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Biden Is All That’s Holding Back the Left

Biden Is All That’s Holding Back the Left

The reaction to the events of October 7 has made the growing radicalization of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party—and, in particular, its indulgence of anti-Semitism—more clear than ever. And it has highlighted President Joe Biden’s role in resisting the leftward pull of those progressives, a stand of increasing importance not just for his party, but for the country as a whole.

In the early-morning hours of a Jewish holiday, Simchat Torah, the terrorist group Hamas launched an unprovoked attack, committing the worst massacre of Jews since the Holocaust. Civilians were intentionally targeted, and constituted the overwhelming majority of casualties. Israeli families were burned alive while hiding in their homes. People were decapitated. The bodies of babies were riddled with bullets. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking at a Senate hearing, told of a boy, 6, and a girl, 8, and their parents around the breakfast table. The father’s eye was gouged out in front of his kids. The mother’s breast was cut off, the girl’s foot amputated, and the boy’s fingers cut off before they were executed. “And then their executioners sat down and had a meal,” Blinken said. “That is what this society is dealing with.”

One survivor of Hamas’s attack on a music festival told PBS’s Nick Schifrin that the terrorists raped girls and then murdered them with knives. And after they did that, “they laughed. They always laughed … I can’t forget how they laughed.”

A video posted online showed a young woman, 22-year-old Shani Louk, “facedown in the bed of the truck with four militants, apparently being paraded through Gaza,” The Washington Post reported, as “one holds her hair while another raises a gun in the air and shouts, ‘Allahu akbar!’ A crowd follows the truck cheering. A boy spits in her hair.”

Shani Louk was later declared dead after forensic examiners found a bone fragment from her skull.

All told, the estimated Israeli death toll is nearly 1,200 in a country of less than 10 million; about 240 hostages, including dozens of children and the elderly, were taken. (About 110 have been released in exchange for nearly 250 Palestinian prisoners.)

The actions by Hamas were so vicious and so cruel that they defy human imagination. “The depravity of it is haunting,” an Israeli military official told CBS News of the scene in the Kfar Aza kibbutz. And yet sympathy for Israel began to fade in just a matter of days in some quarters in the U.S. It gave way to anti-Semitic ugliness, most of it found on the American left and yet only a slice of the spreading anti-Semitism we’re seeing across the globe.

We saw anti-Semitism in Philadelphia, where a restaurant, Goldie, was targeted and mobbed because its owner is Jewish and Israeli (the crowd chanted “Goldie, Goldie, you can’t hide. We charge you with genocide”); in Queens, where hundreds of high-school students protested against a teacher who is Jewish and whose social-media profile photo showed her holding up an I Stand With Israel sign, forcing her to be moved to another part of the school; in Brooklyn, where a trio of young men beat up three Jewish strangers in separate attacks during a 40-minute “spree of hate crimes”; and in Times Square, where protesters cheered Israeli fatalities, made throat-slitting gestures, and flashed victory signs with their hands, a show of solidarity with Hamas.

Nihad Awad, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said in a speech, “The people of Gaza only decided to break the siege, the walls of the concentration camp, on October 7. And yes, I was happy to see people breaking the siege and throwing down the shackles of their own land and walk free into their land that they were not allowed to walk in.”

“And yes,” he continued, “the people of Gaza have the right to self-defense, have the right to defend themselves; and, yes, Israel as an occupying power does not have that right to self-defense.” (He insists that these remarks have been taken out of context.)

CNN posted a story on anti-Semitic vandalism rattling Jewish communities: “An antisemitic phrase scrawled on a Holocaust survivor’s home in California. A display supporting Israeli hostages kicked over in Minnesota. Palestinian nationalist messaging spray-painted on a non-profit’s building in Rhode Island.”

FBI Director Christopher Wray said in a Senate testimony that anti-Semitism in the U.S. is “a threat that is reaching, in some way, sort of historic levels.” He said that while Jews represent less than 3 percent of the population, they account for about 60 percent of all religious-based hate crimes.

On college campuses, a haven for progressives, anti-Semitic speech has skyrocketed. At Harvard, several student groups issued a statement after the attacks by Hamas saying that Israeli policies are “entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.” An Israeli Columbia student who confronted a woman ripping down posters of hostages was assaulted. A Cornell University student was charged with making threats against Jewish students on the campus.

A display outside the University of Minnesota’s Jewish student center showing the faces of several Israelis taken hostage by Hamas was reportedly kicked over and damaged. At Cooper Union in New York, pro-Palestinian protesters pounded on windows as Jewish students took shelter in a locked library. During a demonstration of solidarity for hostages held by Hamas, a University of Massachusetts at Amherst student was accused of punching a Jewish student holding an Israeli flag and then spitting on it. And at George Washington University, pro-Palestinian demonstrators projected slogans on to the side of a library, including Glory to our martyrs and Free Palestine from the river to the sea, a call for eliminating the Jewish state. Similar things have happened at other universities.

