The year 2020 will undoubtedly be a significant one in future recountings of modern American and global history. Along with an election for the presidency that many characterize as having the entire American political experiment hanging in the balance, this year has brought an unprecedented global pandemic, a massive economic downturn, and now an outpouring of protests in response to police violence and racism. Collectively, these events have all the makings of a hinge moment in history, ushering in a new era after which nothing will be quite the same again.
Within a week after police officers in Minneapolis murdered George Floyd, a Black man, protests erupted in hundreds of cities across the United States and even went global. They were sustained for weeks, responding to a number of recent police killings of African Americans, including some caught on videotape. The state responses to the protests, which included many instances of heavy-handed police repression, only seemed to further underscore the case demonstrators sought to make around police violence and racism. Based on already existing trends in public opinion, this dynamic moment of protest could catalyze a shift in US foreign policy, too, especially toward the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Just how fast such a change may unfold will depend on a number of conditions in the movement itself and inherent in the American policy-making process.
Assessing the Moment’s Impact on America’s Role in the World
Since the end of WWII, the United States has been a leading power on the global stage, if not the leading power. It had become an imperial power in 1898 after a long history of European colonists in the country who established it through the destruction of the indigenous population and the practice of chattel slavery. Throughout that history, America’s role in the world and the position of those powers who founded it have been undergirded by a certain cultural mythology of exceptionalism. From the rationalization of “civilizing” the natives or expansion as a function of “manifest destiny” all the way to President Ronald Reagan’s “shining city upon a hill,” this mythology has supported American posture vis-à-vis its neighbors and the world. American exceptionalism as a cultural instrument was wielded regularly during the Cold War and afterward. The treatment of Blacks in the United States was routinely raised by the Soviets as a way to point out American failures and deflect blame from Moscow’s own rights abuses. In the post-Cold War era and during the Global War on Terror (GWOT), American leaders sold wars in the Arab and Muslim worlds as part of a purported agenda of spreading democracy, nation-building, and humanitarian missions. Suffice it to say, a culture that backs imperialism cannot, at the same time, pursue serious, critical historical introspection.
In the post-Cold War era and during the Global War on Terror (GWOT), American leaders sold wars in the Arab and Muslim worlds as part of a purported agenda of spreading democracy, nation-building, and humanitarian missions.
Yet, that introspection seems to be called for in unprecedented ways in this moment. Will it translate into a shift in America’s posture in the world in general, and toward the Middle East and Palestine, in particular? In the short term, this is doubtful and certainly unclear; however, in the longer term, we might look back at this moment as an important catalyst that moved the United States in a different direction. For that to happen, three key processes would have to play out:
1. A Critical assessment of racism that transcends domestic policy. Thus far we have seen and heard a cacophony of calls from the protests including everything from prosecuting murderous police officers to abolishing the police altogether. Scholars, advocates, and activists have been laying the foundation for such thinking for years, tracing the ways in which the American policing and carceral system plays a key role in upholding systemic racism in American society. On the margins of this conversation there have been some—albeit growing—calls for a demilitarization of police, which brings into focus the way in which police have become increasingly militarized in the GWOT era.
Links between American police and Israel have also been made by activists highlighting police exchange and training programs. But thus far this is an overwhelmingly cursory assessment. Real change would have to include a critical introspection of American foreign policy in the Middle East, which would involve a reflection on orientalism and Islamophobia as well as other forms of racism. These are the overt and covert currents that have enabled US policy in the global south for decades. Can this jump take place? It would be a logical extension of the spirit that is animating protests today and this is perhaps why some of Israel’s most ardent supporters are opposed to the protesters. No such jump, however, is guaranteed. Still, it seems more possible today than before, following this cultural moment. It would be more likely to transpire if propelled by the media and opinion shapers.
2. Media continues to play a supportive role in the process. Early evidence from analysis of media coverage suggests that American media played a significant role in amplifying the moment in relatively unprecedented ways. A number of factors likely contributed to this, particularly the fact that American society was otherwise debilitated by a global pandemic for months, making the story of the protests even more sensational. Practically overnight, the streets of American cities went from being taken over by wildlife to being dominated by masses of protesters. Further, the diversity of the protests, which included many members of American minority communities but were overwhelmingly white, underscored that this was not simply an issue about which the Black community alone cared but one that outraged a wide cross-section of Americans, adding to the story’s appeal in the eyes of editors and producers.
In a time of 24-hour news cycles and continuous breaking news, few stories stay in the headlines for this long; and while it surely will have a long term impact, even this moment’s time in the headlines will expire. How the media deals with the questions of racism, historical introspection, and systemic oppression will be shaped by more than the coverage of the current moment; it will also be influenced by the personnel working in media who have experienced this critical moment firsthand. On that front, something akin to an uprising at certain media institutions has developed as well. An editorial page editor of The New York Times resigned after a staff uprising in reaction to the publication of a controversial editorial by Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas), sending shockwaves through the industry. Editors at other publications stepped down or were fired for failure to take the gravity of racism seriously enough. The moment of reckoning clearly hit the journalism industry; indeed, moving forward, editors and producers will have to adjust to the new standard set by this moment regarding what is and is not acceptable refereeing of ideas and coverage. In addition to changes in how media institutions shape and frame the discussion of US foreign policy in the Middle East (and Palestine in particular)—which might be an outgrowth of this moment—changes across other institutions would have to take place as well.
