On Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Palestine, and the Left

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose candidacy I’ve championed and worked for since May, had a bad moment late last week.

Appearing on the reboot of Firing Line, Ocasio-Cortez was asked by conservative host Margaret Hoover to explain her stance on Israel. The question left Ocasio-Cortez tongue-tied and equivocating. Here was the exchange:

MH: You, in the campaign, made one tweet, or made one statement, that referred to a killing by Israeli soldiers of civilians in Gaza and called it a “massacre,” which became a little bit controversial. But I haven’t seen anywhere — what is your position on Israel?

AOC: Well, I believe absolutely in Israel’s right to exist. I am a proponent of a two-state solution. And for me, it’s not — this is not a referendum, I think, on the state of Israel. For me, the lens through which I saw this incident, as an activist, as an organizer, if sixty people were killed in Ferguson, Missouri, if sixty people were killed in the South Bronx — unarmed — if sixty people were killed in Puerto Rico — I just looked at that incident more through . . . through just, as an incident, and to me, it would just be completely unacceptable if that happened on our shores. But I am —

MH: Of course the dynamic there in terms of geopolitics —

AOC: Of course.

MH: And the war in the Middle East is very different than people expressing their First Amendment right to protest.

AOC: Well, yes. But I also think that what people are starting to see at least in the occupation of Palestine is just an increasing crisis of humanitarian condition, and that to me is just where I tend to come from on this issue.

MH: You use the term “the occupation of Palestine”? What did you mean by that?

AOC: Oh, um [pause] I think it, what I meant is the settlements that are increasing in some of these areas and places where Palestinians are experiencing difficulty in access to their housing and homes.

MH: Do you think you can expand on that?

AOC: Yeah, I mean, I think I’d also just [waves hands and laughs] I am not the expert on geopolitics on this issue. You know, for me, I’m a firm believer in finding a two-state solution on this issue, and I’m happy to sit down with leaders on both of these. For me, I just look at things through a human rights lens, and I may not use the right words [laughs] I know this is a very intense issue.

MH: That’s very honest, that’s very honest. It’s very honest, and when, you, you know, get to Washington and you’re an elected member of Congress you’ll have the opportunity to talk to people on all sides and visit Israel and visit the West Bank and —

AOC: Absolutely, absolutely. And I think that that’s one of those things that’s important too is that, you know, especially with the district that I represent — I come from the South Bronx, I come from a Puerto Rican background, and Middle Eastern politics was not exactly at my kitchen table every night. But, I also recognize that this is an intensely important issue for people in my district, for Americans across the country, and I think what’s at least important to communicate is that I’m willing to listen and that I’m willing to learn and evolve on this issue like I think many Americans are.

Let’s be clear. This is not good. Prompted about her use of the word “massacre,” Ocasio-Cortez doesn’t stay with the experience of the Palestinians. Instead, she goes immediately to an affirmation of Israel’s right to exist, as if Israelis were the first order of concern, and that affirming that right is the necessary ticket to saying anything about Palestine. Asked about her use of the phrase “occupation of Palestine,” Ocasio-Cortez wanders into a thicket of abstractions about access to housing and “settlements that are increasing in some of these areas.” She apologizes for not being an expert on a major geopolitical issue. She proffers liberal platitudes about a two-state solution that everyone knows are just words and clichés designed to defer any genuine reckoning with the situation at hand, with no concrete discussion of anything the US could or should do to intervene.

Even within the constraints of American electoral politics, there are better ways — better left ways — to deal with this entirely foreseeable question. Not only was this a bad moment for the Left but it was also a lost opportunity: to speak to people who are not leftists about a major issue in a way that sounds credible, moral, and politically wise.

As soon as I saw this exchange, I posted about it on Facebook. I said a shorter version of what I said above. It provoked a bitter debate on my page. There were even more bitter debates on other people’s pages.

The camps divided in two: on the one hand, there were those who took Ocasio-Cortez’s comments as confirmation that she is no real leftist, that she is turning right, that she’s been absorbed into the Democratic Party machine, that she’s a fake, a phony, and a fraud. For these folks, Ocasio-Cortez’s comments confirmed their generally dim view of electoral politics.

On the other hand, there were Ocasio-Cortez’s defenders, claiming that she is only twenty-eight, that she had been set up by a right-wing journalist, that progressives shouldn’t criticize her, that the Left always eats its own, that those of us who are criticizing her are sectarians ready to go after anyone the second they disappoint us.

