Rashida Tlaib, wearing a kaffiyeh, holds a photo of her Palestinian grandmother.

Rep. Rashida Tlaib, wearing a kaffiyeh, holds a photo of her Palestinian grandmother during a House debate on whether to censure her.

(Photo: screen grab)

Israel-Gaza War Set to Splinter Democratic Party

If the party’s leadership wants to succeed in 2024 and beyond, they will need to intervene—before it's too late.

The war over Gaza has had an explosive and surprising impact on the cohesion of the Democratic coalition. For decades now, the American body politic has been fractured mainly over critical social and cultural issues ranging from race and gender to guns and immigration—more often than not with Republicans on one side and Democrats on the other. Only in rare instances have foreign policy concerns entered the equation and never in the way that Israel/Palestine has in recent weeks.

The few occasions when the Middle East has become a deeply partisan issue in the past involved Republicans recruiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to score points against a Democratic president. The first was when then-Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich invited Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress to crown the GOP’s efforts to sabotage President Bill Clinton’s work in supporting the Oslo peace process. The other was when then-Speaker John Boehner invited Netanyahu to try to defeat President Barack Obama’s Iran nuclear deal. Over the long haul, both efforts ultimately bore fruit, putting obstacles in the way of peace and paving the way for President Donald Trump’s scuttling the nuclear deal.

As contentious as these issues were, they were largely confined to Washington and never filtered down to the grassroots of politics in the way that Israel/Palestine has in today’s fraught political environment. Both support for the peace process and the Iran deal remained partisan issues and neither had broad appeal, nor mass demonstrations in favor of or opposed to either concern.

Hamas’ October 7th deadly attack on Israelis and the now month-long Israeli brutal assault on Gaza have been quite different. In the first place, these events viscerally impacted both of the affected communities—American Jews and Arab/Palestinian Americans. Seeing the scenes and hearing the reports of the wanton slaughter, the Jewish community was horrified. It evoked the painful trauma of the Holocaust and pogroms of their past and feelings of their vulnerability.

Palestinians and Arabs recoiled in shock and anger when it became clear from Israel’s devastating bombings of Gaza and the racist, genocidal language used by Israeli leaders that this wouldn’t be like previous attacks on Gaza. With thousands dead, one-half of the dwellings in Gaza City and its environs destroyed, and witnessing the scenes of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fleeing for their lives to an uncertain future in the southern part of the impoverished Strip, Palestinian and Arab Americans saw the Nakba playing out in real time. Here too there was vulnerability and trauma.

What is unfolding in Gaza and here in the US has resonated with the very component groups that Democrats have long seen as essential to their electoral victories.

To some extent, this drama had a partisan dimension with Republicans, fueled by their hardline right-wing Christian base, siding with Israel. But while Democratic elected officials, long deferential to the wishes of the pro-Israel lobby, also demonstrated their support for Israel, there has been a fracturing of the party’s base.

Pro-Palestinian demonstrations have erupted nationwide, culminating last week in a huge gathering in Washington. Never before has there been such massive outpouring of support for Palestinians. And, most significantly, those involved in the mobilizations demanding a ceasefire and Palestinian rights have been extraordinarily diverse, including large contingents of young American Jews, Arab, Black, Latino, and Asian Americans.

What is unfolding in Gaza and here in the US has resonated with the very component groups that Democrats have long seen as essential to their electoral victories. This has never happened before. When Jesse Jackson raised the issue of Palestinian rights during his two presidential runs in the 1980s and when Bernie Sanders did the same in the last decade, they were able to mobilize support, to be sure. But this is different in that it is similar to the mass eruption of support that we witnessed in the Women’s March, the anti-Trump Muslim ban, and the Black Lives Matter movement. But, once again, there is a difference.

Those demonstrations were mobilizations of Democrats and faced no real opposition from the party leadership. The pro-Palestinian demonstrations, on the other hand, have become an intra-party fight, as pro-Israel groups have mobilized to threaten, demean, and punish those who are speaking out against the Israeli assault on Gaza. Campus groups have been disbanded, some Latino and Black groups have lost their funding, and outspoken individuals are publicly scorned as antisemitic.

The party was already divided on Palestinian rights before October 7th, with Democrats having more favorable attitudes toward Palestinians than Israelis. While one may have thought that Hamas’ massacre of civilians would have altered that, as the horrors of the Israeli response became clear, polls are showing that a majority of Democrats are opposed to what Israel is doing and want a ceasefire. And key groups like young people and people of color remain supportive of Palestinians.

With pro-Israel groups taking repressive measures against students and others, and announcing that they will spend millions to defeat members of Congress who speak out against Israel or in support of Palestinian rights, a real rupturing of the Democratic coalition is possible. As all of the congressional representatives who are being threatened are young people of color, the optics of a pro-Israel group threatening to spend money (raised from a handful of billionaire donors—some of whom are Republicans) will not sit well with other Democrats.

If the party’s leadership wants to succeed in 2024 and beyond, they will need to intervene to tamp down this behavior. Debate and reasoned discourse should be encouraged. But threats should be stopped before the division is too deep and it’s too late to turn back.

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