NEW YORK – Six days after Hamas launched attacks on Israel that killed over 1,300 people, the country’s critics inside the Democratic Party are back on their heels.
Politicians known for almost never “punching left” made clear they needed to do so this time or lose all future credibility. In Manhattan, a rally endorsed by the local Democratic Socialists of America that featured hateful displays was sharply condemned by two of the group’s most closely associated members in Congress — Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Jamaal Bowman, who’d let his own membership lapse over a prior dispute over Israel.
In Michigan, Rep. Rashida Tlaib’s Democratic colleagues attacked her statement that Israel’s “apartheid” system created “conditions that can lead to resistance.” In California, DSA-backed politicians who’d denounced Hamas were called anti-semites by Democratic opponents for not quitting the socialist organization.
As President Biden promised to stand with Israel in response to the “sheer evil” of Hamas and likened the war to U.S. operations against ISIS, some leftists bristled at the criticism from within as an unnecessary distraction, arguing the priority should be taking on the right and preventing a massive unfolding military campaign by Israel.
“Why is there is such a focus on settling local political scores when innocent people are being killed and elected officials are going on national television calling for genocide?” New York state Assemblyman Zohran Mamdani, a DSA member, told Semafor. “There is a battle right now between war fervor and the truth, [that] the only way to end this violence is to end the occupation and an apartheid system of government.”
But advocates for a new approach to Israel — aid based on humanitarian conditions, boycotts to stop the country from building further settlements in the West Bank — fear they just watched years of political gains get reversed. And prominent progressive and leftist allies, even as they continued to express opposition to Israel’s policies and its military response in Gaza, unleashed a rare outpouring of disgust and rage at voices in their camp who endorsed mass slaughter and kidnapping as a valid uprising or minimized the human toll.
Past defenses — that it was just a distraction pushed by reactionaries, that it was making too much of a fringe campus voice here or there — proved ineffective this time.
“It is not hyperbole to say that many left-wing supporters of Palestine celebrated Hamas’s atrocities,” the left-wing writer Eric Levitz wrote in a widely shared New York magazine column excoriating activists for a “betrayal of the left’s most fundamental values” on ethical grounds that also did untold damage to their practical goals of ending Israeli occupation.
Some, like New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg, went so far as to liken the split to schisms on the Marxist left over communism, in which revelations of Stalin’s purges and the 1956 invasion of Hungary left only a hardine rump of pro-Soviet activists. “It’s too early to know how the left’s widespread failure of solidarity will change our politics, but I suspect some sort of fracture is coming,” she wrote. A prominent economics policy expert on the left, Larry Mishel, announced he was quitting the DSA after nearly 50 years of membership. He had named his son after one of its founders.
The nature of the Hamas attack — a massacre of civilians — and its location — inside Israel proper, not a settlement — drew out and exacerbated fundamental rifts among Israel’s critics: Between those who view its existence as fundamentally illegitimate, and those who want a negotiated two-state solution that respects its Jewish identity; between those who imagine a one-state democracy that moves past nationalism on all sides, and those who envision a Palestinian takeover “from the river to the sea.”
American Jews traditionally lean left and many have direct ties to friends, family, and institutions affected by the attacks, sharply raising the emotional stakes within progressive circles. At the pro-Palestinian Jewish publication Jewish Currents, editor-in-chief Arielle Angel wrote about struggling to publicly grieve those losses “without these feelings being politically metabolized against Palestinians.” But others felt those same feelings were being callously dismissed by their purported allies — with uncertain consequences for the movement moving forward.
The comments that led to a wave of condemnation — a Time Square rally attendee mocking the murder of “hipsters” when Hamas attacked a music festival, a Black Lives Matter offshoot justifying a “desperate act of self-defense,” a Yale professor who scoffed that “settlers are not civilians” — had no support in mainstream Democratic politics.
But before Saturday, opponents of unrestricted aid to Israel were making significant headway in a long, trudging effort to drag the party toward a more confrontational approach to Israel’s policies. The movement faces its biggest challenge yet from the Hamas attacks; that pressure alone is likely to create further divisions over how to respond.
“Just days ago, Biden was holding Netanyahu at arm’s length because he was capitulating to the fascists in his cabinet,” said Eva Borgwardt, the national spokeswoman for IfNotNow, a left-wing group that supports “an end to the occupation and Israel’s system of apartheid” in Gaza and the West Bank. “Now we are seeing those same political leaders falling in line to send offensive weaponry to that same Israeli government, whose intentions are to wipe Palestine off the map.”
At the start of Donald Trump’s presidency, Democrats told Gallup pollsters that they were more sympathetic to Israelis than Palestinians “in the Middle East situation” by an 18-point margin. When Gallup asked that question again in March, Democrats had become more sympathetic to Palestinians by an 11-point margin.
That may have changed overnight. A Fox News poll taken after the Hamas attack found a 17-point shift in support for Israel among Democratic voters. And voices within the party who have been trying to counter the rising tide of support for Palestinian causes and increased antagonism towards Israel’s government, especially among younger Democrats, thought the left’s response would further marginalize them.
“The center of gravity has moved pretty dramatically, as Hamas has revealed itself for what it is — the worst kind of terrorist organization,” said Mark Mellman, the founder of Democratic Majority for Israel, which spent millions of dollars to defeat left-wing candidates in last year’s primaries. “Groups like DSA have done themselves a tremendous disservice by putting themselves outside reasonable and responsible discourse.”
