The US Democratic Party was sent into shock this week when a 28-year-old former organiser for Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid ousted a party veteran from his perch in Congress on a campaign of social justice, equality and support of the Palestinian people.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the daughter of working-class immigrants, won the Democratic primary in New York’s 14th Congressional District on Tuesday, beating ten-term incumbent Joe Crowley, who was one of the favourites to become the party leader. The result sent shockwaves with politicians and pundits asking what the victory of a progressive social justice campaigner means for incumbents everywhere.
Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign, which connected with grassroots communities and was being run on a platform for social justice and equality, has received plaudits. Some democrats have described her approach as the recipe to get the Democrats back into power.
Ocasio-Cortez’s view on Israel and Palestine also received extensive media attention. The Democratic candidate expressed her support for the Palestinians during the Land Day protests in Gaza in which 135 Palestinians were killed by Israeli occupation forces and a further 13,000 were injured.
“This is a massacre,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted.
“I hope my peers have the moral courage to call it such.”
“No state or entity is absolved of mass shootings of protesters. There is no justification. Palestinian people deserve basic human dignity, as anyone else.”
Glenn Greenwald, a pundit with the Intercept, said the tweet got a lot of attention because it’s rare to see someone in mainstream politics talking in “such clear moral terms denouncing the Israeli government’s military aggression in that way”.
Greenwald observed that it was politically suicidal for candidates to take an anti-Israeli position. Successful candidates, he said, needed to demonstrate “unyieldingly loyal to Israel”. Asked by Greenwald if she felt she needed to take such a tough stance against Israel despite the political cost, Ocasio-Cortez said she was compelled to take the position she took regarding Palestine on moral grounds.
“My background is as an educator, an organiser and an activist,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “And I think I was primarily compelled on moral grounds, because I can only imagine if 60 people were shot and killed in Ferguson, or if 60 people were shot in killed in the West Virginia teacher strikes” referring to civil rights and labour rights protests held in the US in recent years.
The idea that we are not supposed to talk about people dying when they are engaging in political expression just really moved me. And running for office, seeing, like, the silence around this issue, has been a little interesting to me.
Ocasio-Cortez noted that her family is Puerto Rican, a US territory “that is granted no rights or civic representation”. “If 60 people were shot in protest of the United States’ negligence in FEMA [The Federal Emergency Management Agency] and kind of keeping us on that island, I couldn’t even imagine if there was silence on that,” she added, referencing the slow federal response to devastation wrought to the island after Hurricane Maria hit last year.
The Democratic candidate also noted the diversity of her congressional district, and said that many Jewish and Muslim constituents had thanked her for the stance she took on Twitter.
“People say in New York City this is political suicide, and so on, but I had a lot of my own constituents thanking me for taking that position,” Ocasio-Cortez continued. “I think that in the same lens that I looked at it, people, I think, are separating the actions and the status of the Palestinians from the greater geopolitics of the area. I think people are starting to just look at the humanitarian state of the Palestinian people through a humanitarian lens.”
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez’s former boss, has also taken similarly hard lines against the Israeli government.