis fight for themselves.” At this, an audience member called out, “With our money!”

Cornel West, a Sanders appointee, expressed concern that “for too long, the Democratic Party has been beholden to Aipac” — the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the bipartisan pro-Israel lobbying group — which “didn’t take seriously the humanity of Palestinian brothers and sisters.” He added that the party was now at a “turning point,” which was why he supports the B.D.S. movement, disputing the charge that it’s anti-Semitic. “We’ve got to fight anti-Semitism, anti-Jewish hatred,” he said, adding: “It’s wrong, it’s unjust. But that cannot be the excuse for in any way downplaying the unbelievable misery that we see in Gaza and the West Bank and other places.”

For the Democratic establishment, the conversation seemed to be going off the rails. Wendy Sherman, a Clinton appointee, affirmed the Democratic Party’s commitment to a two-state solution and declared, “Our differences are really with the Republican Party.”

Later that afternoon, Duss, the Sanders team’s expert, said that while “there is no question we should be and will be Israel’s friend in resolving this conflict,” the United States must “recognize that Israel’s continued occupation of Palestinian territories and its daily restrictions on the most basic political and civil liberties of the Palestinian people run contrary to fundamental American values.” He added that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict harmed American interests, citing remarks made at the Aspen Security Forum in 2013 by James Mattis, the former head of U.S. Central Command, who became Trump’s secretary of defense: “I paid a military-security price every day as the commander of Centcom because the Americans were seen as biased in support of Israel.”

Like Clinton’s expert, Duss professed support for a two-state solution. But, Duss said, “In the absence of that solution and in a continuing situation of occupation, Palestinians have rights under international humanitarian law that must be recognized and protected.”

In the final platform, the Clinton team prevailed. The text made no mention of settlements, excluded the word “occupation,” referred to Jerusalem as the capital of Israel alone and opposed “any effort to delegitimize Israel, including at the United Nations or through the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.”

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March 29, 2019
Book talk: Cracks in the Wall – Beyond Apartheid in Palestine-Israel

The Palestine Center
Washington, DC
12:00 pm – 1:00 pm CT
Livestream Online
Videos & Transcripts

with Ben White, Author and Journalist

After decades of occupation and creeping annexation, Israel has created an apartheid system in historic Palestine. Peace efforts have failed because of one hard truth: the best Israeli offers do not meet the minimum that a truly free Palestine would require—nor that international law would recognize. There are, however, widening cracks in Israel’s traditional pillars of support for this policy, and in this book Ben White lays them out. Opposition to Israeli policies, he shows, are growing within Jewish communities and among Western progressives, while the rise of populist movements around the world has confused traditional party lines on the question and the Palestinian-led boycott campaign continues to gain momentum. Now, White argues, is the time to plot a course to avoid the mistakes of the past—to create a real way forward, and beyond apartheid, in Palestine.

Ben White is a journalist and analyst, who has been visiting and writing about Palestine for more than a decade. He is the author of four books, including Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner’s Guide, and his latest, Cracks in the Wall: Beyond Apartheid in Palestine/Israel. His articles have been published by the Guardian, Independent, Al Jazeera, Newsweek Middle East, and many others. He is a contributor for Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network.

March 27, 2019
Book talk: Boycott! The Academy and Justice for Palestine

The Palestine Center
Washington, DC
12:00 pm – 1:00 pm CT
Livestream Online
Videos & Transcripts

with Dr. Sunaina Maira, Professor of Asian American Studies, University of California – Davis

The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS) has expanded rapidly though controversially in the United States in the last five years. The academic boycott of Israeli academic institutions is a key component of this movement. What is this boycott? Why does it make sense? And why is this an American Studies issue? In this short essential book, Sunaina Maira addresses these key questions. Boycott! situates the academic boycott in the broader history of boycotts in the United States as well as in Palestine and shows how it has evolved into a transnational social movement that has spurred profound intellectual and political shifts. It explores the movement’s implications for antiracist, feminist, queer, and academic labor organizing and examines the boycott in the context of debates about Palestine, Zionism, race, rights-based politics, academic freedom, decolonization, and neoliberal capitalism.

