Why Some Progressive Candidates Are Breaking With The Far Left On Israel

Pro-Israel groups have spent big to reassert their dominance after years in retreat.
The Austin chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America withdrew its endorsement of Greg Casar, a Democratic House candidate in Texas, over disagreements on U.S.-Israel policy.
The Austin chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America withdrew its endorsement of Greg Casar, a Democratic House candidate in Texas, over disagreements on U.S.-Israel policy.
Greg Casar for Congress

The Austin, Texas, chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America announced on Sunday that it was effectively withdrawing its endorsement of Democratic congressional candidate Greg Casar after he made clear that he supports U.S. aid for Israel’s “self-defense” and opposes the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, or BDS, movement against Israel.

“Austin DSA’s elected leadership finds that these statements are not reconcilable with DSA’s stance in solidarity with Palestine,” the group wrote.

The break with Casar, a longstanding DSA ally on the Austin City Council, marks another inflection point in DSA’s quest to chart an electoral strategy that is consistent with its Israel-Palestine policy stance.

But perhaps more importantly, the rupture spoke to the caution with which progressive candidates in competitive Democratic primaries are navigating the topic of U.S.-Israel policy amid growing pushback from traditional pro-Israel groups.

After years of expanding the boundaries of the U.S. political discourse to make room for solidarity with Palestinians, many progressives are now on the defensive, struggling to shore up existing gains and distancing themselves from their most radical allies.

Progressive foreign policy advocates downplayed progressive candidates’ compromises with pro-Israel groups, but acknowledged that they are facing powerful resistance from groups like Democratic Majority for Israel, a super PAC formed in 2019 to arrest the advance of left-leaning, pro-Palestinian views inside the Democratic Party.

And the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the most influential pro-Israel organization in Washington, announced in December that it was launching a super PAC ahead of the midterm elections in November. AIPAC, which, unlike DMFI, has relationships with both major parties, has traditionally let separate but affiliated groups spend directly in elections.

“The fact that Democratic Majority for Israel was even created is a response to progressives’ success in advancing this debate within the party,” said Matt Duss, a foreign policy adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) who has counseled progressive candidates on U.S.-Israel policy. “The statement apocryphally attributed to Gandhi, ‘First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win?’ We are well into the ‘then they fight you’ stage.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) stops well short of left-wing stances like support for BDS and a single binational state in Israel-Palestine. The younger generation of self-described democratic socialists following in his footsteps has gone further.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) stops well short of left-wing stances like support for BDS and a single binational state in Israel-Palestine. The younger generation of self-described democratic socialists following in his footsteps has gone further.
SETH HERALD/AFP via Getty Images

As much as anyone, Sanders, a Jewish American who spent time on an Israeli kibbutz as a young man, kicked off the current era of progressive Israel criticism with vocal broadsides against the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories during his 2016 presidential run.

A proponent of a two-state solution who speaks passionately about Israel’s security concerns, Sanders stops well short of left-wing stances like support for BDS and a single binational state in Israel-Palestine.

The younger generation of self-described democratic socialists following in Sanders’ footsteps has gone further. Two lawmakers elected in the 2018 Democratic midterm wave, Democratic Reps. Ilhan Omar (Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (Mich.) — Tlaib is the first Palestinian American woman elected to Congress — embrace the BDS movement and voice stronger objections to Israeli policies than Sanders.

Their election coincided with the rise of U.S. social movements like Black Lives Matter that see liberating Palestinians from Israeli occupation as part of a shared global struggle for justice.

“The ground has shifted,” said James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute. “There’s no question.”

“Being pro-Israel is not only good policy, it’s smart politics.”

- Mark Mellman, Democratic Majority for Israel

In the 2020 election cycle, Democratic Majority for Israel fought mightily to shift some of that ground back to where it was.

But while DMFI helped its preferred candidates prevail in several races, some of its biggest bets met with disappointment. For example, the group spent more than $1 million bolstering then-Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the staunchly pro-Israel chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, against progressive challenger Jamaal Bowman. Bowman, who supports stricter conditions on U.S. aid to Israel, nonetheless won by a large margin in a New York City-area district with a sizable community of right-leaning, pro-Israel Jewish voters.

