AIPAC Left Behind by New American Left

Anti-AIPAC protest. Washington, March 2017.

In 2014, a low-ranking Democratic Party official in New York City’s borough of Queens expressed sympathy with Palestinians during Operation Protective Edge, a move one party functionary called “touching the third rail” of local politics.

Four years later, reports in the Jewish and mainstream press began attacking the character of a little-known socialist activist in Brooklyn, who had shaken the historic mid-term election cycle by promoting the BDS movement.

These two women, Jessica Ramos and Julia Salazar, were elected to the New York state Senate last year and in just a few months have led a new progressive caucus on addressing reproductive freedom, voting rights and the decriminalisation of sex work. Questions about their criticism of Israel have appeared to do little lasting damage to them.

AIPAC and other pro-Israel activist groups should keep this in mind. In all the outrage over Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s criticism of the Israel lobby that critics called anti-Semitic, a debate is raging in America about how much sway the Israel lobby has and whether the Jewish state is universally supported by American Jews.

In the New York Times, one activist predicted that the lobby would seek primary challenges against the Democrat’s left flank, specifically Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan. 

It’s clear these groups have the will and desire to take down the charismatic and ambitious Ocasio-Cortez because she’s perceived as anti-Israel despite some evidence to the contrary (she took heat from the left when she told conservative journalist Margaret Hoover that she believes in Israel’s right to exist). What’s not clear is that in the close of this decade, where economic precarity has become politically prominent, that they will be successful.

Sure, pro-Israel activists have a playbook. In 2002, the Israel lobby successfully backed a Democratic congressional primary challenge to left-wing firebrand Cynthia McKinney of Georgia. But the wounds of 9/11 were still fresh and anyone who showed softness toward terrorism was considered vulnerable politically. Even without outside support for a challenger, the district had already grown tired of McKinney’s self-inflicted marginality – for starters, she dabbled in 9/11 conspiracy theories.

But 9/11 doesn’t hang over American discourse anymore. People who were born after 9/11 can vote now, and those with no or little memory of the event and its aftermath didn’t have their political narratives influenced by fear of Islamic terrorism, which was the case in the early part of the century, to the great benefit of Republicans as well as the Israel lobby. The effect of questioning a candidate on national security is more limited now. Questioning Israeli tactics or America’s war in Iraq could easily be clubbed with an accusation that one is “soft on Islamist terror”, but with the American public’s interests spread from North Korea to the Mexican border to an investigation in Russian collusion, the veto power of invoking 9/11 sentiment has thinned.

Consider for a moment that two popular American television shows, the comedic Broad City and the quite serious Transparent went so far as to mock Israeli security forces, question the notion of diasporic loyalty to Israel and portray the strife of Palestinians under occupation in the West Bank. Not only would these episodes not get made two decades ago, but these messages were also fairly well-received and didn’t get much backlash. That both shows were about the struggles of American Jews who could bring gimlet eye to Israel represents a cultural shift that AIPAC is uncomfortable facing. We are hardly at a point where American Jews are turning against Israel, but we’re certainly at a point where we’re talking about its problems — and what that means for American Jews — more openly.

More importantly, the rise of politicians like Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders and the explosive growth of groups like the Democratic Socialists of America are products of a shift that has become more profound since the financial crisis of 2008 and the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2012.  Economist James Galbraith wrote last year that states with higher levels of inequality tend to vote more liberally. It’s important to remember that this trend includes American Jews.

“These old assumptions about what automatic checkboxes got the Jewish vote are widely out of touch with actual American Jews,” said Katie Unger, a foundering steering committee member of the Jewish Vote, the electoral arm of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, in a phone interview. “Jewish seniors are in dire need of long-term care and Jewish young people are worried about their futures under student loan debt and climate change.”    

Come to Ocasio-Cortez’s district, and one will find that most people’s concerns — Jew and non-Jew alike — are local and economic. Unless Israel starts building settlements on Roosevelt Avenue in the near future, no one is ruminating too much about ’67 borders.

And this is why the response to Omar and her allies in Congress has been so ferocious – pro-Israel activists aren’t just mad that she’s criticizing Israel but smearing her as “anti-Semitic” didn’t have the fatal effect on her popularity as they might have expected. In a world where American anxieties surrounded the death and destruction over the World Trade Center at the turn of the century, it was easy to attack a candidate for being too harsh toward a US Middle Eastern ally. But our sentiments have changed and our priorities. And that’s what is giving left-wing newcomers to Congress such unexpected power. 

Photograph courtesy of Stephen Melkisethian. Published under a Creative Commons license.