Washington, DC – Inexplicable. That is how advocates are describing the actions of some Democratic officials who seem to be not only alienating but actively antagonising members of their own party over differing views on the war in Gaza.
Many prominent Democrats, including United States President Joe Biden, have voiced “unwavering” support for Israel’s military offensive in the Palestinian enclave. But that stance has fractured the Democratic base, with polls showing that a majority of Americans support a ceasefire.
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That schism was prominently on display in November, when activists held a ceasefire protest outside the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington, DC. Democratic Congressman Brad Sherman responded by calling the demonstrators “pro-terrorist”.
“Apparently, these pro-#Hamas demonstrators want #Republicans to prevail in the next Congressional election,” he wrote in a social media post.
He also accused the activists of attempting to break into the building — an allegation refuted by the protest organisers and journalists who were at the scene. The protesters had sought to block an entrance to the headquarters where a reception was unfolding, and police responded by evacuating lawmakers and forcibly dispersing the activists.
But advocates say Sherman’s reaction was one of many instances where Democratic politicians have smeared their constituents over the Gaza war, signalling a disconnect with the party’s base.
‘Major political error’
Beth Miller, the political director at Jewish Voice for Peace Action, an advocacy group, called Democrats’ attacks on ceasefire activists “pathetic” and “shocking”.
“It’s also a major political error,” Miller told Al Jazeera.
She noted that public opinion polls show most Americans — and an overwhelming majority of Democrats — back an end to hostilities in Gaza.
A Reuters/Ipsos survey released last month indicated 68 percent of respondents believed Israel should call a ceasefire and negotiate an end to the war. That number rose to 77 percent among Democrats alone.
“For these members of Congress to not only dismiss it, but to actively attack those people, I think it means that they’re also not reading the political winds of how people will be voting and what they will be demanding in the coming cycle,” Miller said.
The rift between Democratic policy and public opinion has translated into dwindling approval ratings. In October, the Arab American Institute, a think tank, found Arab American support for Biden had dropped 42 percent, reaching an all-time low.
That downward trend was reflected in the wider public as well. A recent NBC poll showed that 70 percent of voters under 34 disapproved of President Joe Biden’s handling of the war.
Usamah Andrabi, communications director at Justice Democrats, a progressive group, said the Democratic Party is showing itself to be “out of step” with its base as well as the broader electorate.
“It is a baffling calculation to see the president and the White House side far closer with Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right government in Israel than a majority of his own Democratic voters at home,” Andrabi told Al Jazeera.
Criticising calls for a ceasefire
From the outset of the war, several Democrats, including Biden, have drawn ire for appearing to vilify activists calling for a ceasefire.
Days after the conflict broke out, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre issued a strongly worded response to a question about legislators allegedly “equating the Hamas terror attack” with Israeli actions.
Jean-Pierre first asked for clarity about which Congress members had done so. When the reporter identified them as members who “called for a ceasefire”, she said their statements were “wrong”, “repugnant” and “disgraceful”.
It was unclear which statements she was referring to, but many activists understood her words to be a condemnation of the progressive lawmakers pushing for an end to the war.
Meanwhile, Democratic Senator John Fetterman earned the praise of the far-right publication Breitbart last month for waving an Israeli flag at ceasefire protesters on Capitol Hill.
Then came the large pro-Israel protest on November 14, during which top congressional Democrats held hands with their Republican counterparts, including House Speaker Mike Johnson. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer led chants of “I stand with Israel”. The crowd regularly called out, “No ceasefire!”
The Biden administration was represented by Deborah Lipstadt, the US envoy to combating anti-Semitism, who delivered a speech. The pro-Israel rally was also attended by far-right figures, including Christian Zionist pastor John Hagee, who has been accused of stoking both anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.
A day after the rally, two White House communications officials Andrew Bates and Herbie Ziskend shared approvingly a Fox News story titled, “Biden allies condemn far-left calls for ceasefire in Israel-Hamas war”.
In the article, Democratic lawmakers — including Fetterman and Congressman Ritchie Torres — praised Biden for his support for Israel and admonished those demanding an end to the war as “fringe”.
An anonymous Biden administration official quoted in the story criticised the mainstream media for not being critical enough of Rashida Tlaib, the only Palestinian American member of Congress.
The criticism of Palestinian rights supporters continued this week when Democratic Congressman Brad Schneider gave an interview to Fox News.
He called for revoking the tax-exempt status of groups that he claimed are diverting money “into terrorist organisations”, citing — without evidence — the advocacy organisation American Muslims for Palestine. He added that “groups like Students for Justice in Palestine and others should not be getting these tax benefits”.
‘Core voting bases’
Andrabi, from Justice Democrats, understands this kind of rhetoric as corrosive to the relationship Democratic politicians have with their supporters.
“What we are seeing is the Biden administration attempting to gaslight the American people into believing that their majority that supports a ceasefire is somehow radical and fringe when the only people who are radical and fringe is the coalition between Netanyahu’s far-right government and the Biden White House,” Andrabi said.
He dismissed arguments that the war will not shake Biden’s standing with voters as he seeks reelection in 2024.
Foreign policy is seldom a top priority for voters. But advocates say the scale of the violence in Gaza has made it a decisive issue for many constituents. Some United Nations experts have gone so far as to warn of “a grave risk of genocide“.
“I don’t think anybody will forget that a year from now. And what Democrats are doing is trying to will it into existence that this is not going to matter,” Andrabi explained. But, he added, “it matters so much to so many of their core voting bases”.
Delaware State Representative Madinah Wilson-Anton, who was part of a hunger strike outside the White House this week calling for a ceasefire, expressed bewilderment at the mainstream Democrats’ position.
“I’m trying to figure out what the rationale is,” she told Al Jazeera, voicing disappointment in Biden.
“People feel betrayed. People feel like they were led to believe he was this moral leader that was going to restore the soul of America.”
New York State Representative Zohran Mamdani said Americans are desperate for a government that represents them and their demands. He expressed surprise that calls for a ceasefire have been deemed controversial.
“I don’t know how this demand is characterised as something that is far-left. This is the most mainstream demand in America today on foreign policy,” he said.