3. Institutional agendas adopt the spirit of the protests. For change to happen and be transformative, it requires civil society institutions and interest groups that play a role in shaping policy to carry forward the goals and visions of those in the streets and to apply the same principles in universal ways. This moment has started to bring some changes in institutional culture, with more questions being raised about diversity, representation, and equality within institutional spaces. Interest groups are key to policy making in democratic systems and, as their name suggests, they are also based on narrowly defined interests. With the dramatic imbalance of power between interest groups on Israel/Palestine policy, for example, a shift in policy would require interest groups from outside of this narrow policy space to begin getting involved. Would institutions not normally engaged in foreign policy start to do so? Would organizations that consider supporting calls to defund police also call for shrinking the United States’ military budget and personnel?
At the individual level, we have seen activists increasingly linking issues transnationally in recent years; among the younger generation, in particular, a progressive zeitgeist that sees forms of injustice across the globe as connected has been ascendant. But the generational divide among professional advocates and activists is stark and shifts in institutional posture are likely to take time as personnel turnover moves forward slowly. Still, as that turnover happens, institutions will likely increasingly adopt the interconnected agendas embodied by the younger demographic on the left today.
Shifting Opinion, Shifting Policy?
For several years now there have been noticeable partisan trends in public opinion polls on US policy toward Israel/Palestine. A recent poll by the University of Maryland found that “67 percent of respondents in our survey said either that it is ‘acceptable’ to question the Israeli-American relationship, or that it’s the ‘duty’ of members of Congress to do so.” What was also revealing in the poll was that this was found among both Democrats and Republicans polled. Reviewing the opinion poll data produces some general guidelines in recent years, namely, that the younger, more liberal, and less white the demographic, the more likely its members are to be critical of Israel and supportive of change in the US-Israel relationship. As the polling firm Data for Progress pointed out in a 2018 report, some of “the most radical proposals we analyzed are vastly more popular with younger voters than they are with the general public.” This included issues like reparations and sweeping tax reform. Further data also show that Americans in general have become less Islamophobic.
Can the rise of the younger generation, one with the spirit of anti-racism, help shift US foreign policy in a direction that is more just as well? If this were to happen, policy makers would also have to change to reflect their sentiments. In 2018, hints of this were evident as several young progressive women of color were elected to Congress, shaking up the conversation on US foreign policy and Israel/Palestine. The primary elections on June 23 alone seem to have yielded seismic results, with several progressive challengers seeking to replace establishment Democrats in Congress garnering great support or winning.
The primary elections on June 23 alone seem to have yielded seismic results, with several progressive challengers seeking to replace establishment Democrats in Congress garnering great support or winning.
A particularly salient case in point involves a key race in New York, where progressive challenger Jamaal Bowman, a Black school principal, sought to unseat Eliot Engel, the white incumbent who is some three decades older and has been in congress for 16 terms. The chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee, Engel was a pro-Israel stalwart who sided with AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) against President Barack Obama over the Iran deal. The race between him and Bowman became something of a proxy for a bigger war in the Democratic Party over the direction the party should take on issues relating to foreign policy, national security, and racial justice. Major Democratic Party establishment figures weighed in to endorse Engel including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Senator Chuck Schumer (D-New York), Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-California), and others. Even the Congressional Black Caucus sided with Engel over his African American challenger in a majority-minority district. An AIPAC-affiliated interest group weighed in to support Engel as well. But as of this writing, it seems all that was for naught. Although some votes remain outstanding, Bowman is holding onto a significant lead that would require something of a statistical miracle for Engel to prevail. Bowman’s apparent victory would send shockwaves through the Democratic establishment and make clear, among other things, that following the AIPAC line, as Engel had done his entire career, is now a liability and not an asset.
Similarly in a neighboring district, a progressive Black challenger, Mondaire Jones, won the primary election to replace Nita Lowey, the Democratic congresswoman from New York who announced her retirement after decades of serving as a staunch pro-Israel voice and, most recently, as chair of the powerful House Appropriations Committee.
Additionally, progressive firebrand Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez handily won her primary, and other progressive candidates in New York and Kentucky had very strong showings and might pull off victories. Earlier this year, an AIPAC-backed Democrat in Chicago, Dan Lipinski, also fell to a more left-leaning challenger, Marie Newman. To be sure, between 2018 and 2020 a definitive turn is perceptible as the shift in attitudes across generational lines is increasingly manifest in electoral outcomes.
With the center of gravity in the Democratic Party moving leftward and including louder critiques of unchecked US militarism and support for Israel, the stage is being set for a shift in policy that will have to be embraced by the Democratic Party. The rise of the large following of Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), who has been vocal about changing US policy toward Israel, attests to a coming change. The partisan divide remains a massive gulf, however, and it remains to be seen how it can be bridged when it comes to US Middle East policy. Additionally, even though the progressive base of the party is making more inroads into the policy-making space, there will likely be a continued pushback from the old guard and the hawkish interest groups that support them.
How soon and how much change in policy is coming? The various processes discussed above will have to continue to develop for meaningful change to take place, but what we are seeing in the streets and at the polls increasingly suggests that such shifts in thinking and policy seem to be rather inevitable.
Photo credit: flickr/Johnny Silvercloud