Last weekend, at a town hall event in Newton, Iowa, I stood face to face with Bernie Sanders to ask how students can push his colleagues in Congress to hold Israel accountable for its injustices against Palestinians. The crowd of Sanders supporters and undecided caucusers cheered when I told him, “My social justice activism is grounded in Jewish tradition, and that’s why on my campus, I work for Palestinian rights and freedom.” Last year, Sanders came out in support of cutting United States funding of the Israeli military and redirecting it to the people of Gaza, who have suffered under a crippling and illegal Israeli-led siege and blockade for more than a decade. No other presidential candidate has proposed such a dramatic shift in the United States’ support of Palestinians, but I met moderate, liberal, and progressive Democrats all over Iowa who recognized that unconditional United States support for Israel prevents Palestinians from having what all people deserve: freedom.
When I decided to spend a week of my winter break from college to go on a bus tour of Iowa talking to candidates about Palestinian freedom, I prepared for seven days of interactions with presidential candidates as frosty as the weather. And while establishment Democratic politicians dismissed our message, as I traversed the state with other Jewish and Palestinian student activists from across the country, I was surprised to receive the support of a group of people I hadn’t anticipated: Iowa voters.
Iowan Democrats’ support for Palestinian justice shouldn’t have surprised me. Though much of the Democratic establishment remains out of touch with Democratic voters’ views on Israel/Palestine, polls show that a majority of Democrats reject policies that, like Bernie Sanders told me, are “just 100 percent pro-Israel and ignore the terrible suffering that’s going on in Gaza and elsewhere for the Palestinian people.” While Democratic politicians like Joe Biden, Cory Booker, and Amy Klobuchar double down on their unequivocal support for Israel, a September-October 2019 poll conducted by Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland found that the vast majority of Democratic voters support a neutral United States policy on Israel/Palestine. According to a November 2019 Data for Progress poll, 65 percent of Democrats and 46 percent of the public at large support leveraging the $3.8B in annual military funding to Israel to pressure it to end its violations of Palestinian human rights, while previous polls by Professor Telhami show a majority of Democrats would support imposing sanctions or stronger action against Israel in response to the construction of illegal Jewish settlements on occupied Palestinian land.
Handing out flyers and cups of hot chocolate to voters across Iowa, I saw the humans behind the numbers. I met Brad, a farmer and farm justice organizer who became so overwhelmed with emotion at the presence of our group at a candidate event that he choked up while expressing his support. For decades, Brad has seen the connection between Iowan farmers’ struggles for justice and autonomy in Iowa and the Palestinian movement for self-determination. I met a volunteer for Elizabeth Warren’s campaign who told me that the United States should not have a policy that disregards the experiences of Palestinians, who know their oppression better than anyone else. Even Biden supporters angry that we interrupted his campaign surrogate John Kerry met us outside the event and agreed that Palestinians should be free.
Even as both Republicans and the Israeli government continue to hurtle further to the Right arm in arm, many in the Democratic establishment steadfastly maintain virtually unconditional support for Israel. Ignoring the desire of the majority of Democratic voters for a fairer policy, they align themselves with Trump and Netanyahu, who defend Israel’s violations of international law by criminalizing dissent. Though Professor Telhami’s polling found that 80 percent of Democrats oppose laws outlawing the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement for Palestinian rights, the failed anti-BDS bill that Cory Booker cosponsored in 2018 has now effectively become law through Trump’s recent executive order that conflates criticism of Israel with antisemitism.
I went to Iowa to tell candidates for the Democratic nomination that they can no longer ignore the demands of Palestinians and their allies in their struggle for freedom. We are witnessing historic shifts in public opinion on Israel/Palestine, and Democratic voters, have swept into office a new, young guard of progressive Democratic congressmembers who challenge the establishment’s unquestioned defense of Israel. Representatives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib believe that supporting Palestinians as they struggle for their freedom and rights is a core progressive issue and they aren’t afraid to say so.
When Democratic politicians support Israel without question, they stand up for policies of discrimination that they would never endorse in the United States. Whoever becomes the Democratic nominee, they will have a choice to make: they can stand up for the equality of all people, regardless of their religion or race, or they can reject their base and their supposed core values and continue supporting policies that empower Israel to oppress Palestinians.