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.”
Democrats and Republicans reported similar levels of sympathy for Israel from the late 1970s until the early 2000s. But in the past decade, a series of polls by the Pew Research Center show, a yawning gap has opened between the parties, with nearly three times as many Republicans as Democrats expressing more sympathy for Israel than for the Palestinians. These changes are driven, in part, by demographic trends. More than one-quarter of voters in the midterm election were white evangelicals, who, together with Jews, are the most pro-Israel religious group in the country, and who since the 1970s have largely supported the Republican Party. At the same time, some of the least pro-Israel groups — black people and Hispanics and the religiously unaffiliated, according to a 2018 Pew survey — have become a larger share of Democratic voters. Many blacks and Hispanics draw strong parallels between the discrimination they have suffered at home and the plight of Palestinians. As the Democratic Party is pulled toward a more progressive base and a future when a majority of the party will most likely be people of color, tensions over Israel have erupted.
In the past several months, a fierce debate over American support for Israel has periodically dominated the news cycle and overshadowed the Democrats’ policymaking agenda. In January, Republicans introduced a bill — the Strengthening America’s Security in the Middle East Act of 2019 — backing legislation adopted in more than two dozen states that denies state contracts to or bars state investments with American individuals or groups who support boycotts of Israel or who refuse to sign oaths affirming they will not boycott Israel. Representative Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, a freshman Palestinian-American and one of two Muslim congresswomen, tweeted that the bill’s sponsors “forgot what country they represent.” A month later, Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, a freshman Somali-American who is the other Muslim congresswoman, tweeted that American politicians’ defense of Israel was “all about the Benjamins” — $100 bills — and later added that she was referring to the political influence of Aipac. As the furor grew, she apologized and deleted the tweet. A few weeks later, the storm over her remarks still raging, Omar said at a panel of progressive lawmakers, including Tlaib, that she wanted “to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is O.K. for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country.”
In the face of widespread criticism of Omar for wittingly or unwittingly deploying anti-Semitic tropes about “dual loyalty” and Jewish money controlling United States policy, Democratic leaders announced they were working on a resolution condemning anti-Semitism. But in response to objections from progressive lawmakers and members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who argued that Omar was singled out because she was a woman of color, the draft resolution was revised to condemn not just anti-Semitism but also anti-Muslim discrimination, upsetting some Jewish Democrats. The following day, President Trump told reporters: “The Democrats have become an anti-Israel party. They’ve become an anti-Jewish party.”
American Jews — 79 percent of whom voted for Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections, according to exit polls — appeared to be divided over which source of anti-Semitism posed the greater risk. On one side was the progressive left, which includes activists like Tamika Mallory of the Women’s March, who has refused to condemn Louis Farrakhan, the anti-Semitic Nation of Islam leader. On the other side was the ostensibly pro-Israel right, which at a time of rising anti-Semitism in Europe and around the world is home to anti-Semitic evangelical leaders like the Rev. John Hagee (Jews “have everything but spiritual life”) and white nationalists, one of whom committed perhaps the deadliest attack against Jews in American history, massacring 11 worshipers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in October.
While Democrats have been unified in opposing anti-Semitism, they are divided over Israel. This split, though never before so pronounced, is not new. At the Democratic National Convention in 2012, a voice vote was taken on whether to reinstate a reference in the party platform to Jerusalem as an “undivided city” that is and will remain the capital of Israel. A two-thirds majority was needed to approve the language. When the D.N.C.’s chairman, Antonio Villaraigosa, called the vote, it seemed that as many people in the auditorium yelled “no” as “aye,” forcing him to call a second vote and a third, each producing the same result. Villaraigosa then declared: “In the opinion of the chair, two-thirds have voted in the affirmative, the motion is adopted and the platform has been amended.” Delegates on the floor erupted in boos. In 2015, when Netanyahu addressed Congress to argue against President Obama’s impending nuclear agreement with Iran, which he would soon characterize as threatening “the very survival of the State of Israel,” 50 House Democrats boycotted the speech; more than half were black or Latino.
In 2018, the Pew Research Center conducted a poll of more than 1,500 Americans. Among Democrats who self-identified as liberal, nearly twice as many said they sympathized more with the Palestinians than with Israel. In 2016, a University of Maryland poll found that 60 percent of Democrats supported economic sanctions or taking more serious action in response to new Israeli settlements. Yet year after year, Congress, citing “shared values” and Israel’s strategic importance, among other things, votes to give military aid to Israel, which is currently $3.8 billion per year: $500 million in missile defense and $3.3 billion in foreign military financing, more military financing than the United States provides to the rest of the world combined. And Aipac, whose positions many on the left regard as rarely distinguishable from those of the Israeli prime minister or the Republican Jewish Coalition, remains the dominant force among Israel-Palestine advocacy groups within the Democratic Caucus. Aipac’s closest Democratic allies occupy top leadership posts and lead the committees and subcommittees of greatest importance to Israel. The pro-Israel orientation of the Democrats extends to the Congressional Progressive Caucus, whose members co-sponsored two bills in 2017 and 2018 — the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act (Jerrold Nadler and Donald Norcross, among others) and the Israel Anti-Boycott Act (Hakeem Jeffries and Ted Lieu, among others) — that counter B.D.S. and were supported by Aipac.
In an October 2018 survey of 800 American voters who identify as Jewish, conducted by the Mellman Group on behalf of the Jewish Electoral Institute, 92 percent said that they are “generally pro-Israel.” In the same poll — conducted after the United States closed the Palestinian diplomatic mission in Washington, moved the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, appointed a fund-raiser for the settlements as U.S. ambassador and cut humanitarian aid to Palestinians — roughly half of American Jews said they approved of President Trump’s handling of relations with Israel. On what is considered the most divisive issue in U.S.-Israel relations, the establishment of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, a November 2018 post-midterm election poll of more than 1,000 American Jews that was commissioned by J Street, the pro-Israel lobby aligned with Democrats, found that roughly half said the expansion of settlements had no impact on how they felt about Israel.
Members of the Democratic Party’s progressive activist base, by contrast, find themselves light years from their representatives in Washington. The Movement for Black Lives, the racial-justice coalition that includes the Black Lives Matter network, has called for supporting divestment campaigns with the goal of ending American military aid to Israel; the Democratic Socialists of America has endorsed B.D.S. Kate Gould, a lobbyist for the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker group dedicated to peace, justice and environmental stewardship, told me that generally even progressive members of Congress frame development aid for the Palestinians merely as help for people who are suffering. There is rarely any acknowledgment, she says, “that they are suffering because we are funding their oppression. Hello! You do know that we are funding the occupation?”
