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Israel’s response to the October 7 Hamas terror attacks exposes a long-festering divide inside the preferred political party of the majority of Jewish and Muslim Americans.
President Joe Biden self-describes as a Zionist and made a show of flying to Israel last month to embrace the controversial Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Hillary Clinton, Democrats’ former standard bearer who took part in peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians as secretary of state under then-President Barack Obama, last week rejected the idea of a ceasefire for humanitarian reasons because she said it would be a “gift to Hamas,” allowing the terrorist group to rearm.
But the party’s left flank is more and more loudly raising concerns about the plight of Palestinians in Gaza. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York described the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a notably conservative, pro-Israel group, as “an extremist organization that destabilizes US democracy” on Tuesday after it criticized a Republican who voted with nine Democrats against a recent House resolution supporting Israel.
Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan – the first Palestinian American woman to serve in Congress and who, like Ocasio-Cortez, is a member of the so-called “Squad” of young, progressive lawmakers of color – issued a warning to Biden last month at a rally where she called for a ceasefire in Gaza.
“President Biden, not all of America is with you on this one, and you need to wake up and understand that,” she said, before using the term “genocide” to describe civilian casualties caused by Israel’s military strikes.
International law defines genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” But the term has an important historical meaning in the context of the Holocaust, which targeted Jews and other groups and makes it controversial to use with regard to Israel.
Tlaib joined 15 other Democrats and one Republican in either opposing or voting “present” on the resolution expressing support for Israel, arguing it “rightly mourns the thousands of Israeli civilians killed and wounded in the horrific attacks but explicitly does not mourn the thousands of Palestinian civilians.”
CNN’s MJ Lee and Kevin Liptak report Wednesday that Biden’s White House is agonizing over the civilian casualties and how to appropriately pressure Israel.
They write: The wide-scale casualties in Gaza are weighing heavily on senior US officials, who are ratcheting up the pressure – both in private and in public – on the Israelis to contain civilian deaths. That pressure has originated from the president on down: Concerns about the safety of Palestinian civilians was front and center yet again when Biden spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the phone on Sunday.
Tlaib, meanwhile, faced possible censure by the House of Representatives Wednesday evening. A politically motivated resolution offered by Georgia Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene was blocked, however, and a resolution put forward by a Democrat to censure Greene in retaliation was not scheduled Wednesday. Greene has herself repeatedly been accused of antisemitism.
Today’s Democratic Party
It’s hard to find good estimates about the exact number of Jewish and Muslim Americans. PRRI, an independent research organization, conducted what it called a Census of American Religion in 2020 and estimated that about 1% of Americans identify as Jewish and 1% identify as Muslim.
Both populations tend to be more supportive of Democrats, who have prioritized appealing to non-Christian and non-White minorities.
PRRI modeled maps with population estimates for each religion. While Jewish Americans are focused in particular areas, including Florida, the Northeast and the West Coast, Muslim Americans are more spread around the country, including in key swing states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Arizona, and in other states that could be competitive like Virginia, Texas, North Carolina, Minnesota and Florida.
Those are important details headed into what will be a hotly contested presidential election that could again be decided by small margins in a few states.
It’s hard to believe a shift could happen among Muslim voters toward Republicans. The GOP’s current front-runner, former President Donald Trump, after all, pushed hard for a ban on all Muslims entering the US during his first run for the White House. And Republicans for now appear to be more united behind Israel than Democrats. But a drop in voter turnout could have consequences.
All three Muslim members of Congress are Democrats, and they all opposed the resolution supporting Israel. In addition to Tlaib, Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota has been the subject of controversy with regard to her comments about Israel.
Rep. Andre Carson, the Indiana Democrat, became angry in a recent interview with CNN’s Manu Raju, calling a Jewish colleague, Democratic Rep. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, a “punk” for his criticism of his peers who voted against the House resolution supporting Israel. Gottheimer said those who opposed the resolution were “despicable” and said they don’t speak for the party.
Simply having ties to a religion and a place is not necessarily predictive of a policy position, however. Back in 2016, as they fought for the Democratic presidential nomination, Clinton tangled with Bernie Sanders – the independent senator from Vermont who spent time on a kibbutz in his early years – over how to both support Israel and protect the human rights of Palestinians.
The arguments they made at a debate in New York hosted by CNN resonate today. Clinton refused to admit that Israel’s reaction to terror attacks was disproportionate to the attacks, as Sanders said.
“As somebody who is 100% pro-Israel, in the long run – and this is not going to be easy, God only knows, but in the long run if we are ever going to bring peace to that region, which has seen so much hatred and so much war, we are going to have to treat the Palestinian people with respect and dignity,” Sanders said back then.
That aligns with his current position, which is that Israel has a right to defend itself after horrific terror attacks, but there should also be a humanitarian pause of Israeli attacks on Gaza.
This story has been updated with additional developments.
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