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Israel/Palestine is fracturing the Democratic Party 

Nov 20,2023 - Last updated at Nov 20,2023

The war over Gaza has had an explosive and surprising impact on the cohesion of the Democratic coalition. For decades, the American body politic has been fractured mainly over social and cultural issues ranging from race and gender to guns and immigration, typically with Republicans on one side and Democrats on the other. Foreign policy concerns have only rarely entered the equation, and never as Israel/Palestine has in recent weeks.

The Middle East became a deeply partisan issue twice when Republicans recruited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to score points against a Democratic president. Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich invited Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress to sabotage president Bill Clinton’s work supporting the Oslo peace process. Speaker John Boehner invited Netanyahu to try to defeat President Barack Obama’s Iran nuclear deal. Both efforts ultimately bore fruit, putting obstacles in the way of peace and paving the way for president Donald Trump’s scuttling the nuclear deal.

But these contentious issues were largely confined to Washington, never filtering down to the political grassroots. They remained partisan issues without broad appeal.

Hamas’ October 7 attack on Israelis and the month-long Israeli brutal assault on Gaza have been different, viscerally impacting both affected communities, American Jews and Arab/Palestinian Americans. The scenes and reports of wanton slaughter horrified the Jewish community, evoking the painful trauma of the Holocaust and past pogroms and feelings of vulnerability.

Israel’s devastating bombings of Gaza and the racist, genocidal language used by Israeli leaders caused Palestinians and Arabs to recoil in shock and anger. With thousands dead, one-half of Gaza City’s dwellings destroyed and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fleeing to an uncertain future in the southern part of the impoverished Strip, Palestinian and Arab-Americans saw the Nakba playing out in real time. Here too was vulnerability and trauma.

This drama had a partisan dimension with Republicans, fuelled by their hardline right-wing Christian base, siding with Israel. But while Democratic elected officials, long deferential to the pro-Israel lobby, also demonstrated support for Israel, the party’s base has fractured.

Pro-Palestinian demonstrations have erupted nationwide, culminating last week in a huge gathering in Washington, an unprecedented outpouring of support for Palestinians. Significantly, the mobilisations demanding a ceasefire and Palestinian rights have been extraordinarily diverse, including large contingents of young American Jews, Arab, Black, Latino and Asian Americans.

What is unfolding in Gaza and here in the US has resonated with the very component groups long seen as essential to Democratic electoral victories. When Jesse Jackson raised the issue of Palestinian rights during his presidential runs in the 1980s and when Bernie Sanders did the same in the last decade, they mobilised support. But today’s support is similar to the mass mobilisations we witnessed in the Women’s March, the anti-Trump Muslim ban and the Black Lives Matter movement. Those demonstrations, however, were mobilisations of Democrats and faced little opposition from party leadership. These pro-Palestinian demonstrations have become an intra-party fight, as pro-Israel groups seek to threaten, demean and punish those speaking out against the Israeli assault on Gaza.

The party was already divided on Palestinian rights before October 7, with Democrats having more favourable attitudes towards Palestinians than Israelis. As the horrors of the Israeli response to Hamas’ massacre of civilians became clear, polls are showing that a majority of Democrats oppose Israel’s reaction and want a ceasefire. And key groups like young people and people of colour remain supportive of Palestinians.

With pro-Israel groups taking repressive measures against students and others, and announcing that they will spend millions to defeat members of Congress who speak out against Israel or in support of Palestinian rights, a real rupturing of the Democratic coalition is possible. The congressional representatives being threatened are all young people of colour, and the optics of a pro-Israel group threatening to spend money (raised from a handful of billionaire donors, including some Republicans) will not sit well with other Democrats.

For the party’s leadership to succeed in 2024 and beyond, they must intervene to tamp down this behaviour. Encourage debate and reasoned discourse, but stop the threats before the division is too deep and it’s too late to turn back.

 

The writer is president of the Washington-based Arab American Institute

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