The B.D.S. movement was founded in 2005 with a statement of principles, written collectively and known as the B.D.S. call. Signed by more than 170 Palestinian organizations from around the world, it made three demands of Israel, one for each of the three major Palestinian constituencies. For residents of Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem: an end to the military occupation that began in 1967. For Palestinian refugees: the right to return to their homes and property, in keeping with United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194, which was adopted near the end of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, when 83 percent of the Palestinians in the territory that became Israel fled or were forced to flee. And for Palestinian citizens of Israel: full equality with Jews.
‘The concern that politicians have is being labeled anti-Semitic or labeled anti-Israel.’
Instead of tying itself to a specific outcome, the B.D.S. movement insisted on these three principles, which could be fulfilled any number of ways: two states, one state with equal individual rights, a confederation with equal collective rights. The B.D.S. movement thus married a set of tactics — aimed at isolating Israel culturally, diplomatically and economically — with a political program. The tactics have not put much of a dent in Israel’s economy, but to the Israeli government, they were never as important as the message, which Israel’s leaders describe as a strategic threat. Since 2016, not long after the most recent government was formed and two years after the latest Gaza war drew renewed attention to the plight of Palestinians, the Israelis have allocated more than $100 million to combating B.D.S., for fear that it represents the beginning of a fundamental shift. Emmanuel Nahshon, a spokesman for Israel’s foreign ministry, told me, “Despite the overwhelming support for Israel in the U.S., we see that the attempt to delegitimize Israel is gaining ground, especially among extreme left-wing marginal groups.”
To many Americans, the fulcrum of Israeli-Palestinian strife is the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza after Israel’s victory in the June 1967 war. Accordingly, the solution to the conflict would lie in creating a Palestinian state in those territories. The B.D.S. movement, by contrast, views the conflict as a century-long Arab struggle against the establishment of a Jewish state on land that was more than 95 percent Arab at the dawn of Zionism, in the late 19th century, and more than 90 percent Arab when the British promised in 1917 to try to establish a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine, soon to be under British rule. Before Israel was founded in 1948, there were Zionist campaigns to boycott Arab workers and exclude Arabs from Jewish-only residential communities. Following the 1948 war, which erupted after the United Nations announced its plan to partition Palestine into two states, the Jews who fled could return; Palestinians could not. Most of the Palestinians who remained within Israel were placed under military rule until 1966.
Netanyahu and his supporters also argue that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict long predates the occupation, and that Palestinian groups have always opposed the establishment or existence of a Jewish state in Palestine. “The issue is not land; the issue is not statehood,” says Morton A. Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America, a once-marginal pro-Israel group that has close ties with the Trump administration. “The Palestinians don’t want peace no matter what.” Referring to the years of the major partition proposals and Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, he added, “Because the Palestinians were offered a state in ’37 and ’47, and they said no. In 2000, 2001, 2008, they said no.”
The B.D.S. movement casts the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a struggle against apartheid, as defined by the International Criminal Court: “an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.” (The United Nations defines racial discrimination as directed at “race, color, descent or national or ethnic origin.”) B.D.S. leaders often cite South Africa’s sixth prime minister, Hendrik Verwoerd, who likened Israel to South Africa in 1961: The Jews “took Israel from the Arabs after the Arabs had lived there for a thousand years. In that, I agree with them. Israel like South Africa is an apartheid state.”
Israelis, too, have used the word “racism” (gizanut) to include discrimination against Arabs and Palestinians. In December 1977, when Prime Minister Menachem Begin presented an autonomy plan to the Israeli Parliament that would have given all Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza freedom of movement throughout Israel and the occupied territories, as well as the right to choose Israeli citizenship, with all its attendant privileges, he said: “We never wanted to be like Rhodesia,” the black-majority African state that, like South Africa, was then ruled by a white minority. “Here we propose full equality of rights. Anti-racism.” The plan was never implemented, although parts of it became the basis of the 1978 Camp David Accords and the 1993 Oslo Accord, which established limited Palestinian autonomy for what was supposed to be a temporary period of five years but has lasted until today.
To bolster the argument that the Palestinian struggle is a fight against racism, B.D.S. leaders have highlighted the support for Jewish ethno-nationalism by far-right European politicians like President Viktor Orban of Hungary, alt-right figures like Steve Bannon and white supremacists like Richard Spencer, an organizer of the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va. That year, Spencer told an Israeli television interviewer: “You could say that I am a white Zionist in the sense that I care about my people. I want us to have a secure homeland that’s for us and ourselves, just like you want a secure homeland in Israel.”
Klein and other prominent pro-Israel figures reject any suggestion of commonality with Spencer. Klein told me that “I don’t see how you can love Israel, sincerely love Israel, and hate Jews.” Spencer, he went on, had “cleverly found a way he can use Israel to make his position on a white-only state sound legitimate.” I asked Klein why he believed it was “utterly racist and despicable,” as he put it, for Spencer to promote a state for only one ethnic group but not racist for Israel to do so. “Israel is a unique situation,” he said. “This is really a Jewish state given to us by God.” He added, “God did not create a state for white people or for black people.” Senator Charles Schumer, the Democratic minority leader, similarly told the Aipac conference in 2018: “Of course, we say it’s our land, the Torah says it, but they don’t believe in the Torah. So that’s the reason there is not peace.”
According to a 2013 Pew survey, 44 percent of Americans and 40 percent of American Jews believe that Israel was given to the Jewish people by God. For B.D.S. leaders, the fact that Jews believe they have rights in historic Palestine that non-Jews do not is the root of the conflict: What unites Zionist policy, before and after 1967, is decades of Jewish expansion into Arab territory. To proponents of B.D.S., Israel’s retreats — from parts of the West Bank and Gaza, after the largely unarmed first Palestinian intifada, from 1987 to 1993, and from the rest of Gaza, after the bloody Palestinian suicide attacks of the second intifada, from 2000 to 2005 — validate the movement’s message: Only resistance can restore Palestinian rights.
