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Emotional clashes over Israel torment House Democrats: “It’s hell”

by | Nov 10, 2023 | English

The highly charged debate over U.S. policy in Israel has exposed long-standing frictions among House Democrats, pitting Israel’s staunchest allies against pro-Palestinian liberals and posing a stark challenge for party leaders who are racing to ease the tensions.

BY MIKE LILLIS 

The divisions surfaced last month, when 15 Democrats declined to support a resolution declaring U.S. solidarity with Israel following Hamas’s deadly terrorist attacks several weeks earlier. They bubbled up again last week over legislation providing U.S. military aid to Tel Aviv. And they were thrust into the spotlight once more on Tuesday, when 22 Democrats voted to censure Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) for her harsh criticisms of Israel’s military response in Gaza.

The emotional clashes have chilled long-standing relationships between once-friendly lawmakers, sparked a potential challenge to at least one leadership post, and prompted talk of a bid to expel Tlaib, according to several lawmakers familiar with the private discussions.

Some Capitol Hill veterans said they’ve never seen the rancor so high within the caucus.

“It’s hell,” said one Democratic lawmaker, who spoke anonymously to discuss a sensitive topic. “I’m really worried about the hate that I’m seeing everyplace.”

Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), a Jewish liberal who voted to censure Tlaib, echoed the concern, saying he’s now being ostracized by fellow progressives close to her.

“It’s not healthy, it’s not mature, it’s not wise,” Cohen said. He declined to discuss specifics.

A third Democrat, who also spoke anonymously to discuss private conversations, said the censure vote has had the immediate effect of “cooling the collegiality,” even between former allies.

“I haven’t seen it this bad generally, in terms of the incoming that we’re getting from the outside. And I certainly have not seen our own differences within our caucus laid so bare and so raw — so raw and emotional and personal,” said the lawmaker, who opposed Tlaib’s censure.

“I’ve had long-standing relationships with some of the more pro-Israel members, and there’s just a distance that I feel. It’s palpable. The warmth, the level of engagement, is just not there.”

Hamas’s brutal attacks on civilians — and Israel’s fierce response, which has led to even more civilian deaths in Gaza — has fueled a tempestuous debate on social media, city streets and college campuses across the country. And the Democratic Caucus has been a microcosm of that dispute, complete with all the emotional trappings.

“I can’t think of an issue where I’ve seen emotions running as high as I have with this one,” Rep. Marc Veasey (D-Texas) said.

The tensions have been fueled by lawmakers on both sides of the explosive issue.

Last month, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.), a prominent Jewish Democrat, invited controversy when she told CNN that anyone who didn’t support the pro-Israel resolution “doesn’t have a soul” — a comment that outraged the 15 Democrats who withheld their backing to protest the absence of language supporting Palestinian civilians.

Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), another Jewish lawmaker, stirred the pot further when he characterized those 15 Democrats as “despicable” members who “do not speak for our party.”

More recently, Tlaib, Congress’s only Palestinian American member, released a video over the weekend accusing President Biden of abetting genocide in Gaza.

That message, posted on X, also featured clips of protestors chanting “from the river to the sea” — an explosive slogan, adopted by Hamas, suggesting the state of Israel should be destroyed.

Tlaib’s video was followed quickly this week by the consideration of two Republican censure resolutions, one of which was successful. Within the Democratic Caucus, her remarks were almost as controversial.

“Debbie and Josh’s comments about ‘despicable’ and ‘soulless’ put kerosine on the fire,” said the first Democratic lawmaker. “And this weekend was just — I mean, people wanted to expel [Tlaib].”

There was even broader fallout from the weeks-long fight, the lawmaker said.

“The 22 people that voted [for censure], the [progressives] want nothing to do with them. There are people that want to throw Debbie off [the Steering and Policy Committee]. Debbie wants to get more [pro-Israel] people into leadership. There are lots of conversations,” the lawmaker said.

Wasserman Schultz, for her part, is downplaying the divisions, emphasizing that Democrats are united on the vast majority of issues, and that most members of the caucus continue to throw their support behind Israel.

“The way I see it we have a small number of members that are in disagreement with the overwhelming majority of the caucus on the U.S.-Israel relationship,” she said.

Still, she also seemed to acknowledge that the public nature of the Israel fight hasn’t helped the party politically.

“Honestly, these are all conversations that I don’t think need to be had in the press,” she said. “Like any family discussion, when you have some that are feeling discordant with the majority, you know, you work through those issues. But you don’t do it in public.”

Lawmakers are looking to leadership to steer those conversations and tamp down the tensions.

“Hakeem and Katherine are going to have to pull us together,” the first lawmaker said. “They’re going to have to help heal us.”

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), the House minority leader, declined this week to discuss the internal party divisions, noting only that Democrats performed well in Tuesday’s elections in Ohio, Virginia and several other states. But he has been working furiously behind the scenes to pacify the feuding groups, according to several sources familiar with those efforts.

Jeffries voted with most Democrats against Tlaib’s censure, citing her rights to free speech. But he also issued a statement emphasizing U.S. support for Israel and condemning the “river to the sea” language in harsh terms, although without mentioning Tlaib by name.

That balance, along with his clear support for humanitarian aid to Palestine, has won high praise from lawmakers on both sides of the debate.

“His statements, with absolute moral clarity, talked about why Israel is our ally, why we have shared interests, and why Israel has a right to defend itself,” said Rep. Brad Schneider (Ill.), a Jewish Democrat and staunch Israel supporter. “But he’s also talking about taking care of the needs of the civilians who are always the ones caught in the middle of a war. And he continues to work with everyone in the caucus.”

A large part of that effort has been staging direct talks with the key groups.

“He wants to talk to the Squad, he wants to talk to the Progressive Caucus. He’s talking to members of the Jewish Caucus. He’s talking to everybody,” said Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), a close Tlaib ally and member of the far left Squad.

Bowman said Jeffries, as a Black man of faith representing a highly diverse Brooklyn district, is the perfect figure to lead the therapeutic process. But he also emphasized the pitfalls in finding consensus on an issue as fraught as the Israel-Palestine conflict.

“He’s trying to facilitate conversations [between groups]. But it makes it harder when you call someone ‘despicable’ or ‘soulless’ or something like that,” Bowman said.

“I understand there’s a lot of emotions there, so I would never say I’m never going to work with someone. But it is hurtful. It’s hurtful and I’m sure others are hurt, too.”

The issue is sure to resurface in the coming weeks and months, as the war between Israel and Hamas rages on — with civilian casualties rising each day — and congressional leaders are still vowing to move legislation providing billions of dollars in aid to Israel, perhaps combined with humanitarian assistance for Gaza.

Both debates will highlight the stark divisions between Israel’s loudest defenders and resolute critics — and create continued headaches for Democratic leaders vying to demonstrate a united front.

“It makes it easier to understand why it’s such an intractable issue,” said the second anonymous lawmaker. “When people who are thoughtful, responsible elected leaders in the United States Congress can’t overcome their own anger, emotion, resentment, fear, to have a civil conversation, how do we expect the people who have bombs falling on them to have that conversation?”

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