Jacobin / July 19, 2023
In yet another reality-denying ritual of fealty to the pro-Israel lobby, members of Congress absurdly voted to say Israel was neither an apartheid state nor racist. Only a few progressives, including members of the Squad, stood firm in opposing the measure.
In the midst of all the partisan rancor, backbiting, and oozingly slow progress on getting anything actually done in Washington, it’s refreshing and inspiring when the two major US parties can still find an issue on which they can come together.
Not the ever-growing national homelessness problem, the ongoing depravities of the US health care system, or the fact that the wealthiest country on the globe continues to lag the developed world in metrics ranging from poverty and food insecurity to its shrinking life expectancy. No, I’m talking about the bizarre, regular ritual where US lawmakers fall over each other to demonstrate their fealty to a foreign government, specifically that of Israel.
Last night, the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly on an absurd resolution saying that not only is Israel not an apartheid state, but that it’s not a racist one either. Israel is apparently such a hyper-advanced and enlightened shining beacon of goodness, it’s evolved beyond the scourge of racial prejudice that today continues to plague even the most socially liberal of Western democracies. Quite an achievement.
Lawmakers who spoke up in favor of the resolution upped and upped the ante on heaping praise on a government that just bombed and raided a Palestinian refugee camp and hundreds of whose citizens just rampaged through a Palestinian village setting fire to homes.
Israel was a “robust, thriving, multiracial, multiethnic and multi-religious democracy which shares our democratic values,” and is “not now or never has been a racist state.” It is “the only nation” in the Middle East that shares not just “our democratic values,” but “the values of human law.” It’s “standing in that steely breach as a force for democracy, a force for freedom, as a voice for free people.” Some saw no contradiction in insisting that Israel isn’t a racist country while also affirming “the need for Israel to remain both Jewish and democratic” (emphasis mine).
This spectacle was prompted by Congressional Progressive Caucus cochair Rep. Pramila Jayapal’s offhand remark this past weekend at the Netroots Nation conference in Chicago, words she swiftly walked back under criticism. After Palestinian rights activists interrupted a panel she was on, Jayapal defended her progressive colleagues, telling the crowd that “we have been fighting to make it clear that Israel is a racist state, that the Palestinian people deserve self-determination and autonomy, that the dream of a two-state solution is slipping away from us, that it does not even feel possible.”
The comments came as Israeli president Isaac “Bougie” Herzog was set to speak to Congress today, and four progressive lawmakers announced they would boycott the address over Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people in recent weeks. Hence, this show of force from Congress as, in the words of one lawmaker in support of the resolution, an “affirmation” to both Israel and “the entire world” — namely, “enemies in the world like Iran” — that “the United States is with Israel.”
Not many members of Congress covered themselves in glory here. Only nine lawmakers voted against the resolution, with 412 in favor and eleven not voting. To their immense credit, the only ones who broke from the rigid Washington consensus on this and bravely voted against the resolution were members of the left-wing “Squad” and associated progressive freshmen — both the original quartet (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar) and the new members who have been added in subsequent elections (Jamaal Bowman, Cori Bush, and Summer Lee). Illinois’s Delia Ramirez — technically not a member of the group but closely aligned with the coterie of young, left-wing progressives of color — also voted against the resolution, as did Indiana’s André Carson.
It may have been a symbolic vote, but these members of Congress made their votes at great political risk. The pro-Israel lobby has spent eye-watering sums of money in recent years to defeat progressives in any way critical of Israel, throwing down $70 million in the 2022 midterms alone with considerable success. Some, like former Bernie Sanders surrogate Nina Turner and the more establishment-friendly Donna Edwards saw their campaigns buried under the landslide of negative advertising this pile of cash brought them, while others like Rep. Summer Lee just barely scraped through, seeing their initially massive polling leads dwindle after the well-financed attack-ad onslaught.
Bowman, who is also one of the lawmakers boycotting the Herzog speech and whose district was redrawn to a more moderate, pro-Israel constituency, Tlaib was targeted by pro-Israel interests these past midterms, while Omar narrowly survived a stiff challenge last year financed by big money. That pro-Israel forces plan to use the corrupt US campaign finance system to punish those it sees as insufficiently loyal to the country and shape US political debate is more or less an open strategy. “We’re seeing much more vocal detractors of the US-Israel relationship, who are having an impact on the discussion … and we need to respond,” Howard Kohr, head of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, told The Washington Post last August.
Not all young progressives were as brave. Conspicuously missing from the “nay” column were new Squad member Greg Casar and Maxwell Frost, once tipped as a prospective new member of the bloc, both of whom moved to the center on the question of Israel and Palestine during last year’s midterms to preemptively head off an avalanche of pro-Israel money against them.
The Palestinian American Rep. Tlaib, who spoke out in near tears against the resolution on the House floor, deserves particular mention. Tlaib correctly pointed out that the charge that Israel is an apartheid state has now reached the realm of objective reality unless you’re in Washington, with everyone from the United Nations to human rights groups like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Israel’s own B’Tselem reaching that conclusion. It’s also been a charge made by not just storied survivors of South African apartheid like Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, but even some former Israeli prime ministers.
But Tlaib also pointed out the various, unambiguously racist statements made by Israeli officials, from Herzog’s own 2018 statement that marriage between Jews and non-Jews is a “plague,” or a former Israeli justice minister posting a passage calling for the killing of Palestinian civilians and the “little snakes” who are their children, to a former Israeli defense minister stating that Palestinians “are like animals, they aren’t human.”
“He’s talking about people like my grandmother, Mr Speaker,” Tlaib said.
She could have mentioned much else: current prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu (the country’s longest ever serving) calling Palestinians “wild beasts,” his current finance minister’s claim that Palestinians are a “fictitious people” with no “history” or historical rights to land, its current national security minister who was convicted of inciting racism and has ties to a host of racist figures, or the member of parliament Netanyahu had nominated as his top diplomat in New York, whose nomination was scuttled due to outrage over her own statement that she was “proud to be a racist.”
That’s just the current government — go further back, and you can find many, many more odious statements from other leading political and religious figures in the country. There’s a reason why neo-Nazi Richard Spencer views Israel as a shining example of the kind of white ethno-state he’d like to turn the United States into.
Yes, Israel is an apartheid state, and unless you want to make the absurd argument that a country can enforce a system of apartheid while being free of racial prejudice, that means it’s also a racist one. That so many in Washington want to deny this is isn’t a matter of not having the right facts. It’s a matter of lacking political courage.
Branko Marcetic is a Jacobin staff writer and the author of Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden; he lives in Chicago, Illinois