For the B.D.S. movement, ending the occupation of the Palestinian territories is necessary but far from sufficient. It would leave the smaller group, Jews, with 78 percent of the total land. It would segregate most of the majority population into two separate ethnic enclaves, in the West Bank and Gaza, which would be connected by a corridor through Israel. And it would do nothing to combat discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel. Currently, hundreds of Israeli towns have admissions committees that can bar Palestinian citizens from living in them based on “social suitability.” (It’s illegal for people to be excluded on the basis of race, religion or nationality, but the rubric of “social suitability” permits the rejection of applicants who are not Zionist, haven’t served in the army or don’t intend to send their children to Hebrew-language schools.) More than 900 towns in Israel contain no Arab families, according to Yosef Jabareen, a professor at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa. Palestinian schools can lose government funding if they commemorate the Nakba, the displacement of Palestinians in 1948. Israeli law forbids citizens to obtain citizenship or permanent residency for Palestinian spouses from the West Bank and Gaza.
For liberals who support Israel, the most troubling aspect of the B.D.S. platform is its opposition to Israel’s remaining a Jewish state, both through the insistence on full equality between Jews and non-Jews in Israel and through the call to recognize the right to return for Palestinian refugees. (The main United Nations agency for refugees considers stateless descendants to be refugees.) Sharon Brous, a leading progressive rabbi in Los Angeles, told me that liberals who embrace Zionism find themselves torn over B.D.S. On one hand, she said, “I understand why a person would engage in nonviolent civil disobedience to protest unjust policies and the denial of basic human rights. At the same time, some promoters of B.D.S. support Palestinian self-determination while opposing Jewish self-determination, and are ultimately fighting not for an end to the occupation (which I also oppose) but an end to the state of Israel.” She characterized speaking out against the occupation as a “moral imperative,” but added: “Casting the movement for Jewish self-determination as a racist, Western colonialist enterprise, rather than a liberation movement for a minority population subject to generations of pogroms, exile, discrimination and ultimately genocide, is self-serving historical revisionism. It’s tempting to paint this picture in absolutes, but it won’t lead us any closer to a resolution.”
Ilhan Omar and Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, in March, after remarks by Omar helped reveal a split among the Democrats over Israel. (Alex Edelman/Bloomberg, via Getty Images)
But for some younger progressive Jews, maintaining Jewish demographic and legislative supremacy in Israel is not a priority. Emily Mayer, a founder of the Jewish anti-occupation group IfNotNow, told me, “Many of my progressive Jewish friends feel conflicted about Zionism, but few of them say that Jews have to be a majority.” She added, “When my generation looks to Israel, what we expect to see is the same commitments we have at home: equality, dignity for all and justice.”
Among American and Israeli Jews alike, there is growing concern that the most likely future for Israel-Palestine is neither two states nor one but continued Israeli occupation and Palestinian subjugation. According to Human Rights Watch, the number of settlers has surpassed 600,000, a population many times greater than any Israeli leader ever contemplated pulling out. Since 2017, polls have found that majorities of both Israeli Jews and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza oppose a two-state solution, though there is no widespread support for any alternative either. In America, too, support for a two-state solution, which first entered the Republican and Democratic Party platforms in 2004, is eroding: In 2018, a University of Maryland poll of 2,352 American adults found that backing for a two-state solution was roughly equal to that for one state with full citizenship and equal rights. (Two-state support was strongest among Democrats — at 48 percent.)
Netanyahu has said repeatedly that Israel must retain full security control over the West Bank, a position echoed by his main rival in the national election next month, Benny Gantz, the leader of the center-left bloc. During his inaugural campaign speech, Gantz said, “We will strengthen the settlement blocs” and “retain control of security in the entire land of Israel” — including the West Bank and Gaza. When Netanyahu accused Gantz of intending to form a government with Arab parties, Gantz vowed he would sit in a coalition only with parties that are “Jewish and Zionist.” Such statements have bolstered B.D.S. supporters’ view that a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza would not bring freedom or equality to millions of Palestinians.
For all the recent tumult over Israel in Washington, the policy debate remains extremely narrow. There is no legislative initiative to reduce, much less end, military aid, nor even to make continued assistance conditional on a halt to settlement building. B.D.S. is not supported by a single Democratic senator or presidential candidate, including Bernie Sanders, though Sanders backed the right to boycott. Despite pointed critiques of American support for Israel by representatives like Betty McCollum of Minnesota, Tlaib and Omar, there is little willingness among Democrats to argue publicly for substantially changing longstanding policy toward Israel. In part, some Hill staff members and former White House officials say, this is because of the influence of megadonors: Of the dozens of personal checks greater than $500,000 made out to the largest PAC for Democrats in 2018, the Senate Majority PAC, around three-fourths were written by Jewish donors. This provides fodder for anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, and for some, it is the elephant in the room. Though the number of Jewish donors known to prioritize pro-Israel policies above all other issues is small, there are few if any pushing in the opposite direction. “I have seen donors who want to see tougher stands toward Israel from J Street,” says Alan D. Solomont, a board member of the left-leaning group J Street, a top Obama campaign fund-raiser and the former national finance chairman of the Democratic National Committee. “But none have acted with their pocketbooks.”
According to Ben Rhodes, a former deputy national-security adviser and one of Obama’s closest confidants, several members of the Obama administration wanted to adopt a more assertive policy toward Israel but felt that their hands were tied. “The Washington view of Israel-Palestine is still shaped by the donor class,” Rhodes, who does not support B.D.S., told me, when I met with him at the Obama Foundation in October. “The donor class is profoundly to the right of where the activists are, and frankly, where the majority of the Jewish community is.” Peter Joseph, an emeritus chairman of the center-left Israel Policy Forum, told me that the views of major Democratic Jewish donors could act as a check on the leftward pull by progressive voters who are strongly critical of Israel: “I can’t imagine that mainstream Democratic Jewish donors are going to be happy about any Democratic Party that is moving in that direction.”
Another former member of the Obama White House, who asked not to be named, fearing professional retaliation, said that concerns about donors among Democrats dominated not just “what was done but what was not done, and what was not even contemplated.” Even the timing of the administration’s policies toward Israel was dictated by domestic politics. Faced with a 2016 United Nations Security Council resolution condemning settlements, the Obama administration abstained (effectively supporting the resolution), but only after having signaled it would not consider backing any resolution before November. “There is a reason the U.N. vote did not come up before the election in November,” the former official said. “Was it because you were going to lose voters to Donald Trump? No. It was because you were going to have skittish donors. That, and the fact that we didn’t want Clinton to face pressure to condemn the resolution or be damaged by having to defend it.” What worries establishment Democrats, the former official added, is that the partisan divide over Israel will concretize — with Republicans defined as pro-Israel, Democrats defined as anti-Israel — and that the party coffers will empty. Joel Rubin, a deputy assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs in the Obama administration, former political director at J Street and a founding board member of the centrist Jewish Democratic Council of America, agreed: “The fight over Israel used to be about voters. It’s more about donors now.”
