In the span of two days, one Jewish lawmaker became the first to call on Israel to ceasefire in the Gaza Strip, another called the Palestinian death toll in the Israel-Hamas war “unacceptable,” and a third said suffering in Gaza was a “moral failure.”
On Wednesday, Sen. Jon Ossoff, who has been a consensus-seeking voice on Israel within the Democratic party and who has carefully avoided overly criticizing the Jewish state since entering Congress in 2021, issued a blistering critique of the IDF’s ongoing military operation against Hamas in Gaza.
“The extent of civilian death and suffering in Gaza is unnecessary. It is a moral failure, and it should be unacceptable to the United States,” Ossoff said in a speech from the Senate floor on Wednesday.
While Ossoff had hitherto been critical of certain Israeli policies in the West Bank, he had tapered that criticism and relied heavily on talking points regarding the importance of a two-state solution while working to build relationships with several key Israeli lawmakers. He has led efforts in Congress to back largely consensus initiatives such as boosting funding for the US Security Coordinator in Jerusalem and encouraging an independent investigation into the killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh.
Thus, Wednesday’s criticism voiced by Ossoff went further than he has in the past and raises the question of whether it may amount to the start of a trend within the Democratic party led by a president who has backed Israel’s military operation in Gaza while urging the IDF to protect civilians as much as possible.
Ossoff was careful not to go as far as to call for a ceasefire as over two dozen of his far-left colleagues in the House have done. However, he appeared to come close.
“An unmitigated humanitarian disaster in Gaza… undermines American national security; it heightens the risk that the war might spread and draw American forces further into combat; it sews the seeds of hate and dims the prospects for a long-term sustainable peace between Israelis and Palestinians; it gives fodder to terrorists who would strike Americans and our allies abroad and at home; it damages the credibility of the United States and our allies as champions of a future defined by humanitarian values,” Ossoff said.
“If in six months Gaza is rubble and tens of thousands of civilians dead and millions of desperate refugees with no viable plan to govern its ruins, that would be a disaster not just for all those killed and wounded and immiserated, but also for Israel, for the region and for the United States.”
The US “has stood with Israel since October 7, and still does,” Ossoff continued, pointing to US President Joe Biden’s wartime visit, the rushing of military aid to Israel and US military assets to the region and efforts to release the hostages.
“Nevertheless, requests by the United States that the Israeli leadership conduct a more targeted campaign, that they permit and provide a safe passage for aid essential to the sustenance of life, that they clearly define objectives, that they prevent extrajudicial killings by extremists in the West Bank, that they present a credible plan for Gaza’s future governance have mostly been ignored,” he claimed.
“Where the United States is committing arms, funds and support to those efforts, we must guard our principles and our interests,” Ossoff said in the speech in which he also categorically condemned Hamas, asserted that there is no justification for the October 7 massacre and acknowledged that a degree civilian collateral is understood given Hamas’s use of human shields.
“I urge Israel’s political leaders to act with wisdom, to listen to Israel’s greatest friend and ally, the United States,” he said.
Since October 7, the 35 Jews in the US House of Representatives and in the Senate — all but two of them Democrats — have been among the most stalwart in defending Israel since Hamas’s massacres that day that launched the war.
Last month, three Jewish lawmakers, including two progressives, spearheaded a letter from more than half of House Democrats supporting Biden’s robust backing for Israel. All 24 Jewish Democrats in the House signed it.
Now — as the war enters its sixth week, the Palestinian death toll rises and the humanitarian crisis intensifies — anguished expressions of dissent from Reps. Becca Balint of Vermont and Dean Phillips of Minnesota, and Ossoff in Georgia, suggest that wall of support might be crumbling.
Phillips, Ossoff and Balint each said that the massacres Hamas carried out, killing 1,200 people and taking some 240 captive, recalled the horrors of the Holocaust. “These events call to mind the Einsatzgruppen SS, the Nazi death squads who hunted and massacred our relatives across Eastern Europe 80 years ago,” Ossoff said on the Senate floor.
But they said they have been haunted by the subsequent carnage, in which the Hamas-controlled Gaza Health Ministry has said that more than 11,000 Palestinians have died, including thousands of children. Those figures cannot be independently verified, and Hamas has been accused of inflating them and of designating gunmen in their late teens as children. It is not known how many among its total are combatants, and how many among the dead were victims of misfired rockets aimed at Israel.
On Thursday, Balint became the first Jewish member of Congress to endorse a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war.
“What is needed right now is an immediate break in violence to allow for a true negotiated ceasefire,” she said in an op-ed for VTigger, a Vermont news site. “One in which both sides stop the bloodshed, allow critical access to humanitarian aid and move towards negotiating a sustainable and lasting peace.”
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democrat who is a leader of the “Squad,” the most left-wing faction in the House, immediately seized upon Balint’s support, noting her Jewish identity.
“Rep. Becca Balint is now the first Jewish member of Congress to come out in favor of a ceasefire in Gaza,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted. “She is incredibly brave, taking a stance rooted in her commitment to human rights and protection of the innocent.”
Balint’s appeal differs in some ways from the ceasefire promotion that Ocasio-Cortez champions, in two substantive ways: Ocasio-Cortez this week spearheaded a letter to Biden urging him to press Israel into a ceasefire. Balint’s appeal was to Israel, and not to Biden to exert pressure on Israel.
Balint also said in her op-ed that a condition of a ceasefire must be the removal of Hamas from power — which is Israel’s objective in the war.
“A lasting bilateral cease-fire can only work if Hamas does not continue to rule in Gaza,” she wrote. “Hamas is a terrorist organization, and its stated goal is to annihilate the state of Israel. It can’t remain in power in Gaza.”
Ocasio-Cortez’s letter, which got 24 signatures, makes no such condition.
Later in the day, Ossoff took to the Senate floor to excoriate Israel’s conduct. He did not call for a ceasefire — he said Israel must pursue Hamas. But he was unstinting in his criticism of Israel’s conduct of the war and its resistance to Biden Administration pleas to allow in humanitarian assistance.
On Friday, Phillips, who is mounting a long-shot primary challenge to Biden and is known for his moderate positions, released a statement outlining his vision for a way out of the war that did not spare Israel or its leadership. He too called on Israel to dismantle Hamas’ fighting capacity.
“Israel has every right and expectation to target Hamas terrorists and dismantle their capability of destroying the state of Israel,” he said. “But that response has taken an unacceptable toll on Palestinians, many of whom are subject to Hamas terror — not supporters of it.”
He took aim in particular at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who he said had “exacerbated” policies of “repression and illegal settlement on Palestinian lands.” He said Israelis should hold elections soon. Netanyahu also has low approval ratings within Israel.
Phillips presented a five-point plan to create a “future of peace.” The document was notable considering Phillips has been a leader in Congress in terms of calling out fellow Democrats for Israel criticism that he believed was antisemitic.
Until now the only Jewish Democrat forcefully criticizing Israel’s response has been Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the unofficial leader of congressional progressives. But he has refused to call for a ceasefire and has distanced himself from fellow progressive who do.
The shifts by Jewish lawmakers comes amid accelerating volleys of sentiment by people in and close to the US government. Hundreds of Biden administration staffers have signed statements criticizing the administration’s handling of the Israel-Hamas war and calling for Biden to do more to support the Palestinians, The New York Times reported this week.
Also this week, more than 100 former staffers for Barack Obama issued a letter praising Biden’s “moral clarity” for backing Israel and endorsing his request for a $14 billion emergency assistance package to Israel.