Palestine: The challenge ahead of American progressives

As Democrats prepare to take back the White House, progressives in congress continue divided on Palestinian rights and the right to boycott the occupation

As democrats celebrate the election of Joe Biden, a new reality looms ahead for them, following the next 20th of January. Once Donald Trump will be finally out of the White House, the democratic party will have lost the only thing that currently holds its different currents together. Progressives, who have made their way into the congress from the disenchantment generated at the democratic voters base by the republican victory of 2016, and the party’s failure to explain it, today are opposed in many ways to the establishment leadership of the party. As a progressive representative for New York’s 14th district, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez put it: “In any other country, Joe Biden and I would never be in the same party”.

Differences between the establishment and the progressive wing of democrats have been clearly evident on domestic issues, namely public health care, the Green New Deal, privatization of incarceration, police funding and immigration policy. On foreign policy, however, progressive democrats have been less outspoken, and less united.

Foreign policy: the progressive’s weakness point

Minnesota congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s famous challenge of Trump’s advisor Eliott Abarams over US sponsored crimes in Latin America, in February of last year, gave a taste of what progressive stands on foreign policy could be like. Omar questioned Abrams on his role in covering up the 1981 massacre of El Mezote, in El Salvador, where US-trained anti-insurgency troops tortured, raped and murdered more than 800 civilians, including girls as young as 12. Omar didn’t limit her questions to Abrams personal legacy, but took it much further, questioning the entire logic of US interventionist policy, and the premise that it is to promote democracy and human rights. However, this same strong stand is far less common among progressives in the House, when it comes to the Middle East, and especially Palestine.

The most outspoken progressive representatives in their support for Palestinian rights, have been so far Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, the Michigan representative who happens to be of Palestinian descent herself. The two congresswomen were banned entry to Palestine by the Israeli government in 2019, as a reprisal for their outspoken support to the BDS movement. The Israelíi government went as far as making Tlaib choose between an entry on humanitarian basis, to pay a last visit to her dying grandmother, and her right to speak about Palestine, during her visit to Palestine.

But other congress members on their own caucus are far less expressive and engaged on the Palestinian issue. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, for example, had a rare moment of weakness on PBS tv, only few months into her election to office in 2018. The New York representative was asked about a tweet, in which she called out the 2018 Nakba day massacre, in which at least 60 Palestinian demonstrators were killed by the Israeli army, during the Gaza Great March of Return protests. AOC hesitated in explaining why she called it a massacre, before hesitating in explaining what the ‘occupation of Palestine’ was, before eventually admitting that she wasn’t an expert on Middle East geopolitics, and saying that she was willing to learn more on the subject.

Despite the fact that AOC was right on the massacre being a massacre, and the occupation being an occupation, she was intimidated by the traditional US media bullying against simple logic. A bullying embedded in the questions directed at her, like “you mentioned the occupation of Palestine, what do you mean by that?”. An attitude which is influenced by the long-ago established Israeli narrative in the mainstream media discourse. However, AOC was honest enough to say that she understood the Palestinian question from a human rights perspective, given her grassroots organizer background, and in admitting her lack of knowledge on the question. An honesty completely forgotten in traditional politics, where politicians master the art of hiding their ignorance behind a confident self-selling attitude, that makes them look like they know what they’re talking about, even when they don’t.

Criminalization of the BDS movement

But even though AOC’s case sheds light on the fatal absence of knowledge on the Palestinian cause, even among the most progressive figures in the US political scene, there have been more alarming examples of progressive falling-back on the Palestinian issue. In late July 2019, the US House of Representatives passed a non-binding resolution condemning the BDS movement and criminalizing any engagement in it. Not only the resolution passed with 398 votes in favor and only 17 against, but also among the votes in favor were the ones of Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, California’s Ro Khanna and Tulsi Gabbard from Hawaii, all of whom are members of the progressive caucus.

Yet, more shocking even was Ayanna Pressley’s explanation of her vote, saying that it was “an expression of solidarity with Jewish families and marginalized communities, who continue to face heightened threats to their safety (…) driven by hateful rhetoric from the Trump administration”. Pressley not only conflated the attack on the right to free speech and boycott with solidarity towards marginalized communities, but also conflated the defence of Palestinian rights with Trump’s racist rhetoric. A rhetoric which has constantly and systematically targeted, among other things, Palestinian rights and the BDS movement.

The challenge ahead

The latest example of this targeting were the declarations made by Mike Pompeo, two weeks ago, during his visit to the Israeli illegal settlement of Psagot, just outside of Ramallah, where he called the BDS movement “antisemitic” and “a cancer”. Pompeo’s words made it clearer than ever that the criminalization of BDS and all forms of Palestine solidarity is an essential part of the US policy towards the conflict. A policy, which has been proven throughout decades, doesn’t change its essentials very often. This consistency was ensured by Joe Biden, who during his campaign promised to fight the BDS movement, equally conflating it with antisemitism, as part of his pro-Israel platform, labeled ‘to the Jewish community’.

This crack-down on the right to boycott, which is a form of freedom of expression under US law, is an attack against progressive values. So is the continuous US support to Israel’s violation of the Palestinian people’s human rights. An attack that proves every day more solid and more bi-partisan in the US political establishment. Yet, the progressive camp with all its momentum, particularly renewed after the defeat of Donald Trump, remains incapable of uniting around a clear, strong position to face it. This continues to be the case despite the fact that on the grassroots level, where the progressive movement finds its support, the Palestine solidarity movement is growing.

The choice that progressive representatives to the House will have to make in the four years to come is to stand up united on the question of Palestinian rights, and the right to support them through the BDS movement, or on the other hand, to remain divided on this question. The latter will mean leaving this important part of US foreign policy, which costs the American people 3 billion dollars a year, for the establishment to shape. As of today, the establishment position continues to have it its way, nearly unchallenged, and it doesn’t seem that this will change anytime soon …

But it could!

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