The fear of losing Jewish donors as the party moves left on Israel may well be overstated. Over the past decade, leading pollsters have described Israel as a “threshold issue” for the 2 percent of the electorate that is Jewish: As long as a candidate or party satisfies voters that he or she is pro-Israel enough, the issue is then low on their list of priorities. How far to the left Democrats would have to move on Israel to fall below the threshold with Jewish voters, nobody knows. Evidently — judging from the large Jewish margin in favor of Democrats in 2016 and 2018 — the party’s support for a nuclear deal with Iran, described by the Israeli prime minister as threatening his country’s “very survival,” wasn’t a deal-breaker.
A few of the largest Jewish donors to the Democratic Party are well to the left of where the party is on Israel today. One who gave more than $5 million to Democrats in 2016 (he asked not to be named, fearing it would harm his relations with Israeli friends and allies) said: “I would use carrots and sticks, in Israel and a lot of other places. I think the U.S. needs to threaten Israel with cutting military aid.” Another, S. Daniel Abraham, the billionaire who built his fortune on SlimFast and gave more than $8 million to Democrats in 2016, has been one of the most active American philanthropists in support of a two-state solution. “Do you believe Israel needs financial support from America or American Jews?” he asked. “Israel today has around $40,000-per-head income. Iran’s is $5,000. In the United States, it’s $59,000. So why does Israel need financial help from anyone?” Would he and other top donors stop giving if more Democrats came out in support of confederation, binationalism or a one-state solution? “Listen, it’s almost one state now! If Israel accepts the West Bank as part of Israel, it should treat Palestinians as equal to Jews. But Israel doesn’t want to do that. There are a lot of legitimate questions people are raising.”
None of the more than 20 current Democratic presidential campaign fund-raisers, donors, advisers and staff members I spoke to, however, thought that such views were widespread among Jewish donors. As a former senior Clinton campaign official said, there is a big difference between tolerating a move to the left on Israel and pushing for one: “There’s no major donor that I can think of who is looking for someone to take a Bernie-like approach.” And whereas none of the most liberal Jewish donors have threatened to withdraw support because a candidate was too pro-Israel, pro-Israel donors and PACs have a history of financing opposition to candidates deemed unfriendly. Haim Saban, one of Hillary Clinton’s top five donors in 2016, has financed opponents of Democratic candidates critical of Israel; opposed the bid of Keith Ellison, the black Muslim congressman, for Democratic National Committee chairman in 2016, calling him “an anti-Semitic and anti-Israel person”; briefly partnered with the top Republican donor and settlement supporter Sheldon Adelson on an initiative to combat B.D.S. on American college campuses; and publicly thanked Jared Kushner for pressing Russia to delay or defeat the 2016 United Nations resolution condemning settlements. In June 2018, Saban sent an email to Bernie Sanders and 12 other senators, upbraiding them for following Sanders’s “ill-advised, misinformed, simplistic and ignorant lead” by signing a letter calling on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. A senior Senate staff member told me the email had a “chilling effect.”
Sanders, who outraised Hillary Clinton early in the 2016 primaries by obtaining millions of small-donor contributions, was immune to pressure from donors like Saban. “If you don’t rely on a traditional fund-raising model, then you have more freedom on these types of issues,” Rhodes said. “You’re not worried about the one-hour phone call that you’re going to have to do after the presidential debate with a really angry donor.”
From left: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, the White House advisers and Trump family members Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, President Reuven Rivlin of Israel and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, at the opening of the United States Embassy in Jerusalem last May. (Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)
Joel Rubin said: “The problem for center-left groups that are more critical of Israel is that the Jewish donor class is comfortable with current U.S. policies. They just don’t like Trump on other issues.” In October, just weeks before the 2018 midterm election, as the Democratic leadership was working to take back the House, a Democratic staff member, who asked not to be named for fear of professional retaliation, told me that it was important to retain the support of all major donors, not just the most liberal ones. Referring to two of the largest Jewish donors to Democrats, on opposite ends of the political spectrum, the staff member said: “Our members need George Soros and Haim Saban. And they need everything in between.”
Since 2005, resolutions to boycott or divest from companies tied to Israeli settlements, occupation or violations of Palestinian human rights have been introduced at dozens of American campuses, including Stanford and Berkeley, Oberlin and Barnard, George Washington and the University of Chicago. Of these, about two-thirds voted for divestment at some point, though at only one, Hampshire College, did administrators agree, in 2009, to divest endowments from companies connected to human rights violations in Israel. (Hampshire stresses, however, that it did not single out Israel, divesting from a range of companies while in the process of changing its socially responsible investment policy.) The real goal of divestment votes, by and large, has been consciousness-raising, not forcing endowments to divest, which school administrators have nearly always declined to do.
A 2017 vote at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where nearly 20 percent of the 30,000 undergraduates are Jewish, was watched with particular interest by both pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian activists. At some smaller liberal arts schools, sizable groups of Jewish students support divestment, and the student arm of J Street is the only remaining pro-Israel organization on campus. At Michigan at the time, Jewish groups to the left of J Street, like IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace, barely existed.
The Michigan affiliate of Hillel International — the world’s largest Jewish campus organization — has its own multistory building, a budget of more than $2 million and a staff of 15, among them an emissary of the Jewish Agency for Israel, an Israeli quasi-governmental body that includes among its core activities the strengthening of Jewish identification with Israel. Hillel chapters around the world must adhere to guidelines that forbid partnering with or hosting organizations, groups or speakers who “delegitimize” or “apply a double standard to Israel,” deny “the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state” or support “boycott of, divestment from or sanctions against the state of Israel.” In 2016, Michigan’s Hillel affiliate received the top award for pro-Israel campus advocacy from Aipac; it has served as a headquarters for opposition to divestment.
Students Allied for Freedom and Equality, or SAFE, is one of roughly 200 chapters of the main student divestment group in the United States, National Students for Justice in Palestine. At Michigan, SAFE submitted a dozen divestment proposals in 15 years. Each failed. But this time, the group’s core members, who numbered no more than seven, thought they had a shot.
Since the 2016 presidential campaign and Trump’s election, there had been a rash of racist incidents at Michigan. Landmarks were defaced with graffiti declaring “#StopIslam,” “Build the Wall” and “[Expletive] Latinos.” SAFE’s intersectional message — promoting Palestinian self-determination, “consistent with our fundamental belief that all genuine struggles for justice are intrinsically linked” — seemed to resonate strongly on campus that fall. Forty student groups signed SAFE’s statement of support for divestment, including nearly every major association for students of color.
Over the years, SAFE, like many other pro-Palestinian campus organizations, had softened its resolutions. The 2017 version refrained from any references to Israel as a racist or apartheid state. As with nearly every divestment vote on American campuses, this one targeted only companies involved in settlements and occupation, not those that operate solely within Israel’s pre-1967 boundaries. Instead of requesting that the university divest from Israel, it called on the school to investigate its investments in a handful of companies selling weapons, technology and services used by the Israeli military in airstrikes and in the naval blockade of Gaza.
The divestment vote in November drew a crowd too large for the usual student-government venue. For many pro-Israel students, the speeches that evening were the first time that they had heard personal accounts of occupation and exile. Palestinian students talked about: an uncle in the South Hebron Hills who was shot by a settler; a cousin beaten defending his land; an aunt evicted from her home. One Jewish student, Ali Rosenblatt, said she felt that what she had been taught about Israel was inadequate to the task of “being confronted by real stories of people whose human rights were violated.”
According to Ari Spellman, the chairman of the cohort of seven pro-Israel clubs in the Michigan Hillel that year, two members of the Israel on Campus Coalition, an advocacy group that works with the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs to combat B.D.S., came from Washington to prep students. They helped students write their speeches and find vulnerabilities in the text of the resolution. At the vote, the Hillel-affiliated students spoke of anti-Semitism, of how the situation of Palestinians today wasn’t comparable to the Holocaust. They argued that divesting could prevent the university from doing business with the state of Michigan, which had just passed a law forbidding entities financed by the state to contract with anyone who boycotts or divests from Israel.
At around 3 a.m., eight hours after the meeting began, the resolution passed with 23 votes in favor, 17 against and five abstentions. Michigan’s administration quickly issued a statement that it would not appoint a committee to investigate divestment. A month later, the board of regents released a letter backing the decision. (The two regents who didn’t sign it were the only people of color on the board.) Like many large American universities, the University of Michigan has extensive research partnerships with Israeli universities. And many of its institutes and buildings are named after alumni donors who have contributed large sums to Israel or pro-Israel groups. The university’s board of regents, whose members are publicly elected, includes Ron Weiser, a board member of the Republican Jewish Coalition and one of the school’s top donors, as well as Mark J. Bernstein, a former member of the governing board of the Michigan Hillel.
‘The fight over Israel used to be about voters. It’s more about donors now.’
The university’s president, Mark Schlissel, like administrators at N.Y.U. and other schools, told me he was strongly opposed to doing anything with the investment fund, other than balancing risk and yield: “Once you’ve done it for one or two issues, then you’ve opened up the prospect of what’s more legitimate, a health interest violated by tobacco or ‘fill in the blank’ with what the next conflict is. I don’t think that’s the business a university should be in.”
The Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law is a nonprofit founded by Kenneth Marcus in 2011 that has fought anti-Semitism and “anti-Israelism” on university campuses. It has since worked to promote the notion that certain courses and pro-Palestinian events on campus violate Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color or national origin by any entity receiving federal funds or other federal financial assistance, and has argued that anti-Semitism, often “under the guise of anti-Israel sentiment,” creates a “hostile environment” for some Jewish students. In 2013, Marcus wrote an op-ed for The Jerusalem Post describing his strategy: “These cases — even when rejected — expose administrators to bad publicity.” He continued: “If a university shows a failure to treat initial complaints seriously, it hurts them with donors, faculty, political leaders and prospective students.” Under the Obama administration, no such complaints were sustained or found to have legal merit by the civil rights office of the Department of Education. But that was before Marcus, a Trump nominee, was confirmed by the Senate as head of the office in June 2018.
The Department of Education adopted a relatively new definition of anti-Semitism, adapted from what is known as the European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia working definition, which was promoted and partly drafted by pro-Israel advocacy groups including the American Jewish Committee (A.J.C.) and had been adopted by the State Department in 2010. It defines anti-Semitism, in part, as: “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination” and “applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.” The definition has since been broadly applied to criticism of Israel and advocacy of Palestinian rights, causing its lead author, Kenneth Stern, the A.J.C.’s former director on anti-Semitism, to distance himself. In a 2016 New York Times Op-Ed article, Stern wrote: “The definition was intended for data collectors writing reports about anti-Semitism in Europe. It was never supposed to curtail speech on campus.” If the Department of Education adopted the definition, he added, “students and faculty members will be scared into silence, and administrators will err on the side of suppressing or censuring speech.”
Over the past two years, the Brandeis Center, the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Federations of North America, the A.J.C., the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Aipac and others have promoted a federal bill, the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, that would require the Department of Education to use the new State Department definition of anti-Semitism. What constitutes the denial of a Jewish right to self-determination is not outlined in the bill. But pro-Israel advocates have defined it as including calls for a one-state solution, for the return of Palestinian refugees or for Israel, within its pre-1967 boundaries, to grant equal rights to its Jewish and Arab citizens, thus rendering the country “a state of all its citizens” rather than a Jewish state.
Palestine Legal, a legal-defense group devoted to safeguarding the civil and constitutional rights of pro-Palestinian voices, has responded to more than 1,200 incidents of censorship, punishment or restrictions on advocacy since 2014, most of them involving college students, faculty members and academic associations. More than half included charges of anti-Semitism based solely on criticism of Israeli policy. At U.C. Riverside, in 2015, pro-Israel groups cited the State Department definition when demanding the cancellation of a student-led course on Palestinian contemporary literature and media. Following a review, the university administration rejected the complaint. At the University of Minnesota, the campus Hillel tried to block a referendum on divestment in 2018 by citing the State Department definition of anti-Semitism. At Indiana University, an Aipac-affiliated student group tried in 2018 to censor the coming speech of a B.D.S. supporter, Jamil Dakwar, director of the A.C.L.U.’s Human Rights Program, arguing that according to the State Department definition, B.D.S. was anti-Semitic. Ted Deutch, a congressman from Florida who has said, “My path to public service in the United States Congress really started at Michigan Hillel,” was one sponsor of the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act. When I asked him if defining anti-Zionism as anti-Semitic was overly broad, he replied, “If you’re asking me whether it is anti-Semitism to march on a college campus in support of the destruction of the one Jewish state in the world, yes, that is anti-Semitism.”
