On September 23rd the US House voted 420 to 9 to spend $1 billion in taxpayer dollars to replenish Israel’s “Iron Dome missile” interceptor battery. This staunch and unsurprising demonstration of bipartisan military support for Israel’s war crimes found opposition from only 9 representatives, including Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Cori Bush, and a handful of others. Several supposedly progressive representatives seen by many on the left as allies even voted for the bill, including Betty McCollum of Minnesota who sponsored H.R. 2590, a bill which seeks to condition US aid by not funding Israeli jailing of Palestinian children, as well as Wisconsin’s Mark Pocan. During the proceedings Tlaib—who is Palestinian—spoke against voting for the appropriations bill. The response was an onslaught of Democrats and Republicans decrying Tlaib’s “besmirchment of our ally”, and slanders against her with the tired charge of antisemitism. Not a single Democrat, even from the Squad, stood up to defend her.
More troubling is that on a standalone vote on a one-line item to support Israel militarily, candidates backed by the Democratic Socialists of America had a split vote. Jamaal Bowman of New York City voted in favor of the funding, again demonstrating his consistent commitment to funding Israel. In just over a month’s time, he has approved funding to Israel to the tune of $4.3 billion. In a tremendous display of political cowardice, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez switched her “no” vote to abstain from voting.
As in August, when parts of the Squad—and certain DSA members among them—voted for $3.3 billion in military funding for Israel, this vote should raise major strategic questions. Are electoral campaigns inside the Democratic Party effective at combating US support for Israel’s ethnic cleansing and oppression of Palestinians? This fiscal year (assuming this bill passes the Senate, which appears a given) the US will have spent more in providing direct military support for Israel than any other year in at least the last forty years. And the tiny opposition to this record spending has not even been able to maintain a consistent approach against direct military spending for apartheid and settler colonialism.
Israel’s eleven-day bombardment of Gaza this summer murdered 256 Palestinians, 66 of them children, demolished schools and clinics, and flattened residential buildings. Less than two weeks afterward, Israel’s minister of defense—Benny Gantz—hurried to Washington to request the extra $1 billion on top of the $3.8 billion the US already gives Israel annually in accordance with a memorandum of understanding established by the Obama administration.
The Iron Dome system is a set of specialized missile batteries that function to intercept short-range rockets fired at Israel. It is with this pretense that supporters of Zionism claim that Iron Dome is “defensive.” This completely misses the context that exposes this simple claim as duplicitous.
Development of Iron Dome began in the wake of the Second Lebanon War in 2006 when Israel used the pretext of a Hezbollah raid in Israeli-controlled territory to launch a full-on invasion and bombardment of Lebanon. It carried out massive retaliations and an act of flagrant collective punishment on the Lebanese population. Thousands of Lebanese were killed (only 43 Israeli civilians were killed) and a host of human rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, found that Israel had committed a host of war crimes including the dropping of cluster bombs and white phosphorus on civilian areas. Though leaving a path of destruction in its wake, Israel was forced to withdraw in what many considered a military loss. Israel’s doctrine of overwhelming violence as a deterrent needed to be adjusted to better secure its borders.
A year prior, Israel carried out a unilateral disengagement of Israeli settlements from, and subsequent blockade of Gaza. By 2007, the blockade of Gaza became near totally imposed and continues to this day, with crippling consequences for Palestinians living in this densely populated enclave. With the illegal fencing of Gaza, the use of a short-range interceptor system helped secure a new militarized border caging Palestinians in.
Thus the Iron Dome system can barely be called “defensive,” as it functions to facilitate Israel’s one-sided aggression against Palestinians and neighboring Arab countries. It allows Israel to carry out regular bombing and missile strikes against civilian populations, especially in Gaza. It ensures that Israeli aggression, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing can be carried out with next to no human cost to Israel.
Considering the number of people killed by Israel’s rockets and airstrikes, the hypocrisy of US politicians justifying the need to back Iron Dome in order to “save lives” is outrageous. Israel doesn’t need protection; it is the primary perpetrator of violence, and does so with overwhelming financial support and with one of the most advanced militaries on the planet.
And yet, since Iron Dome became operational in 2011 it has been a joint American/Israeli project with a huge amount of funding coming from US taxpayers. Fifty percent of the missiles are produced by the US, and technology is shared between the states. Moreover, it is now possibly going on the market as Saudi Arabia is considering contracting Israel for a similar interceptor system. This is just another instance of US cash funding the Israeli permanent arms economy that helps arm other reactionary states.
In a coincidence probably not lost to Israeli politicians, the very name—Iron Dome—evokes the writings of Zionist fascist Ze’ev Jabotinsky who openly called for the complete purging of Palestinians from the land and the construction of a Jewish-only state “independent of the native population—behind an iron wall, which the native population cannot breach.”1Ze’ev Jabotinsky, quoted in Rashid Khalidi The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2020),13.
This iron wall to secure Israeli settler colonialism, atrocities, and unbridled violence is what Bowman voted for and Ocasio-Cortez abstained from.
