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A Tide Is Turning: The Capitol Consensus On Israel Is Crumbling

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Over the past few weeks, violence has ravaged Palestinians in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. The violence began with Israeli settlers, protected by the Israeli military, attempting to forcibly remove Palestinians in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah from their homes. From there, it precipitated into the Israeli police attacking worshippers in Masjid Al-Aqsa, the third holiest site in Islam, during the month of Ramadan. The violence culminated in Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, which resulted in 243 dead Palestinians, including 66 children.

The 11-day long Israeli bombardment of Gaza was the most intense since 2014, when Israel bombed Gaza for 51 days straight, resulting in the death of over 1500 civilians, including 500 children. What is strikingly different about 2014 and now is that a tide in American civil society has turned in favor of Palestinian rights over the past seven years. Over 50 college campuses have passed resolutions calling on their universities to divest from companies complicit in Israeli occupation. Multiple city councils across the country have divested from companies complicit in violence against Palestinians. Prominent civil society groups such as the Movement for Black Lives and Democratic Socialists of America have also embraced the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement to pressure Israel to end its policies of occupation, discrimination, and settler-colonialism. Such support has educated a wide amount of Americans on the ugly apartheid realities on the ground. In response, politicians have had to respond to this change in public discourse.

In 2014, when Israel was bombing Gaza, not a single of the 535 elected officials in Congress uttered a word to condemn Israel’s atrocities. In fact, Senator Bernie Sanders, then the lone socialist and left-most member in either of the two legislative bodies, famously defended Israel’s 2014 actions in Gaza, blaming the deaths of Palestinians on Hamas, and told his constituents to “shut up” after they pushed back.

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Now, seven years later, Bernie Sanders has moved drastically further left on Palestinian rights. He not only acknowledges Palestinian suffering but has also called for an end to the deadly blockade of Gaza, for an end to the United States “being an apologist for the Netanyahu government,” and even introduced a historic resolution to block arms sales to Israel. Sanders is joined by nearly a dozen progressives in Congress who too are critical of Israeli actions. Much media coverage has been devoted to the fact that progressives have called into question this long-held Capitol consensus that blindly stood by Israel’s actions. But what such coverage has often missed is that this leftward shift on Palestine is not just limited to the progressives. It has touched every segment of the Democratic Party. Senator Robert Menendez is arguably the most pro-Israel Democrat in Congress, who was one of four Democrats to vote no on the Iran Deal due to pressure from the Israel lobby.

In a recent statement, Menendez stated that “I am deeply troubled by Israeli military actions that resulted in the deaths of innocent civilians in Gaza as well as Israeli targeting of buildings housing international media outlets…. Israel has every right to self-defense from terrorists committed to wiping her off the face of the map. But no matter how dangerous and real that threat may be, I have always believed that the strength of the U.S. Israel relationship flourishes when it is based on the shared values of democracy, freedom, pluralism and respect for human rights and the rule of law.”

While it is deeply problematic that his statement ignores the imbalance of power between the occupying Israeli state and the occupied, stateless Palestinian people, it is important to note that he acknowledges that Israel is killing innnocent civilians in Gaza and targeting international media outlets. This meek condemnation is something that not a single member of Congress could do just seven years ago. It is particularly noteworthy that Robert Menendez, the most right-wing member of the Democratic Party on the issue, in 2021, is left of where Bernie Sanders, the most left-wing member of the Democratic Party was on the issue, in 2014. While establishment Democrats have begun to acknowledge Palestinian suffering, the progressives, who previously struggled to do even that, have taken it a step further.

One of the most important examples of this is the use of the word apartheid to refer to Israel’s actions. The apartheid charge is far from controversial. It is a charge that has been leveled on Israel by Palestinians, the South African government, Israeli human rights groups such as B’tselem, and most recently, by Human Rights Watch. But nonetheless, the apartheid charge has been seldom embraced by elected officials in the United States, particularly in a political climate where even acknowledging the suffering of Palestinians was so recently a place that no elected official would go. But since then, multiple members of Congress including Cori Bush, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley have charged Israel with apartheid.

Perhaps most interestingly, politicians have been hurt politically for blindly standing by Israel. For example, New York City mayoral candidate, Andrew Yang, in the aftermath of such atrocities, unflinchingly stood by Israel’s actions. The next day, Yang was set to appear in New York City’s heavily Arab neighborhood of Astoria for a food distribution drive, just a few days before the Muslim holiday of Eid. Organizers then asked Yang not to come to the event, as a result of his comments. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted that it was  “Utterly shameful for Yang to try to show up to an Eid event after sending out a chest-thumping statement of support for a strike killing 9 children, especially after his silence as Al-Aqsa was attacked”

Yang was still in Astoria the next day, and was confronted by voters who told Yang they would not vote for him as a result of his remarks. Yang still stood by his tweet and refused to condemn Israel’s actions in Gaza. When polls came out a few days later, Andrew Yang had fallen from first to third place in Democratic candidates for mayor, from 32% of poll respondents supporting him to just 15%. Yang’s support base fell in half after he affirmed what was previously just the Capitol consensus that any elected official would utter. Andrew Yang’s electoral decline may be one of the first times in American politics that a politician has been hurt electorally for not supporting the human rights of Palestinians. But with the way that the tide is turning, Yang will likely not be the last.

