Supporting Palestine is no longer 'political suicide' for US progressives

Supporting Palestine is no longer 'political suicide' for US progressives
Comment: Democratic candidates have had to temper their message on Palestine, but their success is testament to a shift in the debate, writes Tamara Kharroub.
7 min read
13 Sep, 2018
Public opinion on Palestine/Israel is changing, forcing progressives to tailor their message [Twitter]
As the midterm congressional elections near, so much is on the line for the Democratic Party.

While the democrats were hoping for a "blue wave" in gaining seats in the Senate and especially the House of Representatives, they seem to be getting a "progressive" wave instead.

Despite remaining small in numbers, progressive candidates are doing
better this election cycle than ever before.

While most progressive candidates are running on a domestic agenda and focusing on economic equality and social justice, including Medicare for all, abolishing ICE, minimum wage, free college tuition, opposing corporate financing of elections, among others, the issue of Palestine/Israel is at the center of conversations and controversies.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, member of Democratic Socialist of America (DSA), won the democratic primary in New York's 14th Congressional District, beating 10-term establishment incumbent. Soon after, Ocasio-Cortez was questioned and pressured about an earlier tweet where she called Israeli killings of Palestinian protesters in Gaza a "massacre" and used the word "occupation".

She later
retracted saying she is not an expert and "may not use the right words" as Middle East politics wasn't a kitchen conversation in her household.

Leslie Cockburn, the Democratic nominee for Virginia's 5th Congressional District, gained attention after her Republican opponent announced his struggle with alcoholism and his intentions not to seek reelection. As soon as she became a serious contender, Cockburn was accused of anti-Semitism for her criticism of Israel.

Progressive democrats will likely play a pivotal role in the next US Congress

Another candidate outspoken about Palestinian rights, Mal Hyman, won in South Carolina's 7th District primary but lost in the Runoff to an establishment democrat, garnering 48.6 percent of the votes to 51.4 percent.

Somali-American refugee Ilhan Omar won the Democratic primary for Minnesota's 5th Congressional District, while Palestinian American Rashida Tlaib won for Michigan's 13th Congressional District. Both will run unopposed in the midterm elections in November, and are poised to become the first Muslim women in the US congress.

Ilhan Omar, who called Israel an
apartheid state and Israeli killing of protestors a "massacre", has now come out against BDS after her victory and apparent pressure.

For her part Tlaib, also a member of DSA and an endorsee of J Street Pac, was soon questioned about views on Palestine/Israel.

The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), of which Bernie Sanders is a member, voted in 2017 in support of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS). J Street Pac endorsement, on the other hand, is conditional on support for a two-state solution, US leadership to end the conflict, the special US-Israeli relationship, aid to Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and opposition to BDS.

Under pressure to clarify her position, Tlaib made statements in support of a one-state solution and general comments about US aid being conditional on human rights, although she tried to distance herself from the issue and did not mention BDS. J Street withdrew its endorsement of Tlaib after these statements.

With significant victories for progressives and pressure from pro-Israel democrats, the candidates have not completely backtracked from their position toward Palestine/ Israel, although they have watered down their criticism of Israeli actions and policies. The real test is whether they will succumb to pressure once they make it to Washington.

Identity politics and progressives

With many progressives also being Americans of colour and minorities (Muslim Americans, Hispanic Americans, immigrants, refugees and Palestinian Americans), the issue of identity politics is inescapable.

Candidates' identity is under scrutiny, as politicians from diverse backgrounds can represent and champion the needs of groups which may otherwise be neglected. The fact that these progressive candidates are running in small diverse districts played a pivotal role in their election or chances thereof, like Omar and Tlaib.

However, this can also be a risky approach, and candidates with Muslim, Arab, refugee, or Palestinian backgrounds - which might be prove costly in a wider context - are particularly affected. In fact, it was identity politics that help elect Donald Trump in 2016. As such, it comes as no surprise that these progressive candidates chose to downplay their own identities in their campaigns, and focus on domestic policies.

