After condemning the killing of Israeli civilians, Tammy Baldwin and others fail to oppose atrocities against Palestinians.
If you’re looking for Wisconsin’s Congressional delegation or other key elected officials to show any sense of perspective and conscience amid the ongoing escalation of the Israeli-Palestine conflict—to match their rightful condemnation of Hamas’ killings of Israeli citizens with proportionate, also rightful condemnation of the U.S.-backed and -enabled slaughter of Palestinians on a much greater scale and demand restraint on the part of a key U.S. ally—well, don’t hold your breath.
Reactions from our Congressional Republicans have been as expected in their bloodthirsty xenophobia and nationalism: Tom Tiffany and Glenn Grothman making it about Islam, Bryan Steil making it about “borders,” Derrick Van Orden throwing tantrums.
The contrast on the other side of the aisle is shamefully pale.
As Israel this month indiscriminately bombed Gaza and cut off its population of 2 million from electricity and humanitarian aid, and ordered the “evacuation” of 1 million people who have nowhere to go, Wisconsin’s most prominent elected Democrats said little in defense of innocent Palestinians. Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin condemned Hamas and joined a bipartisan group of legislators in casting suspicions on Iran, and joined in another statement calling on the Biden administration to send more ammo to Israel.
But since this latest wave of violence began, Baldwin has not issued any statements acknowledging the Israeli Defense Forces’ mass murder of Palestinian children and other civilians, or the fact that Israel has blockaded Gaza. Neither have Rep. Gwen Moore, Gov. Tony Evers, or most of the Democratic Wisconsin Assembly members who supported a bipartisan resolution condemning Hamas—one that, of course, says nothing about the suffering or humanity of Palestinians. Ann Jacobs, a Democratic appointee to the Wisconsin Elections Commission, issued a wildly inappropriate call to oust Assembly Rep. Ryan Clancy, apparently because Clancy made a Facebook post comparing the death toll among Palestinians and Israelis in recent years. There is very little tolerance among Wisconsin Democrats, apparently, for wrestling with the full context of the conflict, or for merely acknowledging that Palestinians are human beings and that it is wrong to kill them en masse.
At best, we have Rep. Mark Pocan pointing out that it is impossible for more than 1 million people to “evacuate” within 24 hours, and offering some context about Gaza. Though refreshing in context, Pocan’s remarks leave room to believe that the IDF is just perhaps, in some universe, willing to exercise restraint as it pursues a legitimate military target. Look at what the IDF is actually doing. This isn’t how you fight a specific group of armed combatants. It is how you subjugate and quite possibly annihilate a massive group of human beings. To frame this as a legitimate act of defense or even an understandable reprisal is to launder the sheer horror of it. If a state with Israel’s advanced military and intelligence capabilities intended to specifically target Hamas, it would be doing so, and with much greater precision. Still, Pocan is doing better than most. The bar has passed clean through the core of the earth and out the other side.
All of these people have a responsibility to do better and show some political spine. Right now, full-on fascists like Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton are salivating for destruction in Gaza. Democrats who don’t push back wholeheartedly against this sort of rhetoric are abjectly failing to do their jobs as a political opposition. They are standing back and sanctioning genocide. Baldwin’s statement on Tuesday that “Israel has the right to defend itself against Hamas’s horrific terrorist attacks, but more innocent people cannot pay the price,” is too little, too late, especially coming from someone who has actively enabled the IDF.
I think most Americans have a suspicion of rigid ideologies and strident, absolutist posturing. That can be healthy, until it devolves into utter fecklessness, an unwillingness to commit to specific outcomes, an absence of any coherent framework that holds when the going gets tough. What we end up with is not pragmatism freed of blinders, but a shell game. If you’re not careful, your politics become the sum of the evils you are willing to ignore and the excuses you are willing to make.
Let’s review some ground truths
The political conversation around Israel in the U.S. is so distorted and so selective that at times you’ve got to pull back and reiterate some very basic things.
We as Americans are responsible for the choices we make, and for the effects of those choices. They are, in fact, choices, not inevitabilities. We make them in the presence of alternative choices. We enact them from a position of almost incomprehensible advantage and leverage. To spend billions upon billions of dollars arming the State of Israel is a choice. To back up Israel’s impunity, counseling only the most minimal restraint, is a choice, even when Hamas commits atrocities of its own.
One does not plop an entire new state down, from scratch, without killing and displacing other people on a massive scale. When we talk about violence in the context of Israel, it is profoundly dishonest to pretend that the State of Israel was founded without devastating violence, or maintained without devastating violence. Further escalation and aggression will also endanger Israeli citizens, not all of whom are on board with the authoritarian zealotry that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu represents. In fact, some of the Israelis who have suffered grievously this month have spoken out against the IDF killing innocent people in their names.
