As Israel Attacked Gaza, It Heard Something New: Opposition from Congress

Zionist fears of Democratic dissent have turned stale for years. The latest House speeches show that’s changing.

TOPSHOT - US Representatives Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) speaks as, Ilhan Omar (D-MN)(2R), Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) (R), and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) look on during a press conference, to address remarks made by US President Donald Trump earlier in the day, at the US Capitol in Washington, DC on July 15, 2019. - President Donald Trump stepped up his attacks on four progressive Democratic congresswomen, saying if they're not happy in the United States "they can leave." (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP) (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)
Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., speaks as Reps. Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez look on during a press conference at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on July 15, 2019. Photo: Brendan Smialowski /AFP via Getty Images

In July 2014, as Israel was launching one of its invasions of Gaza, Jessica Ramos, then a Democratic Party district leader in Queens, took to Facebook to post what might seem like an anodyne message: “Palestine <3.”

But the world of local Democratic politics erupted. A headline in the Queens Chronicle summed up the shock: “Dem official expresses sympathy with Gaza.”

It was an allegation so serious that the subhead included a response: “Jessica Ramos says Palestinian post on Facebook is about advocating for peace.”

The article noted that Ramos was part of a nascent faction of progressive Democrats challenging the party establishment and that the party brass “have all historically taken staunch pro-Israel views, as has Rep. Joe Crowley (D-Queens, Bronx), the party’s chairman.”

It provided a platform for an anonymous Democratic operative to warn that Ramos “is not the only one who has made a comment expressing support for the Palestinians, but she is the only one in hot water with the leadership and facing a primary. Nevertheless, it’s not probably something you’d want to touch if you’re in a tight race.”

Four years later, Crowley himself was facing a primary challenge, and his opponent, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, spoke forcefully against yet another assault by Israel on Gaza. 

Her upset of the hawkish Crowley was treated in the Israeli press as an omen. “Progressive Democrat who accused Israel of Gaza ‘massacre’ upsets NY incumbent,” headlined the Times of Israel.Congressional primary win for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Sanders supporter, seen as a sign of growing strength of Democratic politicians willing to criticize Israel.”

Ramos, meanwhile, had continued her rise, winning a Democratic primary against a Crowley ally, Jose Peralta, to take a New York state Senate seat. 

Within weeks of her primary victory, Ocasio-Cortez was pressed on her position on the Israel-Palestine conflict. She stumbled badly, making clear that while she knew where her moral compass faced on the question, she was not well-versed on the details. She would largely resist weighing in on the issue in a high-profile way over the course of the next year. Her fellow congressional members of what would become the Squad had their own histories on the question. Rashida Tlaib’s mother was born near Ramallah and her father in East Jerusalem; now she represented Detroit, Michigan. Ilhan Omar, who represents Minneapolis, Minnesota, has been the most outspoken congressional critic of U.S. foreign policy. Ayanna Pressley of Boston, Massachusetts, meanwhile, had a history of being to the foreign policy right of the incumbent she ousted. That the four of them together would collectively create a historic moment on the House floor Thursday suggests that the most important factor at play is a generational and social shift in the direction of Palestinians, rather than anything distinct to an individual member. 

Two years later, they were joined by Reps. Cori Bush in Missouri and Jamaal Bowman in New York. Bush was running against longtime incumbent Lacy Clay Jr., who used Bush’s sympathy for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against her in mailers featuring a photo of Bush with Palestinian American activist Linda Sarsour. Bush’s campaign stuck by it: “Cori Bush has always been sympathetic to the BDS movement, and she stands in solidarity with the Palestinian people, just as they have stood in solidarity with Black Americans fighting for their own lives.”

Bowman was challenging Rep. Eliot Engel, one of the most strident Israel hawks in Congress, and the group Democratic Majority for Israel put in $1.5 million to defeat him. Bowman won anyway.

As the Times of Israel predicted, all of it was leading to the rise of a new kind of Democrat, one that might not be versed in all the details — Ocasio-Cortez showed that again in an April interview with the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York — but one unafraid to apply the same standards of justice to Israel as is applied everywhere else in the world. 

It finally broke through on the floor of the House of Representatives on Thursday evening, as part of what’s called a “special order hour.” It was organized by Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wisc., former co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Omar bluntly but not inaccurately called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu an “ethno-nationalist.” Tlaib, a Palestinian American, added, “I am a reminder to colleagues that Palestinians do indeed exist.”

In the House, though, Omar recalled her own experience as an 8-year-old huddled under a bed in Somalia, hoping the next round of bombs wouldn’t hit her home next. “It is trauma I will live with for the rest of my life, so I understand on a deeply human level the pain and the anguish families are feeling in Palestine and Israel at the moment,” she said. 

“Many say that conditioning aid is not a phrase I should utter here, but let me be clear: No matter the context, American government dollars always come with conditions.”

Pressley, the elder of the Squad and the least inclined to challenge the status quo on Israel-Palestine, spoke directly to the political guardrails put up around members of the House of Representatives and then ran right through them.

“Many say that conditioning aid is not a phrase I should utter here,” she said, “but let me be clear: No matter the context, American government dollars always come with conditions. The question at hand is should our taxpayer dollars create conditions for justice, healing, and repair, or should those dollars create conditions for oppression and apartheid.”

Ocasio-Cortez hit hard too. “Do Palestinians have a right to survive? Do we believe that?” she asked, reminding the House that Israel had barred Omar and Tlaib from traveling to the country.

“We have to have the courage to name our contributions,” she said, referring to the U.S. role in perpetuating and funding the fighting.

When Bush spoke, she began, “St. Louis and I today rise in solidarity with the Palestinian people.”

The Squad was not alone. Rep. Betty McCollum of Minnesota rose to criticize the assault on Gaza, as did Reps. André Carson of Indiana, Chuy Garcia of Illinois, and Joaquin Castro of Texas.

McCollum, who has influence over U.S. foreign military aid as chair of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, said she will continue to support funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system in this year’s spending bill. However, she criticized the billions of dollars in unconditioned military aid the U.S. sends Israel annually.

“The unrestricted, unconditioned $3.8 billion in annual U.S. military aid … gives a green light to Israel’s occupation of Palestine because there is no accountability and there is no oversight by Congress,” McCollum said. “This must change. Not one dollar of U.S. aid to Israel should go towards a military detention of Palestinian children, the annexation of Palestinian lands or the destruction of Palestinian homes.”

Castro thanked Tlaib for her presence, agreeing with her statement: “My mere existence has disrupted the status quo.” He seemed to address Israeli leaders directly when he said “creeping de facto annexation is unjust.”

Israeli leaders have been watching the rise of congressional skepticism of their settler project closely. And while the dam may have broken in the House, it’s holding in the White House, as Biden has largely stuck to the old regional script. 

“The forced eviction of families in Jerusalem is wrong,” Castro said Thursday night. That’s not a controversial assertion, but it’s a foreign one to the House floor.

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