Since 2014, anti-B.D.S. legislation in more than two dozen states has been applied to a variety of individuals or groups. In Texas, residents of the city of Dickinson who applied for relief after Hurricane Harvey were required to certify that they do not and will not boycott Israel. A trainer of math teachers in Kansas was told she had to sign a pledge not to boycott Israel in order to be paid by the state. An Arkansas newspaper was told it could not receive advertising dollars from the state university unless it signed a similar anti-boycott pledge. The A.C.L.U. has challenged laws similar to the one in Texas, which required people to certify that they were not boycotting Israel, in Kansas, Arkansas and Arizona. In two cases, federal courts held that the laws violated the First Amendment.
Yet new anti-B.D.S. laws continue to be passed. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who has supported these laws, posted on Twitter this year that local and state governments have a “right” to refuse to do business with those who boycott Israel, a position the A.C.L.U. has criticized as “specifically prohibited under the Constitution. First Amendment rights belong to the people, not the government.” Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace and former director of policy at Americans for Peace Now, the sister organization of the Israeli group Peace Now, which works to promote a two-state solution, says she worries that anti-B.D.S. laws set a precedent for legislative assaults on free speech in other domains: “The American Jewish community, which is broadly speaking liberal, has allowed itself in the name of defending Israel and fighting B.D.S. to become the leading edge of illiberalism by pushing legislation to curb free speech.”
Few charges are as politically toxic as that of anti-Semitism, as the recent uproar over Omar’s comments shows. “The concern that politicians have is being labeled anti-Semitic or labeled anti-Israel or labeled opposed to the cultural values of the U.S.-Israel relationship,” says Representative Ro Khanna, a California Democrat who has been at the forefront of progressive foreign-policy initiatives, including as lead sponsor of a bill to end U.S. military assistance to Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. “That’s a far bigger concern than ‘Will Aipac do a fund-raiser for me?’ ”
This charge is frequently leveled at people of color. There is a long list of black politicians, from Keith Ellison to Hank Johnson, who have suffered political setbacks or worse after confrontations with pro-Israel groups. Some of them were objects of legitimate criticism, like Jesse Jackson, who used the slur “hymies” during his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984. But others were attacked simply for supporting, or even having contact with, Palestinians. The most famous case is that of Andrew Young, a civil rights leader and close adviser to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who was appointed by President Jimmy Carter as the first black United States ambassador to the United Nations. In August 1979, shortly after Carter gave an interview to The New York Times in which he likened the Palestinian issue to the “civil rights movement here in the United States,” Israel leaked news that Young had recently met with the P.L.O. United Nations observer, in violation of the official United States policy of nonengagement with the organization. Though Young hoped to persuade the P.L.O. to postpone advancing a resolution calling for Palestinian statehood, which both Israel and the United States opposed, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Yehuda Blum, declared Young’s behavior “highly disturbing.” Israel’s foreign minister, Moshe Dayan, lodged a formal protest with the United States government.
Stuart Eizenstat, Carter’s chief domestic-policy adviser and a liaison to the Jewish community, wrote in a recent book that “Ambassador Blum insisted that the Israelis had never asked for Andy Young’s resignation. They did not have to: No one knew better than Dayan how to rouse the anger of American Jewry.” Amid the outcry over Young, it emerged that the American ambassador to Austria, who was Jewish, had met with a senior representative of the P.L.O. three times. The ambassador was not even scolded. Young was forced to resign.
Students at the University of Michigan a week before a student vote in 2017 on divesting from companies doing business in the Israeli settlements. (Samii Stoloff)
In the 2018 election, the Jewish Democratic Council of America officially rebuked only three Democratic candidates, all of them minorities: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (for calling Israel’s killing of unarmed protesters in Gaza a “massacre” and for her affiliation with the B.D.S.-supporting Democratic Socialists of America); Rashida Tlaib (for suggesting she would support cutting military aid to Israel if elected); and Ilhan Omar (for tweeting in 2012 that Israel “hypnotized the world” and calling it an apartheid state). When McCollum, the Democratic white congresswoman from Minnesota, during the same campaign cycle, used the word “massacre” to describe Israel’s killing of scores of unarmed civilians in Gaza, and said Israel was advancing apartheid within its pre-1967 boundaries and replacing democratic values with “bigotry, racism and segregation,” the chairman of the J.D.C.A. board, Ron Klein, told a reporter that McCollum’s statement about apartheid was “inflammatory and wrong,” but the group issued no formal condemnation. Joel Rubin says he was uncomfortable with the positions taken by the group: “The last thing I want is Jewish liberal organizations to be publicly chastising young, progressive brown women, and that’s what happened. It’s very problematic. Those women are the future.”
For Obama, too, according to Rhodes, navigating Israel policy was harder because he was black. “Just the presumption that because Obama was black he would be sympathetic to Palestinians was enough to cause political problems with certain donors and elements in the media who assumed that would mean that he was anti-Israel,” Rhodes said. It was dangerous for Israel, he went on, that its advocates and allies assume that minorities will automatically view Israel as an oppressor: “So you’re acknowledging, through your own fears, that Israel treats the Palestinians like black people had been treated in the United States. That’s not a good look for Israel.”
Donna Edwards, the first black woman to represent Maryland in Congress, visited the Palestinian territories three times, including one trip to Gaza, during her five terms, from 2008 to 2017. On her visit to Gaza in 2009, with two white Democratic congressmen, she was singled out and detained for an hour and a half. When the three later went to a meeting at the Israeli foreign ministry, she was again separated from her white colleagues and questioned for nearly two hours about who she was visiting and why she had gone to Gaza. In 2012, she and five other congresswomen, all but one of them black, took a trip partly sponsored by J Street to Israel and the West Bank. In Hebron, the group saw how Israel had turned formerly bustling Palestinian areas into a ghost town of empty streets made, in the army’s term, “sterile” (that is, free of Palestinians) for Israeli settlers. The street on which they stood, Shuhada, where Palestinians are not permitted to walk, was previously paved and painted by the United States Agency for International Development, funded by American taxpayers. In the alleys behind Shuhada, where Palestinians are permitted to walk, Edwards and her colleagues looked up to see garbage-filled nets hanging above their heads, put up to catch trash thrown by Israeli settlers. “We had never seen anything like that,” she told me recently. “Hebron is the place where I think you can see in the most frightening way what the injustice is, where you have people on one side of the street who live one way and people on another side of the street living another way. And streets that some people can cross and walk on, but other people cannot. To me, it looked like the stories that my mother and my grandmother told me about living in the South.”