What I’m about to say doesn’t address the first camp. While I know and respect many of these folks — leftists who either reject electoral politics completely or reject any involvement with the Democratic Party — theirs is not my position. Nor do I think this incident is revelatory one way or another for their position — had Ocasio-Cortez said all the right things, I doubt it would convince skeptics of electoral politics that getting involved in Democratic Party politics is the way to go — so I don’t see any point in using it to engage in that question.

My comments are directed to the latter camp: the people who, like me, believe in electoral politics, are on the Left, and think we may have an opportunity right now that we have not had in a long while.

There are some of us, many of us, who care deeply about the Israel/Palestine issue from an anti-Zionist perspective and who are also realistic about US electoral politics. We’re not naïfs who think that the politicians we support are going to come out right away, or right now, in support of a single binational democratic state, which is the position we hold with regard to Palestine. We also realize that the Left that is beginning to think about electoral politics is young (not in terms of age but political experience), and it will take us all some time to figure out how to advance our positions in a way that will win support and translate that support into policy.

And last, we know that despite the centrality of Palestine to our politics, it’s not central to the politics of everyone on the Left, that people have multiple concerns, and that it does no good simply to hector people and say this should be at the top of your list (along with a thousand other issues that should be at the top of your list).

I know all of that, we know all of that.

But we also know a few other things.

Sooner or later, every national politician in the US has to confront the issue of Palestine. You can’t duck it. Not only is the Left moving left on this issue, not only is the base of the Democratic Party moving left on this issue (it is, if you look at the polling), but it is also a major issue of international politics and US foreign policy that every member of Congress has to have a position on.

Palestine is not some obscure question that you can simply say, “Sorry, I don’t know much about that.” Any person who aspires to be a member of Congress, particularly from New York City, where this issue comes up as a local, national, and international issue all the time — when we had the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions fight at Brooklyn College in 2013, our top opponents included multiple members of the New York City congressional delegation: Jerry Nadler, Yvette Clark, Nydia Velazquez, and Hakeem Jeffries — will have to be clear about where they stand. It’s not optional: Ocasio-Cortez has to have a position.

Not only does Ocasio-Cortez have to have a position, but to be a credible leftist voice in Congress, she has to have a leftist position on this issue. Now, before everyone concludes that means she has to call for a binational state, there are many ways to talk left about Israel that are considerably better than the current liberal pabulum and that do not require an elected official to commit political suicide.

There is the human rights vernacular that Ocasio-Cortes herself alludes to (a particularly popular approach, as sociologist Ran Greenstein pointed out in the discussion on my Facebook wall). There is the language of realpolitik, which people like Nathan Thrall have pushed. And other ways still.

Ocasio-Cortez could talk about conditioning aid on human rights improvements. She could talk about cutting military funding to Israel. George H. W. Bush, after all, withheld loans to Israel because of the expansion of the settlements — not a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, but here in the US, in the early 1990s. All of these claims are well to the left of any current political discourse in Congress and would force the debate forward and would be productively polarizing. And maybe propel Ocasio-Cortez to even more of a leadership position on the Left.

This is not just about Palestine. This is about US foreign policy as a whole. It used to be that US foreign policy was the Left’s strong suit. Back in the 1970s, when it seemed as if the Left’s confidence in its economic policies and positions was flagging, its critiques of US imperialism, military spending, and the national security state were in ascendancy. Some of these positions even made it into the left wing of the Democratic Party. Since then, the Left has gotten very weak on this stuff. Not in terms of its moralism on foreign policy, or the antiwar rallies it will show up at, but in terms of being able to advance a position that would begin to command national assent, form public opinion, and then be translated into policy.

This is a problem: it should be the easiest thing in the world right now, for example, to go after runaway military spending. Yet there’s hardly a credible or potent left voice that is pushing that agenda, much less getting a hearing within even progressive circles of the Democratic Party. Indeed, in this age of alleged partisan polarization, authorizations of massive increases in spending for the Pentagon and the CIA pass both houses of Congress with hefty Democratic majorities — with scarcely anyone noticing, much less protesting.

So, again, this isn’t about Palestine only. Or I should say, Palestine is the proverbial canary in a coal mine. From Palestine you get into the question of the Middle East as a whole, which leads to US foreign policy as a whole, and issues of budgets, spending, war, peace, and all the rest. All the more reason for Ocasio-Cortez to get up to speed on it.

Like it or not, Ocasio-Cortez has been elevated to a national position of leadership and visibility on the Left. If she wins in the general election, as everyone believes she will, every single thing she says and does will be watched and scrutinized. It simply will not do to say, oh, she’s only twenty-eight, oh, the media is so nasty, oh, let’s not have circular firing squads. The media is always nasty, the Left will always be critical of its leaders, and one day, soon, Ocasio-Cortez will no longer be twenty-eight. To complain about any of these things is like shaking your fist at the weather (weather in the old-fashioned sense; before climate change).

