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The Charismatic Female Stars of the New American Left

The latest entry in a Tablet feature responding to Paul Berman’s analysis of the American left examines how a rising group of young women, aligned with the Democratic Socialists, is changing American political culture

Emily Benedek
December 19, 2018
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine

The full Tablet series featuring Paul Berman’s original three-part essay on the state of the contemporary left, along with responses to Berman from writers across the political spectrum, is collected here.

Paul Berman is fretting. He is fretting about the American left, his love and his torment, the object of his heart’s desire, though she continues to betray and disappoint him, even as he cannot let her go. He explains, in a magisterial three-part essay in the pages of Tablet, in whispered plaints, patiently and sympathetically, the error of her ways, with the hope that a self-correction may come before it is all too late.

I hope it will. But I have my doubts.

I worry about the children.

Berman opens his inquiry with a question:

“When the delegates to the Democratic National Convention assemble less than two years from now, will the showdown between centrists and progressives that everyone expects actually occur? Will a few zealots of anti-Zionism take their place among the progressives? Will they push their way to the microphone, and will they send mad orations beaming outward to the American public, calling for the elimination of an entire country? And will the mad orations lead to grisly chants and an occasional outbreak of medieval superstition, hither and yon? In short, will the same miserable battle that has torn apart large portions of the European left spread to America, not just on a miniature scale (which has already happened), but full blast, with national consequences? This is not a silly question.”

The people at the Democratic Socialists of America hall pushing to the microphones to offer their febrile chants concerned Berman, but they were, one could say with a bit of hope, still fairly marginal in American political life. But since the midterm elections, a few more have taken their places in the U.S. Congress and in state legislatures, and perhaps more importantly, in the Democratic Party apparatus. I studied physics in college. Waves worry me. They can come from nowhere and accumulate surprising power. The secret is that the force of waves is additive, even if they don’t all come from the exact same direction.

A small wave developed during those same 2018 midterm elections: A group of charismatic, female, community-oriented fighters for the poor and disenfranchised whose platforms revolved around Medicare for all, quality housing and free college tuition, ran for office and resoundingly won. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, candidate-elect for the U.S. House of Representatives from the 14th District of New York was first, creating a groundswell of euphoria with her primary win against the House’s No. 4 Democrat, Joseph Crowley. Rashida Tlaib, member-elect of the House of Representatives from Michigan’s 13th District, beat out a large field of African-American political royalty to win the primary and take over the seat vacated by John Conyers after he stepped down in the midst of sexual harassment accusations. Both women are card-carrying members of Democratic Socialists of America. As is Julia Salazar, newly elected member of the New York state Senate. Another up and comer, Ilhan Omar, a Somali-American, is the representative-elect from Minnesota’s 5th District, who ran as a member of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party.

These women’s wins have been the subject of hundreds of adulatory media stories on the left. Liberals are excited by the new life injected into the party in the time of Trump by these young candidates whose resumes have taken on an added gravitas in light of the #MeToo movement and the interesting idea that immigrants (like our parents and grandparents?) possess a more pointed and legitimate appreciation of this country—its strengths and weaknesses—better, fresher, more vibrant—than our own.

It turned out, though, that these populist heroines were also Israel haters.

Both Tlaib and Omar made policy statements about Israel during their campaigns that they changed after their elections. While running, Tlaib got the endorsement of J Street by saying she supported a two-state solution. After her election, the lawyer and community organizer announced she supported a single state. “One state,” she said to In These Times magazine. “It has to be one state. Separate but equal does not work. I’m only 42 years old but my teachers were of that generation that marched with Martin Luther King. This whole idea of a two-state solution, it doesn’t work.” The day before, she told Britain’s Channel 4 News that she wanted the U.S. to slash funding to Israel. “Absolutely, if it has something to do with inequality and not access to people having justice,” she said. J Street later pulled its endorsement of the candidate.

