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 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.

New York Jewish Voice for Peace Proud to #StandWithIlhan

Dear Rep. Engel and Rep. Lowey,

We, members of the Westchester chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, are your constituents. And we proudly #StandWithIlhan.

Many of our colleagues and allies have already robustly and eloquently called out the dishonesty, Islamophobia, and anti-Black racism evident in Democratic leaders’ swarming attack on Rep. Omar. We echo those views, and note that your actions do nothing to counter the real and growing threat of antisemitism in this country and around the world.

But we wish to address a different point that your attacks on Rep. Omar seek to suppress, namely that your fidelity to the Israel lobby is inconsistent with your responsibilities as our elected representatives in Congress.

This non-exhaustive list highlights some of our areas of concern:

  1. The most glaring recent example of your willingness to subvert the essential obligation of your office — to uphold our Constitution — is your determination to enact lobby-drafted laws that would penalize Americans for exercising their Constitutional right to free speech that criticizes Israel. There is no way to dress up this legislation as anything other than an effort to silence legitimate, Constitutionally-protected speech and debate on questions of significant importance. Shame on you both.

  2. Where the State of Israel has pursued policies that are contrary to US interests and long-held policy you have thrown your support behind Israel, as you both did, for example, in opposing the JCPOA (multilateral Iran nuclear deal); condemning the US abstention on the UN Security Council vote acknowledging the illegality of Israeli settlements in occupied Palestine; and supporting relocation of the US Embassy to Jerusalem. These positions are incomprehensible to us; they weaken the rule of law and the cause of peace and stability in the region.

  3. For years we have watched in amazement and disgust as both of you impugn the mountains of findings of fact and conclusions of law by actual experts, documenting Israel’s extensive and systematic violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, as well as of essential norms concerning interstate relations like the prohibition against the acquisition of territory through force — and uncritically spout dishonest and discredited lobby-drafted talking points to justify your support for those policies of oppression. We deserve representatives who are willing to countenance real facts, even if those facts challenge their long-held beliefs.

  4. The Foreign Agents Registration Act requires that agents for foreign interests register with the Department of Justice and report on their contacts with elected officials. Throughout your years of Congressional service, both of you have willingly engaged with the many-headed hydra of the unregistered Israel lobby, knowing full well that the messaging you were receiving originated within agencies of the Israeli government. Because these lobbying entities are unregistered it is impossible for us, your constituents, to learn the extent of your engagement with them. It is clear to us, however, that you affiliate with and are sympathetic to organizations that actively work to silence and intimidate Americans who seek serious and honest examination of our Israel/Palestine policy.

We #StandWithIlhan because we too have been smeared by you, Mr. Engel, accused of being “self-hating Jews” when we spoke to you of the rights and dignity of Palestinians.

Rep. Omar courageously spoke up because too many of us have failed to confront our representatives and hold them to account. We salute her for her bravery and integrity. And we pledge to #StandWithIlhan by persisting in our demand for honest debate around the legitimate question of Israel lobby influence over our Congress and other areas of our civic and political life.

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