Israel’s advocates and lobbyists watched with dismay, for years, as young progressives challenged the Democratic Party’s unconditional support for Israel. They watched Bibi Netanyahu undermine Barack Obama when he called for a settlement freeze, then watched him ally with Republicans to sabotage the 2015 Iran deal, then watched him work hand-in-glove with Donald Trump.
After the election of Israel’s most right-wing government ever last year — and even though calling Israel an “apartheid” state was a taboo enforced by a congressional supermajority — the country’s American critics were bolder than they’d ever been. Their opponents see a chance now to isolate and divide them, highlighting the most offensive statements from fringe groups and making their associations toxic. That would have implications beyond Israel policy, punishing and limiting left-wing Democrats who’ve made headway inside the party while advocating for a variety of domestic causes as well, like Medicare For All.
“The DSA’s hate rally, glorifying the terrorism of Hamas, represents the beginning of the end for the DSA as a political force in New York,” Bronx Rep. Ritchie Torres told Semafor. (DSA endorsed the rally, but didn’t plan it, and later walked back its support.) “Its institutional influence will recede into the fringe where it belongs.”
DSA’s post-2016 relevance in electoral politics after decades on the fringe has made it the biggest target. Michigan Rep. Shri Thanedar, who’d joined DSA to build his populist bona fides, denounced and quit it over the Times Square rally. (The metro Detroit DSA chapter pointed out that he’d already been ousted over his support for India’s nationalist prime minister.)
But to the dismay of many pro-peace progressives, less politically relevant groups — college student chapters, local Black Lives Matter offshoots — are getting nearly as much attention, for actions that they argue have next to zero support on the left. Social media users, especially on the right, have become exceedingly efficient at quickly identifying and publicizing offending examples as soon as they arise, forcing people to respond and often drawing out a new wave of incendiary responses to highlight next.
Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of J Street, said that the media was telling a too-easy story of infighting, focusing on fringe activists or parsing the words used by Israel’s critics in Congress “who had the temerity to say ‘ceasefire.’”
“There is wall to wall condemnation of what happened, and we’re still in the phase where that’s the appropriate place to be,” said Ben-Ami, who spoke with Semafor shortly after learning that a friend’s daughter had been killed with her boyfriend in the Hamas attacks. “There will come another chapter — a more nuanced discussion, at the appropriate time. But we’re still in a phase where you’re finding, except for a very small number of outliers, nearly unanimous condemnation of Hamas and support for the people of Israel.”
For the students who make up a disproportionate share of activists, though, the campus politics have not been as easy to dismiss. J Street U, the same group’s student wing, issued a lengthy statement saying it was “deeply saddened and angered by attempts to justify, excuse, or ignore Hamas’s horrific crimes against Israeli civilians” by pro-Palestinian student groups.
Nor were these threats treated as merely intellectual in the aftermath of the most deadly attack on Jews since the Holocaust: Around the world, there were concerns about dangers to Hillels, synagogues, and Jewish schools ahead of a planned “Day of Rage” called for by Hamas on Friday. At Columbia University, a longtime incubator of pro-Isrel and pro-Palestinian activism, the school was closed to the public after a Jewish student was physically attacked putting up flyers supportive of Israel.
Florida Rep. Maxwell Frost,who has been critical of Israel’s Gaza response, noted that his Central Florida district had already struggled with a rise in neo-Nazi activity: “Seems like week after week we’ve had Nazis march our streets and now this massacre and terrorist attack by Hamas.”
The 26-year old Frost and other progressives have tried to model a fine line approach of mourning losses in Israel and Gaza; calling out examples of antisemitism at home and abroad while also defending Muslims and Arabs from signs of backlash; and expressing outrage at Hamas’ attacks while challenging the administration to protect Palestinians caught in the crossfire.
On Wednesday evening, IfNotNow co-organized a vigil in Washington Square Park, where its allies commemorated the thousands of lives lost in Israel and Gaza. City comptroller Brad Lander, who had called the Times Square rally “abominable,” led the crowd in a call-and-response prayer.
“If I am for myself only, what am I?” said Lander. “If I can only see my peoples’ pain, how will we ever find those divine sparks, commanded by our tradition?”
Room for Disagreement
Activists whose response to the Hamas attacks have divided the left aren’t walking it back. At the Times Square rally, Eugene Puryear, a member of the Party for Socialism and Liberation — not DSA — became infamous for joking about a Hamas attack on a music festival that killed at least 260 people. “The resistance came in electrified hang gliders and took at least several dozen hipsters,” he said. Asked if he’d say the same thing again today, Puryear said he would.
“The focus on my comments is just to distract from what’s really happening — nearly 80 years of brutality meted out on Palestinians,” Puryear said. “If I rephrased it, people would be equally as mad about it; the core of my point is that the Palestinians are right to resist.”
BLM Chicago, not affiliated with the national Black Lives Matter organization (but conflated with it in media reports), put out a meme mocking the attack on the festival — a cartoon of a paraglider. “For everyone withdrawing support, saying they stood with us & now they’re removing signs, bye, toodles,” it posted on Thursday morning. “We’ve always been for Palestinian freedom.”
- In N+1, David Klion writes that “emotion and bloodlust” have “overwhelmed” reason, with a clear impact on the left: “The upshot of all the denunciations and condemnations is the right’s unchallenged hold over the discourse, and, more importantly, the ultimate facts on the ground.”
- In Politico, Emily Ngo and Nick Reisman see an “internal reckoning” unfolding for DSA, “shining a brighter spotlight on tensions between the often younger, left-leaning DSA-backed politicians and their mainstream Democratic colleagues.”