Somali-born Ilhan Omar, who took over the seat vacated by Keith Ellison when he decided to run for attorney general, said during her campaign that she did not support BDS, opining that pressure on Israel would be counterproductive to peace. Now, she says both are true: She doesn’t think pressure is productive, yet she supports BDS. She was indignant when a tweet she’d penned in 2012 surfaced, which stated that Israel had “hypnotized the world” and was guilty of “evil doings.” When offered the chance to clarify or separate herself from these comments, Omar said, “these accusations are without merit.” She blamed Islamophobia for the strong reaction against her words. “They are rooted in bigotry toward a belief about what Muslims are stereotyped to believe.”

Because of her celebrity aura and up-by-the-bootstraps story, the headscarf wearing Omar has been given a pass on these comments, and she has been treated with kid gloves over her eyebrow-raising tweet about VP Mike Pence during the recent, heated, Oval Office exchange between Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and President Trump on the border wall and a possible government shutdown. Under a photo of Pence with his eyes closed she tweeted: “Jesus Take the Wheel.” The Federalist’s David Harsanyi asked, “I wonder what would happen if Pence made fun of Omar’s belief in Muhammad?”

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old former organizer for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, beat U.S Rep. Joseph Crowley, a veteran congressman who had not faced a primary opponent since 2004. The upset win of fresh-faced, bright, Ocasio-Cortez, lit up the left across the country, which appreciated the energy and earnestness she brought to the election—as a young woman, a person of color (her family hails from Puerto Rico) and a champion of the working class. She gathered an impressive number of endorsements from national progressive groups. During the campaign, she, too, offered some anti-Israel palaver, including a remark that IDF attempts to keep Hamas protesters from breaching the fence along the Gaza border was a “massacre,” before admitting on PBS that she really wasn’t an expert on the issue. Jewish Insider recently reported that she declined AIPAC’s invitation to travel to Israel with the group later this year with her freshman congressional colleagues.

What unites these candidates is their youth, their powerful media presences, and the Democratic Socialists of America, which has its roots in the venerable Socialist Party of America, led by activist, trade unionist, and five-time losing presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs. But to understand Berman’s apprehension, one need only listen for a bit to the young people who, in the last five years, have resurrected this group, swelling its ranks fourfold.

Olivia Katbi Smith and Emily Rose Golden are the co-chairs of the Portland chapter of DSA. Before a Pussy Riot concert last March, they took the stage together to welcome their comrades and talk to them about a very important issue: “Palestine.” Olivia, who shares more than a passing resemblance to the stunning Amal Clooney, with long wavy hair, large eyes, and arched brows, wore a very short dress and black leather jacket. She took hold of the mike and introduced herself as “an Arab.” She then handed the microphone, relay-race style, to Emily, who wore jeans and a red DSA T-shirt, who said, “And I’m Jewish.” Now that their bona fides had been established, Emily continued, and, reading from a script, said: “So we want to debunk any myths surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that paint it as a complicated conflict, something that has always been around and is unsolvable and we can just let them fight it out over there.” The crowd offered murmurs of approval as if they were familiar with this call and response. “Don’t let anyone fool you into thinking that there is anything other than an illegal and brutal occupation, designed and bankrolled by Western imperialist powers.” Cheers and whistles. “The United States gives Israel $4 billion a year while Israel subjects Palestinians to unspeakable crimes. Thanks to Capitalism, American arms manufacturers and other U.S. corporations profit directly from the occupation of Palestine. As Socialists, we reject all forms of exploitation and oppression including the profit-driven militarism that has directly led to the dire situation in Palestine today.” She stepped back from the mike to yips and applause.

Olivia then took the mike and, with her own script, continued: “We need to use the word Apartheid to describe the current conditions in Palestine and Israel’s sham of democracy …” The declarations continued for almost eight minutes to their adoring fans.

