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By Jacob Kornbluh
July 18, 2023

When Ilhan Omar announced “there is no way in hell” that she would attend Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s Wednesday address to a joint session of Congress, she hoped many of her colleagues would join her boycott.

The progressive Democratic from Minnesota listed nearly a dozen reasons to skip the speech. Among them: Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, the extremists who hold prominent posts within the Israeli government, and its judicial overhaul plan, which many fear will invest an outsized portion of power in right-wing lawmakers.

Those arguments, plus a recent poll, which showed that a plurality of Democrats sympathize more with the Palestinians than the Israelis in the Middle East conflict, might have seemed to have been enough to prompt more than “The Squad,” the sextet of progressives that has tried to push their Democratic colleagues leftward, to absent themselves.

But as of Tuesday morning, only five Democrats, all of them Squad members, have committed to skipping the speech: Omar, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Cori Bush and Jamaal Bowman. It is unclear if Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts will attend.

Still, some wonder if this is a watershed moment in the intra-party shift on Israel, with an increasing number of Democrats wanting to have nothing to do with the Jewish state. It at least seems more alarming than the larger boycott of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — reviled on the left in both Israel and the U.S. — when he addressed Congress in 2015 to oppose the Iran nuclear deal backed by President Barack Obama.

Herzog holds a largely ceremonial post, is the former leader of Israel’s pro-peace Labor Party, and is working to blunt the sharpest edges of the judicial plan.

What does it say about the hardening and growth of opposition to Israel among Democrats when backs turn on Herzog? Is any Israeli acceptable to the Democratic left?

“The boycott of the Israeli President is part of an ongoing effort to mainstream the extreme delegitimization of Israel,” said Ritchie Torres, a New York congressman who has been taken to task by the left and faced social media harassment for his strong defense of Israel.

Boycotts by the numbers

The number of lawmakers boycotting Herzog matches the number who boycotted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech to Congress last week. It does not approach the 58 Democrats who boycotted Netanyahu eight years ago when Republican congressional leaders broke protocol by inviting him over President Obama’s wishes.

Herzog, though, is widely seen as a peacemaker, in contrast to the polarizing Netanyahu. He comes to the U.S. to press some political points, but also to remind Americans of their alliance with Israel and to commemorate the Jewish state’s 75th anniversary. A boycott of his speech, as opposed to Netanyahu’s, may seem more like a boycott of Israel itself.

Jewish leaders and liberal groups have attempted to downplay Omar’s efforts, and to take pains to show their own support for Herzog and Israel.

“I’d be careful not to overstate the impact of the very small handful of Democrats who are reportedly not attending the speech,” said Logan Bayroff, a spokesperson for J Street, a lobbying group that takes progressive stances on Israel. “I think it’s clear that the most mainstream position in the Democratic Party right now, including among progressives, remains pro-Israel, pro-peace and pro-democracy.”


Jewish support for the boycott

At least one Jewish group defended the boycott, in spite of the contrast between Netanyahu and Herzog.

Jews For Racial & Economic Justice, a New York-based progressive advocacy group, praised Ocasio-Cortez and Bowman for skipping Wednesday’s event.

“President Herzog is not Netanyahu, nor is he part of Netanyahu’s far-right political alliance,” it said in a statement, “but in delivering a joint session speech, Herzog speaks as a representative of the Israeli government — a government actively engaging in apartheid, land theft, and violence against Palestinians.” The group called Herzog “simply a more palatable representative to cover up the violent reality on the ground.”

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