AIPAC sought to rally progressives to its side at its annual policy conference in Washington last week.
Largely, it didn’t work.
The Israel lobby giant is simply on the wrong side of too many progressive concerns – and not just Palestinian rights, but free speech as well.
Legislation pushed last week by AIPAC has been criticized as a violation of the First Amendment.
The American Civil Liberties Union has acknowledged recent tweaks to the legislation that targets the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian rights.
But the ACLU’s director Faiz Shakir and staff attorney Brian Hauss wrote US lawmakers on 6 March to tell them that the civil rights organization “continues to strongly urge you to oppose the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, S. 720.”
They noted that “the amended bill still unconstitutionally targets political boycotts for criminal penalties,” and that if passed the ACLU would consider mounting a court challenge.
AIPAC officials were well aware of the problematic nature of the legislation in briefing their supporters the day before their 6 March lobby day.
Marvin Feuer, the group’s director of policy and government affairs, acknowledged to the audience they might get “pushback” that the legislation restricts free speech. He then claimed that nothing in the bill prevents constitutionally protected speech and that the rewritten language targets only commercial conduct.
But the ACLU explains in its letter to lawmakers how the changes in the bill do nothing to make it less of a threat to free speech. The civil liberties group points out that political boycotts were recognized as constitutionally protected free expression by the US Supreme Court in 1982, in a landmark case stemming from the civil rights movement.
Since the beginning of March, AIPAC’s supporters have convinced four senators, one of them a Democrat, to sign on to the bill.
These four join Maryland Senator Ben Cardin and 51 other co-sponsors of the legislation in disregarding concerns about fundamental constitutional rights.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand removed her co-sponsorship last summer over precisely such worries.
Most striking about the whole legislative push is that more than a week later AIPAC could only muster four new co-sponsors in the Senate and nine in the House, though Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, a vice chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, was one of three Democrats to add her name.
The lack of overwhelming support flies in the face of a claim from Steven Rosen, at the time AIPAC’s director of foreign policy, telling journalist Jeffrey Goldberg years ago: “You see this napkin? In 24 hours, we could have the signatures of 70 senators on this napkin.”
The failure to add a significant number of new names suggests AIPAC may be having trouble rallying Democrats. So far just 14 of the 49 Democrats in the Senate have backed the bill.
Internal progressive struggle
Mort Fridman, AIPAC’s president, acknowledged the problems the organization is facing shoring up broad support for Israel in the US.
“The progressive narrative for Israel is just as compelling and critical as the conservative one,” he said in remarks aimed at more left-leaning listeners. “There are very real forces trying to pull you out of this hall and out of this movement and we cannot let that happen – we will not let that happen!”
Yet it is hard to see how AIPAC can claim to be a home for progressives when it is the venue that greeted presidential candidate Donald Trump with raucous applause in 2016. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu garnered similar enthusiasm this year.
President Trump, more than any other American politician, is splitting apart the bipartisan support Israel has received for decades.
Grassroots Democrats, who despise the president’s open bigotry, may be realizing that the same hatred that drives him on domestic issues leads him to support Israel’s discriminatory and freedom-denying actions against Palestinians. Or at least, the general atmosphere of stark political polarization makes it easier to oppose Trump on a range of issues, including Israel.
Democratic presidential candidates trying to get to the left and in stride with the direction of their constituents are grappling with how they should position themselves on Israel.
Breaking with the usual orthodoxy that disregards Israel’s occupation and violence against Palestinians, Sanders acknowledged, “it is important to understand that today there is a whole lot of suffering among Palestinians and that cannot be ignored. You can’t have good policy that results in peace if you ignore one side.”
Sanders has hardly been bold on Palestinian rights – and continues to oppose the BDS movement – but such basic common sense is very rare among Democratic politicians, including those tipped as 2020 presidential hopefuls.
California Senator Kamala Harris spoke at this year’s conference as she did last year.
In an off-the-record speech, Harris claimed that as a child, she never sold Girl Scout cookies, but instead went around raising money for the Jewish National Fund, a group backed by the Israeli government that is involved in the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and the colonization of their land.
Harris made a very similar statement last year at AIPAC, repeating the standard claim by Israel advocates that the Zionist expulsion of Palestinians and settler-colonization of their land “made a desert bloom.”
This means that for years she was actively campaigning for a discriminatory organization.
Lands controlled by the JNF, including those taken from Palestinians, are open for purchase only by Jews and the organization has publicly admitted that it upholds a discriminatory policy.
Harris was a child at the time and didn’t know any better. Today, as an adult and US senator, she ought not to brag about fundraising in order to throw Palestinians off their land.
Likewise, the Democratic Party has some reckoning to do ahead of the 2020 campaign regarding its longtime participation in anti-Palestinian discrimination.
The party is not going to get any closer to addressing this rights-denying history by kowtowing to AIPAC and its ongoing advancement of Israeli policies that subjugate Palestinians.
Senator Schumer part of the problem
Charles Schumer, the Democratic leader in the US Senate, who calls himself a “guardian of Israel,” delivered a speech loaded with anti-Palestinian sentiment and religious intolerance.
Referring to “Eretz Israel” – a Hebrew term Zionists use to assert that Jews have a biblical right to take Palestinian land – he claimed: “We say it’s our land. The Torah says it. But they [Palestinians] don’t believe in the Torah. So, that’s the reason there is not peace. They invent other reasons, but they do not believe in a Jewish state.”
Schumer’s language makes clear he does not believe in equal rights for Palestinians. Schumer would quickly agree that a white Christian US would be unacceptable to tens of millions of American citizens, but fails to grasp why Palestinians reject the notion of a “Jewish state” that asserts supremacy over them.
Schumer piled on against dispossessed Palestinians by speaking of “an evil campaign to push Israel into the sea” with no acknowledgment of the one million Palestinians who were, in fact, pushed out in 1948 and 1967.
It is this sort of anti-Palestinian rhetoric that grassroots Democrats are increasingly rejecting.
AIPAC has acknowledged its challenge with political progressives, but has failed to come up with an adequate response. That is because it is incapable of a convincing response so long as it rejects equal rights for Palestinians.