The next month, in an interview with an activist from Veterans for Peace Forum, Katbi Smith was asked to discuss her political evolution. She explained that her father is of Syrian descent and grew up in Jordan. She has a grandmother who still lives in Syria and some relatives in the West Bank. “I’m pretty new to socialism in general. But I grew up in rural Ohio, and I was in fourth grade when 9/11 happened. And I knew that politics were important and I knew that politics made me an outlier compared to the people that I grew up with. Someone recently told me, you can tell a lot about people’s politics by asking them how they feel about Palestine—which is so true. It’s not a popular or mainstream position to stand up for Arabs or Muslims.”

It was Bernie Sanders who introduced Katbi Smith to socialism. “He was saying all these policies, and they just made so much sense to me. And he said he was a Democratic Socialist, so I checked out DSA after Bernie’s campaign, and DSA is where I learned so much more about socialism and capitalism and about how all of our struggles are connected. Yeah.”

On April 21, in Portland, she demonstrated against the commissioning of The USS Portland, an amphibious transport dock ship. “At a time when Trump is clearly trying to escalate military action in Syria, we felt it imperative to protest the naming of a warship after our city,” she told the VPF interviewer. She was happy to learn that the protesters’ shouts could be heard at the ceremony. “The war is draining almost all the social services as we go along … That ship alone cost $1.6 billion. The missiles we shot at Syria last week cost $119 million. Just think about what we could do with all the money we are spending on military activities around the globe. Here at home, we could provide universal health care, public education, housing, we could do so many things. with that money. Instead we are killing people abroad.”

The DSA believes in dismantling the capitalist system, and some followers in the erasure of all national boundaries. Katbi Smith’s Instagram account includes a framed picture of a quote from Karl Marx that reads: “My object in life is to dethrone God and destroy capitalism.” It also includes a photo of herself and her parents draped in red keffiyehs with the hashtag #Righttoboycott. There are pictures of her wedding to husband Connor Smith, and photos of them dressed up as Che Guevara. I wonder if she has any idea what would happen to a girl like her, married to an infidel, wearing a miniskirt, with the red lipstick she favors, were she to set foot in Gaza.

But in DSA, she found a home:

“It’s a big tent organization. We don’t have a party line, we don’t have literature, we don’t have a ban to entry. We want to build a movement and want it to be accessible to everyone. We have communists, people very involved in the Democratic party. And I think that’s why our organization had exploded. Young people are in a position right now where they feel they don’t have a choice. They see the future is bleak, especially after Trump got elected. They felt, OK, we have to do something right now. Trump didn’t appear out of a vacuum. Trump is a symptom of the disease that is neo-liberalism which had led to these policies that have totally alienated everyone.”

As a leader of the party, Katbi Smith attended the DSA convention on Aug. 5, 2017, at the University of Illinois at Chicago campus. She was one of 697 delegates who’d traveled there from around the country to hone the group’s platform before the midterms. DSA had always worked to elevate the poor and downtrodden worker. And for many years it had been allied with socialists in Israel, including Shimon Peres. But the convention proved absolutely that the old DSA was gone. Membership ballooned to 32,000 in 2017 (from a mere 5,000 at its founding in 1982) on the coattails of Bernie Sanders’ campaign, and boasted 50,000 members in 2018 after Trump’s election. The average age of a dues-paying DSA member has plummeted from 68 years old to 33 between 2013 and now. The new members are a mishmash, unclear about what exactly “democratic socialism” means and entails, but unified by the belief that capitalism and conventional politics have failed their generation.

They are also unified in the belief that Israel is the enemy of the righteous. Katbi Smith had worked hard for the passage of a BDS resolution, presented to members at the 2017 convention. When it passed, by almost 90 percent of the vote, she was ecstatic. She told Abraham Riesman, who was writing about the DSA for the Daily Beast, “It was electric. The room was on fire. It was amazing. We had a Palestinian flag that we waved as soon as it passed. We started chanting.”

And what they chanted was: “From the river to the sea. Palestine will be free.” In case there is any doubt, this is not a peaceful wish. It is a call for the elimination of Jews between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.