Recent polling has found that it is not just progressive voters, but Democratic voters as a whole, who are clamoring for justice in Palestine. A Gallup poll found that 53% of Democrats today favor putting pressure on Israel, which is up 10% from just three years ago. In addition, polling has shown that two-thirds of Democrats(and 60% of Americans overall) feel as though their elected officials are more pro-Israel than they are. 81% of Democrats consider it “acceptable” or even the “duty” of members of Congress to question the US-Israel relationship. 78% of Democrats also favor one secular democratic state in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza over a Jewish state that does not grant equality to all of its citizens.

Even liberal political pundits have joined in this shift. Peter Beinart, who notoriously supported the Iraq War, was previously ardent in his support for a two-state solution even advocating what was termed “Zionist BDS” in which Israeli settlements were boycotted, but not the Israeli state as a whole. Earlier this year, Beinart came out in support of a one-state solution saying that a two-state solution is no longer feasible. Eric Alterman, a fervent defender of the state of Israel affirmed that “Yes, Israel is obviously an apartheid state.’

MSNBC pundit, Ali Velshi, stated that Israel’s treatment of Palestinians constitutes apartheid. He faced much criticism in response to this. MSNBC pundit, Joy Reid, came to Velshi’s defense asserting that “What @AliVelshi says in this succinct explanation is just facts: painful, well known and documented facts. Israel has a right to exist in peace but so do Palestinians, who currently suffer under what can only be called apartheid. And no one is doing anything about it.”

It is critical to note here that Reid is far from a progressive. She has made Islamophobic comments in the past, and also came under fire for being unfair to the Bernie Sanders campaign in 2020. Yet, even she has shifted in favor of acknowledging the rights of Palestinians.

The centrist, liberal Zionist group J Street, too, has shifted in its stances. J Street famously stood by Israel’s “right to defend itself” in Gaza in 2014 and favored increased military aid to Israel in the midst of that bombing. Since then, J Street has called on Israeli airstrikes on civilians in Gaza to stop, a lifting of the blockade, and supported conditioning aid to Israel on the basis of compliance with human rights. While some of J Street’s recent statements still ignore the imbalance of power between occupier and occupied, J Street also put its support behind Betty McCollum’s bill, endorsed by 13 other members of Congress, that conditions aid to Israel, stating that “U.S. assistance intended for Israel’s security must never be used to violate the human rights of Palestinian children, demolish the homes of Palestinian families, or to permanently annex Palestinian lands.” In addition, J Street has moved away from the framework of a two-state solution and is moving towards a confederation model, which many see as a step towards the ultimate embrace of one secular, non-religious, binational state for Israelis and Palestinians to live as equal citizens under one government.

The reality is that there is a tide turning in American public opinion. Politicians are being forced to respond to that shift. As a result, the Capitol consensus in support of Israeli atrocities is crumbling. Acknowledging the humanity of Palestinians and the apartheid reality that they live under is becoming mainstream discourse. While the progressives are leading the way in turning this tide, even liberal centrist voters, politicians, organizations, and media personalities are following course. As recognition of this apartheid reality becomes more embraced by a larger multitude of Americans, so too will the movement to bring an end to it. It is important to note the important tool that was used to end apartheid in South Africa, and is being used to end apartheid in Israel today: Boycott, divestment, and sanctions. This tide will eventually turn so that embrace of the BDS movement to end Israeli apartheid will be mainstream amongst Americans. When that happens, Israel, the largest recipient of US military aid, will face immense pressure to end its occupation and apartheid policies, and ultimately move towards a day of freedom, dignity, and self-determination for Palestinians.

This article was originally published on hamzahraza.substack.com. Visit to receive weekly reports from Hamzah Raza on topics related to US foreign policy, civil liberties, religion, and everything in between. 

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Hamzah Raza is a graduate student at Harvard University and an alumnus of Vanderbilt University. At Vanderbilt, he received highest honors for his thesis on the role that South African Muslims played in the anti-apartheid struggle. He has been previously been published at the Huffington Post, Alternet, the Grayzone Project, Raw Story, and the Tennessean. Follow him on Twitter @raza_hamzah

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Farrah Khan

    May 28, 2021 at 7:57 AM

    Ma sha Allah, great article; however, it’s such a travesty that in 7 years there has been a mere “shift” in the consciousness of our elected officials while countless people on the ground have lost family members, property, and dignity. Actually, I take that back. It’s not countless, because Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala has counted each sacrifice, and each will be accounted for.

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