I have been unsparing in my criticism of Republican positions on Israel this campaign season, and particularly those held by the (no longer presumptive) nominee and his team of one-staters. I make no secret of the fact that I see Donald Trump’s views on Israel as incoherent at best and a dumpster fire at worst, and the fact that Republicans have, despite some laudable exceptions, quietly acceded to Trump upending years of established Republican – and largely bipartisan – policy on Israel is not their finest moment. If Trump loses, one of the most entertaining sideshows of the next few years will be watching his currently eager but future shamefaced supporters walking back not only their laudatory expressions of support for him personally but the absurd positions they embraced on his behalf, and hopefully the more-hawkish-than-Bibi position will fall under this umbrella. The Republicans have the problem that they are becoming comfortable with positions on Israel that are absurdly unrealistic and will damage Israel in the long run, but events at the Democratic convention are demonstrating that the Republicans are not alone. If the Republicans are hurting Israel by emboldening its most extreme instincts, the Democrats are doing so by giving those who possess the extreme instincts legitimate cause for concern.
On Monday, speaking at an event on the sidelines of the convention, Representative Hank Johnson stridently criticized Israeli settlement activity. The problem is that in doing so, he referred to Israeli settlers as termites; made the blanket assertion that Israelis are not building their own neighborhoods but that, in his words, “you see one home after another being appropriated by Jewish people who come in to claim that land just because somebody did not spend the night there;” and falsely charged that Israel has banned Palestinians from displaying the Palestinian flag. I understand why Johnson is upset at Israeli policies in the West Bank, and I share his frustration. What I don’t share is his view that it is appropriate to compare Israelis to vermin or to just make stuff up in order to paint a bad situation with an even darker brush. On Monday afternoon, Johnson tweeted an apology for his “poor choice of words,” referring to comparing Israelis to termites, but that actually misses the point. It is the exaggerated charges that are the truly damaging aspects of what Johnson said. Democrats who supported Hillary Clinton and Democrats who supported Bernie Sanders dislike Israel’s settlement policy, and it is reasonable to expect Democratic politicians to criticize it given their voters’ preferences. But whipping people up into an ignorant frenzy by insinuating that the bulk of settlement activity consists of Israelis lurking in the weeds, just waiting for Palestinians to spend a night out of town and then taking over their houses, is grossly irresponsible. Israel’s settlement policy – which, yes, sometimes involves building on privately owned Palestinian land – is bad enough on its own that it doesn’t need to be embellished, and it is this type of rhetoric that gives cover to the farthest right of Israel’s rightwing by allowing them to claim that criticism of Israel is little more than lies and hate.
Yet more extreme behavior was on display Tuesday outside of the convention hall, as a rowdy group of louts burned an Israeli flag and chanted “long live the intifada,” no doubt demonstrating their desire for a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and their commitment to two states for two peoples. Now, this is not activity sanctioned by the Democratic Party and so to blame it on national Democrats is simply unfair; in fact, the flag burners appear to have been part of a larger group protesting Democratic policy more widely. But just as there is something about Trump that draws white supremacists to him like moths to a flame, the fact that those on the left advocating for ethnic cleansing of Israeli Jews think that they will manage to get a sympathetic hearing from people attending the convention in Philadelphia says something. These kinds of views must be unequivocally denounced, and putting Cornel West – who has accused Bibi Netanyahu of war crimes and talks about “the role of money and lobbies” when discussing Israel policy – on the Democratic platform committee sends a message of a different type.
I do not mean to suggest an absolute equivalence here where both sides are suffering on the same level. On the Republican side, we are dealing with a nominee and a platform whose Israel policy is off the rails, while on the Democratic side we are dealing with a misinformed backbench congressman and some unwashed protestors who are left with burning flags on the wrong side of the convention’s security fence. One party has abandoned the bipartisan consensus on two states while one is still holding the line. That doesn’t change the fact that there is a worrisome undercurrent in the Democratic Party that views Israel as disproportionately bad, and it should and must be called out. Comments like Johnson’s or moves to welcome the BDS movement under the Democratic big tent are wrong on their own, but they are also ultimately damaging by reinforcing the narrative on the right that nothing Israel does will ever be enough, and so better to just damn the torpedoes and go full speed ahead. It is easy to see how Republican policies are driving Israel away from two states. The fact that it is harder to see how some movements within the Democratic Party are accomplishing the same doesn’t mean that it is less worthy of opprobrium.