February 22, 2020

Dems: Debate Israel Out in the Open

When California Democrats gather for their state party convention in San Francisco on May 31, they will hear from congressional and legislative leaders, from Gov. Gavin Newsom and every other statewide constitutional officer, and a battalion of presidential candidates. They will hear about issues that unify and inspire their party, about abortion rights and marriage equality, about universal health care and climate change, about gun control and immigrant rights. 

But one thing they will almost certainly not hear about — not from Newsom or Speaker Nancy Pelosi, not from Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) or Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) or any of the other presidential contenders — is Israel.

These conventions are designed to bring together a party. Israel is tearing apart the Democratic Party. So if an attendee wants to hear about Middle East geopolitics or the domestic political manifestations of that debate, those discussions won’t take place on the podium but in the backrooms and hallways of the Moscone Center. That’s where delegates will be arguing over a passel of resolutions put forth by anti-Zionist hardliners, who call for unilateral Israeli concessions in the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights and ignore ongoing security threats to residents of the Jewish state. Meanwhile, pro-Israel Democrats are fighting back with resolutions of their own that would properly define the relationship between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. And party leaders will do everything in their power to keep these arguments out of public view.

But suppressing this fight would be a mistake. Battling over the party’s principles behind closed doors simply provides an advantage to a smaller but well-organized anti-Zionist movement. Better to debate these issues in public, where a pro-Israel majority can be clearly heard. And even better to put the question to every elected official and candidate who attends the convention: Ask Newsom and Pelosi and Harris and the rest to take a public position on each of these resolutions and to make it clear that they stand with Israel.

“Better to debate these issues in public, where a pro-Israel majority can be clearly heard.”

The overwhelming majority of elected Democrats would take that position, a small but vocal minority would not. But the short-term discord would be a small price to pay to expose the shallowness and narrowness of the anti-Israel sentiment. Burying the disagreement, on the other hand, simply allows the ideological outliers to organize outside of public view and to come back stronger every year until they have become an even more formidable political force.

I was a Republican for most of my adult life, before switching to No Party Preference status several years ago when the GOP’s rightward march made it clear I no longer belonged in that party. Some readers of this column will therefore dismiss my counsel as a diabolical plot from a nonbeliever whose true goal is to harm rather than help the efforts of pro-Israel Democrats. 

But I once watched my former party be taken over by rebel forces, too. I watched as the party establishment tried to pretend that the voices of intolerance from the far right didn’t exist and ignored the growing populist anger until it was too late.

Former President George W. Bush and the late Sen. John McCain and their generational colleagues believed that the anti-immigrant forces in their party could be isolated and hidden and ultimately defeated. But their strategy of forcing those debates to take place in the shadows ultimately backfired, and by the time the fight became public, the extremists’ numbers had grown to the point where they could no longer be held back. 

As a result, anti-immigrant sentiment now not only dominates but defines the Republican Party. While that de-evolution may bring some happiness to dedicated partisans on the other side of the aisle, the end result should serve as a warning to principled Democrats who think that obscuring arguments about Israel will work any better.

It’s far too easy to underestimate insurgencies, especially on such a volatile political and societal landscape. Fanaticism left unexposed has now despoiled one of our two major political parties. Let’s not allow the same thing to happen to the other, especially not on an issue as important as the safety and security of the Jewish homeland. Exposing haters — on either the far right or the far left — to public scrutiny is ultimately the best way to prevail.

Dan Schnur is a professor at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies and Pepperdine University.