There has been an unmistakable shift in US politics regarding Palestine and Israel — a change inspired by the way in which many Americans, especially the youth, view the Palestinian struggle and the Israeli occupation. While this shift is yet to translate into a tangible diminishing of Israel’s stronghold over the US Congress, it promises to be of great consequence in the coming years.
Recent events at the House of Representatives clearly demonstrate this unprecedented reality. On Sept. 21, Democratic lawmakers successfully rejected a caveat that proposed giving Israel $1 billion in military funding as part of a broader spending bill, after objections from several progressive Congress members. The money was specifically destined to fund the purchase of new batteries and interceptors for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system.
Two days later, the funding of the Iron Dome was reintroduced and, this time, it successfully, and overwhelmingly, passed by 420 votes to nine, despite passionate pleas by Palestinian-American Rep.
Rashida Tlaib. In this vote, only eight Democrats opposed the measure. The ninth opposing vote was cast by a member of the Republican Party, Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky. Though she was one of the voices that blocked the initial funding measure, Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez switched her vote to “present” — effectively an abstention — creating confusion and anger among her supporters.
As for Massie, his defiance of the Republican consensus earned him the title of “Antisemite of the Week” from notorious pro-Israel organization Stop Antisemitism.
Despite the outcome of the tussle, the fact that such an episode even took place in Congress was a historic event requiring much reflection. It means that speaking out against the Israeli occupation of Palestine is no longer taboo among elected US politicians.
Speaking out against the Israeli occupation is no longer taboo among elected US politicians.
Once upon a time, speaking out against Israel in Congress generated a massive and well-organized backlash from the pro-Israeli lobby, especially the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which has in the past ended political careers, even those of veteran politicians. A combination of media smear tactics, support of electoral rivals and outright threats often sealed the fate of the few dissenting Congress members.
While AIPAC and its sister organizations continue to use the same old tactics, the overall strategy is not as effective as it once was.
The members of the so-called “Squad” — young representatives who often speak out against Israel and in support of Palestine — arrived in Congress in 2019. With a few exceptions, they have remained largely consistent in their support of Palestinian rights and, despite intense efforts by the Israeli lobby, were all re-elected in 2020. The lesson here is that being critical of Israel in the US Congress is no longer a guarantor of electoral defeat; on the contrary, in some instances, it is quite the opposite.
The fact that 420 members of the House voted to provide Israel with additional funds — on top of the annual contribution of $3.8 billion — reflects the same unfortunate reality of old: That, thanks to the relentlessly biased corporate media coverage, most American constituencies continue to support Israel.
However, the loosening grip of the lobby over Congress offers unique opportunities for the pro-Palestinian constituencies to finally put pressure on their representatives and demand accountability and balance. These opportunities are not only created by the new, youthful voices in America’s democratic institutions, but also by the rapidly shifting public opinion.
For decades, the vast majority of Americans supported Israel. The reasons for this support varied, depending on the political framing as communicated by US officials and the media. Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, for example, Tel Aviv was viewed as a stalwart ally in America’s fight against communism. In more recent years, new narratives were fabricated to maintain Israel’s positive image in the eyes of ordinary Americans. For example, America’s so-called War on Terror, declared in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, positioned Israel as an American ally against “Islamist extremism” and painted resisting Palestinians as “terrorists,” thus giving the Israeli occupation of Palestine a moral facade.
However, new factors have destabilized this paradigm. One is the fact that support for Israel has become a divisive issue in America’s increasingly tumultuous and combative politics, where most Republicans support Israel and most Democrats do not.
Moreover, as racial justice has grown to become one of the most defining and emotive subjects in US politics, many Americans have begun seeing the Palestinian struggle against the Israeli occupation through the prism of millions of Americans’ own fight for racial equality. The fact that the social media hashtag #PalestinianLivesMatter continues to frequently trend alongside #BlackLivesMatter speaks of a success story where communal solidarity and intersectionality have prevailed over selfish politics, in which only money matters.
Many young Americans now see the struggle in Palestine as integral to the anti-racist fight in America; and no amount of pro-Israel lobbying in Congress can possibly reverse this unmistakable trend. There are plenty of numbers that attest to these claims. One of many examples is the University of Maryland’s public opinion poll in July, which showed that more than half of those polled disapproved of President Joe Biden’s handling of the Israeli war on Gaza in May, believing that he could have done more to stop the Israeli aggression.
Of course, some courageous US politicians dared to speak out against Israel in the past. However, there is a marked difference between previous generations and the current one. In American politics today, there are politicians who were elected because of their strong pro-Palestinian stance and, by deviating from their election promises, they risk the ire of this growing constituency throughout the country.
This changing reality is finally making it possible to nurture and sustain a pro-Palestinian presence in Congress.
In other words, speaking out for Palestine in America is no longer a charitable and rare occurrence. As the future will surely reveal, it is becoming the politically correct thing to do.
* Ramzy Baroud