Israel is a heavily armed, highly sophisticated state. It is not a fragile, endangered waif on the world stage. It boasts a sizable defense industry of its own, and a thriving cybersecurity industry. Companies based in Israel provide spyware tools like Pegasus to the surveillance states and despots of the world. Israel can and does commit violence of a frequency and scale that far outstrips anything Hamas has ever done or ever could.
Israel is bombing civilian targets, including hospitals and residential buildings. We know this because the IDF is announcing its intention to do so ahead of time, as if evacuating someone’s home before destroying it makes it somehow humane, as if it is remotely possible to evacuate an entire hospital on short notice. It is impossible to drop bombs on a densely populated area without killing civilians and destroying civilian infrastructure, further immiserating those who survive.
The State of Israel does not treat Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank as citizens with equal rights. Arab citizens who have equal rights in a legal sense still face discrimination and structural disadvantages.
Netanyahu’s government is extreme, bigoted, and belligerent even by the standards of right-wing Israeli politics. He has stocked his cabinet with extremely antagonistic hard-liners like National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir. Netanyahu has faced multiple corruption charges and has attempted to gut the authority of Israel’s judiciary, provoking large-scale protests. Israeli Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi announced a plan on Sunday to enact wartime censorship against the public and the press. The bombs are falling on journalists, too. When American politicians offer pieties about standing with Israel as a fellow democracy, keep in mind that Israel is doing about as well as we are on that front.
It’s a warped debate, but it can change
The fundamental dynamic of Israel-U.S. relations is that Republicans want to give far-right Israeli leaders like Netanyahu and Ben-Gvir 100 percent of what they want, while most Democrats only want to give them, say, 90 to 99 percent of what they want. American politicians and commentators tend to treat that gap as a vast chasm: If Democrats basically uphold the same policy choices that allow Israel to act with impunity, but caution Israel not to overdo it on human-rights abuses, they open themselves up to bad-faith charges of betrayal and anti-Semitism.
To her credit, Baldwin has opposed Israeli annexation of West Bank settlements, and called for an investigation after the IDF killed Palestinian-American Journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in May 2022. Baldwin also joined Gwen Moore in calling for an investigation into the January 2022 death of Omar Assad, a Palestinian-American who spent much of his life in Milwaukee. Baldwin has opposed the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel but has stopped short of supporting blatantly unconstitutional anti-BDS legislation at the federal level. (At the state level, Wisconsin does have an anti-BDS law on the books, aimed at state agencies and contractors.) Like a lot of folks condemning violence against Israel, Baldwin also doesn’t much approve of non-violent protest against Israel. It’s a mixed bag, but the context makes her current silence on Palestine especially dispiriting.
One might argue that it’s politically practical for someone like Baldwin to take a hawkish stance as she heads into another reelection campaign, that you need to do some saber-rattling to get a “purple-state” electorate to take you seriously. It is also hard to see the pragmatism of continually electing people who aren’t interested in changing our approach to the conflict. A politician unwilling to take risks and advocate for a much-needed shift in perspective is really not so useful after all. Such is the drab, defeated state of the Democratic Party.
No amount of hawkish statements or actual votes in support of Israel will ultimately shield Democrats like Baldwin from Republican narratives about them being weak or anti-Israel or soft on Iran or any other thing. Republicans are always willing to be more extreme, and they go with whatever narrative they feel advantages them politically, because they can, because they answer only to a cultish base that dwells entirely in a realm of delusion. Baldwin could join the IDF and personally shoot up a Palestinian hospital. It wouldn’t stop Republicans from calling her “anti-Israel,” any more than Joe Biden’s support for Israel will stop Republicans from leveling the same accusation against him. You cannot beat the right at warlike chest-beating, ever.
By the way, these kinds of accusations didn’t stop Baldwin from beating Tommy Thompson in 2012. There is also evidence that Democratic voters are growing more sympathetic toward Palestinians and more critical of Israel’s government. There is more open debate about military aid to Israel, too. Sticking up for Palestine might not be as politically risky as it used to be. Even if it were, there’s no excuse for turning a blind eye as our ally kills and brutalizes the people it has trapped in Gaza, using weapons we paid for. It’s on us Americans—especially in pivotal states like Wisconsin—to reject the lethal cowardice of our politicians.
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Editor-in-chief and publisher Scott Gordon has covered music and the arts in Madison since 2006 for publications including The A.V. Club, Dane101, and Isthmus, and has also covered policy, environmental issues, and public health for WisContext. He co-founded Tone Madison in 2014.