How Democrats learned to defend Israel’s ethnocracy

Mitchell Plitnick

Mondoweiss  /  September 9, 2023

Israel didn’t always demand recognition as a Jewish state, but increasingly rightwing Israeli governments have gradually demanded unique recognition of the state’s ethnic character. Dems have only obliged.

When Rep. Pramila Jayapal called Israel a racist state in July, Democrats and Republicans leaped on her in a political feeding frenzy. They fell over each other to cash in on the defense of Israel, a state whose racism is not just obvious but a point of pride for many in its government. They immediately and overwhelmingly passed a resolution stating that “the State of Israel is not a racist or apartheid state.”

The bill was passed by the House by a vote of 412-9. Jayapal, of course, voted with the majority. The nine who voted against were all progressives who are atop the list of AIPAC’s most hated. It breezed through the Senate by unanimous consent. There was no serious public discussion in Washington, although plenty of punditspropagandists, and thinkers chimed in about the question of Israel’s racism. 

But that was not enough cover for liberal lawmakers in the Democratic Party. Particularly for the left-of-center sector, making a blanket statement defending Israel as a liberal democracy when so much of the mainstream of the Israeli population was crying out for help in defending itself against the authoritarianism of its own government was insufficient. The liberal wing of the Democratic Party wanted to find a way to support Israel’s protests against the authoritarian measures the government of Benjamin Netanyahu was taking against the democracy that Jewish citizens enjoyed and which most other Israeli citizens could only envy. 

That led to a new resolution, one which has not had immediate success, and features none of the bipartisanship that the transparently nonsensical “Israel is not racist, don’t believe your lying eyes” resolution did. H.Con.Res.61, simply named “Supporting Israeli Democracy,” is moving slowly through the House, with 47 co-sponsors at this writing. The slow pace and lack of interest from more conservative Democrats almost guarantee the bill will go nowhere, but there is currently a push for more co-signers to join, and the number has grown just in recent days, so the bill remains alive for now.

The ”Supporting Israeli Democracy” bill is boosted by a range of Zionist organizations, ranging from the usual liberal Zionist organizations such as J Street, Americans for Peace Now, and T’Ruah to more centrist Zionist groups like the Israel Policy Forum, Jewish Council for Public Affairs, and the Rabbinical Assembly. More informally, many mainstream pro-Israel individuals and local organizations are also supporting the protest movement and this bill. 

The bill was introduced by Illinois Rep. Jan Schakowsky, long a leader in the pro-Israel, pro-two-state community and one of J Street’s long-time favorites. It is supported by prominent liberal Democrats such as Jerry Nadler (D-NY), Jamie Raskin (D-MD), Barbara Lee (D-CA), Gerry Connolly (D-VA), Maxwell Frost (D-FL), Andre Carson (D-IN), Ro Khanna (D-CA), Betty McCollum (D-MN), Jamaal Bowman (D-NY), and Jayapal. 

The text of the bill does not explicitly refer to the current protests in Israel but simply reads, “Resolved by the House of Representatives (the Senate concurring), That it is the sense of Congress that—

(1) democracy is at the core of the special relationship between the United States and Israel;

(2) Congress opposes actions that undermine Israel’s future as a Jewish, democratic State; and

(3) Congress stands with all Israelis seeking to defend liberal democracy, judicial review, and independent political institutions acting in a system of checks and balances.”

Unique support for a state’s ethnic character

The text of the bill reflects the difficulty liberals routinely face when they try to square the circle of matching Israel’s fictional image as a liberal democracy with its reality as an apartheid state. While the third clause is the one that centers support for Israel’s protest movement, its ambiguous wording is meant to avoid naming the culprit behind current threats to the structures of liberal democracy in Israel: the Israeli government itself. 

And, of course, there is the nonsense about democracy — under peril and dysfunctional in the United States, and never truly intended for Israel — being “at the core of the special relationship.” But what is most disturbing is the expression of the second clause. The absolute support for Israel’s identity as an ethno-nationalist state — which is what a Jewish state is, by definition, regardless of the democratic or undemocratic structure of its government — is about as inconsistent with what we usually think of as liberal values as you can get. 

So, how did this come to be the common tongue for Democrats? Like most things connected to Israel in American politics, it evolved over time.

Demanding recognition of Israel’s Jewish character

In the book I co-authored with Marc Lamont Hill, Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics, we cited former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who, when presenting his platform to the newly-elected Knesset in 1977, vowed that “the government of Israel will not ask any nation…to recognize our right to exist.” Begin said that Israel would only demand the recognition of sovereignty, like any other country, and that the question of Israel’s nature as a Jewish state was an internal matter that was not the business of anyone outside of Israel. 

Of course, Begin’s declaration was, at least in significant measure, self-interested, as he did not want other countries interfering in Israel’s dealings with Palestinian citizens of Israel, much less those under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza. Still, this was also a clear rejection of the idea that Israel expected anyone to formally recognize Israel as a Jewish state. 

