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The left faces a reckoning as Israel divides Democrats

The divide on the left about Israel is not new, but it has never been so visible.
Demonstration Held In Chicago In Support Of The People Of Palestine
Demonstrators rally and march through downtown Chicago on Wednesday to show support for the Palestinian people. Scott Olson / Getty Images

Joel Simonds, a Los Angeles-based rabbi involved in progressive causes, has always known that many of his ideological allies did not agree with him on Israel.  

But after this weekend’s terror attack, the worst killing of Jews since the Holocaust, Simonds said many liberal Jews feel abandoned by people they thought were friends, some of whom have expressed little sympathy for the Israelis killed while focusing instead on the plight of Palestinians.

“In these last few days, the silence is deafening and it is hurtful and a betrayal on so many levels,” said Simonds, the founding director of the Jewish Center for Justice and president of Partnership for Growth Los Angeles, an interfaith partnership with Black churches. 

American Jews, who are overwhelmingly liberal, have often supported social justice movements. Simonds said while most progressive leaders have offered support, he feels betrayed by others on the left who have not.

“It’s not going to change the way we look at justice,” Simonds said. “It’s going to change the way we look at our allies.”

Israel has been so fraught in some progressive circles that many preferred not to talk about it, enforcing a sort of strategic silence to avoid dividing the movement and distracting it from common ground issues.

That long-stifled debate is now spilling into public view in heated and sometimes ugly ways, dividing Democrats and exposing what some say is antisemitism that has been allowed to fester on the left for years. 

“There needs to be some soul searching about the extent of antisemitism within these groups such that these organizations are blinded to the worst form of terrorism,” said Rep. Shri Thanedar, D- Mich., who renounced his membership in Democratic Socialists of America on Wednesday after several of the group’s chapter seemed to applaud Hamas’ attack. 

“No one should be supporting such a thing,” Thanedar said.

'Capable of rejecting both'

Democratic officials remain overwhelmingly supportive of Israel and President Joe Biden has pledged unwavering support. But a growing portion of the party’s base has come to view Israel as the chief villain in the conflict, a colonial oppressor of Indigenous people, going far beyond the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” vision long espoused by center-left (and often Jewish-led) groups to advocate for a peaceful resolution for both Israelis and Palestinians.

In March, Gallup reported that, for the first time since it began asking the question, Democratic voters are now more sympathetic toward Palestinians than Israelis, with a particularly steep drop in net sympathy for Israelis among young voters.

In 2021, a Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs survey found that just 22% of Democrats called Israel an ally, while another 37% viewed it a "necessary partner" and 30% said they didn’t know how to characterize the U.S.-Israel relationship.

Liberal American Jews have long rejected attempts to equate criticism of the Israeli government with antisemitism. But groups like the Anti-Defamation League have warned that the left-wing movement that agitates against Israel in the name of Palestinian rights has made antisemitism more socially acceptable in left-leaning spaces like college campuses.

Now, in public condemnations and in private chats, ideological allies and friends are sometimes surprised to find themselves on opposite sides of an issue both feel equally passionate about. 

The White House press secretary has condemned as “repugnant” and “disgraceful” statements that suggested Israel was partially responsible for the attack and urged a cease-fire from progressive Democrats like Reps. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, a Palestinian American, and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, a Muslim Somali refugee.

In Massachusetts, while Sen. Elizabeth Warren released a statement saying the U.S. is “committed to Israel’s safety and security,” fellow progressive Democratic Sen. Ed Markey was booed by a crowd in Boston for calling for “de-escalation,” according to Politico.

Meanwhile, campus groups at Harvard, Yale, George Washington University, New York University and elsewhere have come under fire for responding to Hamas’ attack by refusing to condemn the killing of Israelis. The national leadership of Students for Justice in Palestine celebrated the attack as a “historic win for the Palestinian resistance.”

The New York chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America co-sponsored a pro-Palestinian rally in Times Square that was condemned by Democrats, in which speakers joked about "the resistance" killing "hipsters." The Connecticut DSA chapter applauded the “unprecedented anti-colonial struggle.” The Minneapolis and San Francisco chapters endorsed the slogan, “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free!” which seems to leave no room for Jews between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. And the national DSA called for protests against U.S. support for “Israel’s apartheid regime.”

And antisemitic conspiracy theories about the attack and misinformation claiming no Israeli civilians were harmed have been promoted on social media accounts linked to the Black Lives Matter movement. 