The outcomes of high-profile races like the Engel-Bowman contest tend to have a disproportionate impact on how other candidates perceive political risk.

That dynamic can cut both ways, however. Just as Bowman’s victory suggested that the power of DMFI and other pro-Israel groups might not be what it once was, DMFI’s splashy role in the 2021 special election to fill a solid Democratic Ohio congressional seat had the opposite effect.

DMFI was an early endorser of Rep. Shontel Brown (D-Ohio) against former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner, a Sanders acolyte and progressive star. In a special primary election in August, then-candidate Brown overcame Turner’s massive polling lead and considerable fundraising edge thanks in part to DMFI’s investment of more than $2 million in support of her bid.

Turner is running against Brown again; DMFI has endorsed Brown’s reelection.

“The message out of a whole series of elections last cycle, and certainly Shontel Brown’s victory, is what we’ve always tried to suggest: That being pro-Israel is not only good policy, it’s smart politics,” said Mark Mellman, president of DMFI and a veteran Democratic pollster.

Other cautionary tales dot the progressive landscape as warnings to candidates who would tempt the wrath of pro-Israel groups.

In the crowded November primary to succeed the late Rep. Alcee Hastings (D) in Florida’s 20th Congressional District, progressive state Rep. Omari Hardy (D) candidly informed Jewish Insider, which has offered the most diligent coverage of Democrats’ views on Israel, that he supports BDS and would vote against U.S. funding for the Iron Dome technology that Israel uses to intercept rockets that Palestinian militants fire from Gaza. While Hardy was not a front-runner before those remarks, the interview sank his candidacy, prompting an attack ad from DMFI and a relentless focus on the controversy in media coverage of his campaign.

Behind closed doors, progressive consultants and campaign aides now speak about wanting the candidates they support to avoid Turner and Hardy’s fate.

Nina Turner's loss in a special congressional primary to fill an open Ohio seat showcased the enduring power of deep-pocketed pro-Israel groups.
Nina Turner's loss in a special congressional primary to fill an open Ohio seat showcased the enduring power of deep-pocketed pro-Israel groups.
Phil Long/Associated Press

On that front, Casar, who is running in a new, overwhelmingly Democratic district, has already made progress.

In a January letter to a prominent Austin rabbi, he outlined his support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and “continued federal aid for self defense of Israel,” including Iron Dome technology. He went on to express interest in visiting Israel and the Palestinian territories, and firmly stated his opposition to BDS while affirming his belief that the movement has the right to freedom of speech, according to a copy of the letter obtained by Jewish Insider.

A few weeks later, when DMFI unveiled a list of 15 House endorsements, none of Casar’s opponents was on it. The group has yet to endorse in that race.

It is not clear whether Casar sought to insulate himself from a DMFI attack. His campaign did not respond when asked whether it had been in touch with DMFI, directly or indirectly. And DMFI declined to comment on the race.

To be sure, even some of the stances Casar outlined in the letter speak to the gains that the Palestine solidarity movement has made in progressive circles.

Casar expressed support for President Joe Biden’s effort to revive the Iran nuclear deal, acknowledged the “power imbalance faced by the poorest Palestinians” relative to Israelis, cited “unchecked settlement expansion” as an obstacle to peace, and called the “humanitarian crisis in Gaza and indefinite occupation in the West Bank … untenable for Israelis, Palestinians, and our collective conscience.”

Speaking generally, Casar said he supports “restricting [U.S.] aid from being used in a manner that violates basic rights,” suggesting that he might be open to imposing tougher conditions on U.S. aid to Israel.

But he later indicated that he is skeptical of approaches that single Israel out. He said that if existing laws against U.S. aid going to human rights abusers need to be updated, “updates should not be imposed in a discriminatory manner against any people or nation.”

Casar’s decision not to endorse BDS does not conflict with overall progressive goals, according to Duss, the Sanders foreign policy aide.

“‘End the occupation’ creates the biggest possible tent,” Duss said. “Obviously the issue is bigger than just the occupation, but the goal is to forge as much unity and as large a coalition as possible toward the goal of creating better U.S. policy on Israel-Palestine.”

Indeed, many on the left believe that DSA has overplayed its hand by making support for BDS and opposition to all U.S. military aid prerequisites for its endorsement.