For one progressive candidate in California's 50th Congressional District, identity politics became a defining factor.

Ammar Campa-Najjar, Democratic candidate competing in November, became a frontrunner in his conservative district after the indictment of his Republican opponent Duncan Hunter.

Campa-Najjar is the son of a Palestinian-American father, and Mexican-American mother, who spent three years of his childhood living in Gaza.

Read more: Palestinian, Muslim, woman - American. Inside Rashida Tlaib's historic run for Congress

However, thanks to a media campaign, he has gained the unfortunate label of being the "grandson of a terrorist". His grandfather,
Muhammad Yusuf al-Najjar, was reportedly involved in the planning of the 1972 Munich attacks, and was killed by Israel in Beirut along with his wife when Ammar's father was a child.  

While he has tried to distance himself from labels and downplay his identity, his background was forced on his campaign.

After coming second in California's primaries, news of his grandfather's identity broke in Israel. But Campa-Najjar overcame the attacks through meetings with local Rabbis and Jewish groups and using his grandfather's story to emphasise his message of peace. That gained him the endorsements of the California Democratic Party, former president Barack Obama, and J Street.

However, now that he is serious contender for Congress, the attacks have intensified, particularly from right-wing platforms using his grandfather's identify to discredit his candidacy.

The willingness to criticise Israeli human rights violations is becoming mainstream among progressives

Although Campa-Najjar chose not to make the issue of Palestine/Israel part of his campaign agenda, his identity forced him to take a position. In this case, progressive Campa-Najjar's chose the J Street, democratic establishment line, as the only way to overcome his family history and compete in his conservative district.

How potential pressures and questioning from Palestinian rights activists or the pro-Israel lobby will shape his future agenda remains to be seen.

One thing is clear; Campa-Najjar will try his best to downplay his identity, because in today's America identity politics is a losing game for progressive minority candidates, especially ones who may criticize Israel.

A changing party

Historic trends suggest that the Democratic Party will be seeing some victories in November, considering that the current President is Republican. They also suggest a more extreme wing in the party gaining traction, much like the Tea Party wave within the Republican Party in 2010.

Although the Tea Party wave was not in the number of new Congressional members, it forced the Republican Party to adapt to their positions and transformed the Tea Party from a protest movement to a political force. This is likely to be the case for progressive in the Democratic Party and progressive democrats will likely play a pivotal role in the next US Congress.

With hundreds of progressive candidates, many of them in with a serious chance of success in November, the Democratic Party will no doubt be pulled to the left for decades to come.

When it comes to Palestine/Israel, the willingness to criticise Israeli human rights violations is becoming mainstream among progressives.

Three main factors have helped open the door to this change. First, the Bernie Sanders phenomenon has shown that criticism of Israel doesn't necessarily lead to political suicide. Second, public opinion on Palestine/Israel is changing among young liberals, forcing progressives to tailor to this important demographic.

And third is President Trump's right-wing tendencies. The alliance between the Netanyahu extremist government and the evangelical right-wing members of the Trump administration is pushing democrats and progressives to be more vocal and forthcoming about their opposition to both The Trump administration and the Netanyahu government.

It appears that it's no longer so risky for a political candidate to express criticism of Israeli policies. While some have earned the label 'Progressive Except for Palestine' (known as PEP), others are being forced to take a stand in line with the social justice and rights-based values of progressive ideologies.

Moving forward, as many of those candidates make their way to Congress in November, it remains to be seen whether they will be true to their values or adopt more centrist views to please their critics and the lobby.

Either way, change is definitely coming to the Democratic Party and to Congress, and Trump's presidency may have inadvertently helped the Palestinian cause in the American political sphere.

Dr. Tamara Kharroub is a Senior Analyst and Assistant Executive Director at Arab Center Washington DC.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.