People have turned to Ocasio-Cortez not simply because she won but because she’s good at what she does: she’s smart, fast, funny, and principled. Because she’s shown leadership. I understand the pressures she’s under. But as her star rises, the pressures will only increase. Ocasio-Cortez needs to be not only strong but also clear on this issue. She needs to be as subtle, dexterous, and sharp as she is on other issues, virtually every night on Twitter. This isn’t a game, especially when it comes to Israel. Or, if it is a game, she needs to be a better player.

What has sustained me the most in these last several years is the on-the-ground work of the activists, in Democratic Socialists of America and other groups, who have been making victories like Ocasio-Cortez’s possible. I’m confident that those folks are talking to her now about getting a better line on this, and I’m more than confident that she has the political skills to get it.

There was a time, not so long ago, when there were left Democrats, in Congress, who had strong anti-imperialist politics and positions. There were even parts of the Left — particularly the black left — that were critical of Israel at a fundamental level. They didn’t get there from nowhere. They weren’t better people. There was simply more of a movement, in the streets and at the grassroots, articulating and developing those positions. There is no reason we can’t do the same. I’m confident we will.


  1. abellwordpress July 16, 2018 at 3:55 pm | #

    Candidates should get out of these kinds of questions by admitting that the focus of their campaign isn’t foreign policy and that they would have to study the issue in order to comment. When you don’t know, say so. People will beat you up for being unprepared, but so what?

    • Deborah Gordon July 16, 2018 at 4:24 pm | #

      The problem is that she weighed in on the Gaza massacres. Once she said that, claiming she needed to study the issue more might have come off as “she didn’t know what she was saying about Gaza,” and this underscores Corey’s point about the unavoidable character of this foreign policy issue in the US.

  2. Given how smart she is she will learn from this. To do so is her responsibility now. At 28, I already had a good grasp of IP thanks to reading Noam Chomsky.

    At least she did not get caught stumbling out words that could be (mis)read as anti-Semitic by the “hasbarists” out there. But from this she will recover. I suspect, Corey, that she will listen to you. I even suspect that supporters in her inner circle will probably have shown her your post by sundown. This can be fixed.

    And you are certainly right about how deep into people’s thinking pro-Israel notions have seeped to the point that it becomes default even for folks we would expect to know better. Like you, I’ll bet she’s getting an earful now from her people — of course, one could ask them: didn’t you guys prepare her first given where she was going on that day??

  3. Fluffy Bunny Slippers July 16, 2018 at 5:14 pm | #

    Thinking about it as segregation in the south is one way to look at it from an american perspective. I think an equally appropriate way to think about it is the way Americans treated native american nations (such as the Lakota Sioux) in the 19th century. A few people go in and find gold or complete manifest destiny or whatever then cause a ruckus and then the government comes in to protect them from the ruckus they made breaking treaties and forcing a renegotiation of the terms with the natives. The subsequent unfairness making the hotheaded youth pissed off and they do ill advised fighting and the native tribes split internally between those who evolved and those who are more traditionally driven further diminishing the native power and fracturing the not very well defined government of the native parties.

    Basically, It is easier for American’s to sympathize with Israel because Israel is who they were all too recently. The US Government never really solved the problem of how to stop it’s own people from pushing them into wars and bullying the local native american groups. The parallels are fascinating and deserve more thought but I don’t wanna think more on it currently cause more thought on either this path or american south segregation path is depressing especially as parallels to both can be found to be happening concurrently in Israel and West Bank/Gaza.

  4. Larry H July 16, 2018 at 5:35 pm | #

    You’re absolutely right that she needs to get smarter, fast, on this subject. She needs to at least educate herself as to what’s at stake, not just have a few “facts” gleaned from a casual reading of the papers and a smile and a “Shucks, I’m just a Puerto Rican girl.”.

    But I think, on the positive side, that for her to start the conversation with, “Israel has a right to exist” is not a bad place to start. She’s dodged the inevitable shouts of “anti-Semite” that many who would like the U.S. to adopt a more even-handed policy get smeared with.

    The question is, and will be for some time, what kind of Israel? She needs to make it clear that THAT is the question.

  5. John K. Wilson July 16, 2018 at 6:13 pm | #

    I think Ocasio-Cortez gave a brilliant answer. She didn’t evade it. She was asked about Israel, so she talked about Israel. She stood by her use of the word “occupation” and discussed the critical topic of settlements. She didn’t back down on the word “massacre” and she framed the issue as a humanitarian crisis and asked people to think about how they would view it if it happened in the US. How many members of Congress from New York would give a better answer about Israel? 2? 1? 0? I’m guessing zero. Maybe it’s not the perfect left-wing answer you might want, but I think it’s a really good, honest response to a hostile, manipulative, and condescending interviewer.