The group walked to meet a local Palestinian activist, Issa Amro, who has been arrested repeatedly for nonviolently challenging racial segregation in Hebron. As they approached a “sterile road,” they were stopped by Israeli soldiers. Prevented from moving, the U.S. lawmakers locked arms and sang “We Shall Overcome.”
Last spring, members of the Knesset, Israel’s Legislature, debated a new “basic law” known as the nation-state law. Basic laws have the weight of a constitutional amendment. This one rescinded Arabic’s status as an official state language (it had been one since the British mandate), asserted that only Jews have a right to self-determination in Israel and declared that the state would encourage the establishment and consolidation of Jewish land settlement as a national value. In June, several Arab members of the Knesset — out of 120 seats, 12 belong to the coalition of Arab-dominated parties, the Joint List — submitted an alternative basic law in response, calling for “the principle of equal citizenship for every citizen.” They were not allowed to introduce the bill on the grounds that it violated the Knesset’s regulations, which forbid any bill that denies “the existence of the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish People.” The nation-state law passed a month later.
Nadia Ben-Youssef, until recently the director of the Adalah Justice Project, the United States-based arm of Adalah, a human rights organization and legal center in Israel that works to advance the rights of the country’s Palestinian citizens, said that the passage of the nation-state law made her advocacy work in America easier. In 2018, she took a Palestinian member of the Joint List, Jamal Zahalka, to meet with lawmakers on Capitol Hill, including five progressive members of Congress, among them Representatives Jamie Raskin and Jan Schakowsky and Senator Sanders. When she presented the two versions of the bill, side by side, she says, each of the congressional representatives, displaying varying degrees of discomfort, stated that they preferred the one calling for equality.
Ben-Youssef said most of the members of Congress and staff members she spoke to were aware of Israeli human rights violations against Palestinians under blockade and occupation but were largely uninformed about Israeli discrimination against Palestinian citizens. It was news to many that tens of thousands of Palestinian citizens live in villages that predate the creation of Israel and are unrecognized by the state, receiving little or no water and electricity. Or that in Israel, as in the West Bank, Palestinian citizens face demolitions and forced evictions to make way for Jewish communities, military zones and national parks.
Ben-Youssef’s work in the United States began during what became known among activists as the Ferguson-Gaza moment in the summer of 2014. As militarized police units confronted the crowds in Ferguson, Mo., using tanks and Pentagon-supplied weapons, The Telegraph reported that some protesters chanted, “Gaza Strip!” Activists noted that the same U.S.-produced tear-gas canisters launched at protesters in Ferguson were fired by the Israeli Army on Palestinians in refugee camps. The St. Louis County Police chief, who retired shortly before Ferguson, was one of hundreds of American law-enforcement officials who traveled to Israel for counterterrorism training with the Israeli military, police and intelligence services.
In 2015, Kristian Davis Bailey, a black activist who helped assemble a coalition to pass a divestment vote in the student senate at Stanford that year, co-wrote a “Black Solidarity Statement With Palestine,” endorsing B.D.S. It was signed by nearly 50 black organizations and more than 1,100 black activists, artists, musicians, scholars and members of the clergy. He also worked on a video with the Palestinian poet Remi Kanazi and the black scholar and youth organizer Mari Morales-Williams that featured more than 60 black and Palestinian artists and activists asserting their commonality. Titled “When I See Them, I See Us,” it included Angela Davis, Danny Glover and Lauryn Hill alongside the Palestinians Omar Barghouti, Noura Erekat and Linda Sarsour. A voice-over intoned: “Harassed, beaten, tortured, dehumanized, stopped and frisked, searched at checkpoints, administrative detention, youth incarceration. When I see them, I see us.”
After Ferguson, the pro-B.D.S. group Jewish Voice for Peace began a campaign called Deadly Exchange, targeting law-enforcement training partnerships between the United States and Israel. The effort contributed to the Northampton, Mass., Police Department and the head of the Vermont State Police pulling out of a planned counterterrorism training in Israel. The civil rights group Dream Defenders has organized several delegations of people of color to Israel and the West Bank. Among the attendees were Patrisse Cullors, a founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, and some of the future drafters of the policy platform for the Movement for Black Lives, which calls for ending military aid to Israel.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York marching during the annual Celebrate Israel Parade last June in Manhattan. (Kena Betancur/Getty Images)
According to Ben-Youssef, Adalah Justice Project hasn’t hosted a single event focused on Palestine alone in the last year. Instead, it partnered with other progressive and racial-justice organizations. As Ben-Youssef told me, “Our whole theory of change can be distilled as de-exceptionalizing Israel-Palestine.” She added, “I don’t want more Palestinian rights activists. I want more human rights defenders.”
Every spring, pro-Palestinian students at universities around the world stage lectures, cultural events and rallies under the banner “Israeli Apartheid Week.” Nowadays these events are not just attended but sometimes led by black, Latino and Native American students. Last October, nearly a year after the University of Michigan’s divestment vote, there was an “apartheid-wall demonstration” co-sponsored by the campus Latinx group, La Casa. Pro-Palestinian students erected two cardboard walls, modeled after the 25-foot-high concrete slabs that intertwine with fences and barbed wire to encircle Palestinian communities in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. A La Casa member shouted, “We have the same goal: fighting white supremacy and xenophobia.” Students chanted, “From Palestine to Mexico, all the walls have got to go!” One speaker compared Trump’s separation of immigrant children from their parents to Israel’s separation of families in the West Bank, where the army has detained children as young as 5. (At the time of the protest, hundreds of minors were in Israeli jails, several held without trial or charge under an indefinitely renewable “administrative detention.”)
