The deadly attacks on Israel by Hamas militants have reignited divisions in the Democratic Party over the Middle East, with many elected officials and leaders vowing unequivocal support for Israel’s right to defend itself, while some left-leaning lawmakers condemned the violence but urged both sides to agree to a cease-fire.
These schisms were on display Sunday night during a candidate forum in California, when three House Democrats running for the U.S. Senate answered questions about Israel.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff, who is Jewish, called the Hamas attacks Israel’s “own 9/11” and pledged “unequivocal support for the security and the rights of Israel.” Reps. Katie Porter and Barbara Lee similarly denounced the violence, but Porter also warned of a “rise to hateful Muslim-phobia and civil rights violations” similar to what emerged after the 9/11 attacks in the United States. Lee said it was the United States’ responsibility to call for a cease-fire.
Then, at a pro-Israel rally in Boston on Monday, the crowd booed Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) when he called for a de-escalation of violence, according to video of the event. Shortly after, Rep. Jake Auchincloss (D-Mass.), who is Jewish, seemed to disavow his Senate colleague’s remarks. “Israel did not ask America to de-escalate on Sept. 12, 2001,” he said to cheers from the crowd.
End of carousel
In New York City, tensions flared again when several Democratic leaders, including Sen. Charles E. Schumer and Gov. Kathy Hochul, denounced a pro-Palestinian rally sponsored by the Democratic Socialists of America. Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman (N.Y.) — both DSA-endorsed lawmakers — condemned the Hamas attack but echoed calls to end the ongoing violence. On Wednesday, Rep. Shri Thanedar (Mich.) announced he was renouncing his DSA membership, saying in a statement, “Sunday’s hate-filled and antisemitic rally in New York City, promoted by the NYC-DSA, makes it impossible for me to continue my affiliation.”
The nuanced positions and mixed responses from Democrats since the attacks early Saturday resurface the party’s divergent views on the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict — one of the most sharply divisive issues separating a handful of left-wing Democrats from more strident Israel defenders, and often leading to intraparty disagreements.
In the wake of the unprecedented and intensifying conflict, several liberal Democrats have urged a de-escalation of violence, while most Democrats, including the Biden administration, have pledged to support Israel unconditionally. The distinction in rhetoric also illustrates a shift within the party in recent years as more Democrats have grown critical of the Israeli government’s far-right policies and treatment of Palestinians — a departure from U.S. politicians’ long-standing and near-unanimous position to support Israel.
“The Republican Party has emerged as the Israel-right-or-wrong party; Israel can do no wrong. You’ll find no Republican willing to criticize the Netanyahu government,” said Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former Middle East adviser in the State Department, referring to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“The Democratic Party is more complicated,” he continued. “They’re divided among traditional Democrats who are strong supporters of Israel, and the growing willingness in the Democratic Party to express not just disapproval, but want some accountability for Israel policies that undermine American policies. It is a relatively new development to see this separation between Republicans who have a wall of support and increasingly more nuances and divisions among Democrats.”
More than 1,000 Israelis, including children, were killed in Hamas’s surprise attacks over the weekend, according to the Israeli Embassy in Washington, and a growing counterattack by Israeli forces in Gaza has also caused heavy civilian casualties, the Palestinian Health Ministry said.
Liberal Democrats have decried Netanyahu’s declaration of war and order of a “complete siege” — including cutting off food, fuel and electricity to the occupied territory it has long blockaded — saying it will result in the loss of more innocent lives.
Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), the only Palestinian American in Congress, Cori Bush (D-Mo.), and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), a Somali American Muslim, released statements in the hours after the attack, criticizing Israel over its past treatment of Palestinians and urging peace in the region. In her initial response, Tlaib labeled Israel’s “apartheid system” as leading to “resistance.”
“As part of achieving a just and lasting peace,” Bush said, “we must do our part to stop this violence and trauma by ending U.S. government support for Israeli military occupation and apartheid.”
“The solution to this horror, as ever, is a negotiated peace — with Israelis and Palestinians enjoying equal rights and security guarantees,” Omar later wrote on X, formerly Twitter.
As the world is condemning Hamas’s attacks, we must also oppose an Israeli military response that has already taken the lives of hundreds of Palestinians, including nearly two dozen children.
— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) October 9, 2023
But many Democrats and supporters of Israel have slammed the notion of a mutual cease-fire, characterizing it as offensive to suggest Israel should not defend itself and prevent attacks after suffering its most devastating and brutal assault in decades.
At a pro-Israel rally in Philadelphia on Monday, Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro (D), one of the most prominent elected Jewish officials, seemed to rebuff those who have called for an end to violence on both sides.
“We must call out what is right and what is so obviously wrong. The whataboutism used by some to justify Hamas’s unprovoked actions is ignorant and wrong,” Shapiro said. “There is no moral equivalency here. Israel has a right to defend itself.”
But the Biden administration also struggled with the tenor of its initial response. Shortly after the attacks, Secretary of State Antony Blinken posted on X, advocating a cease-fire. He soon deleted it and replaced it with the post, “Israel has the right to defend itself, rescue any hostages, and protect its citizens.”
Asked about the deleted post, a State Department spokesperson said, “The tweet didn’t accurately reflect the language of the accompanying readout, which noted we are calling for Hamas to stop its terrorist attacks on Israel. That is our position, as the secretary has made clear repeatedly.”
President Biden, during remarks Tuesday at the White House — which was aglow Monday night in blue and white, the colors of the Israeli flag — vowed to stand by the Jewish state. “We must be crystal clear: We stand with Israel. We will make sure Israel has what it needs,” he said.
At Tuesday’s daily briefing, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre sharply rebuked the members of Congress who have called for a cease-fire, criticizing them as “repugnant and disgraceful.”
“Our condemnation lies squarely with terrorists who brutally raped, kidnapped hundreds of Israelis. There can be no equivocation about that. There are not two sides on this,” she said.
The fray among Democrats is also becoming an attack line for Republicans, including former president Donald Trump, who seized on the divisions Monday night at a campaign rally in New Hampshire. “I can’t imagine how anybody who’s Jewish or anybody who loves Israel … I can’t imagine anybody voting Democrat, let alone for this man,” he said, referring to Biden.
Israeli leaders have praised Biden for his support in the days since the attacks.
Two of the largest pro-Israel advocacy organizations, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and J Street, said in separate statements that a majority of Republicans and Democrats in Congress have vowed to stand resolutely with Israel.
“In the days since the barbaric terrorist attack on Israel, there has been an extraordinary bipartisan expression of support for the Jewish state. In just two days, 95% of Members of Congress from both parties issued statements of solidarity with Israel,” Marshall Wittmann, a spokesman for AIPAC, said in an emailed statement.
But partisan cracks could soon reopen when House lawmakers take up a bipartisan resolution condemning Hamas and reaffirming Israel’s right to self-defense.
In July, when the House passed a bipartisan resolution saying that Israel “is not a racist or apartheid state” and that the United States “will always be a staunch partner and supporter of Israel,” nine Democrats voted against it.
Those Democrats included Tlaib, Omar, Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley (Mass.) — members of the “Squad” of younger women of color who represent more liberal views on most issues, including criticism of Israel.
Matt Duss, a former foreign policy adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), defended the liberal Democrats, saying it’s possible to not only condemn Hamas, but also worry about the humanity of Palestinians.
“Often the case in the U.S. policy debate is we recognize rights for only one side,” Duss said. “There is an increasing number of Democrats who are willing to acknowledge that there is a deeper context here — Palestinians also have a right to security and dignity and have been under occupation and blockade for years. It doesn’t justify the Hamas attack, but there’s a willingness among progressives that Palestinian lives matter like Israeli lives matter.”
But Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.), who is staunchly pro-Israel, said the Democratic Party is united in its support for Israel, with a few exceptions that he said are not representative of the majority.
“Every country, every sovereign state has the right to defend itself, and if you and your neighbors were the targets, had your homes invaded, if you and your neighbors were murdered or wounded or terrorized, what would you expect your government to do?” Torres said.
“Those who insist Israel should do nothing in the face of unprecedented terrorism [are] holding the Jewish state to a double standard that no other country, including the United States, would ever impose on itself,” he said.
John Hudson contributed to this report.