The group’s falling out with Casar is its second break with a big-name progressive over the issue of BDS. In November, a faction of DSA members agitated to expel Bowman, the New York congressman and a dues-paying DSA member, for his alleged violation of the group’s BDS policy. In contravention of BDS rules, Bowman had visited Israel on a trip sponsored by J Street, a more liberal pro-Israel group, meeting with Israel and Palestinian government officials as well as human rights activists.

DSA’s national governing body ended up deciding against expelling Bowman, but also said it would not endorse Bowman’s reelection unless he made unspecified changes.

“To get into a fratricidal war at this point, and not continue the march up the hill, is insane to me.”

- James Zogby, Arab American Institute

The relatively modest benefits of a DSA endorsement in many expensive congressional races make the group’s hard-line stance on Palestine a form of self-marginalization, according to left-wing critics of DSA’s BDS litmus test.

The pro-Israel lobby is “still sitting on top of the hill,” said Zogby, using a metaphor to describe pro-Israel forces’ political dominance. “But we’re gaining positions all around the hill and we’re getting stronger. To get into a fratricidal war at this point, and not continue the march up the hill, is insane to me.”

A spokesperson for DSA did not respond to a request for comment.

In other contentious congressional primaries, some progressives are simply trying to avoid taking a stance on the more controversial elements of U.S.-Israel policy. In a Jewish Insider profile of Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes (D), who is seeking the Democratic Senate nomination, Barnes declined to clarify whether he supports imposing stricter conditions on U.S. aid to Israel.

Meanwhile, some existing pro-Palestinian voices in Congress are at risk for reasons that have nothing to do with DSA but that reflect a similar tendency for the left to devolve into infighting.

Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), one of Congress’ most indefatigable advocates for Palestinian rights, faces a well-funded primary challenge from Amane Badhasso, a Democratic operative who faults McCollum for not being more outspoken on other issues. Notwithstanding McCollum and Omar’s shared commitment to Palestinian rights and common base in the Twin Cities, Omar praised Badhasso in an article about her campaign while stopping short of endorsing her bid.

A progressive strategist, who requested anonymity for professional reasons, argued that the support Badhasso has attracted reflects the poor political calculus of some figures in the Palestine solidarity movement. “Betty McCollum is one of the staunchest pro-Palestinian members of the House and what does she get in return?!” the strategist exclaimed.

Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) is facing a primary challenge from Amane Badhasso, whom Ilhan Omar has praised while stopping short of endorsing her bid.
Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) is facing a primary challenge from Amane Badhasso, whom Ilhan Omar has praised while stopping short of endorsing her bid.
Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Another prominent pro-Palestinian lawmaker, Rep. Marie Newman (D-Ill.), faces a difficult primary against moderate Rep. Sean Casten (D-Ill.). After Illinois Democrats drew Newman into the same district as fellow progressive Rep. Jesús “Chuy” Garcia (D-Ill.), Newman decided to challenge Casten instead.

The new district includes more of Newman’s current district than Casten’s, which could play to her advantage, even though she now lives just outside the district.

But Newman, who unseated conservative Democratic Rep. Dan Lipinski in 2020 with help from local Palestinian American activists, is also embroiled in an ethics scandal. The Office of Congressional Ethics, a nonpartisan watchdog, announced in late January that Newman may have violated federal law with a written promise to employ Palestinian American activist Iymen Chehade if he agreed to endorse her and not to run against her. As part of her transaction with Chehade, Newman also agreed to entertain Chehade’s policy recommendations, according to communications between the two brought to light by The Daily Beast.

Progressives supportive of Newman maintain that her bargain with Chehade was no less objectionable than the promises that, for instance, the Biden campaign likely made to secure Pete Buttigieg’s endorsement during the primaries. Newman’s mistake was to formalize the agreement in writing, they insist.

Regardless, the scandal has given an opening to pro-Israel groups that wanted to see Newman gone because of her policy views. In September, Newman was one of just eight Democrats to vote against additional U.S. funding of Israel’s defensive Iron Dome technology (Bowman was among those who voted for it).

DMFI has endorsed Casten, Newman’s opponent. Mellman would not offer details about the group’s plans for the race.

“Being in the midst of an ethics scandal is not usually good for one’s political future,” Mellman said. “Let’s put it that way.”

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