Sunaina Maira is Professor of Asian American Studies and was Co-Director of the Mellon Research Initiative in Comparative Border Studies at UC Davis from 2015-2018. In addition to Boycott! The Academy and Justice for Palestine, she is the author of several books on Muslim, Arab, and South Asian youth culture and activism including Jil Oslo: Palestinian Hip Hop, Youth Culture, and the Youth Movement and The 9/11 Generation: Youth, Rights, and Solidarity in the War on Terror. She co-edited Contours of the Heart: South Asians Map North America, which won the American Book Award, and The Imperial University: Academic Repression and Scholarly Dissent. Her current research is a community-engaged project on sanctuary activism and migrant solidarity movements in the US and Europe. Maira has also been involved with various community organizations and Palestine solidarity campaigns in the Bay Area and nationally.

A Teenage War Resister in Israel

An Antiwar Story from the Embattled Middle East
He is a rarity in his own land, one of only a handful of refuseniks living in Israel.

“Let us fight together for human rights, for a country that is democratic for all its citizens, and for Israelis and Palestinians to live together based on citizenship and equality, not segregation and racism.”
Ahmed Abu Artema

Rory Fanning, TomDispatch, March 18, 2019

Hilel Garmi’s phone is going straight to voicemail and all I’m hoping is that he’s not back in prison. I’ll soon learn that he is.

Prison 6 is a military prison. It’s situated in the Israeli coastal town of Atlit, a short walk from the Mediterranean Sea and less than an hour’s drive from Hilel’s home. It was constructed in 1957 following the Sinai War between Israel and Egypt to house disciplinary cases from the Israeli Defense Forces, or IDF.

Hilel has already been locked up six times. “I can smell the sea from my cell, especially at night when everything is quiet,” he tells me in one of our phone conversations. I’m 6,000 miles away in Chicago, but Hilel and I have regularly been discussing his ordeal as an Israeli war resister, so it makes me nervous that, this time around, I can’t reach him at all.

A recent high-school graduate with dark hair and a big smile, he’s only 19 and still lives with his parents in Yodfat, an Israeli town of less than 900 people in the northern part of the country. It’s 155 miles to Damascus (if such a trip were possible, which, of course, it isn’t), a two-hour drive down the coast to Tel Aviv, and a four-hour drive to besieged Gaza.

Yodfat itself could be a set for a Biblical movie, with its dry rolling hills, ancient ruins, and pastoral landscape. The town exports flower bulbs, as well as organic goat cheese, and notably supports the Misgav Waldorf School that Hilel’s mother helped found. Hilel is proud of his mom. After all, people commute from all over Israel to attend the school.

He is a rarity in his own land, one of only a handful of refuseniks living in Israel. Each year roughly 30,000 18 year olds are drafted into the IDF, although 35% of such draftees manage to avoid military service for religious reasons. A far tinier percentage publicly refuses to fight for moral and political reasons to protest their country’s occupation of Palestinian lands. The exact numbers are hard to find. I’ve asked war resister groups in Israel, but no one seems to have any. Hilel’s estimate: between five and 15 refuseniks a year.

“I’ve thought the occupation of Palestine was immoral at least since I was in eighth grade,” he told me. “But it was the March of Return that played a large role in sustaining the courage to say no to military service.”

The Great March of Return began in the besieged Gaza Strip on March 30, 2018, the 42nd anniversary of the day in 1976 that Israeli police shot and killed six Palestinian citizens of Israel as they protested the government’s expropriation of land. During the six-month protest movement that followed in 2018, Israeli soldiers killed another 141 demonstrators, while nearly 10,000 were injured, including 919 children, all shot.

“I couldn’t be a part of that,” he said. “I’d rather be in jail.”

However, after 37 days in prison, it was the letter Hilel received from Abu Artema, a key Palestinian organizer of that march, which provided him with his greatest inspiration. It read in part:

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March 18, 2019
Israeli Politics Decoded with David Sheen

Online from the Palestine Center
Washington, DC
12 noon – 1 pm Central Time
Listen live

“Gaza is eviscerated. Apartheid is entrenched in the West Bank. Inside official Israel, the ruling party openly promotes racial hatred towards Arabs and Africans.

How popular are these belligerent policies among Israeli Jews? And how can we make sense of Israeli politics — where dozens of parties run for parliament, and double-digits get in — with wild swings, seemingly, in who holds power?

Journalist and human rights defender David Sheen will give an unflinching interrogation and a compelling analysis of the state of Israel/Palestine under Trump and Netanyahu.”

More info