That kind of reaction sparked a reckoning on the left that has some warning that the progressive movement risks swiftly erasing the gains they painstakingly accrued in the years since Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., himself Jewish, ran for president and re-invigorated the left in 2016.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and other DSA-allied elected officials condemned what they called “the bigotry and callousness” of the Times Square rally, saying Americans are “capable of rejecting both Hamas’ horrifying attacks against innocent civilians as well as the grave injustices and violence Palestinians face under occupation.”

Los Angeles City Council Member Nithya Raman, who won her seat by defeating an incumbent with the help of DSA, called the national DSA statement “unacceptably devoid of empathy.” 

And some worry the reaction will set back the Palestinian cause by lumping together fringe voices that do not support Israel’s existence with those on the left who do. 

Sanders’ longtime foreign policy adviser publicly endorsed an essay by progressive writer Eric Levitz whose headline warned, “A left that refuses to condemn mass murder is doomed.” The essay argued that believing Palestinians have a unique right to the land just replaces one version of right-wing blood-and-soil nationalism for another.

And the Rev. William Barber, the prominent social justice activist, cautioned his fellow progressives in an op-ed for the left-leaning Guardian to make clear that "terrorism is not a protest against injustice, but rather an act of despair that creates more suffering for everyone.”

“Some say, in a moment like this, you cannot condemn the violence without also mentioning the violence that precipitated it. But I will not agree to that position. I cannot,” he wrote.

Still, the division on Israel reaches deep, even among American Jews, about 7 in 10 of whom vote Democratic.

Many, like Sanders, have been involved in the promotion of Palestinian rights and have condemned the Israeli government, especially as it has grown increasingly hard-line as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was forced to bring far-right parties into his government to stay in power.

'Out of touch and amateurish'

Matan Arad-Neeman, a dual U.S.-Israeli citizen born to Israel emigres who had a relative killed in Israel on Saturday, said Hamas’ attack “only reinforces my belief” that the way to stop the cycle of violence is for Israel to “end the apartheid.” 

“Israel’s leaders are ramping up calls for genocide and ethnic cleansing. How will that bring back our loved ones?” said Arad-Neeman, now a spokesperson for the Jewish progressive group IfNotNow, which has been holding vigils to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish for those killed on both sides of the conflict.

Activists with IfNotNow were arrested last month in Los Angeles for disrupting an event hosted by AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israel group that has for decades been the loudest voice in Washington on Israel. 

More recently, AIPAC and allied groups have further alienated the left by becoming a vehicle to pummel progressive candidates in Democratic primaries with millions of dollars in attack ads. That included spending more than $4 million to defeat a now-former liberal congressman who had been the president of his synagogue in support of a more moderate Democrat who is not Jewish.

Asked if his group would disrupt an AIPAC event on Friday, or instead look for solidarity with its fellow American Jewish organization, Arad-Neeman was unequivocal. “I certainly can’t be in solidarity with someone who is going to push for more violence,” he said. 

The divide on the left over Israel is not new, but it has never been so visible.

Pro-Palestinian activists have long criticized “Progressives Except for Palestine” as hypocrites, cowards or pawns of shadowy forces. And as Israel’s government moved further to the right and activists on the American left looked for new points of contrast with the Democratic Party, Israel has increasingly become a flashpoint.

The issue is so thorny for the left, in part, because some see it as pitting two persecuted minorities against each other. Jews have been oppressed throughout history and remain a tiny minority, just 2.5%, of the population in the U.S. and a smaller portion everywhere else outside Israel. But in Israel, Jews are dominant and Palestinians are the minority.

Waleed Shahid, a progressive strategist who has been using social media to remind progressives to respect the humanity of people on both sides of the conflict, said activists concerned about Palestinians often get frustrated by what they perceive as a one-sided debate.

“This stuff makes progressives look out of touch and amateurish,” he said, referring to responses to the attack from groups like DSA. “But the fringe sentiment of the pro-Palestinian left represents basically no one in American politics.”

Meanwhile, he pointed to statements by officials in Israel or America, like Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who said on Fox News Wednesday, “We’re in a religious war here. ... Level the place.”

“Lindsey Graham is a senator. A right-wing government is in power in Israel. People who stand uncritically for Israel are never asked to answer for their hateful or genocidal comments,” he said. “The random college students who attend a DSA rally do not hold nearly the same weight in our politics.”