Indeed, this distinction was reflected as far back as 1948, when President Harry S. Truman recognized the newly formed State of Israel. The declaration of that recognition is telling. The initial wording was, “This government has been informed that a Jewish state has been proclaimed in Palestine, and recognition has been requested by the government thereof.

“The United States recognizes the provisional government as the de facto authority of the new Jewish state.”

This might have amounted to recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. But Truman changed the wording before making the declaration of recognition, crucially changing the words of the second sentence from “the de facto authority of the new Jewish state” to “the de facto authority of the new State of Israel.” Clearly, Truman was trying to avoid limiting his diplomatic room to maneuver once the war ended, with potential conditions that were not yet definitely foreseeable on May 15, 1948.

Politically, the U.S. maintained its positive attitude toward Israel’s self-definition as a Jewish state, but also refrained from specifying that as an American policy goal of any kind. It was treated, in public discourse, as an internal Israeli matter. The Oslo framework, however, started to change that.

With the adoption of the Oslo Accords, the question of the Palestinian right of return became less abstract. While Yasser Arafat and much of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) were avoiding having a broad, participatory conversation among Palestinians about what should be demanded from that process and what minimal expectations might be, even they understood how unpopular abdicating the right of return would be. Yet Jewish Israelis were virtually unanimous in rejecting any kind of significant return of Palestinians except to whatever new Palestinian state would arise on the 22% of historic Palestine that the West Bank and Gaza comprised. The argument, of course, was that a mass return of Palestinians would destroy Israel’s Jewish character.

The difficulties in addressing the right of return were obvious, so the issue was put off until “final status talks,” which were supposed to have taken place by 2000. After the failure of the Camp David II talks that year, President Bill Clinton laid out what he saw as the parameters for the final agreement. On the right of return, he stated, “The Israeli side could not accept any reference to a right of return that would imply a right to immigrate to Israel in defiance of Israel’s sovereign policies and admission or that would threaten the Jewish character of the state.” 

After that, the defense of Israel’s Jewish nature became more prominent and explicit. George W. Bush adopted similar language in his 2004 letter to Ariel Sharon, where he stated that, “The United States is strongly committed to Israel’s security and well-being as a Jewish state. It seems clear that an agreed, just, fair, and realistic framework for a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue as part of any final status agreement will need to be found through the establishment of a Palestinian state, and the settling of Palestinian refugees there, rather than in Israel.”

The shift is visible in the platforms of the Democratic Party. Prior to 2000, Israel’s Jewish character was not mentioned. But it started to appear in 2004. Until then, Israel’s ostensible democratic nature was emphasized. This remained in the platform, but it was simply stated as a reason for the bond between the two, presented as axiomatic that Israel was and would remain a democracy. The specific policy plank read, “We support the creation of a democratic Palestinian state dedicated to living in peace and security side by side with the Jewish State of Israel.” 

The platform wording was similar in 2008. But it was emphasized much more strongly in 2012. Defending the existing policy of Barack Obama, the platform read, “A just and lasting Israeli-Palestinian accord, producing two states for two peoples, would contribute to regional stability and help sustain Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state.” This implies a more active role for the United States and the Democratic Party in defending Israel’s Jewish identity. 

What changed ? 

At the end of George W. Bush’s time in office, then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert decided that, given all the talk of a Palestinian right of return, he would reverse Begin’s 1977 decree and demand of the Palestinians — and, notably, only the Palestinians — that they not merely recognize Israel’s sovereignty (something Arafat had done in 1988, as President Ronald Reagan confirmed, and did again in the Oslo Accords in 1993) but that they recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Prior to Olmert introducing this demand at Annapolis in 2007, this had never been part of any negotiation Israel had been involved in, whether with the Palestinians or anyone else. But when Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power in 2009, this demand gave him the perfect loophole. With it, he could claim — as he did for most of Obama’s time in office — that he still endorsed a two-state solution. But by demanding recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, which everyone knew was a non-starter for the Palestinians, it didn’t matter if he said he still supported the idea of a Palestinian state.

Since then, the boilerplate language of protecting Israel as a Jewish and democratic state has been a key talking point for Democrats. The problematic nature of that language was summed up very well by Professor Shibley Telhami in a piece for the Brookings Institute in 2021: “Everyone is entitled to their own national and religious narrative, but those narratives cannot serve as the basis of sovereignty in relations among states — and certainly not for American foreign policy. As a sovereign state, Israel can define itself as it likes. But the United States — especially under the Biden administration, which prioritizes the fight for democracy — must not embrace and advocate what inherently contradicts the cherished values of democracy and equality it wants to defend and promote. In that vein, we must stand for states that belong to all their citizens equally, not ones that belong to one group of citizens at the expense of others.”

The fact that this escapes most Democrats is to be expected. That it is ignored or not understood by so many of the most progressive ones reflects just how warped American politics toward Palestine are. 

Mitchell Plitnick is the president of ReThinking Foreign Policy; he is the co-author, with Marc Lamont Hill, of Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics