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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Democrats Need to Stop Supporting Apartheid

Mainstream human rights organizations have consistently concluded that Israel is a major human rights violator. Yet even “progressive” Democrats refuse to reconsider US support for Israel.

“If there were not an Israel, we would have to invent one to make sure our interests were preserved.”

 — Joe Biden 

“If Washington D.C. crumbled to the ground, the last thing that would remain is our support for Israel.” 

Nancy Pelosi

Democratic senate candidate John Fetterman, who currently has a healthy lead over quack doctor Mehmet Oz, is part of the party’s progressive wing. He was a supporter of Bernie Sanders and makes a big deal out of his support for legalizing marijuana. Some of Fetterman’s progressive commitments are a bit wobbly—Matthew Yglesias notes that Fetterman has become “evasive and noncommittal” on Medicare for All, has dropped his support for a fracking moratorium, and “​​says he wants President Joe Biden to continue his predecessor’s pandemic-era policy of deporting asylum-seekers at the southern border.” 

But if there is one thing Fetterman definitely isn’t a progressive on, it’s the Israel-Palestine conflict. “I’m not really a progressive in that sense,” he said in an interview on the subject with the Jewish Insider. Fetterman said that he had “unwavering commitments to Israel’s security,” and that:

“Whenever I’m in a situation to be called on to take up the cause of strengthening and enhancing the security of Israel or deepening our relationship between the United States and Israel, I’m going to lean in. … The relationship is a special one that needs to be safeguarded, protected, supported and nurtured through legislation and all available diplomatic efforts in the region. … I want to go out of my way to make sure that it’s absolutely clear that the views that I hold in no way go along the lines of some of the more fringe or extreme wings of our party.”

Fetterman explicitly condemned Democrats in Congress who voted against additional weapons aid to Israel, saying he would “never be a part of” such a thing because “Israel has the supreme right to defend itself.” He was “equally passionate” in denouncing the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement and said he believed in continuing to supply weapons to Israel without “any additional conditions” (emphasis in original) such as requiring Israel to respect international law and Palestinian human rights. Fetterman does not appear to have mentioned Palestine’s security and rights once in his interview. 

Now, I’ve been critical of Fetterman before, because he increasingly strikes me as someone who thinks the way for Democrats to win back the working class is to wear cargo pants, rather than to give them universal healthcare. If he continues to back off progressive policy commitments, he will be the answer to the question, “What if we kept the neoliberal agenda but our candidates cursed and got tattoos?” But on this issue, Fetterman doesn’t deserve to be singled out. Cravenness on the issue of Israel is almost universal among progressive Democrats, partly because anyone who voices even a mild criticism of Israel is immediately branded an anti-Semite. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, for instance, has been publicly critical of Israel’s influence on U.S. government policy, resulting in headlines like “Ilhan Omar Has a Problem With Jews,” and leading the House to symbolically vote to condemn anti-Semitism in response. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has shown political courage in trying to prevent Israel from annexing parts of the occupied West Bank—naturally, then, AOC appears prominently in a Jerusalem Post article about how parts of the left are “bigoted against Jews.” The situation is similar in Britain, where during his tenure Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was subject to an absurd series of smears over alleged anti-Semitism. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has spent heavily to successfully oust multiple Democrats deemed insufficiently deferential to Israel. (I have had my own small experience with the swift public punishment that is meted out against critics of Israel, having been fired from my job as a Guardian opinion columnist after a tweet I made criticizing U.S. military aid to Israel was branded anti-Semitic. The incident got me on a list of Canceled People.) 

No wonder, then, that so many Democrats grovel to Israel, as with Nancy Pelosi’s ridiculous remark suggesting we’d still prioritize Israel even if our whole country fell apart. Even democratic socialists are reluctant to cut off weapons aid to Israel—DSA member Jamaal Bowman was rebuked by the organization when he supported giving U.S. taxpayer money for Israeli missiles, and in Texas, DSA member Greg Casar was un-endorsed by DSA when he publicly came out against BDS and in favor of continued weapons aid. When even socialists are incapable of challenging the pro-Israel consensus in U.S. politics, it seems very unlikely that there will be a shift in U.S. policy anytime soon.

We need to remember precisely why unconditional support for Israel is so indefensible. The Israel-Palestine “conflict” is in reality the denial of the right to Palestinian self-determination. Israel occupies Palestinian territory militarily (in the West Bank) and keeps it under a permanent stage of siege (in Gaza). The major mainstream human rights organizations (Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the United Nations Human Rights Council, and B’Tselem, The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories) have concluded that Israel is a routine violator of international law and human rights, and guilty of the crime of apartheid against Palestinians. In its 213-page report “A Threshold Crossed,” released in 2021, Human Rights Watch exhaustively laid out the evidence that Israel is an apartheid state, summarizing as follows: 

“Across these areas and in most aspects of life, Israeli authorities methodically privilege Jewish Israelis and discriminate against Palestinians. Laws, policies, and statements by leading Israeli officials make plain that the objective of maintaining Jewish Israeli control over demographics, political power, and land has long guided government policy. In pursuit of this goal, authorities have dispossessed, confined, forcibly separated, and subjugated Palestinians by virtue of their identity to varying degrees of intensity. In certain areas, as described in this report, these deprivations are so severe that they amount to the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.”

Amnesty International’s judgment is similarly blunt, concluding that “laws, policies and practices which are intended to maintain a cruel system of control over Palestinians, have left them fragmented geographically and politically, frequently impoverished, and in a constant state of fear and insecurity.” B’Tselem reaches an identical verdict, “the entire area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River is organized under a single principle: advancing and cementing the supremacy of one group—Jews—over another—Palestinians.”

A 2017 report from Amnesty summarizes some of the criminal rights violations that Israel perpetrates in the Occupied Territories: 

“Since the occupation first began in June 1967, Israel’s ruthless policies of land confiscation, illegal settlement and dispossession, coupled with rampant discrimination, have inflicted immense suffering on Palestinians, depriving them of their basic rights. Israel’s military rule disrupts every aspect of daily life in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. It continues to affect whether, when and how Palestinians can travel to work or school, go abroad, visit their relatives, earn a living, attend a protest, access their farmland, or even access electricity or a clean water supply. It means daily humiliation, fear and oppression. People’s entire lives are effectively held hostage by Israel. Israel has also adopted a complex web of military laws to crush dissent against its policies, and senior government officials have branded Israelis advocating for Palestinian rights as ‘traitors.’ … Over the past 50 years, Israel has demolished tens of thousands of Palestinian properties and displaced large swathes of the population to build homes and infrastructure to illegally settle its own population in the occupied territories. It has also diverted Palestinian natural resources such as water and agricultural land for settlement use. … The hundreds of Israeli military closures across the West Bank such as checkpoints, roadblocks and settler-only roads, as well as the overall permit regime, make simple daily tasks for Palestinians who are trying to get to work, school or hospital a constant struggle. … Israeli forces have a long record of using excessive and often lethal force against Palestinian men, women, and children, including to retaliate against protesters and stifle dissent. Thousands have been killed and many more injured. The authorities’ failure to conduct thorough, impartial and independent investigations to break the cycle of impunity has enabled these violations to continue over half a century.”

When the United States gives weapons to Israel without conditions, this is what they are supporting. Just last month, Israel launched unprovoked air strikes on Gaza, killing dozens of Palestinians, including many children. This happens routinely. We fund it, and we are responsible for it. 

Giving Israel weapons is justified on the grounds of Israel’s “self-defense” and “security.” Defenders of Israel point to rocket attacks on Israel from Gaza by Hamas and Islamic Jihad. But this only looks at one side of the equation: why is Israel entitled to defend itself with violence against attack, but Palestine is not entitled to defend itself with violence against siege and occupation? To believe in Israel’s right to self-defense against those it occupies and besieges, but not the right of Palestinians to resist, is to apply a racist double standard that sees Palestinians as undeserving of the same kind of “self-defense” and “security” that Israel is granted. 

Israel is the aggressor in the conflict. It has been since the beginning, as Rashid Khalidi explains in a recent Current Affairs podcast episode. Israeli settlers have slowly taken away more and more Palestinian territory, while Palestinians have only such rights as Israel is willing to grant them. To see Israel, the nuclear-armed occupier, as the party in need of “defense” and support, is to live in a topsy-turvy world where the rich and well-armed are oppressed by poor people whose own main arsenal of weapons includes stones and kites. The disparity in power was on full display in 2018, when Palestinians staged marches at the Gaza-Israel border (an area Israel has banned them from entering) and Israeli snipers shot them dead by the hundreds. When will Democrats grow a backbone and pass the basic moral test of being able to condemn apartheid? The spectacle of Democrats like Biden, Pelosi, and Fetterman talking about their “shared values” with a state that conducts systematic dispossession and murder is disgusting. Telling the truth about Israel’s policies may incur a political cost. But Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are not radical organizations, and they are able to say the word “apartheid.” Jimmy Carter has never been a leftist radical but he could see the situation with open eyes and had the guts to say what he saw. (He was of course accused of anti-Semitism by the Anti-Defamation League.) It’s not much of a litmus test to ask Democrats to be willing to endorse the conclusion of the mainstream human rights organizations and such revered figures as Desmond Tutu. There are consequences to the failure to take a stand on this issue. Israel’s actions are enabled by U.S. support. They continue because our political class is incapable of telling the truth. Even those who know the truth are unwilling to take the political risk of challenging the consensus. But those of us who are aware of the facts have to hold them accountable and impose a political cost on those who choose not to speak out. 

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