US House speeches on Gaza expose growing rift in Democratic party on Israel

Progressive lawmakers lament US policy that ignores Palestinians, blast IDF strikes; more moderate colleagues closer to Biden offer ‘unwavering’ support for Jewish state

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Shultz speaks from the House Floor on May 13, 2021. (Screen capture/US House of Representatives)
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Shultz speaks from the House Floor on May 13, 2021. (Screen capture/US House of Representatives)

Nearly two dozen Democrats took to the floor of the US House of Representatives on Thursday to give impassioned speeches reacting to the ongoing violence in Gaza and Israel.

The hour-long salvo of brief addresses exposed the growing rift in the Democratic party between increasingly popular progressive lawmakers and more moderate representatives with closer ties to the Biden administration, with the former bloc taking a much more critical approach to Israel than the latter, which gave impassioned speeches offering unwavering support for the Jewish state.

The moderate group included Reps. Brad Schneider, Ted Deutch, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Josh Gottheimer, Elaine Luria, Ted Deutch and Kathy Manning.

The progressive bloc included Reps. Mark Pocan, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, Betty McCollum, Ayanna Pressley, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Cori Bush, Jan Schakowsky, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, Andre Carson and Joaquin Castro.

The moderate Democrats spoke in front of a map of Israel full of pinpoints representing where rockets had targeted in recent days.

Florida congresswoman Wasserman Schultz offered “unwavering and steadfast support for the state of Israel” and says Hamas is “single-handedly responsible” for the ongoing violence. She calls for a two-state solution and laments the loss of life to both sides.

“Even though we may not always agree about Israel’s policies, we should be very clear that nothing, nothing justifies a terrorist organization firing rockets at our allies,” said New Jersey congressman Gottheimer.

Schneider, of Illinois, insisted “Israel is rightfully responding to [Hamas] attacks, defending its citizens and protecting its borders.” He noted the large discrepancy in casualties between the sides, but argues that Israel goes out of its way to avoid civilian casualties, while Hamas does the opposite.

“Please don’t be fooled by false choices. Israel and Hamas? If I am asked [to choose] between a terrorist organization and our democratic ally, I will stand with Israel every day of the week,” said Rep. Ted Deutch.

Congresswoman Manning of North Caronlina noted having experienced what it’s like to be in Sderot when rocket sires have gone off and said she attended an IDF briefing earlier today where she was told that Israel has only been targeting terrorists in its counterstrikes.

“Who would turn a cheek when their mere existence is being questioned,” said Virginia’s Luria, who added that she chooses to stand with Israel ‘as an American Jew.’”

Shortly after, the pro-Israel speeches by moderate Democrats were followed by a chorus of criticism for the Jewish state and far more sympathy for Palestinians.

Fighting back tears throughout her remarks, Tlaib of Michigan, who is of Palestinian descent, said, “You’d hardly know Palestinians existed at all” based on recent statements from the Biden administration regarding the Gaza violence.

“We’re currently blocking the UN from calling for a ceasefire,” said Rep. Ilhan Omar from Minnesota, panning the Democratic administration and blasting Israel for its airstrikes in Gaza, which are in response to Hamas rocket fire.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez of New York criticized Israel more broadly for its actions in the West Bank and slams the government for banning Tlaib and Omar into the country in 2019 due to their support for BDS.

“We are anti-war, we are anti-occupation, and we are anti-apartheid,” said Rep. Cori Bush, adding that she stands in solidarity with Palestinians just as Palestinian activists stood with Black Americans in Ferguson, Missouri.

Massachusetts representative Ayana Pressley called for “equal outrage” over “state violence” be it in the US or Israel, panning Jerusalem for its crackdown on Palestinian protesters.

Pocan (Wisconsin) and McCollum (Minnesota) spoke in favor of legislation that they’ve co-sponsored, which seeks to prohibit US aid to Israel from being used in certain Israeli actions in the West Bank and would require the White House to compose an annual report detailing how much aid goes to such actions.

As the lawmakers spoke, staffers placed pictures of Palestinian children injured in Israeli airstrikes behind them.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, who does not back the legislation gave a more moderate, but emotional speech, saying she is “horrified and saddened by the ongoing escalation of the painful cycle of violence.”

“Israel has the right to defend herself, but in the end, there are no winners,” she says, urging the Biden administration to broker a ceasefire.

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