  6. troy grant July 16, 2018 at 11:33 pm | #

    You are asking a newbie to condemn Israeli actions, something no politician dares to do

  7. Chris Morlock July 17, 2018 at 3:24 am | #

    I’m glad Cortez didn’t spend too much time on the landmine issue of Israel and Palestine. I’m in the camp that firmly believes this is one of the issues the “Left” has lost it’s mind on in the last 40 years. It applies arbitrary moral standards to Israel and forces the “canary in the coal mine” narrative Corey talked about. This US foreign policy debate is so polarized and so extreme for a relatively small situation that doesn’t have that many ramifications.

    There are plenty of similar ethno-state based land disputes across the world, including those with regimes we support. We pay little attention to those issues and it bothers me that people cannot accept either the right of Israel to exist or the right of Palestine to exist. The only moral and principled position is two-state, even though the practical quality of that is further away than ever. I blame right wing attitudes on both sides for that problem, not just US Hegemony.

    The US should force this two state into existence similar to the Camp David II plan of 2000. It paid reparations (20 billion), divided Jerusalem, gave the Gaza Strip to Palestine, and divided the West bank equitably. Right of return was metered in order to preserve Jewish ethnic identity. It was a great plan and it was morally well rounded. Insisting the Palestinian victimization narrative and the evil USA/Israeli aggression concept is a dead end. Resistance to some US foreign policy as a whole embodied by the situation is a dead end. Allowing complete annihilation of a Jewish ethno-state using the excuse of “democracy” and unlimited right of return is about as morally corrupt as hardcore Zionism is. Israel and Palestine both have an unequivocal right to exist.

    • Donald July 17, 2018 at 8:01 am | #

      Palestinians who wish to live in the homeland from which they were expelled are under no moral obligation whatsoever to listen to your claim that they have no such right. The arguments for a 2ss being the best are or claim to be practical. If the two sides hate each other so much they can’t live in the same state in peace then that would be one such argument, though in that case a 2ss where the two hate-filled communities live right next to each other doesn’t seem too stable either.

      IMO a 2ss that was stable and acceptable to both sides would end up having very porous borders. It would blur into a binational state.

      • Chris Morlock July 18, 2018 at 2:59 am | #

        “Palestinians who wish to live in the homeland from which their were expelled are under no moral obligation whatsoever to listen to your claim that they have no such right.”

        They do have that right and they are also under a moral obligation to respect the state of Israel by right of conquest, which is the same right you and I stand and sit on our land today. The fact that we arbitrarily drew a line in 1948 at that point doesn’t mean much. As the patrons of Israel and the architects of their State, we have a moral obligation to recognize both peoples and both States. We also have the moral obligation to use our power to force a moral framework on their land dispute, which was created by our own meddling.

        There is horrible oppression that categorizes US/Israeli hegemony in the area. Not going to deny that. The other end to that is a social-democratic state that has been created through the same means most countries have come into existence (see the old testament for a historical record). The solution is to favor neither, have the richer and more successful and more oppressive nation to pay reparations and and both sides to concede and move forward as separate entities with their own self-determination.

        I don’t understand the left’s position anymore. A single state solution that allows unlimited right of return and a minority Jewish population is not a solution. I also do not see how this end in a huge shift in American Foreign policy when it’s based primarily on energy policy / economics in the region. If Israel did not exist would we no longer prop up the Saudis? Would we be any less hostile to efforts to the organization of Pan-Arab movements?

  8. DR July 17, 2018 at 6:44 am | #

    Hasn’t the two state solution been the DSA platform since forever? AOC is a member of DSA and is committed on some level to this agenda. I also find the comments about her being immature etc a bit asinine.

    • Chris Morlock July 18, 2018 at 5:15 pm | #

      Many of the original DSA people have condemned it’s stance on Israel in the last 5 years, including Michael Harrington, Irving Howe, Alex Spinrad, and Eric Lee. They don’t understand, like I don’t understand, how we could have abandoned the old socialist concepts of 2 state and mediating based on a principle of both peoples rights. The “Left” has nearly completely forgotten the legacy of Yitzhak Rabin and Labor / Socialist Zionism.

