Support for Israel Divides Democrats, A Division Fomented by Republicans

12 Feb
4:31 AM

Republican Senator Marco Rubio pushes a pro-Israel agenda, while new and younger Democrats question US support for the right-wing government in Israel, says Israeli-American journalist Mairav Zonszein.

From the time he began work as a civil rights organizer at age 14, Marc Steiner has dedicated his life to issues of human rights and social justice.

Early in his career he worked with at-risk youth using counseling and theatre techniques, and he taught theatre for 10 years at the Baltimore School for the Arts. The Marc Steiner Show began broadcasting on Baltimore’s NPR airwaves in 1993, and, since then, Steiner has become one of Maryland’s most recognized voices and gained national acclaim for his insightful style of interviewing. In 2007 he won a Peabody Award, the most distinguished honor in broadcast media. Steiner was the visionary force behind the founding of WYPR and he also founded Center for Emerging Media, a non-profit media production company with a mission to showcase new voices, tell stories that need to be told, and use the media to help heal our world.

TRNN Video & Transcript

MARC STEINER: Welcome the Real News Network. I’m Mark Steiner. Great to have you all with us.

Now, for the last 70 years Israel has been one of the staunchest U.S. allies. And the U.S. has been its champion, funding Israel more than any other nation on the planet, with billions of dollars yearly, during those 70 years. The passion for Israel post-Holocaust and as a newly independent Jewish nation in the 1950s began shifting in 1967 when the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza began. Now that shift is growing faster, and becoming more complex. And it’s deeply affecting the domestic politics here in the United States. There’s a shift taking place in this country, as I said, and within the Democratic Party; a party supported, historically, by 75 to 85 percent of the American Jewish community, as a bastion of liberal and progressive politics.

In Congress, the newly-elected Democrats Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar support BDS, the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement. Against Israel. Other newly-elected members of Congress like Deb Haaland and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez have been highly critical of Israel’s actions in Gaza. This mirrors a change in society at large, especially with younger people, people of color, and even within the Jewish community. The Republicans are using this as a wedge issue to divide Democrats, and win Jewish and evangelical voters, and stay in power. What will all this mean for the political future of the United States, and for Israel? That’s the heart of our conversation today with Israeli-American journalist Mairav Zonszein, who wrote this article, “Israel Is Becoming a Wedge Issue for Democrats.”

You talk about Marco Rubio in the piece that you wrote for them, and his legislation combating BDS, that was passed by the Senate. We’ll talk, maybe, if we have time, about the interesting vote that took place and the divide there. So, but let’s begin with how Republicans are equating BDS with anti-Semitism, and what that means politically.

MAIRAV ZONSZEIN: Right. Well, you know, Israel has devoted millions of dollars to a campaign against BDS, and I think what we’re seeing here is a kind of mirroring of that campaign in the GOP, adopting the exact same talking points. Rubio had an article in New York Times a few days ago in the opinion section just before the vote which seemed like it could have been drafted by an Israeli minister in the Likud-led government.

MARC STEINER: Right.

MAIRAV ZONSZEIN: I mean, he is in Florida, and some people think Ron Dermer is assisting him with this stuff. But yeah, what we’re seeing is basically just an acceptance that anyone who supports BDS is automatically an antisemite. And this is something that many within both the Israeli left and the American Jewish progressive community have been struggling against. It’s a very, very destructive talking point. And I think with Rashida Tlaib and with Ilan Omar we’re seeing that there’s, there’s a lot of pushback on that. People aren’t just going to accept that they are antisemite.

MARC STEINER: This is clearly being used by Republicans as a serious wedge issue, and the divide is already taking place inside the Democrats even without the Republican push because of the nature of the push from the left side the Democrats. And some people could argue that this could cripple, or at least hurt the progressive movement. I wonder, in your conversations with people, what people say about this and what this could mean for the future. What I’ve said in a piece earlier, outside of Real News, is that Israel could become one of the issues that actually splits open the Democrats.

MAIRAV ZONSZEIN: Right. Well, when I saw Rashida Tlaib come out in support of BDS and get elected, and then to say that she is going into decline the delegation to Israel with AIPAC, I was amazed and I was actually very concerned that she would be just the victim of a huge onslaught. We’ve seen some of that start to happen. The same thing with Ilhan Omar. I mean, for two congresswomen to come out in support of BDS is, you know, unfortunately a huge, huge substantial risk that they’re taking. And in many ways, you know, Bernie Sanders started that in 2016 when he called out Israel for its campaign in Gaza, its offensive in Gaza. And he kind of started that conversation, And they have really pushed over to a red line, which is something that is long, long overdue in American politics.

So I on the one hand was–I’m very concerned for them, because I think we are in a climate where Republicans and the Israel lobby, evangelicals, they are all just waiting for any of them to say anything that they can pick on. And they are already doing that. So I’m very concerned for how, you know, they’re going to manage that.

At the same time, this, this Rubio legislation that passed in the Senate, which seems like it will not pass in the House, but it’s not clear yet, pitted anybody in the Democratic Party against free speech. The ACLU has come out very, very clearly against this bill, which would basically penalize people who choose to boycott Israel. That is something that is against the First Amendment. And so in that sense the strategy of those in the GOP and in the Israel lobby seems to not be very effective, because the Democratic Party and all the presidential candidates have voted no on that.

MARC STEINER: Well, you can even see the divide in many ways in this vote. I mean, if you take the state of Maryland, where we’re broadcasting from, that has a very sizable Jewish population and a very active political Jewish population that is liberal and progressive for the most part, the two senators split on the vote. And both representatives live in areas that have large Jewish populations. They both split on this vote. So I mean, that, to me, was indicative–and you see when I was looking at who voted yes and who voted no, even though only 27 voted no, that it clearly shows this kind of split is deepening. Though they would not admit it, I think, in a conversation.

