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Why the American Right is Wrong on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
Conservatives' uncritical pro-Israel stance does our own domestic debates a disservice.
In our tribal political culture, party loyalty too often prevents us from considering other points of view. We root for our side—red or blue—the way we would a sports team and rush to spout our team’s talking points like actors and actresses repeating well-rehearsed lines. I’m a conservative and, like most on the right, I support Israel and its right to self-defense. But I’m troubled by how callous prominent Republicans are in dismissing Palestinian suffering. When it comes to Israel, it seems that many on the right are okay with betraying bedrock conservative values like fiscal responsibility, free speech, and opposition to censoriousness, identity politics, and embracing victimhood.
Like most Americans, I was horrified by the October 7 Hamas attacks. And I was disgusted to see some self-proclaimed pro-Palestine advocates celebrating or justifying the barbaric attack act. This was a horrific act of terrorism, and there’s no excuse for it. But I am also disappointed by how many conservative politicians and conservative media refuse to articulate any concern for thousands of innocent Palestinians killed or the more than one million rendered homeless.
Israel is waging war in one of the most densely populated places on earth. But that doesn’t absolve it of a responsibility to protect civilians, especially women and children. The Israeli military contends that Hamas commanders hide among women and children and use schools and hospitals as bases, which is all true. And the perpetrators of the October 7 attack knew Israel would respond forcefully, endangering Palestinian civilians, but they clearly didn’t care or perhaps even welcome the bloodshed to generate sympathy for their cause.
But Republican leaders seem like they’re trying to one-up each other with anti-Palestinian rhetoric that would make even some Israelis uncomfortable. Rep. Max Miller, a Republican from Ohio, said of Palestinians: “They’re not a state, they’re a territory that’s about to be eviscerated and go away here shortly as we’re going to turn that into a parking lot.” There were no calls for him to retract the statement or condemnations from his Republican colleagues. Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke, also a Republican, introduced legislation with fourteen Republican co-sponsors to expel Palestinians who are legally present in the country and bar others from arriving based solely on their nationality.
Republican Rep. Brian Mast of Florida has stated that terrorism is “absolutely supported by the Palestinian people from elementary school all the way up into the elderly,” argued that humanitarian aid to Palestinian civilians “should be slowed down,” and compared ordinary Palestinian civilians to Nazi collaborators during the Holocaust. And the new Republican Speaker of the House, Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana, said in an interview with Sean Hannity that the U.S. may need to have boots on the ground in Israel.
For her part, GOP Presidential contender Nikki Haley wants to infringe on First Amendment rights by changing the official federal definition of anti-Semitism to reflect her belief that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are one and the same. Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie hyperbolically likened the way Jewish students are treated on American college campuses—a serious concern—to the run-up to the Holocaust and said Palestinian groups “hide behind the falsity of free speech” to engage in hate speech that is hurtful to some Jewish students.
For years, conservatives have lamented the left’s efforts to ban speech they dislike by branding as “hate speech” disagreement on, for instance, LGBT issues, affirmative action, and immigration. But now Christie and other Republicans seem eager to ape the tactics of the far left by attempting to silence those they disagree with.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis—another contender for the Republican presidential nomination—has fired off dozens of social media posts insisting that we must not give a single dollar to homeless Palestinians and shouldn’t accept a single refugee from Gaza. He also ordered the chancellor of Florida’s state university system to disband an obscure pro-Palestinian student group, on the specious grounds that they were “knowingly providing material support” to a foreign terrorist organization—which is a crime under Florida law. But as Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy pointed out in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, this was an infringement on First Amendment protections as the Florida statute defines “material support” narrowly and it doesn’t include sending tweets, making speeches, or other activities the students are accused of.
At the third GOP debate, the candidates seemed to be competing for who could appear most eager to wage war with Iran (and other adversaries) and give Israel whatever aid it desires. There was no mention of Palestinian civilian casualties or the deaths of dozens of aid workers and journalists across several questions on the topic, but the moderators did ask about Wadea Al Fayoume, a 6-year-old Palestinian-American boy stabbed to death by his landlord in Illinois. The candidates tiptoed around the topic or shifted the discussion back to anti-Semitism without condemning this gruesome attack.
When it comes to the war in Ukraine, DeSantis and other leading Republicans are deficit hawks and say that Europe needs to do more for Ukraine because we can’t afford it. By contrast, the GOP controlled House just passed $14.3 billion in aid for Israel with just one Republican, Kentucky’s Thomas Massie, voted against it. “If Congress sends $14.5 billion to Israel, on average we’ll be taking about $100 from every working person in the United States,” Massie said on the social media platform formerly known as Twitter. “This will be extracted through inflation and taxes. I’m against it.” (The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) says the House’s Israel aid bill, which includes equivalent spending cuts to the IRS, would add more than $26 billion to the deficit by reducing what the IRS would take in through taxes.)
In playing their role as uncritical cheerleaders for Prime Minister Netanyahu, Republicans create an unhealthy domestic political atmosphere that prevents open discussion of potential policy alternatives. It could also push President Biden and other Democrats to mute their criticism of the current Israeli government and its conduct of the war in Gaza due to fears they might be unfairly tarred as anti-Israel or anti-Semitic. Proposals to crack down on fundamental freedoms to enforce a particular point of view on a contentious issue do nothing to improve our political and policy debates.
By contrast, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of the center-right Conservative Party has said that Israel has a right to go after Hamas. But he also insisted that it must be done “in line with international humanitarian law.” "As a friend, we will continue to call on Israel to take every possible precaution to avoid harming civilians,” he said. The UK has also increased its humanitarian aid to the Palestinians by one-third. For Republicans in the United States, though, such an approach would amount to betraying Israel.
Republicans no doubt believe that they’re acting in Israel’s interests in attempting to shut down debate on America’s approach to the current conflict. If key Republicans moderate their approach to Israel, along the lines of what the U.K. and America’s other allies do, it would create space for a healthier debate about what the United States can and should do to support Israel and protect Palestinian civilians amidst a brutal war. But this can’t happen when Republicans foster close-mindedness—or worse, propose laws and policies that directly target basic freedoms and deny the humanity of Palestinians.
I’ve traveled around Israel and the West Bank, and I cannot view each and every Palestinian as an enemy, as many of my friends on the right do. Sadly, the conflict is now largely viewed in tribal terms of identity politics, teams, and sides. But we should all be on the same page regarding the imperative to protect innocent civilians. On this score, Israel must do better, and as its closest ally and biggest benefactor, Democrats and Republicans alike should insist that they do so.
Dave Seminara is a writer and former diplomat based in St. Petersburg, Florida. He is the author of Mad Travelers, Footsteps of Federer, and other works.