Democratic Senators Abandon Liberal Consistency When it Comes to Israel
By Lawrence Davidson
Back in early November the
Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP),
one of the few remaining American Jewish
organisations that has the decency to
publicly support the human and civil rights
of the Palestinian people, put out an urgent
notice. The notice asked supporters of the
Palestinian cause to protest against the
recent action of a progressive US senator.
The urgency was generated by the announcement that, following the murder of 11 Jews killed at a Pittsburgh synagogue, the Democratic senator from New Jersey Cory Booker, would “support the long-stalled Federal Gag Bill (aka the Israel anti-Boycott Act) as a “response” to rising anti-Semitism”. What makes Booker’s action so questionable is that (1) the Boycott has nothing to do with anti-Semitism and (2) Booker’s mislabeling it as such clashes with his normal support for liberal causes. It represents a fraying of his professed liberal principles.
Booker has a record of consistently supporting socially progressive issues. He has taken a stand in support of the legalisation of same-sex marriage, single-payer health care and women’s rights. But there is a catch. Democratic politicians are often liberal on domestic issues while choosing to be quite illiberal on issues related to foreign policy in the Middle East. This discordance is particularly seen when it comes to the rights of oppressed Palestinians.
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Booker decided to play this
domestic/foreign policy gambit. He did so by
publicly conflating criticism of Israel’s
racist and aggressive behaviour with
anti-Semitism. This is a decision that mixes
apples and oranges (or hatred of Jews with
criticism of Israeli state policies) and
therefore does not make logical sense,
though it is politically expedient.
Why did he do it? The answer is most likely a product of both a friendship and political self-interest. Booker is close to his fellow New Jersey senator, Robert Menendez, who is a strong Zionist, and this friendship may well have helped him understand the political benefits of allying with the pro-Israel lobby. Booker knew that there might be a political price to be paid for coming out in support of the Zionists—the move would cast a shadow over his liberal persona. So, best to make this move at a moment that would likely minimise the blowback.
Thus, it may be that Booker saw the late October murder of 11 Jews at a Pittsburgh synagogue—the most lethal anti-Semitic action in US history—as just the right moment to justify the move. He may have been right. Other than the JVP’s statement, the sound of fraying principles went unnoticed.
Booker is not alone in the cultivation of this particular blind spot. There are other US senators who abandon liberal consistency when it comes to Israel. For instance, there is Robert Casey of Pennsylvania. Casey is also a supporter of liberal domestic legislation, particularly when it comes to health care. Though “pro-life”, he at least has the common sense to support subsidised access to contraception. Nonetheless, in Casey’s opinion Israel is “America’s most trusted ally”, and the boycott of that country constitutes a “pernicious” movement. Casey has never expressed any public criticism of Israel’s illegal treatment of the Palestinians nor its occupation of Palestinian territory in violation of international law.
The politically inspired refusal to be consistent to standards of decency is not restricted to the issue of Palestine. Consider the recently published picture showing former Democratic Vice-President Joe Biden, whose name has been mentioned as a possible candidate for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, presenting George W. Bush, former Republican president (and arguably a war criminal), with the 2018 Liberty Medal at the National Constitution Centre in Philadelphia on 11 November 2018.
The offered reason for Bush’s receiving this honour is in recognition of his “charitable mission helping wounded post-11 September veterans get back on their feet through healing and career training”. Given that most of these veterans were wounded in a war that then-President Bush started under false pretences, one wonders what Biden and the National Constitution Centre’s Board of Trustees were thinking when they decided to honour him in this fashion. After all, the Liberty Metal is designed to recognise those who have “strived to secure the blessings of liberty to people around the world”. I don’t think that anyone with even a little knowledge of the second Iraq war can believe that was George W. Bush’s real motive.
We can admit that consistency is a hard thing to achieve for all of us. This would be particularly true for politicians immersed in a system dominated by special interests and “party whips”. Yet the fraying of principles related to human rights that now pervades US politics and particularly the liberals’ readiness to acquiesce in the denial of other people’s rights, speaks to a significant devaluing of conscience and an unconscionable shallowness when it comes to ethical judgement. Perhaps it should give pause to all those Democrats raising glasses of cheap champagne to the party’s victory in the mid-term elections. Just how consistent in their assumed liberal principles will our new US representatives be?
The truth is that these newly elected Democrats are stepping into a struggle for the political soul of their party. Their professed liberality should help move the party in the direction of rational change, both as to its priorities and its leadership. The result should be a shift left to ensure things like health care, gender equality, same-sex marriage, abortion rights, a serious attitude towards climate change, infrastructure investment, and respect for international treaties and laws. This includes an empathetic response to the injustices visited upon the Palestinians by “America’s most trusted ally”.
But, alas, this cannot be done under an old guard that is stuck in the rut of tradition, tied hand and foot to special interests, and insisting on keeping control of a party which, under their leadership, has lost the ability to act with any sort of originality.
Here is where the all too easy fraying of principle threatens the Democratic Party. Will our new Democrat representatives be loyal to their progressive principles, or will they buy into a corrupt status quo by just following their Pied Piper leadership? Time will tell, but if they don’t “rock the boat” now, the prevailing paralysis will bode ill for both their future and ours.
Lawrence Davidson is a retired professor of history from West Chester University in West Chester PA. His academic research focused on the history of American foreign relations with the Middle East. He taught courses in Middle East history, the history of science and modern European intellectual history.
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