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These Democratic Insiders Want to Keep the Party From Moving Left on Israel-Palestine

As high-profile endorsements rolled in for Bernie Sanders after his debate performance on October 15, one group of Democrats bristled. Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI), a lobby group filled with Washington insiders, struck back at the outsider who’s been rattling the Democratic establishment with his popular progressive agenda.

In a statement, Mark Mellman, the group’s president and CEO, said DMFI found it “deeply disturbing” that Sanders had surrounded himself with “endorsers who hate Israel”—a reference to Representative Ilhan Omar, who had just endorsed Sanders, and Linda Sarsour, the Palestinian-American activist who is an official surrogate for the Sanders campaign.

DMFI said it had raised these concerns directly with Sanders when Sarsour joined the campaign in September. But, DMFI complained, “the only responses we have received from the Senator are more hostile choices on his part.” About two months later, after Sarsour criticized Israel at an early December conference by saying that the country was built on Jewish supremacy, DMFI again complained about her role in the Sanders campaign, writing that it was “deeply saddened and completely appalled” that Sarsour remained with the presidential campaign.

DMFI is not widely known outside the tight constellation of pro-Israel lobby groups. One year ago, it didn’t even exist. But the press releases point to the group’s central purpose: It wants to make sure increasingly bold progressive criticism of Israel’s military rule over Palestinians—criticism that figures like Sanders, Omar, and Sarsour have amplified—doesn’t gain a stronger foothold within the Democratic Party. Founded last January by a group of Democratic Party insiders with close ties to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the Israel lobby giant, DMFI is on a mission to make sure the party remains, as it’s been for decades, a reliable backer of the US-Israel alliance.

DMFI doesn’t need to panic just yet. The Democratic Party is led by pro-Israel stalwarts who are loath to pressure the Jewish state on its policies toward Palestinians. In July, 209 House Democrats—out of a total of 235—voted to harshly rebuke the movement to boycott Israel.

“The vast majority of elected Democrats support Israel. We’re here to keep it that way,” Rachel Rosen, a DMFI spokesperson, told The Nation.

But the traditional guardians of the American consensus on Israel are facing a new political reality. While the Democratic Party establishment is stuck recycling talking points about Israel as a democratic ally, Israel’s leaders—most notably, Benjamin Netanyahu—have been taking their country in an increasingly authoritarian direction. They’ve been stoking anger among the Democratic base with a rash of antidemocratic actions, including detaining Palestinian children and barring critics like Representatives Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and Omar from visiting Israel. And members of Congress like Tlaib, Omar, Betty McCollum (D-MN), and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) are raising critiques of Israel that were once largely confined to street protests, not the halls of power.

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