MAIRAV ZONSZEIN: Yeah, and I think the way that Israel has acted, especially under the Netanyahu government, but throughout its 70 years, but especially in the last decade, has made a lot of people who support Israel very, very–it makes it very difficult to support Israel. And if you’re a liberal, and you believe in equality, and you believe in social justice, you know, many people have been saying this for years. It becomes increasingly impossible to be both a liberal in America and supportive of Israel. The human rights violations are just too apparent. The inequalities in the system of government within ’67 Israel is apparent. So Democrats will, increasingly, will be forced to decide. And the Republicans are actually forcing them to decide. And in that sense it’s actually a very good phenomenon that we’re seeing right now, because you can no longer stay neutral on this issue.

MARC STEINER: That’s a very interesting analysis, I think. Let me just point out, you quote in your article Minnesota Democratic Congresswoman Betty McCollum. Let me just–the quote’s on the screen, but let me kind of read this for people. The right-wing extremist government of Benjamin Netanyahu and its apartheid-like policies are at the core of what is alienating Democrats and a growing number of Americans. No–and she authored the bill, as you wrote about in the last session, to prevent U.S. military aid from going to Israel subsidizing abuse of Palestinian children.

So this, to me, is really interesting. Plus, she represents what’s known as a pivot district, which went for Obama, then went for Trump, and then went for Democrats for Congress. So politically this says a lot to me, and I’m wondering what your thoughts are on that.

MAIRAV ZONSZEIN: Well, I think she’s very brave. And she has been consistent, in recent years. One of the few representatives who is willing to take up this mantle. And I think she sees that under a government that is so extreme in Israel she’s allowed to do that. Unfortunately, her bill has not received enough support. The Palestinian lobby in Washington is not strong. So American aid is not being threatened to Israel. But she’s the type–she, and Omar, and Tlaib, if we have more and more of these coming out–and notice they’re all women, as well. These are the types of things we need to see more of. For her to use the word apartheid is a very big deal. I mean, in Israel we’ve had even centrist leaders use that word as a future threat. So it’s not that taboo anymore. Unfortunately, on Capitol Hill it still is pretty taboo. So what she’s saying is quite revolutionary. But anybody who looks at what’s going on on the ground understands that.

MARC STEINER: So I’d like to juxtapose this with an article I read that you wrote in 972, on the website, about the controversy inside the Women’s March around accusations of antisemitism. And I would say for our listeners, our viewers, to really check this article out, because you really touch the depth, the nuance, of this discussion. I thought it was really a well-done piece. But if you juxtapose what you learn there, and what happened to the conversation with those women there, and what’s happening inside the Democratic Party, there seems to be a bridge here connecting–this is kind of the broader struggle people are having around this issue.

MAIRAV ZONSZEIN: Right. Well, I mean, it connects in a lot of ways to the American Jewish community, and how they are represented by organizations that don’t really represent–certainly not the young American Jews who are active on Israel. And people like Ron Dermer, who’s the ambassador to Israel in the U.S., and how he speaks on behalf of Jews in America and misrepresents them. He–when Pittsburgh, when the massacre in Pittsburgh happened, he got up on TV and said, you know, started talking about Louis Farrakhan. And the Women’s March has been embroiled in a controversy because of the ties of Tamika Mallory to Louis Farrakhan.

But the the efforts to delegitimize the Women’s March, there is some nuance in there. I mean, there are antisemitic tropes within progressive left movements. That’s always been the case. And my interview for 972 magazine with the Jewish communications director was was about that nuance, and about how certain people have antisemitic understandings based on their lack of education or based on the types–you know, I don’t think it’s fair to expect African Americans to be educated on all the issues that have to do with Israel and antisemitism, just like many white American Jews are probably not that educated on internal black politics, either. So you know, I think it’s just really important to keep in mind that somebody like Ilan Omar, she did make this tweet that made a lot of news about how it was back in 2009, under a different operation Israel did in Gaza. And she wrote that Israel is hypnotising the world. And the word ‘hypnotising’ does touch on some antisemitic tropes. And she’s already acknowledged that that was a mistake, and she’s already acknowledged that it’s something that she didn’t realize. And I saw very similar in my piece on the Women’s March that Tamika Mallory has also grown up, apparently grown up with Louis Farrakhan, for her own reasons. And through that she’s starting to realize that she’s been educated wrongly about certain things, and she wasn’t aware that these things were stereotypes and that they were offensive. And she’s now acknowledging that.

So at least you have some movement and some acknowledgement. Whereas on the right all you have are attacks, and just efforts to just completely crush people’s careers regardless.

MARC STEINER: So overall it sounds as if, from the work you’ve written and what you’re saying here today that you actually see what’s happening inside the Democratic Party, and even a Republican push to split it, as a positive move, politically; moving things forward, in some sense.

MAIRAV ZONSZEIN: Yes, because the alternative is the status quo, in which Israel continues to do as it pleases. And there was actually a report yesterday that settlement growth since Trump took the White House has just flourished, and that the gates have been opened. Israel acts with complete impunity. So until people start to call it out, nothing will change. And that might mean that some people will have to risk their careers and their legitimacy to get there.

MARC STEINER: Well, Mairav Zonszein, I really appreciate the work you’ve been doing, the writing. I appreciate you taking the time with Real News today. Thank you so much for being with us, and enjoy the sunshine in California.

MAIRAV ZONSZEIN: Thank you so much for having me. Have a good one.

MARC STEINER: You too. And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you for joining us. Take care.

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