      It’s extremely difficult to promote these ideas when they have in truth receded form Jewish society and and extreme right wing elements continue to act as if Israel is a Jewish state, period. It’s equally troubling that the Palestinian Authority hasn’t managed to maintain any influence outside of the west bank. An equally nationalistic entity in Hamas is yet another huge problem. I don’t want to choose between two nationalist movements.

  9. Donald July 18, 2018 at 2:10 pm | #

    “They do have that right and they are also under a moral obligation to respect the state of Israel by right of conquest, which is the same right you and I stand and sit on our land today. ”

    So Native Americans have no right of return and should be kept on the reservation? I don’t want to get into the similarities and differences of that analogy, but you brought it up. It doesn’t work the way you want it to work. And there is no moral right to conquer other people’s land. It happens and after it happens you try to figure out a solution where everyone has equal rights regardless of ethnicity.

    I don’t personally care whether the solution is 1ss or 2ss. If the Palestinians can be made happy with a 2ss, fine with me. The obstacle in both cases is that the two sides have to get along and the Israelis see no reason to stop taking land since it has worked for them so far according to your right of conquest principle. I see some people in the past ( always on the Israeli side) advocate a 2ss as a type of divorce, where the two sides hate each other, but the Israelis give them some remaining scraps and then keep them out, I doubt that would work. They are on top of each other. They have to get along if a 2ss were to be stable. And yes, there would be reparations. All this seems as remote as a 1ss.

    But no, the Palestinians are under no moral obligation to grant that the Israelis had the right to expel them and shoot thousands of infiltrators (mostly unarmed) after the war was over. If most of them decide to support a 1ss with one man, one vote there won’t be a good moral reason to argue they should settle for Bantustans. You could try arguing against it on politically pragmatic grounds.

    • Donald July 18, 2018 at 2:11 pm | #

      I was replying to Chris Morlock above. I stuck my reply in the wrong place.

  10. Roquentin July 18, 2018 at 5:50 pm | #

    It bummed me out, like a lot of other things, but I chalked it up to trying to sidestep one of the most controversial issues in US politics in a city where it’s far more controversial than the rest of the US. I agree, the stance wasn’t good, and it certainly doesn’t bode well for her holding out against the forces that will work overtime, day and night trying to co-opt and undermine her politically. If I’m brutally honest, if I had to bet on the future it’d be this: Trump goes away, the DSA gets like 10% of what it wants, and then we return to business as usual.

    I got really frustrated the other day, I think it was about the reaction to the DPRK Trump meeting from liberals, and I said that the basic mechanism of the Democratic party is to take good stances on a select few issues at home, then take the power and goodwill generated from this and use it to run the worst and most regressive foreign policy possible abroad. It’s not new, LBJ is the archetypal Dem example of this. Since most Americans, even well intentioned liberals, know very little about anywhere else in the world it works pretty well. It’s been the same thing over and over again, on Libya, on Iraq, on Palestine, on Syria, on the DPRK, on Ukraine, and yes…even Russia. I’ve consistently seen them take stances even worse than the GOP, seen Dems argue they just weren’t hawkish enough.

  11. David Green July 19, 2018 at 6:03 pm | #


    Norman Finkelstein’s views, transcribed from a talk he gave in San Diego earlier this year, have always seemed sensible to me. BDS has become a fad and a cult on the left. I see it locally, and I hear about it nationally.

    • Donald July 20, 2018 at 12:26 am | #

      Finkelstein has a tendency to make it about himself sometimes, so that “ BDS is a cult” argument of his is just him striking back at some of the people who have unfairly criticized hIm. It is namecalling and nothing more.

      His argument is self refuting. Yes, people talked about a one state solution 50 years ago and it never happened, so they switched to a 2ss and everybody who supposedly matters agrees with it but it also has never happened. As Finkelstein himself has documented, perhaps more thoroughly than anyone, Israel breaks international law with impunity. So does the US. Finkelstein seems to think that all this agreement among states and governments and politicians means something and yet nothing has happened.

      In practice what has happened is that Israel’s right to exist is established, because they have power, and they won that right through naked theft, so why shouldn’t they continue to do so? Their position, that might makes right, has the advantage of actual success in the real world.

      And of all the things to be pure about, international law as opposed to morality is one of the silliest. BDS is succeeding in attracting attention to the cause, and Finkelstein in the name of both pragmatism and logical consistency gives ammunition to Israel’s supporters by calling BDS proponents hypocrites.

  12. b. July 24, 2018 at 6:09 pm | #

    Yemen is Gaza, writ large and brought on the brink of its “conclusion”

    Ocasio-Cortez will need a clear, thought-out, informed position on Yemen even sooner, and she will have to formulate it in explicit discussion of Obama’s responsibility, before she can proceed to discuss Trumps.

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