Senator Kamala Harris earned a big bump in the polls and gained credibility as a serious presidential contender after the first Democratic candidates’ debate last month.
“It was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country,” Harris told Biden in a riveting exchange.
Harris was moving when she talked about how as a child, “my sister and I had to deal with the neighbor who told us her parents [said she] couldn’t play with us because we were Black.” She recounted that as a little girl, she was a member of only the second racially integrated class in her public school.
She touted her record fighting for civil rights as attorney general of California and defended the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act, and called for passing an Equality Act.
But whatever her record in the US, Harris’ support for freedom, civil rights and equality does not extend to one group of people systematically and violently denied them: Palestinians.
Over recent months, The New York Times asked 21 Democratic hopefuls a series of questions, including: “Do you think Israel meets international standards of human rights?.”
Most offered very mild and cautious criticism.
Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, was relatively forthright that “Israel’s human rights record is problematic and moving in the wrong direction.”
Former Texas Congress member Beto O’Rourke suggested that Israel could “do a better job.”
Hawaii Representative Tulsi Gabbard acknowledged that “there are some challenges with Israel that need to be addressed,” but failed to specify what those might be.
New Jersey Senator Cory Booker affirmed his support for Israel’s “right to defend itself,” but paid lip service to the “dignity and self-determination of Palestinian people.”
Harris, however, seemed determined to say nothing that could be remotely construed as critical.
Her initial answer consisted of this word salad: “I think that Israel as a country is dedicated to being a democracy and is one of our closest friends in that region and that we should understand the shared values and priorities that we have as a democracy, and conduct foreign policy in a way that is consistent with understanding the alignment between the American people and the people of Israel.”
Unsatisfied, the interviewer followed up: “Does Israel meet your human rights standards to your personal satisfaction?”
Playing for time, Harris asked, “What specifically are you referring to?” before finally answering the question: “Overall, yes.”
This means that Harris sees no problem with Israel’s policy of sending snipers to systematically and deliberately kill unarmed civilians, including children, who protest their internment in the besieged Gaza Strip.
It means she sees no problem with Israel’s military detention and torture of Palestinian children.
It means Harris sees no problem with dozens of Israeli laws that discriminate against Palestinian citizens of Israel solely for not being Jewish. These include laws and policies that promote the kind of housing discrimination and official segregation that is banned in the US thanks to the civil rights laws she claims to uphold.
It means she sees no problem with Israel’s recent Nation-State Law explicitly affirming superior rights for Jews over Palestinians.
Kyle Kulinski, an influential left-wing commentator and a founder of the progressive political action committee Justice Democrats, offers a scathing response.
He says that Harris brushing aside Israel’s horrific record shows that her “moral” and “ethical concerns” are “nonexistent.”
“She’s playing the political game that people play in the United States of America to try to get ahead.”
“It shows you that she’s unlikely to change anything,” he adds. “That’s why this is important.”
Bernie stands out
The Vermont senator has his own decidedly mixed record on Palestinian rights, including opposing the nonviolent boycott, divestment and sanctions movement – while also speaking out against legislation backed by the Israel lobby aimed at thwarting BDS.
Sanders said nothing critical of Israel to The New York Times – though he did criticize Benjamin Netanyahu, its prime minister.
“I believe 100 percent in the right for Israel not only to exist, but to exist in peace and security,” he said, adding that the United States needed to be “even handed.”
However, in a more recent interview with CBS’ Face The Nation, Sanders was much more explicit, stating he would use US military aid to Israel as leverage – something no other candidate has promised.
Referring to the billions in annual aid Israel receives from Washington, Sanders said, “I would sit down with Israel and say, look … if you want military aid from the United States, you’re going to have to treat the Palestinian people and that region with respect.”
“We’re not simply going to give more and more weaponry to Saudi Arabia, to Israel,” Sanders also said, pledging to do everything he could to end the US-backed war in Yemen and prevent war with Iran.
Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts senator and the other heavy-hitting progressive in the race, remains far behind Sanders.
She said nothing critical of Israel to The New York Times, and even repeated the racist trope that Israel is in a “tough neighborhood” – the kind of language often used to demonize predominantly Black inner cities impoverished by decades of deliberate government segregation policies and disinvestment.
It appears that Harris and Warren still think that in 2019 you can get away with being progressive – and even presenting yourself as an anti-racist champion – except when it comes to Israel’s lethal system of apartheid against Palestinians.
But if progressive candidates are going to cower before the Israel lobby, there’s no reason to think that with enough pressure or incentive they would not also cave in to every other lobby as well – no matter how tough their rhetoric on fighting global warming, the pharmaceutical industry or rapacious banks.