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Young progressive Democrats are splitting from the party on Israel

Demonstrators rally to demand a cease-fire against Palestinians in Gaza on Independence Avenue near the U.S. Capitol last month in Washington, D.C.
Drew Angerer
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Getty Images
Demonstrators rally to demand a cease-fire against Palestinians in Gaza on Independence Avenue near the U.S. Capitol last month in Washington, D.C.

The progressive Jewish group If Not Now went to Capitol Hill last week to talk to lawmakers and hold a rally.

While the group sang a call-and-response of "cease-fire now" and "not in our name" next to the Reflecting Pool, Matan Arad-Neeman, the group's spokesman, explained why they were there.

"We've only seen — what is it — 17 members of Congress so far call for a cease-fire. And I'm so grateful for their moral courage," he said. "But the rest of Congress needs to step up and end this bloodshed."

As of today, 18 House members have signed on to a resolution calling for a cease-fire in the war between Israel and Hamas.

That's a small minority, but it represents a real, ongoing divide among Democrats.

In March, Gallup found that for the first time in more than two decades of tracking, Democrats sympathized with Palestinians more than Israelis. About half of Democrats said their sympathies are more with Palestinians, compared to about 4 in 10 who said their sympathies are more with the Israelis. That divide is decades in the making.

A special relationship

The U.S. supported Israel from its founding, with President Harry Truman the first world leader to recognize the new state of Israel in 1948. U.S. involvement grew in the 1960s and '70s — in the Cold War, the Soviet Union allied itself with some Arab nations, even going so far as to arm them.

"In the 1970s you see the emergence of a real special relationship there, where the United States gives Israel quite generous support and to a large extent gives it unconditionally," explained Stephen Walt, professor of international relations at Harvard's Kennedy School.

Since then, American leaders of both parties have maintained that special relationship. Proponents have argued it's strategically important to have a strong democratic ally in the Middle East.

Walt — co-author of the controversial book The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, which was criticized for its views on U.S.-Israel ties — also points to domestic influence from pro-Israel groups as a factor in the alliance. Most notable among those groups is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, and Walt says that the influence is asymmetrical.

"There's hardly any countervailing forces on the other side," he said. "There are some, you know, sort of pro-Palestinian, you know, pro-Arab, pro-Muslim groups, but they're much less numerous [and] politically influential."

Political and generational rifts

Despite the tight U.S.-Israel alliance, there have still been reasons over the years why some Democrats have questioned that bond.

In this Oct. 1, 2014 file photo, President Barack Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. The two leaders had a fractious relationship that led to some Democrats questioning the strength of the U.S.-Israel bond.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP
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AP
In this Oct. 1, 2014 file photo, President Barack Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. The two leaders had a fractious relationship that led to some Democrats questioning the strength of the U.S.-Israel bond.

For one thing, the behavior of Israeli leaders can push away American voters — like the friction between Israel's conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-President Barack Obama.

"Netanyahu clearly appeared to be aligning very much against the Obama administration and with the Republican Party," Walt said. "This angered lots of Democrats."

In addition, Israel has had right-leaning prime ministers for much of the last 30 years; the country's rightward shift, Walt said, has likely made some Democrats less willing to support the country.

There has also been a pronounced generational split — polling shows young Americans are more critical of Israel than their elders.

That isn't an entirely new phenomenon — during the Vietnam War, young leftists who already opposed that war started to question U.S. involvement in Middle East politics.

"These are the youngsters on campus who are protesting against the war," said Osamah Khalil, professor of history at Syracuse University. "And then some of them start to look at Israel's role in the Middle East and say, are we seeing kind of the same dynamic here about U.S. foreign policy?"

Mark Mellman is founder of the Democratic Majority for Israel, which promotes pro-Israel Democrats. He says time has helped drive the age divide.

"First of all, we're farther away from the Holocaust," he said. "The Holocaust is not a lived experience of most people anymore."

That split goes hand in hand with an ideological divide. Especially since the Hamas attack last month, that divide has grown bitter.

Some Democrats have been hurt, and enraged, by some progressive groups who immediately blamed Israel.

That view by no means represents progressives as a whole. But when it comes to why an ideological split exists, Mellman is blunt; he thinks the left needs to be better educated.

"I would argue that the far left does not accurately or adequately understand the issues at stake in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," he said.

In particular, he said, many critics of Israel misunderstand who the victims and oppressors are: "We would argue that the rights of people in Gaza have been abrogated by Hamas much more than by Israel."

For his part, Syracuse history professor Khalil argues that many young progressives do understand the situation, and they see Israel's longstanding treatment of Palestinians — for example, heavy restrictions on Gaza residents' movements — as a form of systemic oppression. He adds that it's a lens through which progressives already see many domestic issues.

"Young Americans are able to put the situation of the Palestinians into a broader perspective and see these parallels — whether it is other settler colonial examples or when they look at the treatment of Indigenous people, when they look at treatment of minorities," he said.

Some progressives have long drawn those parallels, particularly in some communities of color — for example, in Black Lives Matter's years-long support for pro-Palestinian causes.

Israel's attacks on Gaza, which have killed thousands, have therefore only intensified some progressives' senses of injustice regarding the conflict.

To Walt, at Harvard, it's easy to overstate the number of Democratic politicians who are critical of Israel.

"Yes, there are some prominent voices in the Democratic Party, in the so-called progressive movement — AOC [New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez], [Minnesota Rep.] Ilhan Omar, [Michigan Rep.] Rashida Talib — but they're still quite a small minority within the party," he said.

Demonstrators in support of a cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war rally at the Capitol in Washington on Oct. 18.
Amanda Andrade-Rhoades / AP
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AP
Demonstrators in support of a cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war rally at the Capitol in Washington on Oct. 18.

Still, the Democratic divide isn't going away. At the rally in D.C., Arad-Neeman said he thinks that the party's drift on this issue will continue.

"I think so many young people have seen decades of U.S. and Israeli policy of just maintaining the system of apartheid fail," he said. "And it's so clear — I'm Israeli-American; it hasn't kept my family safer."

President Biden has continued to walk a fine line on the conflict, saying Israel has the right to defend itself, but also pushing for more aid for the Palestinians, and for Israel to protect civilians.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.

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