As progressive students equate Israel with racial discrimination, major American Jewish institutions have sought to counter this messaging. At the 2017 annual meeting of the Jewish Federations of North America — the umbrella group for hundreds of Jewish philanthropic organizations, which have a combined endowment of more than $16 billion — one of the panels convened was titled “PRO-gressive and PRO-Zionist: Can You Be Both?” A leading Israel advocacy group on campus, the David Project, has held outreach events for Latinos and African-Americans. After the 2015 divestment resolution at Stanford, the white Jewish Agency Israel fellow at Hillel was replaced by a black one.
At an earlier apartheid-wall protest at Michigan, Becca Lubow, the head of J Street U at the university, stood with other pro-Israel students, one of whom, because of J Street’s criticisms of Israel, called her a kapo, a Jewish collaborator with the Nazis. Last fall, when asked by pro-Israel students if she was attending the demonstration, she said no. “Hillel ignores us all year and then becomes our friend during pro-Palestinian events like the divestment vote,” she told me.
Lubow said she felt a “sense of personal responsibility for what Israel is doing to the Palestinians — like it’s almost the personal fault of me and my family and the communities I’ve supported all my life, and they’re doing it in my and our name.” She wondered if she should leave Hillel or J Street, which has resisted years of entreaties from some of its student leaders to move from rhetorical condemnations of Israeli policies to advocating economic and diplomatic pressure. For now, she said, she was staying in J Street U because she believed she could be more effective by influencing her own community. “There’s an expression people use when something racist happens: ‘White people, get your people.’ I’m trying to get my people,” she said. Three days later, she emailed me that J Street U had left the Israel cohort of the Michigan Hillel.
Politicians speaking on Israel-Palestine used to worry primarily about attacks from pro-Israel media and activist groups; now progressives are starting to feel some heat from the pro-Palestinian side. During the 2018 campaign, Tlaib, the first Palestinian-American woman to be elected to Congress, was denounced on the Electronic Intifada website by the site’s co-founder, the Palestinian-American B.D.S. activist Ali Abunimah, for receiving an endorsement from J Street. She later declared her support for a one-state solution, though she denies that it was because of Abunimah’s denunciation. J Street withdrew its endorsement. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez came under attack on social media from an otherwise adoring progressive base after she responded to a question about her “massacre” tweet by proclaiming herself a “firm believer” in a two-state solution and saying she “absolutely” believes in Israel’s right to exist.
At a town hall in 2017, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Senator Elizabeth Warren, each of whom is now running for president, came out against the Israel Anti-Boycott Act. Each faced pointed questions from members of Jewish Voice for Peace, which had organized a campaign to pressure politicians to oppose the bill on the grounds that it infringed on the First Amendment. Gillibrand withdrew her name as a sponsor of the bill, and Warren declared that she opposes B.D.S. but that “outlawing protected free speech activity violates our basic constitutional rights.” Later that year, in the House, Representative McCollum put forward a bill demanding that the secretary of state certify that “United States funds do not support military detention, interrogation, abuse or ill-treatment of Palestinian children.” Though it received no public support from J Street — previously considered the arbiter of the outer limit of what Democrats would back — 30 Democrats co-sponsored the bill.
In December, after Tlaib won the Detroit congressional seat long held by John Conyers, she announced that she would not go on the free Aipac-led trip customarily taken by freshman members and would instead lead her own delegation to the West Bank, where her grandmother lives. She also declared her support for the B.D.S. movement, making her the second member of Congress to do so. The other is her fellow Muslim congresswoman, Ilhan Omar. In February, the bill sponsored by Senator Marco Rubio that would give federal backing to state anti-B.D.S. laws came up for a vote in the Senate. Though it passed, almost half of the 47 members of the Democratic Caucus in the Senate voted against it. The list included all the senators who had filed a statement of candidacy for president in 2020: Warren, Gillibrand, Kamala Harris and even Cory Booker, who has a largely pro-Israel voting record and is a sponsor of the Israel Anti-Boycott Act.
“We’re one moment away from this changing, once someone breaks through the fear factor,” Rhodes said, referring to U.S.-Israel policy, when I spoke to him in October. He recalled that before Obama’s first presidential campaign, Democrats were afraid to challenge the United States’ embargo of Cuba, particularly given the historical support for the embargo among many Cuban-Americans in Florida, a battleground state. “Once we showed that we were willing to break that Cuba fear factor, the party fell in line behind a totally different Cuba policy.” When I spoke to him again in March, he added: “If you look beyond the Ilhan Omar controversy, too, Democratic candidates are comfortable strongly criticizing the prime minister and his policies.” James Zogby, the Sanders appointee to the D.N.C. platform drafting committee in 2016, says that standing for Palestinian rights is guaranteed to be a major topic in the 2020 election: “It’s a smell-test issue. If you go to young people, they know you stink if you don’t talk about it right.” A senior Democratic staff member on Capitol Hill told me: “People like Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Bernie Sanders have opened the floodgates on this issue. It may be painful for the party as we move in a more progressive direction. But we’ll come out in a better place — a more moral and evenhanded place — in the end.”
On a cold Saturday morning in early March, a crowd of more than 10,000 gathered in the East Quad of Brooklyn College to hear Bernie Sanders deliver the first speech of his 2020 presidential campaign. Two of the speakers who introduced him cited the same sentence from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
Sanders took the stage to the sound of Santigold singing in the Jay-Z song “Brooklyn Go Hard.” He thanked the speakers who opened for him, including the curtain raiser, the Black Lives Matter activist Shaun King, who declared his full support for the B.D.S. movement less than a year earlier. On May 15, 2018, the day after Israeli forces killed more than 60 Palestinian protesters in Gaza, he tweeted: “As an American taxpayer, I am heartbroken and disgusted that a single dime of money was used to slaughter so many Palestinians yesterday. But it wasn’t dimes — our nation sends Israel BILLIONS of dollars in aid — almost all of it used for weapons and ammunition.”
During his introduction of Sanders, King spoke of the Vermont senator’s family members murdered in the Holocaust, and how coming of age in these circumstances “gave Bernie a deep sense of right and wrong.” King said: “He has always rejected the status quo. He spoke out against apartheid in South Africa, when — crazily — that was an unpopular thing to do. And even today,” King added, “he speaks out against apartheidlike conditions in Palestine, even though it’s not popular.”
The crowd erupted in cheers.
Nathan Thrall is the author of “The Only Language They Understand: Forcing Compromise in Israel and Palestine” and has contributed to The New York Review of Books, The London Review of Books and The Guardian. He is director of the Arab-Israeli Project at the International Crisis Group.
Spray markings throughout: iStockphoto/Getty Images.