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When being pro-Palestine becomes the new normal

Oct 05,2021 - Last updated at Oct 05,2021

There is an unmistakable shift in American politics regarding Palestine and Israel, a change that is inspired by the way in which many Americans, especially the youth, view the Palestinian struggle and the Israeli occupation. While this shift is yet to translate into tangibly diminishing Israel’s stronghold over the US Congress, it promises to be of great consequence in the coming years.  

Recent events at the US House of Representatives clearly demonstrate this unprecedented reality. On September 21, Democratic lawmakers successfully rejected a caveat that proposes to give Israel $1 billion in military funding as part of a broader spending bill, after objections from several progressive Congress members. The money was specifically destined to fund the purchase of new batteries and interceptors for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defence system.

Two days later, the funding of the Iron Dome was reintroduced and, this time, it has successfully, and overwhelmingly, passed with a vote of 420 to 9, despite passionate pleas by Palestinian-American Representative, Rashida Tlaib. 

In the second vote, only eight Democrats opposed the measure. The ninth opposing vote was cast by a member of the Republican party, Thomas Massie of Kentucky. 

Though she was one of the voices that blocked the funding measure on September 21, Democratic Representative, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, switched her vote at the very last minute to “present”, creating confusion and generating anger among her supporters. 

As for Massie, his defiance of the Republican consensus generated him the title of “Antisemite of the Week” by a notorious pro-Israel organisation called “Stop Antisemitism”.

Despite the outcome of the tussle, the fact that such an episode has even taken place in Congress was a historic event requiring much reflection. It means that speaking out against the Israeli occupation of Palestine is no longer taboo among elected US politicians. 

Once upon a time, speaking out against Israel in Congress generated a massive and well-organised backlash from the pro-Israeli lobby, especially the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), that, in the past, ended promising political careers, even those of veteran politicians. A combination of media smear tactics, support of rivals and outright threats often sealed the fate of the few dissenting Congress members.

While AIPAC and its sister organizations continue to follow the same old tactic, the overall strategy is hardly as effective as it once was. Members of the Squad, young Representatives who often speak out against Israel and in support of Palestine, were introduced to the 2019 Congress. With a few exceptions, they remained largely consistent in their position in support of Palestinian rights and, despite intense efforts by the Israeli lobby, they were all reelected in 2020. The historic lesson here is that being critical of Israel in the US Congress is no longer a guarantor of a decisive electoral defeat; on the contrary, in some instances, it is quite the opposite. 

The fact that 420 members of the House voted to provide Israel with additional funds — to be added to the annual funds of $3.8 billion — reflects the same unfortunate reality of old, that, thanks to the relentless biased corporate media coverage, most American constituencies continue to support Israel. 

However, the loosening grip of the lobby over the US Congress offers unique opportunities for the pro-Palestinian constituencies to finally place pressure on their Representatives, demanding accountability and balance. These opportunities are not only created by new, youthful voices in America’s democratic institutions, but by the rapidly shifting public opinion, as well.

For decades, the vast majority of Americans supported Israel. The reasons behind this support varied, depending on the political framing as communicated by US officials and media. Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, for example, Tel Aviv was viewed as a stalwart ally of Washington against Communism. In later years, new narratives were fabricated to maintain Israel’s positive image in the eyes of ordinary Americans. The US so-called “war on terror”, declared in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks, for example, positioned Israel as an American ally against “Islamic extremism”, painting resisting Palestinians as “terrorists”, thus giving the Israeli occupation of Palestine a moral facade. 

However, new factors have destabilised this paradigm. One is the fact that support for Israel has become a divisive issue in the US’ increasingly tumultuous and combative politics, where most Republicans support Israel and most Democrats do not. 

Moreover, as racial justice has grown to become one of the most defining and emotive subjects in American politics, many Americans began seeing the Palestinian struggle against the Israeli occupation from the prism of millions of Americans’ own fight for racial equality. The fact that the social media hashtag #PalestinianLivesMatter continues to trend daily alongside the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter speaks of a success story where communal solidarity and intersectionality have prevailed over selfish politics, where only money matters.

Millions of young Americans now see the struggle in Palestine as integral to the anti-racist fight in America; no amount of pro-Israeli lobbying in Congress can possibly shift this unmistakable trend. There are plenty of numbers that attest to these claims. One of many examples is the University of Maryland’s public opinion poll in July, which showed that more than half of polled Americans disapproved of President Joe Biden’s handling of the Israeli war on Gaza in May 2021, believing that he could have done more to stop the Israeli aggression. 

Of course, courageous US politicians dared to speak out against Israel in the past. However, there is a marked difference between previous generations and the current one. In American politics today, there are politicians who are elected because of their strong stance for Palestine and, by deviating from their election promises, they risk the ire of the growing pro-Palestine constituency throughout the country. This changing reality is finally making it possible to nurture and sustain pro-Palestinian presence in US Congress.

In other words, speaking out for Palestine in America is no longer a charitable and rare occurrence. As the future will surely reveal, it is the “politically correct” thing to do.

 

Ramzy Baroud is a journalist and the editor of The Palestine Chronicle. He is the author of five books. His latest is “These Chains Will Be Broken: Palestinian Stories of Struggle and Defiance in Israeli Prisons” (Clarity Press). Dr Baroud is a non-resident senior research fellow at the Centre for Islam and Global Affairs (CIGA) and also at the Afro-Middle East Centre (AMEC). His website is www.ramzybaroud.net

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