Are Democrats deserting Israel?

Cracks in the Wall: Beyond Apartheid in Palestine/Israel by Ben White, Pluto Press (2018)

The Minnesota lawmaker Betty McCollum recently took to the floor of the US House of Representatives, urging her colleagues to sign an unprecedented bill that would prohibit Israel from using US military aid to imprison Palestinian children.

This development underscores what journalist and author Ben White describes in his latest book, Cracks in the Wall, as the beginning of the end of bipartisan support for the State of Israel.

White identifies three fissures that have important implications for Palestine’s future: US Democrats who speak out for Palestinian rights, Jewish Americans who oppose the occupation and in some cases support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, and the growing number of local authorities in Europe that are embracing BDS.

White assesses the Democratic Party soberly and without exaggerating the inroads made to date. Nevertheless, he convincingly demonstrates that the cracks indeed exist, noting as just one example the unmistakable opposition from Democrats to President Donald Trump’s appointment of David Friedman as US ambassador to Israel.

Where previously such appointments sailed through the US Congress without complication, this time 46 Democratic senators voted against the nomination of Friedman, an open supporter of Israel’s illegal settlements.

More important, perhaps, are the inroads apparent in the progressive base of the Democratic Party. White cites a 2015 poll that found 47 percent of Democratic “opinion elites” – a category described as highly educated and publicly active – regard Israel as a “racist country.”

Now that a much higher percentage of Republicans embrace Israel than Democrats, White notes that Trump’s unpopularity among Democrats and independents will only accelerate the trend. Republican voters, for example, approved Trump’s move of the US Embassy to Jerusalem by 76 to 11 percent, compared with only 12 percent support among Democrats – with 65 percent disapproving.

Similarly, the growing divisions within the US Jewish community promise to upset the notion that criticism of Israeli government policies signals anti-Semitism. The author calls out in particular the growing solidarity with Palestinians and their right to self-determination among US Jews, as exemplified especially by the rapid growth of Jewish Voice for Peace with its more than 70 chapters, more than 250,000 online supporters and 15,000 dues-paying members.

Lobby’s “diminishing power”

But he does not exempt the liberal Zionist J Street from this trend, noting that despite its conservative agenda, “it has played a critical role in the growing divide amongst American Jews towards Israel.”

Further, both J Street and Jewish Voice for Peace were united in support of the Iran nuclear agreement, which represented a significant defeat for the traditional Israel lobby and for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu alienated many in the Jewish community and the Democratic Party when he brazenly aligned with the Republicans in an unprecedented bypassing of Barack Obama’s White House to address a joint session of Congress in 2015.

That address failed to prevent the US Senate’s subsequent approval of the agreement, with only four Democratic senators voting with the Republicans in opposition. In the House, 25 Democrats voted with the Republicans, but that vote only served as a rejection of President Obama’s deal and failed to scuttle the pact despite the intense effort pursued by Israel lobby giant AIPAC.

The New York Times stated that the vote “exposed the diminishing power of the Israeli lobbying force,” an assessment that remains true despite Trump’s decision to leave the agreement.

The third crack in the wall that White highlights is the growing support for BDS in Europe, a key export market for Israel. The embrace of BDS by municipal councils throughout Spain and parts of Italy, France, Ireland and the United Kingdom threatens to constrain Israel’s exports and further isolate Israel internationally.

Restoring humanity

Despite the growing divisions, White acknowledges that no cracks appear to be developing among Israeli Jews. By analyzing Israeli election returns over decades, he concludes that Israeli Jews continue to be united around government policies.

There is no discernible left bloc in Israel, he writes, the only division being between those who wish to maintain the status quo and those who wish to openly annex the West Bank. He attributes this situation to the ideology of Zionism, which Israeli Jews continue to embrace as their world outlook.

That makes getting beyond apartheid more difficult but not impossible.

In probing his subtitle – Beyond Apartheid in Palestine/Israel – White proposes that assuring Israeli Jews of their security and their ability to live in a democratic society based on equal rights remains an important task. Quoting such figures as Edward Said, Virginia Tilley and Omar Barghouti, White emphasizes the importance of capturing the imagination of Palestinians’ oppressors and convincing them that decolonizing Israel means an end of domination, not of rights or safety.

The creation of a single democratic state promises the restoration of humanity to the colonizers themselves, who otherwise will continue to dehumanize all, he posits.

Cracks in the Wall opens a long overdue discussion within the Palestine solidarity movement over the significance of these widening rifts and how to deepen them. Other cracks within civil society, however, also merit attention but White unfortunately neglects them – particularly the cracks between progressive Christian denominations and right-wing evangelicals, and within the left-progressive movement itself, which increasingly embraces Palestinian rights as mandatory in intersectional alliances.

Only this type of ever-widening grassroots support for Palestine can check the Democratic Party establishment, which continues to see Israel as a hegemonic ally in the Middle East, rather than the albatross it is.

The reader who undertakes with White this exploration of fissures and possible enlightened outcomes will be rewarded with his lucid and economical prose that now and then rises to heights of eloquence.

White is particularly eloquent when he provides the most compelling outcome he sees for the region while also citing Mourid Barghouti’s I Saw Ramallah:

“A single democratic state thus offers something extraordinarily ordinary; the prospect of Jewish Israelis and Palestinians escaping ‘the iron circle of inhumanity’ created by the ‘radical Zionist distinction between privileged Jews in Palestine and unprivileged non-Jews,’ moving beyond apartheid, and instead, cooperating and arguing, loving and hating, praying and protesting, working and resting – living, in other words – as equal citizens of a shared home.”

Rod Such is a former editor for World Book and Encarta encyclopedias. He lives in Portland, Oregon, and is active with the Occupation-Free Portland campaign.