(May 18, 2021 / Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies) The current conflagration between Israel and Hamas has many old and new features. Among the most novel is the outspoken opposition of progressives within the Democratic Party. Another is the full racialization of the conflict along purely American lines: Israelis are the white oppressors while Palestinians are the brown and black victims.
These attributes have been emerging over the past few years, notably among the BDS movement that began to loudly draw such comparisons after the 2014 Ferguson riots, and they have become a feature of Nation of Islam and Black Lives Matter rhetoric. But this has now been fully articulated as a cultural and political issue, in no small part because of the American nervous breakdown over “race” and the unprecedented, indeed, calamitous, ineptitude of the still-new Biden administration.
The Democrats’ aging rump leadership, typified by President Joe Biden and House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi, have expressed traditional concerns over Israel’s security, as well as traditional understanding of what might be called causality and proportionality: Hamas attacked Israeli civilians and the Jewish state is using proportionate means necessary to eliminate the threat—but not so much as to cause excessive civilian casualties. A few scattered younger elected officials, such as Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.), have bucked the progressive wave, along with Jewish Democrats. Republicans on the other hand are nearly uniform in expressing their vocal commitment to Israel.
But it is the Democrats’ progressive wing that has taken center stage. In a recent display on the floor of the House, one progressive member after another rose to condemn Israel and Biden’s support for it, and to draw breathless and hyperbolic analogies between Gaza and the American scene. Firebrand Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) attacked Biden and implicitly defended Hamas, saying, “The president stated that Israel has a right to self-defense. Do Palestinians have a right to survive?”
Islamist Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) went further and deemed Israel an “apartheid government,” while Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) stated, “As a black woman in America, I am no stranger to police brutality and state-sanctioned violence. We have been criminalized for the very way we show up in the world … Palestinians are being told the same thing as black folks in America: there is no acceptable form of resistance.” Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) made the claim plain on social media: “The fight for black lives and the fight for Palestinian liberation are interconnected. We oppose our money going to fund militarized policing, occupation, and systems of violent oppression and trauma. We are anti-war. We are anti-occupation. And we are anti-apartheid. Period.”
The question that remains is how to understand the future of the Democratic Party. Some insight is yielded by a look at the British Labour Party. Since its takeover by the now-ousted Momentum faction led by Jeremy Corbyn, Labour has been fully transformed from a traditional social-democratic working-class party into a far-left party that represents disaffected urban middle-class whites and even angrier ethnic minorities—BAME (“black, Asian, minority ethnic”), meaning primarily Muslims. Neither is shy about their antipathy towards the Conservative Party, the existing social and economic structures of the country and British history, which they reduce to colonialism and imperialism. They are more contemptuous still of Israel and Jews, which they regard as the epitome of imperial beneficiaries and tribal capitalist exploiters, prejudices overlaid over traditional British anti-Semitism.
In this respect, the massive Muslim immigration engineered by Labour under Tony Blair in the 1990s fundamentally transformed British society. In the 21st century, Corbyn built his coalition to capitalize on economic inequality and ethnic resentment, precisely the themes motivating progressive Democrats today. One of the features of this, by design, was using Israel as a whipping boy to motivate the electorate at all levels, from university clubs and local councils adopting BDS motions to national politicians pondering boycotts and impugning the loyalties of British Jews.
Famously reticent, British Jews were finally moved by this abuse and called out Labour, their traditional home, demanding investigations that uncovered shocking behavior and attitudes from Corbyn’s inner circle. In response, Corbyn and his coterie accused Israel of a conspiracy to undermine them. And in the meantime, the sometimes comical but often canny figure of Boris Johnson engineered the exit from the European Union, a clumsy but effective coronavirus response and the beginnings of an economic recovery.
Many of these same features exist in the United States. New York and Chicago have seen huge outpourings of anger at Israel and the United States over Gaza, precisely from the alliance of far-left middle-class whites (including disaffected Jews who act as showpieces) backed up by Muslims and, to a still lesser extent, African-Americans. This should be regarded as a parallel to the Black Lives Matters and Antifa streams that have riled American cities for more than a year, once again with the blessings of progressive politicians.
Meanwhile, Israel as an issue has penetrated deeply into local politics. New York City’s mayoral candidates have been interrogated, criticized and threatened over their expressions of support for the Jewish state. And the anti-Israel cabal in Congress continues to work tirelessly to equate Palestinians and “brown and black communities” in the United States. This racist and anti-Semitic rabble-rousing is, again, sadly familiar from Britain and elsewhere, not least of all the “Arab street.”
In a larger sense, many have pointed to an especially ominous trend—the tribalization of the United States along racial and ethnic lines in the context of a reigning minoritarian ideology that privileges those claiming to be victims. The polyglot nature of American society makes sorting out these features extremely difficult except along crudely reductive “racial” lines.
The generational aspects are somewhat easier to understand; a lost generation of poorly educated college graduates with few discernable quantitative or analytical skills but a healthy sense of entitlement, as well as large debts has proven to be fertile ground for juvenile narratives of victimhood and socialism. Coupled to this is the now corporate-supported moral panic over race in which “equity” in the sense of equal outcomes is rapidly replacing merit as the basis for education and other outcomes.
Facile perceptions are thus being forced into narratives of Israel and the Palestinians: white versus black, winners versus losers, powerful versus the powerless. This type of American cognitive or categorical imperialism is immensely destructive but has been promulgated widely through social media, particularly by “celebrities” like model Bella Hadid, who communicated via a cartoon to her 42 million Instagram followers that Israel is a group of “settlers who are colonizing Palestine.”
But the ethnic dimension, as America’s Muslim presence grows, is a particular danger. The growing verbal and physical harassment of Jews in New York, Miami and Los Angeles by young Muslims is precisely what has long been seen in European contexts. The sense of impunity and license provided by elected leaders like Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) is also redolent of Islamist parties in Europe. Whether this radicalization will turn into further terrorism or full-scale pogroms remains to be seen.
But European analogies are not entirely hopeless. Official criticism of Israel’s operations against Hamas from European leaders has thus far been slightly muted. While hardly right-wing, confronted by intensifying Islamic terrorism, violence and separatism, as well as persistent economic crises exacerbated by the pandemic, European leaders and perhaps the societies at large have moved somewhat to the right. This is also noticeable in Britain itself, where Labour, led by Keir Starmer, has been neutered by its own ineptitude over lockdowns and economic recovery, and the dogging problem of anti-Semitism.
Whether the Democratic Party will do the same to itself will be clear only after the 2022 midterm elections. Certainly, economic issues—high unemployment, quickly rising inflation, shortages of goods, rising taxes and immense deficits—will take center stage. A reckoning over these issues is likely, but it will be tied to cultural issues, namely the overreach regarding “racism” that has impugned a largely color-blind society. Anti-Semitism and Israel, illegal immigration, ethnic separatism and much more will all play a role. The backlashes emerging against the holy trinity of “diversity, equity and inclusion” and “critical race theory,” all of which denigrate Jews and vilify Israel, are growing but still nascent.
In the meantime, the danger persists, particularly in the absence of effective leadership from Biden and his mysterious circle of advisers. The most immediate effect, thus far only clarifying rather than decisive, is an overt civil war between Biden and the progressives over Israel.
In the interim, the damage being done to the legitimacy of U.S. governing institutions, much less any notion of a “bipartisan consensus” about Israel, is vast. How the former can be repaired is a paramount question that any presidential candidate, Democrat or Republican, should be considering now, long before the 2024 elections. With the rise of ethnic politics in the United States, how the latter can be re-established is another question altogether.
Alex Joffe is a senior non-resident fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.
This article was first published by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.
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