The drama of AOC shifting from a “no” vote to voting “present,” then subsequently breaking down in tears, grabbed media attention. While I would caution against the left focusing its critique on her tears—as some have—because of the sexist tropes of “emotional women,” AOC’s changing of her vote deserves fierce condemnation. The whole affair is a curious one: the vote should be a straightforward one for any individual who claims to be for the human rights of Palestinians, and yet there is a degree of mystery around her wavering. Some have speculated that her abstention is related to her eyeing a possible Senate run. While it is certainly the case that AOC has ambitions, and that moving up in the Democratic Party is usually tied to being in line with its position in support of “maintaining Israel’s security,” this explanation still seems simplistic. If this was some highly strategic political chess move, then why did she initially signal she would vote no, and why did she vote against H.R. 4373 that endowed Israel with $3.3 billion?
On the day following the vote AOC issued an “apology” statement that de-mystified nothing. In the statement made to her congressional district, she says she opposed the resolution that she abstained from voting on. Yet, the reason for her switching her vote remains completely unexplained. Blaming the rushed nature of the vote and the procedure with which the resolution was brought to the floor, which she describes as “threatening to tear our community apart, and permanently close the doors that we desperately need open,” she claims that if only the vote was delayed a few hours then this vote would not be met with “vitriol.” How this justified her switching her vote is still unexplained, unless one assumes that one of the most controversial questions in American politics—the US unflagging support for Israeli racism and ethnic cleansing—could be resolved through a better procedure in the US House. This is absurd.
Whatever the reason for her retreat, whether crude careerism or inter-party pulls, it is certainly the case that pressure was exerted for her to get in line, perhaps directly so. And the attempts to organize a counter-force are mired by not being independent of these pulls. This produces the jarring inconsistency within the Squad, with Omar breaking to vote ‘yes’ to fund Israel in August and AOC voting ‘no’, while last week AOC abstained and Omar voted ‘no.’ While what motivated AOC last week may be unclear, the fact is that the Democratic Party’s capability to discipline its politicians around issues like Israel is a powerful force.
While AOC has received media attention and criticism from the left for her flip-flop, Jamaal Bowman’s vote in favor of Iron Dome funding has generated relatively few waves. While lacking the drama of AOC’s vote, Bowman’s is perhaps more egregious. Bowman, like AOC, is a member of DSA, an organization that has expressed support for Palestine, the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement, and cutting aid to Israel. His election last year was described by Jacobin as a “political earthquake” and his Green New Deal for School initiative is currently being pushed heavily in DSA. And yet, the politician whose campaign slogan was “fighting for jobs and education, not bombs and incarceration” has distinguished himself by consistently voting for bombs for Israel this year, totalling $4.3 billion dollars. There is a grotesque irony in his undoubtedly taking to Twitter—as he did this past May—to criticize Israel using the very weapons against Palestinian civilians that he voted to pay for.
Part of the reason Bowman’s vote has garnered less press is that his political softness on Israel is unsurprising. There seems to be a sense that more was not expected of him. This speaks loudly to the very questions these incidents raise around socialist strategy for fighting imperialism and for justice in Palestine. To say that our socialist strategy to combat US imperialism and Israeli settler colonialism includes not expecting socialist candidates to vote against these things can barely be considered a strategy, let alone a winning one.
So how will the socialist movement and organizations respond? Unlike the vote on H.R. 4373, the DSA National Political Committee issued a statement condemning the vote. The statement names Bowman and Ocasio-Cortez and expressed “disappointment” in their votes. But beyond an expression of sadness about their vote, there is no indication as to what these failures mean, if there is any cost to these two candidates, or if there are any lessons to be drawn. The closest thing to the latter is the statement’s expression that: “It is up to us, as socialists, to build enough working class power to ensure that votes like this can never happen again.” Nevermind that votes like this have already happened, and just last month with Bowman.
To say that it is up to “us, as socialists” completely absolves Bowman and AOC of responsibility. They needn’t do anything differently, it is just us that need to build an ambiguous “working-class power.” Most likely this refers to the oft-expressed need to get more socialist candidates in Congress. But this process of utopian incrementalism, of dreaming of an ever-ascending slow accumulation of socialist “electeds” is a strategy without a time frame. Are we talking about 8, 12, 16 years? If so, one must ask what will happen to the Palestinian people in that time frame. Settler colonialism, ethnic cleansing, and catastrophe are happening now, with American backing. Are Palestinians to be told to wait while “working-class power” is built?
Additionally the question of how power is to be built is essential. Instead of DSA holding elected officials accountable, it was once again the Democratic Party that did all the disciplining. As was seen when the party apparatus kicked into full gear to end the Sanders presidential run in 2020, the Democrats exert massive pull on their members. Without an independent party that can not only discipline its elected officials but also back them around controversial elements of its program, the pull towards the center is a black hole for the left that will only grow.
Building a movement against imperialism and for justice in Palestine will require, first and foremost, building a movement from below beyond the imbroglio of DC politics. But we also need a better electoral strategy. As I have argued before: “Instead of endorsing a politically uneven assortment of candidates over whom we’ll have limited control once they win office, we need a political party (independent of the two cartels that dominate US government) that is internally democratic and membership-based, which fields its own candidates and can hold them accountable. And such a strategy has to be premised on an understanding that all good social change comes from mass disruption.”