It is a, shall we say, more socialistic variant on the antique hymn: “Khaybar, Khaybar, oh Jews, the army of Muhammed is returning” which was chanted not long ago in Times Square in reaction to the U.S. move of its embassy to Jerusalem. The chant refers to a seventh-century battle fought by the Islamic prophet Muhammad against a thousand-year-old Jewish community that lived by several oases near Medina. Seeing they were outnumbered, the Jews surrendered and were spared death by agreeing to pay tribute—half their food production—to the Muslims. A few years later, they were expelled by Caliph Umar. But the taxation requirement would become the basis under which non-Muslims were permitted to live under Muslim rule. The chant “Khaybar, Khaybar” is often invoked by Islamist terrorist groups including Hamas and Hezbollah.

When the journalist Riesman asked Katbi Smith if she intended the annihilation of Israeli Jews, she responded: “People are like, ‘That’s a genocidal chant,’ but that’s not what it means. I mean, that just doesn’t make sense to me, that people are made uncomfortable by saying”—she trails off. “I don’t understand. I mean, I guess I do understand how people would want to twist it that way. But no one is calling for genocide. We are just calling for liberation.”

Hmm. The previous May, she tweeted, “Fuck Israel. Join us when we march in Portland tomorrow. From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free.”

Shocking enough for a Democrat of any kind to call for the elimination of the Jewish state. Even if they don’t understand how people might take it that way.

But I wonder how Democrat voters and officials of the Democrats would respond if they knew that on Aug. 30, 2018, Katbi Smith published on Facebook a drawing of Leila Khalid, a member of the PFLP, with a red heart and the date: Aug. 29, 1969, in honor of the 49th anniversary of Khalid’s hijacking of TWA flight #840 on its way from Rome to Tel Aviv. After the passengers were taken off the aircraft in Damascus, Khalid and her fellow hijackers blew up the plane’s nose cone.

Today, Katbi Smith’s Twitter cover photo is a likeness of Leila Khalid.

Is it OK for a very public leader of a Democratic faction in tony Portland to lionize a terrorist who blew up an American plane? Is the Democratic tent that big?

If so, where does that leave the Democrats? EJ Kimball, a veteran foreign policy and national security consultant who serves as director of the Israel Victory Campaign for the Middle East Forum, says: “Republicans would love to get these Democratic Socialists to debate them on TV. The best strategy for Republicans to retake the House in 2020 would be to let the public see their anti-American, Israel-hating, pro-BDS views as representing the Democratic party.”

At the end of his Daily Beast piece on DSA, which he titled “How the DSA Went From Supporting Israel to Boycotting the Jewish ‘Ethnostate’,” Riesman ruminates on Katbi Smith and her determined ignorance, her magical reversion of complexity into belief: “I keep thinking about something Katbi Smith said to me near the beginning of our conversation. ‘When people talk about Israel and Palestine,’ she said, ‘they say that it’s a very complicated conflict, like it’s just so hard to understand, and it’s very clear to me what is happening, which is oppression and ethnic cleansing. I think that should be clear to everyone. I think that the framing of it as an extremely complicated conflict is a myth that we need to constantly work to debunk’.”

This, of course, is the same speech that her Portland DSA co-chair, Emily Rose Golden, read at the Portland Pussy Riot concert.

Riesman continues: “She’s 26. She’s never known a progressive Israel. She’s very possibly the future of American leftist politics. Those who founded her organization a lifetime ago mean little to her. Can Zionists debunk her debunking? If they don’t, her chant will only get louder. Someday, for better or worse, it might be all anyone in her generation hears.”

Two weeks ago, Olivia Katbi Smith posted on her Facebook account, seemingly without irony: “Myself and other comrades talked to the Daily Beast about DSA and BDS and I’m pretty happy with how this piece ends.”

Emily Benedek has written for Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Newsweek, The Washington Post, and Mosaic, among other publications. She is the author of five books.