Progressives are facing backlash over their initial responses to the attacks on Israel by Hamas militants, revealing the degree to which they’re at odds with others in the Democratic caucus over the issue.
Members of the Squad such as Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Cori Bush (D-Mo.) took heat from fellow Democrats this week over statements criticized for being too tepid in the wake of the violent attacks against Israeli civilians.
Meanwhile, after mounting pressure, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) condemned the “bigotry and callousness” at a pro-Palestinian rally aligned with the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) in New York City.
The condemnation directed at certain segments of the left underscores the fissures within the Democratic Party when it comes to Israel. It also suggests progressives will have to navigate an increasingly difficult political environment in which they will be expected to unequivocally support Israel’s right to exist while also advocating for Palestinian rights.
“The challenge is to continue to respond, as I think a lot of progressive members have already done … to acknowledge the common humanity of all of us, of both people,” Matt Duss, a former senior foreign policy adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), told The Hill.
“We’re going to be getting to a moment where some people are going to be required to show real courage and take a page from Congresswoman Barbara Lee in the wake of 9/11,” said Duss, referring to the California progressive’s vote against the invasion of Afghanistan.
“To say, let’s think about this a little bit. We could be starting something that we’re not quite ready for, quite sure about,” he said.
Bush and Tlaib, the only Palestinian American in Congress, were among the most harshly criticized in the immediate aftermath of the initial wave of attacks in Israel. Tlaib suggested withholding United States support to fund Israel’s “apartheid government,” a comment that infuriated fellow lawmakers who found it offensive as the death toll continued to rise. She also categorized the terrorist attack as part of a “resistance” effort.
Bush, an equally outspoken House progressive, echoed Tlaib’s sentiments.
Some voices on the left saw their public remarks as appropriate calls for de-escalation that recognized the plight of both sides. They argued for an acknowledgment of suffering among civilians in both camps and denounced Hamas as a terrorist organization.
“Rep. Tlaib and Rep. Bush both issued statements that mourned the loss of Israeli and Palestinian civilian lives, and then said we need to address the root causes of violence to get to peace, and they are now being attacked,” said Beth Miller, the political director of Jewish Voice for Peace Action, a progressive Jewish group.
But others in the party were enraged by the statements. Some of the Democratic caucus’s most pro-Israel members, including Reps. Ritchie Torres (N.Y.) and Josh Gottheimer (N.J.), expressed their full disapproval.
“Shame on anyone who glorifies as ‘resistance’ the largest single-day mass murder of Jews since the Holocaust,” Torres said, calling the statement “reprehensible and repulsive.”
The mounting pushback came as Israelis publicly mourned the severity of the ambush as videos showing the atrocities — many of them inflicted on women and children — spread across social media.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the attack by Hamas, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, had left more than 1,200 Israelis dead, starting a war in which more than 2,300 people have been killed in total. The U.S. government said that 22 U.S. citizens had been killed in the conflict, and 17 were still unaccounted for.
In a sign of the growing pressure on progressives, Ocasio-Cortez earlier this week criticized the DSA-aligned rally in New York City’s Times Square, a stance that came after she was chided for supporting a ceasefire.
The rally, which was held in support of Palestinians, drew swift rebukes from leaders across the political spectrum. Ocasio-Cortez, whose district is not far from where the protests were held, eventually released a statement condemning it.
“The bigotry and callousness expressed in Times Square on Sunday were unacceptable and harmful in this devastating moment,” Ocasio-Cortez said in a statement reported by Politico. “It also did not speak for the thousands of New Yorkers who are capable of rejecting both Hamas’ horrifying attacks against innocent civilians as well as the grave injustices and violence Palestinians face under occupation.”
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) speaks during a House Oversight and Accountability Committee hearing for the basis of the impeachment inquiry of President Biden on Thursday, September 28, 2023.
The clash between DSA affiliates and its usual allies such as Ocasio-Cortez highlights the delicate nature of the issue and its evolution on the left. While Democrats are reliable allies of Israel, the party has seen cracks in its support, as many on the progressive left have also pushed for Palestinian rights.
Duss said conversations are already happening between progressive lawmakers and outside advocates about addressing the conflict in a constructive and nuanced way — a potential uphill battle given the severity of the situation on the ground.
“This horror is very fresh. We’re still learning more about this hour by hour. It keeps getting more awful,” he said. “I do think people are thinking about ways to talk about this in the most constructive way possible.”
“Even in ‘normal’ times, this is a difficult discussion to have. It is far more difficult now for obvious reasons,” Duss added.
Sanders, who is Jewish and has sometimes clashed with pro-Israel Democrats, released a statement Wednesday addressing the conflict. He said Hamas committed a “terrorist assault on Israel” that could have “horrific short- and long-term consequences.”
His position — which included a reference to “justice for the Palestinian people” and called Israel’s tactics in response to the attack “a serious violation of international law” — went further than others in the Senate.
“Longer term, this attack is a major setback for any hope of peace and reconciliation in the region — and justice for the Palestinian people. For years, people of good will throughout the world, including some brave Israelis, have struggled against the blockade of Gaza, the daily humiliations of occupation in the West Bank, and the horrendous living conditions faced by so many Palestinians,” the Vermont senator wrote.
Some progressive Jewish activists say Capitol Hill Democrats should formally emphasize de-escalation and are looking to members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, the top body of elected liberals in the House, to lead the way.
“It has never been so important that we fight harder, because it just got a lot steeper,” said Miller, whose group is in regular communication with lawmakers. “And that means we need to be louder.”
Blurring the lines further among the left flank, other progressive officeholders offered staunch support for Israel.
Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and John Fetterman (D-Pa.) went further than other Senate progressives for Israel, with Warren tearing up while discussing the devastating losses and Fetterman making it clear that he is in support of Israel “neutralizing the terrorists responsible for this barbarism.”
Meanwhile, many Democrats applauded President Biden’s speech Tuesday, in which he called the Hamas terrorist attack “pure, unadulterated evil” and reconfirmed his administration’s unwavering support for Israel.
In progressive circles, there is also hope that he and the administration will also acknowledge the struggles of Palestinians and are pushing for a conversation around de-escalation both in Congress and on Pennsylvania Ave. It’s their goal for that discussion to happen sooner than later.
“I understand you want to show complete support and sympathy for the Israelis,” said Duss, who added that the severity of the moment means the president should speak to the full depth of his country’s diversity.
“This is a president who has taken important steps to address issues of racial injustice and equality. I think a lot of progressives just want him to extend that to foreign policy,” he said.