How the Battle Over Israel and Anti-Semitism Is Fracturing American Politics


For the B.D.S. movement, ending the occupation of the Palestinian territories is necessary but far from sufficient. It would leave the smaller group, Jews, with 78 percent of the total land. It would segregate most of the majority population into two separate ethnic enclaves, in the West Bank and Gaza, which would be connected by a corridor through Israel. And it would do nothing to combat discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel. Currently, hundreds of Israeli towns have admissions committees that can bar Palestinian citizens from living in them based on “social suitability.” (It’s illegal for people to be excluded on the basis of race, religion or nationality, but the rubric of “social suitability” permits the rejection of applicants who are not Zionist, haven’t served in the army or don’t intend to send their children to Hebrew-language schools.) More than 900 towns in Israel contain no Arab families, according to Yosef Jabareen, a professor at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa. Palestinian schools can lose government funding if they commemorate the Nakba, the displacement of Palestinians in 1948. Israeli law forbids citizens to obtain citizenship or permanent residency for Palestinian spouses from the West Bank and Gaza.

For liberals who support Israel, the most troubling aspect of the B.D.S. platform is its opposition to Israel’s remaining a Jewish state, both through the insistence on full equality between Jews and non-Jews in Israel and through the call to recognize the right to return for Palestinian refugees. (The main United Nations agency for refugees considers stateless descendants to be refugees.) Sharon Brous, a leading progressive rabbi in Los Angeles, told me that liberals who embrace Zionism find themselves torn over B.D.S. On one hand, she said, “I understand why a person would engage in nonviolent civil disobedience to protest unjust policies and the denial of basic human rights. At the same time, some promoters of B.D.S. support Palestinian self-determination while opposing Jewish self-determination, and are ultimately fighting not for an end to the occupation (which I also oppose) but an end to the state of Israel.” She characterized speaking out against the occupation as a “moral imperative,” but added: “Casting the movement for Jewish self-determination as a racist, Western colonialist enterprise, rather than a liberation movement for a minority population subject to generations of pogroms, exile, discrimination and ultimately genocide, is self-serving historical revisionism. It’s tempting to paint this picture in absolutes, but it won’t lead us any closer to a resolution.”

But for some younger progressive Jews, maintaining Jewish demographic and legislative supremacy in Israel is not a priority. Emily Mayer, a founder of the Jewish anti-occupation group IfNotNow, told me, “Many of my progressive Jewish friends feel conflicted about Zionism, but few of them say that Jews have to be a majority.” She added, “When my generation looks to Israel, what we expect to see is the same commitments we have at home: equality, dignity for all and justice.”

Among American and Israeli Jews alike, there is growing concern that the most likely future for Israel-Palestine is neither two states nor one but continued Israeli occupation and Palestinian subjugation. According to Human Rights Watch, the number of settlers has surpassed 600,000, a population many times greater than any Israeli leader ever contemplated pulling out. Since 2017, polls have found that majorities of both Israeli Jews and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza oppose a two-state solution, though there is no widespread support for any alternative either. In America, too, support for a two-state solution, which first entered the Republican and Democratic Party platforms in 2004, is eroding: In 2018, a University of Maryland poll of 2,352 American adults found that backing for a two-state solution was roughly equal to that for one state with full citizenship and equal rights. (Two-state support was strongest among Democrats — at 48 percent.)

Netanyahu has said repeatedly that Israel must retain full security control over the West Bank, a position echoed by his main rival in the national election next month, Benny Gantz, the leader of the center-left bloc. During his inaugural campaign speech, Gantz said, “We will strengthen the settlement blocs” and “retain control of security in the entire land of Israel” — including the West Bank and Gaza. When Netanyahu accused Gantz of intending to form a government with Arab parties, Gantz vowed he would sit in a coalition only with parties that are “Jewish and Zionist.” Such statements have bolstered B.D.S. supporters’ view that a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza would not bring freedom or equality to millions of Palestinians.

For all the recent tumult over Israel in Washington, the policy debate remains extremely narrow. There is no legislative initiative to reduce, much less end, military aid, nor even to make continued assistance conditional on a halt to settlement building. B.D.S. is not supported by a single Democratic senator or presidential candidate, including Bernie Sanders, though Sanders backed the right to boycott. Despite pointed critiques of American support for Israel by representatives like Betty McCollum of Minnesota, Tlaib and Omar, there is little willingness among Democrats to argue publicly for substantially changing longstanding policy toward Israel. In part, some Hill staff members and former White House officials say, this is because of the influence of megadonors: Of the dozens of personal checks greater than $500,000 made out to the largest PAC for Democrats in 2018, the Senate Majority PAC, around three-fourths were written by Jewish donors. This provides fodder for anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, and for some, it is the elephant in the room. Though the number of Jewish donors known to prioritize pro-Israel policies above all other issues is small, there are few if any pushing in the opposite direction. “I have seen donors who want to see tougher stands toward Israel from J Street,” says Alan D. Solomont, a board member of the left-leaning group J Street, a top Obama campaign fund-raiser and the former national finance chairman of the Democratic National Committee. “But none have acted with their pocketbooks.”

According to Ben Rhodes, a former deputy national-security adviser and one of Obama’s closest confidants, several members of the Obama administration wanted to adopt a more assertive policy toward Israel but felt that their hands were tied. “The Washington view of Israel-Palestine is still shaped by the donor class,” Rhodes, who does not support B.D.S., told me, when I met with him at the Obama Foundation in October. “The donor class is profoundly to the right of where the activists are, and frankly, where the majority of the Jewish community is.” Peter Joseph, an emeritus chairman of the center-left Israel Policy Forum, told me that the views of major Democratic Jewish donors could act as a check on the leftward pull by progressive voters who are strongly critical of Israel: “I can’t imagine that mainstream Democratic Jewish donors are going to be happy about any Democratic Party that is moving in that direction.”

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