John Kirby, the spokesman for the National Security Council, said that rising anti-Semitism on college campuses is a “deep concern.”

Two weeks ago, in a moment that reverberated well beyond the academic world, the presidents of three of the most prestigious universities in America—Harvard, Penn, and MIT—were asked during a congressional hearing whether calling for the genocide of Jews violates these school’s rules on bullying and harassment. The answers by the presidents were lawyerly and evasive. One said it depended on “context.”

When University of Pennsylvania President Elizabeth Magill was pressed, she responded, “If the speech turns into conduct, it can be harassment.”

“‘Conduct’ meaning committing the act of genocide?” Republican Representative Elise Stefanik asked. “The speech is not harassment? This is unacceptable.” The comments by these three college presidents caused a firestorm of criticism that subsequent clarifications and apologies failed to dispel.

Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand told Fox News that all three presidents should leave their posts. “You cannot call for the genocide of Jews, the genocide of any group of people, and not say that that’s harassment,” she said. Two days after the hearing, Magill resigned.

Jonathan Haidt, an NYU professor who has written strongly in favor of free speech on campus, says that he was most troubled by the double standard of the college presidents:

“What offends me is that since 2015, universities have been so quick to punish ‘microaggressions,’ including statements intended to be kind, if even one person from a favored group took offense,” Haidt wrote on X (formerly Twitter). “The presidents are now saying: ‘Jews are not a favored group, so offending or threatening Jews is not so bad. For Jews, it all depends on context.’ We might call this double standard ‘institutional anti-semitism.’” Yes, we might.

Many liberal Jews who considered themselves part of the progressive movement have felt betrayed by their left-wing allies—including Black Lives Matter and the Democratic Socialists of America—since the October 7 massacre.

In Los Angeles, Rabbi Sharon Brous, whom The New York Times describes as “a well-known progressive activist who regularly criticizes the Israeli government,” told her congregants about the “existential loneliness” she and other Jews have felt since the Hamas attacks.

“The clear message from many people in the world, especially from our world—those who claim to care the most about justice and human dignity—is that these Israeli victims somehow deserved this terrible fate,” she said.

Rabbi Brous’s sentiments are shared by others. Joanna Ware, the executive director of the Jewish Liberation Fund, a philanthropic group created in 2020, put it this way to the Times: “It has been painful to see some people I consider friends or comrades seeming to have a hard time empathizing with Israelis and, by extension, Jews in the United States.” And Daniel Sokatch, the CEO of the New Israel Fund, told the Times that it “felt like betrayal, not of us as allies, but of the values we all stand for.”

Last month, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, America’s highest-ranking Jewish elected official, delivered a deeply personal, 40-minute speech from the floor of the Senate explaining and condemning the wave of anti-Semitism we have witnessed since the attacks by Hamas. Schumer’s anguished words were primarily aimed at progressives and young people. The rising anti-Semitism, he said, isn’t coming from the far right but from “people that most liberal Jewish Americans felt previously were their ideological fellow travelers.”

“Not long ago, many of us marched together for Black and brown lives, we stood against anti-Asian hatred, we protested bigotry against the LGBTQ community, we fought for reproductive justice out of the recognition that injustice against one oppressed group is injustice against all,” Schumer said. “But apparently, in the eyes of some, that principle does not extend to the Jewish people.”

So how did we get to the point where progressives—those who define themselves as committed to social justicewould find themselves either reluctant to criticize, or in many cases expressing support for, Hamas? Hamas, after all, is a designated terrorist organization with a militant ideology and a charter endorsing genocide against the Jews. It persecutes LGBTQ people, systematically denies rights to women, and denies other basic political and legal rights to Gazans. But that doesn’t seem to bother many progressives.

For them, everything is understood through power differentials and identity politics. Israel is powerful and therefore an oppressor, which by definition makes the Jewish state evil; Palestinians are powerless and oppressed, which by definition makes their cause good. Israel can never be in the right, and Hamas can never be in the wrong.

One example: Knowing that a military response from Israeli was inevitable in the wake of savage attacks, Hamas encouraged Palestinian civilian casualties by using civilians as human shields. Hamas intentionally positions its military assets in civilian areas such as schoolyards and hospitals; it uses civilian infrastructure for its military purposes.

Yet the narrative of the left is that Israel, not Hamas, is guilty of “genocide.” And in their Orwellian world, Israel is itself responsible for the attacks it suffered.

Jonathan Chait of New York magazine, in describing the thinking of what he calls the “illiberal left,” put it this way: “The legitimacy of a tactic can only be assessed with reference to whether it is being used by the oppressor or the oppressed.” In his construct, murdering children or raping women isn’t intrinsically bad; its morality depends on who is doing the murdering and the raping. And those who are “privileged” are in no position to criticize those who are not. In addition, criticizing Hamas can only help the Zionist project, which is indefensible.

