Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Is Democrats’ New Rising Star. Will the DSA’s Support for an Israel Boycott Slow Her Down?

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez unsettled the Democratic establishment Tuesday night when she beat 10-term incumbent Representative Joe Crowley in New York’s primary elections. The 28-year-old Democratic Socialists of America–backed candidate proudly supports the DSA agenda of Medicare for all, housing as a human right and abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 

Yet Ocasio-Cortez has remained silent on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, which is another key part of the DSA platform—and a view that, if held by her, would put her at odds with many congressional Democrats. 

The movement encourages supporters to boycott and divest money from Israeli companies and all institutions associated with the country. It hopes to exert enough economic pressure on Israel to force it to relinquish territories including the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza and the Golan Heights and to allow the 7.25 million Palestinians living around Israel the right of return to the country. 

The movement is polarizing in Congress, which Ocasio-Ortiz is likely to join as the Democratic nominee in a solidly blue district. Congress has even floated the Israel Anti-Boycott Act in opposition to the movement, legislation that the American Civil Liberties Union has slammed as unconstitutional. 

Ocasio-Cortez did not campaign on BDS and has so far remained quiet on the issue. Multiple calls and emails to her campaign inquiring about her views were not returned. Lawrence Dreyfuss, a program associate with Democratic Socialists of America, told Newsweek that Ocasio-Cortez has "no comment on BDS at this time."

Yet she has spoken out about Israel in the past. In May, after at least 50 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces while protesting on the Gaza border, Ocasio-Cortez took to Twitter to call the act a “massacre” and ask her fellow Democrats to speak out on the issue.

“I hope my peers have the moral courage to call it such,” she wrote. “No state or entity is absolved of mass shootings of protesters. There is no justification. Palestinian people deserve basic human dignity, as anyone else.” She added: “Democrats can’t be silent about this anymore.”

Ocasio-Cortez later clarified her views on the protests to The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald.

“I think I was primarily compelled [to tweet about the issue] on moral grounds because I could only imagine if 60 people were shot and killed in Ferguson. Or if 60 people were shot and killed in the West Virginia teachers’ strikes,” she said. “The idea that we are not supposed to talk about people dying when they are engaging in political expression just really moved me.” 

Kenneth Jacobson, deputy national director of the Anti-Defamation League, has said that it's dangerous to link Israeli-Palestinian conflict to Ferguson. "Those of us interested in both improving race relations and resolving the conflict in the Middle East must stand up and reject this cynical strategy," he wrote. 

Leading Jewish publications, including Haaretz and the Forward, raised questions about her stance on Israel after her unexpected victory. 

Ocasio-Cortez, whose district is about 4 percent Jewish, acknowledged that her view broke with party norms. “Especially in New York, people say this is political suicide,” she told Greenwald. “But I had a lot of my constituents thanking me for taking that position. I had a lot of Jewish Americans who thanked me.”

In May, 13 Democratic senators, including prominent progressive voices like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, wrote a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asking the Trump administration to take action in the Gaza Strip “humanitarian crisis.” They did not, however, place blame on Israel or directly address the protests and resulting deaths.

Democratic views on Israel are changing—only 27 percent of Democrats sympathize more with Israel than the Palestinians, down from 38 percent in 2001. Republican support for Israel over Palestine, meanwhile, has grown 20 percentage points to 79 percent since 2001.

“It seems to me that some criticism of Israel is part of a package among young progressives along with health care for all and jobs for all,” said Brad Bannon, a Democratic strategist. “Not too long ago, if a politician expressed sympathy for the Palestinians, they would be cooked. But hardcore Berniecrats are changing all of this.”

Bannon believes that rising tensions around Israel and Palestine in the Democratic party will come to a head in 2020, where candidates will find themselves torn between appealing to their traditional base and younger, progressive voters.

Other Democratic strategists, however, don’t see it as an issue. If she wins in November, “Ocasio-Cortez will be one of 435 representatives,” said Joe Trippi, indicating that she would be unlikely to change the status quo.

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