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The John Fetterman Problem
Until politicians stop getting a pass for having terrible politics on Israel, they will keep having terrible politics on Israel.
A lot of people are mad at Pennsylvania Senator John Fetterman right now, and with good reason. Fetterman has been notably horrible on the crisis in Gaza, issuing bloodthirsty statements like this one:
In other words: Israel, do whatever you want to Gaza. Kill as many people as you want, bomb as much as you want, until Hamas is “neutralized,” whatever that means. (Any time politicians start using weird battlefield cosplay words like “neutralized,” things have gone wrong.) Not that Israel needed Fetterman’s permission to carry out mass indiscriminate genocidal warfare against Gaza, but I’m sure his endorsement was appreciated.
The sight of John Fetterman, the supposed Gritty of politics, talking like a standard AIPAC-backed hack clearly disturbed many people, including some of Fetterman’s former campaign staffers, who wrote an open letter urging Fetterman to change course and back a ceasefire. That, as Fetterman has made plain, is not going to happen.
Fetterman’s comments are many things. Very fucked up, for instance. But one thing they really should have not been is surprising. That’s because John Fetterman has been telling the world very clearly where he stands on Israel for quite a long time.
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Here, for instance, is how he put things to Jewish Insider back in April 2022 (emphasis mine):
“Whenever I’m in a situation to be called on to take up the cause of strengthening and enhancing the security of Israel or deepening our relationship between the United States and Israel, I’m going to lean in,” Fetterman declared in his first conversation with a Jewish publication since he launched his campaign more than a year ago.
[…] “I would also respectfully say that I’m not really a progressive in that sense,” he added. “Our campaign is based on core Democratic values and principles, and always has been, and there is no daylight between myself and these kinds of unwavering commitments to Israel’s security.”
[…]“I want to go out of my way to make sure that it’s absolutely clear,” he told JI, “that the views that I hold in no way go along the lines of some of the more fringe or extreme wings of our party.”
[…]Fetterman said he is “equally passionate” in his opposition to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting Israel. “It’s just wrong,” he said. “Israel is our closest ally and friend in the region, and I do not believe that is anything productive that enhances not only Israel’s security but the region’s security through that process.”
That really could not be more straightforward. He literally said this was an issue he was “not really progressive” about. And it’s not like nobody noticed this. People did. But it never became a thing, a defining factor in peoples’ judgment of Fetterman. (That includes Discourse Blog; we never mentioned Fetterman’s position on Israel as far as I can remember.) Fetterman was even endorsed by Peace Action—a group that campaigns on “ending wars in the Middle East” and whose president sits on the advisory board of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights—months after his Jewish Insider interview.
And now, here we are. As his chief of staff Adam Jentleson pointed out, anybody who expected something different from Fetterman right now was kidding themselves:
I mean…show me the lie. (Jentleson is right about Harry Reid too.)
It’s not like Fetterman didn’t warn us. He was very explicit that he wasn’t going to deviate one inch from the standard “Israel can do no wrong” position. It’s just that nobody really cared that much—including, it would seem, those former staffers. I mean, did they not know what their own candidate was saying?
Nobody ever cares all that much. Hardline pro-Israel resolutions—such as a recent one that condemned Hamas’s atrocities against Israeli civilians while failing to mention Palestinian civilians at all—pass in Congress with near-unanimity like clockwork, and everyone just goes about their day. Democrats who would be raked over the coals for other things get to sound like complete lunatic monsters on Israel and Palestine and it’s no big deal. It’s just what’s expected. It’s Israel, y’know? People get into politics, they start baying for Palestinian blood, they suddenly realize that they’re cool with apartheid, blah blah blah—that’s how it goes!
Well, this is the consequence of saying “that’s how it goes” on Israel over and over and over again. All these politicians whose views on so many issues are heavily scrutinized are allowed to carve out this little exception when it comes to Israel—to be as vicious about Palestinians as all the other politicians, to arm Israel to the teeth year after year, to keep the show on the road. And most of the time, everyone just looks the other way. But this is what happens when you just look the other way. This is what it means to say, “it’s Israel, what do you expect.” It means that there is no incentive for someone like John Fetterman to do anything different. It means that Fetterman can tell the world plainly not only that he is an unreconstructed mega-hawk on Israel, but that he intends to vote that way when he gets the power to do so, and most people barely notice. It means that, when Fetterman is actually in the Senate, and Israel makes it clear that it has genocidal intentions in Gaza, Fetterman gives Israel the thumbs up. It means that Palestinians are repeatedly sent the message that their lives aren’t important enough for people to make too much of a fuss about any of this.
The only way to change things is to actually make Israel an issue—to make it a problem for someone like John Fetterman to brag about how un-progressive he is on Israel during a campaign, rather than just letting him say that and moving things along; to show that backing Israel come what may is not a decision that can be treated as vague background noise, but one that will create some political headaches; to make it plain that you shouldn’t expect rapturous treatment if you are terrible on this question. In other words, a critical mass of people will have to demonstrate that Palestine matters enough to them that they are not willing to give politicians eternal permission to treat the Palestinian people as less than human. That is how you even begin to solve what we might now think of as the John Fetterman Problem.