What this all means in practice is that, in the name of social justice, progressives are betraying social justice. They are imposing an ideological prism on life and events that leads to dehumanization, a hardness of heart, cruelty, and a lack of conscience. It also distorts history, including distorting the history of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, which I wrote about last year.

One can of course criticize the policies of various Israeli governments and military tactics without being anti-Semitic. People who love Israel can be critical of policies of Israel. One can also have deep compassion for the suffering that the Palestinian people have endured for generations and sympathize with their longing for a homeland. But a fair reading of the historical record—or at least my own reading of the historical record—shows that the obstacle to a Palestinian homeland lies much more with a militant and corrupt Palestinian leadership, which has created a malignant political culture, than with Israel, which has frequently shown a willingness to surrender land for genuine peace.

Israel did so with Egypt in 1978 and Jordan in 1994, and has tried to do so with Palestine, including in 1967 when Israel offered to return the land it had captured during the war that year in exchange for peace and normal relations, an offer that was summarily rejected by Arab leaders meeting in Khartoum; and 2000, when Yasir Arafat rejected Israel’s offer of Palestinian statehood with east Jerusalem as its capital, the return of all of Gaza and virtually all the land in the West Bank, and the readmission of refugees to the new Palestinian state.

What is happening on the American left is a cautionary tale. Like MAGA world, it has been deformed by a toxic ideology that not only rejects inconvenient truths; it inverts morality in order to confirm its presuppositions. In the case of the left, its ideology—a mix of postmodernism, post-colonialism, and critical race theory, what my Atlantic colleague Yascha Mounk calls the “identity synthesis”—has played a role in aligning itself with one of the most malevolent groups on the planet, whose savagery was on full display on October 7.

Unlike those progressives who sided with Hamas after October 7, President Biden has offered extraordinary support for Israel. Just hours after the attack, Biden said what Hamas did was an “appalling assault.” He went on to say that his “support for Israel’s security is rock solid and unwavering.” Biden was true to his word.

The president traveled to Tel Aviv—and within range of Hamas rockets—just weeks after the attack. It was a remarkable gesture of solidarity; so was his request for more than $14 billion in additional assistance for Israel. Virtually every public comment about Israel by Biden and his advisers has been supportive of the Jewish state, even as he has taken steps to provide $100 million in humanitarian assistance for the Palestinian people in Gaza and the West Bank. (Differences have surfaced, though, between Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over what happens in Gaza after the war ends, and the intensity with which the conflict is being waged.) Biden has spoken out forcefully against rising anti-Semitism in America. He said at a White House Hanukkah reception, “I am a Zionist.” No one who is familiar with Biden’s 50-year public career is surprised by his stance.

Shalom Lipner, who was an adviser to more than a half dozen Israeli prime ministers, said Biden was now more popular in Israel than the country’s own leaders. “This isn’t just from today; we’re looking at a history here,” Lipner told Peter Baker of The New York Times. “He’s always been there.” (One senator referred to Biden as “the only Catholic Jew.”)

Not surprisingly, Biden has been criticized within his own party for being too pro-Israel. Nearly half of Democrats disapprove of how Biden is handling the Israel-Hamas conflict, according to one recent poll, while another poll found that the percent of Democrats under 35 who believe that the Biden administration is too pro-Israel has doubled to 41 percent. These findings highlight the deep, intense divisions within his party over the war. (At anti-war protests young progressives chanted, “Biden, Biden, you can’t hide; you signed off on genocide.”) Yet Biden shows no signs of wavering.

During the 2020 campaign, Donald Trump said Joe Biden was “a helpless puppet of the radical left.” In fact he has mostly proved to be a bulwark against it. Many of the radical ideas being championed by the left prior to the 2020 election—the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, increasing the marginal tax rate to 70 percent, abolishing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, packing the Supreme Court, putting an end to the Electoral College, reparations for Black Americans—have not been embraced by Biden. Neither has defunding the police. Biden has asked for and received increases in defense spending, which is at a record level. Under Biden, domestic oil production is at an all-time high. He’s been a fierce advocate for Ukraine in its war against Russia. He strengthened NATO and played an essential role in adding Finland and Sweden to it.

For many years Joe Biden was seen as an “amiable lightweight.” His political career seemed over when, as vice president, he was passed over by his party, which nominated Hillary Clinton for president in 2016. But history had other things in mind. Biden looks to be the only person standing between Donald Trump and a second term that would pose a catastrophic threat to the republic. At the same time, he is also the key person resisting the pull of the progressive left on the Democratic Party. A person who was thought to be a transitional president is turning out to be a consequential one. An awful lot hinges on the man from Scranton.

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