The Israel-Gaza war has had an explosive and surprising impact on the cohesion of the Democratic Party coalition in the US.
For decades now, the American body politic has been fractured mainly over critical social and cultural issues ranging from race and gender to guns and immigration – more often than not with Republicans on one side and Democrats on the other. Only in rare instances have foreign policy concerns entered the equation, and never in the way that the Palestine-Israel conflict has in recent weeks.
The few occasions when the Middle East has become a deeply partisan issue in the past involved Republicans calling upon Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to score points against a Democratic president.
The first was when Newt Gingrich, then-speaker of the House of Representatives, invited Mr Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress to crown the GOP’s efforts to sabotage Bill Clinton’s work in supporting the Oslo peace process. The other was when speaker John Boehner invited Mr Netanyahu to try to defeat Barack Obama’s Iran nuclear deal. Over the long haul, both efforts ultimately bore fruit, putting obstacles in the way of peace and paving the way for Donald Trump’s scuttling the nuclear deal.
As contentious as these issues were, they were largely confined to Washington and never filtered down to the grassroots of politics in the way that the Palestine-Israel issue has in today’s fraught political environment. Both support for the peace process and the Iran deal remained partisan issues and neither had broad appeal, nor mass demonstrations in favour of or opposed to either concern.
Hamas’s October 7 deadly attack in Israel and the now month-long Israeli brutal assault on Gaza have been quite different.
In the first place, these events viscerally affected both of the impacted communities – American Jews and Arab/Palestinian Americans. Seeing the scenes and hearing the reports of the wanton killings, the Jewish community was horrified. It evoked the painful trauma of the Holocaust and pogroms of their past and feelings of their vulnerability.
Palestinians and Arabs recoiled in shock and anger when it became clear from Israel’s devastating bombings of Gaza and the allegedly racist and genocidal language used by Israeli leaders that this wouldn’t be like previous attacks on Gaza.
With thousands dead, one-half of the dwellings in Gaza City and its environs destroyed, and witnessing the scenes of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fleeing for their lives to an uncertain future in the southern part of the impoverished Strip, Palestinian and Arab Americans saw the Nakba playing out in real time. Here too there was vulnerability and trauma.
To some extent, this drama had a partisan dimension with Republicans, fuelled by their hardline right-wing Christian base, siding with Israel. But while a number of Democratic elected officials also demonstrated their support for Israel, there has been a fracturing of the party’s base.
Pro-Palestinian demonstrations have erupted nationwide, culminating last week in a huge gathering in Washington. Never before has there been such large outpouring of support for Palestinians. And, most significantly, those involved in the mobilisations demanding a ceasefire and Palestinian rights have been extraordinarily diverse, including large contingents of young American Jews, Arab, black, Latino and Asian Americans.
What is unfolding in Gaza and in the US has resonated with the very component groups that Democrats have long seen as essential to their electoral victories. This has never happened before.
When Jesse Jackson raised the issue of Palestinian rights during his two presidential runs in the 1980s, and when Bernie Sanders did the same in the last decade, they were able to mobilise support, to be sure. But this is different in that it is similar to the mass eruption of support that we witnessed in the Women’s March, the anti-Trump Muslim ban, and the Black Lives Matter movement.
But, once again, there is a difference.
Those demonstrations were mobilisations of Democrats and faced no real opposition from the party leadership. The pro-Palestinian demonstrations, on the other hand, have become an intra-party fight, as some pro-Israel groups have mobilised to threaten, demean and punish those who are speaking out against the Israeli assault on Gaza. Campus groups have been disbanded, some Latino and black groups have lost their funding, and outspoken individuals are publicly scorned as anti-Semitic.
The party was already divided on Palestinian rights before October 7, with Democrats having more favourable attitudes toward Palestinians than Israelis. While one may have thought that Hamas’s massacre of civilians would have altered that, as the horrors of the Israeli response became clear, polls are showing that a majority of Democrats are opposed to what Israel is doing and want a ceasefire. And key groups like young people and people of colour remain supportive of Palestinians.
With some pro-Israel groups taking repressive measures against students and others, and announcing that they will spend millions to defeat members of Congress who speak out against Israeli actions or in support of Palestinian rights, a real rupturing of the Democratic coalition is possible.
As all of the congressional representatives who are being threatened are young people of colour, the optics of a pro-Israel group threatening to spend money (raised from a handful of billionaire donors – some of whom are Republicans) will not sit well with other Democrats.
If the party’s leadership wants to succeed in 2024 and beyond, they will need to intervene to tamp down this behaviour.
Debate and reasoned discourse should be encouraged. But threats should be stopped before the division is too deep and it’s too late to turn back.
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