In the fall of 1983, shortly before my fifth birthday, I visited Israel for the first time. I vividly recall stopping at a roadside stand just shy of the Lebanese border. It was sunny, scorching even, and my little sister and I were parched.
So our parents treated us to cold soda. We were enchanted by the wavy white Hebrew lettering on the red cans. Far from our home in New York, we also loved the familiarity of Coke.
I’ve thought about that day in recent months, as Democrats have excused, or even justified, efforts to boycott Israel and leverage foreign aid to change Israeli government policy. My concern is that the Democrats are on their way to becoming the Pepsi Party.
Americans take it for granted that we’ve always had both Coke and Pepsi, but that wasn’t universally true. In 1983, only Coke was available in Israel, because the Arab Boycott was still in effect. “The boycott, which was part of the Arab policy of trying to weaken and eventually destroy the Jewish state, was managed by the Arab League . . . [and] included the names of thousands of companies,” including soda makers. Pepsi sold only to the massive Arab market, while Coke served tiny Israel.
Congress opposed the boycott as early as 1959, and in 1977, they barred participation as part of the Export Administration Act. “When President Carter signed the law, he said . . . it was designed to ‘end the divisive effects on American life of foreign boycotts aimed at Jewish members of our society.’” How the Democratic Party and Carter (!) have changed.
Fast forward to 2019. The Court of Justice of the European Union recently announced discriminatory labeling requirements for Israeli foodstuffs produced beyond Israel’s Green Line — something “Germany’s main neo-Nazi party” and Greens initially proposed— on the anniversary of the Nazi boycott, no less.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo subsequently announced a change in an Obama-era policy, refusing to condemn Jewish towns (a.k.a. the settlements) as inherently illegal. In response, 106 Democrats sent Pompeo a critical letter, insisting that he reverse himself.
That 45 percent of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s caucus doesn’t mind Israel being stigmatized and micromanaged by Europe might be surprising, if the House hadn’t spent months actively avoiding a bill that allows state and local governments not to contract with companies that support the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement (BDS).
Readers may recall that Republicans introduced a discharge petition to force a vote on HR 336, the Strengthening America’s Security in the Middle East Act of 2019, back in May. That petition remains stuck at 198 signatures, 20 votes away from the 218 names necessary. (Call your member of Congress!)
Less frequently mentioned, especially by pro-Israel Democrats, is the growing group of Democrats rewriting their party’s position on Israel. As much as I’ve admired my former congresswoman, Rep. Nita Lowey, for her support of Israel, she’s wrong to call concerns about the Democrats and Israel “overblown.”
Rep. Ilhan Omar’s pro-BDS resolution has 18 co-sponsors. While it’s unlikely to go anywhere this Congress, 19 House Democrats now publicly support boycotting Israel. This group includes notable names, such as presidential hopeful Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, twin-of-a-presidential-hopeful Rep. Joaquin Castro, civil rights hero Rep. John Lewis, and the whole Squad, including Rep. Ayanna Pressley, who supported the anti-BDS resolution after hearing from concerned Jewish constituents.
The shift underway also extends to the presidential primary, where candidates have stampeded to the left. While many Democrats have grown comfortable saying they are pro-Israel, just not pro-Netanyahu (a claim we may soon test), the intra-party debate has shifted to “leveraging” American military assistance to shape Israeli policy.
Sen. Bernie Sanders has said the United States should divert some aid for Israel to Hamas-run Gaza. Sen. Elizabeth Warren told voters “everything is on the table” to shift Israeli government policy in her preferred direction. Iowa frontrunner Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who compared Israel to a misguided friend needing redirection, is open to leveraging aid to effect policy changes.
There is no doubt these candidates are playing to the Democratic crowds. Rewinding to January 2018, Pew Research found that “the share of liberal Democrats who sympathize more with Israel than the Palestinians has declined from 33% to 19% since 2016 . . . [while] the share of conservative and moderate Democrats who sympathize more with Israel has declined 18 percentage points since 2016 (from 53% to 35%).”
A new poll conducted by Data for Progress and trumpeted in the far-left Jewish Currents reports that while 64 percent of Republicans oppose BDS, “among Democratic voters, a majority, 53%, say that BDS is legitimate, and 44% support BDS. Nearly half of Democratic voters, 48%, oppose anti-BDS laws, while only 15% support them.”
These numbers help explain Democrats’ foot-dragging on anti-BDS legislation, along with the Democratic primary’s tenor. A growing number of Democrats tolerate, or even gladly support, the movement to boycott Israel. They justify it using the elevated language of free speech and social justice, but it’s economic warfare.
Pepsi, of course, eventually course corrected and entered the Israeli market. It’d be good to see Democrats renew their party’s previous relationship with Israel, but that would require marginalizing the boycotters. Right now, that looks less likely than Democrats embracing Pepsi’s old, discriminatory image.
Not everything needs to be recycled. Some ideas really are best left on the ash heap of history.