Dem divisions

Most progressive Democrats tempering calls for Israeli restraint against Hamas 

But a week into Israel’s war against Hamas, Democrats’ factional differences on Israel policy show signs of reemerging

Alexi J. Rosenfeld/Getty Images

Smoke rises from buildings, viewed from the Israeli side of the border, as the Israeli military conducts a bombardment on October 15, 2023 in northern Gaza.

A week into Israel’s war with Hamas and ahead of Israel’s expected ground invasion into Gaza, Democrats’ factional differences on Israel policy are showing some early signs of reemerging.

But even some progressive Democrats, who typically put pressure on Israel to de-escalate and cease fire, are stopping short of the criticism of Israeli actions they’ve employed in previous rounds of conflict — as Israel prepares for a ground invasion against Hamas. 

On Friday, a group of 55 House Democrats, led by progressive Reps. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), Mark Pocan (D-WI), Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) and Jim McGovern (D-MA) — who have been frequently critical of Israeli policy — wrote a letter to President Joe Biden urging the administration to caution Israel that its response needs to be carried out according to international law. 

“We write to express our concerns regarding the unfolding humanitarian situation in Gaza as Israel responds to Hamas’ terrorist attack,” the letter reads, while also “unequivocally condemn[ing] Hamas’ shocking and horrifying terrorist attack.”

The lawmakers said they are “deeply concerned about the order to evacuate over a million civilians out of northern Gaza in 24 hours” and by the “recent comments from Israel Defense Forces leaders that call for a ‘complete siege’” of the Gaza Strip.

The lawmakers urged Biden to “communicate that Israel’s response in Gaza must be carried out according to international law and take all due measures to limit harm to innocent civilians”; work to restore some services to Gaza; establish a humanitarian corridor into the enclave; and include humanitarian assistance to both Gaza and Israel in funding requests to Congress.

The letter and other similar statements do not, however, explicitly call for a cease-fire or de-escalation, as have been common among progressive Democrats in previous rounds of conflict. Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), a member of the Senate’s progressive wing, was booed at a pro-Israel rally in Boston last week after calling for “de-escalation” after the Hamas terrorist attack

The softening language, even from leading House progressives who are often critical of Israel, suggests that the shock and brutality of Hamas’ attack, at least in the short term, show how the politics surrounding Israel within the Democratic Party have shifted. The Hamas attack has, at least for now, pushed Democratic attitudes back toward sympathy for Israel, new polling has shown.

Most of the lawmakers who signed onto the letter are also co-sponsoring a resolution that expresses staunch support for Israel, which doesn’t make any mention of the Palestinians.

And in a further sign of how the attack has shifted the politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a more pro-Israel direction, J Street, the progressive Israel advocacy group, reportedly told lawmakers that sponsoring that pro-Israel resolution would be a precondition for their endorsement in 2024.

That’s a shift from the group’s stance just a few months ago, when J Street declined to lobby for or against a resolution honoring Israel’s 75th anniversary, expressing concerns that the resolution declined to mention the Palestinians or Israeli-Palestinian peace.

The progressive letter to Biden is a sign that Israel critics in Congress are looking for a safe political space to express sympathy for Palestinians living in Gaza — even as the statement makes less stringent demands on Israel than progressives have made before. J Street also supported the progressive letter. 

Rep. Sara Jacobs (D-CA), a prominent Jewish progressive, argued in a statement on Friday that Israel should “reconsider” its call for Palestinians to evacuate “in order to preserve civilian life.”

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) said on X, formerly Twitter, on Friday that “as the U.S. assists Israel in its response to the terrorist attacks, our mutual focus should be on minimizing harm to innocent people, especially children, inside Gaza.”

The administration is holding firm in unflinching support of Israel and its response in Gaza. State Department leadership reportedly issued guidance to diplomats against calling for “de-escalation/ceasefire,” an “end to violence/bloodshed” and “restoring calm” in public communications on the situation in Gaza.

The biggest challenge for Democrats seeking to maintain a unified pro-Israel line may be the handful of far-left Squad lawmakers who have offered limited sympathy for Israel after the Hamas terrorist attack, several of whom have characterized Israeli actions against the terrorist group in Gaza as “ethnic cleansing.” 

Some committed pro-Israel lawmakers are beginning to say that challenges could lie ahead.

“Going forward, this will become more difficult, as all of you know, as the damage is shown in Gaza,” Rep. Kathy Manning (D-NC) said in a virtual event with Democratic Majority for Israel on Friday. “We will have members of Congress who are concerned with what’s going on and we are going to continue to urge people to stay with Israel on this. The administration has shown clear resolve and we will all do our part to make sure that Congress does the same thing.”

Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD), the former House Democratic leader and a longtime pro-Israel champion, told Jewish Insider on Friday that he believes the level of support for Israel seen over the first week of the conflict will be durable, noting that more than 400 members are supporting a resolution supporting Israel.

“Could that vary somewhat, depending on what circumstances are? I think the answer to that is, honestly, a yes,” Hoyer continued. “But I think the overwhelming numbers of the House on both sides of the aisle — and I think the president spoke for most Americans saying that this evil must be defeated, and we’re going to stay the course — and I think that is the position of the House of Representatives.”

Hoyer also highlighted that most lawmakers on both sides of the aisle vote consistently in favor of pro-Israel legislation.

He noted comments by progressive lawmakers such as Rep. Shri Thanedar (D-MI) distancing themselves from the Democratic Socialists of America, which promoted a pro-Hamas rally in New York City a day after the terrorist attack in Israel.

Hoyer, who defended Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) for displaying a Palestinian flag outside her office, told JI he had not seen her initial statement on the conflict that appeared to describe Hamas’ attack as an act of “resistance.”

Rep. Sydney Kamlager-Dove (D-CA), who signed onto the progressive letter, emphasized to JI in an interview on Friday that she remains supportive of supplemental funding to Israel “as they work to fight and dismantle terrorist Hamas.”

“It’s important for us to keep our eyes on the prize, and I think the prize is getting rid of Hamas, helping people understand who and what Hamas is,” she said. “Hamas is not the Palestinian people. Hamas is a terrorist organization, a fundamentalist terrorist organization that does not care about peace, that Israel has the right to exist, that Palestinians and Israelis have the ability to coexist, and that we need to be laser focused on finding a path for peace.”

Peace, she continued, does not require surrendering the right to self-defense or apologizing for utilizing it.

“It does mean we have to collectively rejoin regional discussions, uncomfortable and comfortable ones, around what peace looks like in the Middle East,” Kamlager-Dove said. “There will be a series of uncomfortable discussions, I’m sure, but we cannot forego a historic ally, someone who has been a partner to us for a very long time and someone that’s been an anchor democracy in a very volatile region.”

Kamlager-Dove said she’s grappling with a range of concerns — for Israel, for Palestinian civilians and for regional security — perhaps underscoring the considerations shaping progressive responses to the conflict so far. 

“This is really hard. This war is really an existential moment for how we view ourselves and humanity,” she said. “There’s never a time to blame a victim and there’s never a time to ignore the human side of things.”

Rep. Dan Goldman (D-NY), who was in Israel with his family when the Hamas attack started, said he’s been engaged in numerous conversations with colleagues across the party to explain that the current situation “is completely different than the cycle of violence” that has been seen in Israel and Gaza for years.

“It’s very important for everyone to understand that Hamas is a brutal terrorist organization, like Al-Qaida, like ISIS, whose sole mission is to erase Jews and Israel from this earth,” Goldman said. “Their continued presence is not only harmful to the peace and security of Israel, but it’s also harmful to the peace, security and prosperity of the Palestinian people.”

He added that it’s “important for Democrats to follow President Biden’s lead.”

Hoyer said that pro-Israel lawmakers must highlight the U.S.’ longtime support for Israel “as a sanctuary nation, as a place for people who have been discriminated against, [that] it’s [been] subjected to hate and prejudice and bigotry for millennia.”

He described the desire to kill Jews and eliminate the State of Israel as a “cancer afflicting the Palestinian people,” which the U.S. is helping to cut out.” 

Responding to the letter from progressives, Hoyer emphasized that “the Palestinian people are captives of Hamas.” 

He noted that Hamas has urged Palestinians to ignore warnings so that it can hide behind civilians. He also highlighted that most of those Hamas killed in Israel were civilian noncombatants. Hoyer argued that not undertaking efforts to eliminate Hamas would only allow it to continue to kill Israelis.

“Any nation that is in that position believes that it has the responsibility to protect its people. And that’s what Israel is doing,” he said. “I would hope that no innocent civilian would be hurt. There is of course, no war that was ever fought that that’s the case.”

Hoyer and Manning also both emphasized that the anti-Israel wing of the party remains small and not representative of the party as a whole.

“Let’s not exaggerate the importance of the few members of the far left in the Democratic Party,” Manning said. “Because they are a very small minority… When you’re in the House, when you’re in the discussions and the caucus meetings, the vast majority of Democrats are with Israel and will stay with Israel as long as we can keep educating them about what the facts are.”

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