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