Since launching in January 2019, the lobby group Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI) has marketed itself as the flagship organization for those wanting to integrate “progressive values” with support for Israel. But a recent series of offensive social media posts made by two DMFI board members, coupled with a history of other troubling statements, has undermined the group’s attempt at laying such a claim.
For Palestinian rights advocates, the posts — which include a call to “burn Gaza” and a laugh at an anti-Muslim joke — are a stark example of how anti-Palestinian speech is tolerated in Democratic Party circles. The offensive posts came from board members Archie Gottesman and Sam Lauter, both of whom have close ties to the Democratic Party establishment and the Biden administration. Despite ensuing outcry, both remain board members of the organization.
The social media posts highlight DMFI’s particular brand of Israel advocacy, which is characterized by a combative Twitter account and personal attacks on legislators who are critical of Israel’s human rights violations. As the brand of the hawkish American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has taken a hit in the Democratic Party due to its clashes with former President Barack Obama, DMFI has taken a lead role in the Israel lobby’s attempt to curb criticism of Israeli human rights abuses within the party.
“This is the sort of anti-Palestinian, anti-Muslim bigotry that is unfortunately still tolerated among a lot of conservative Democrats. DMFI’s role is to give it cover,” said Matt Duss, the foreign policy adviser to former presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders.
“Progressives are working to build a Democratic Party that fights racism and supports equality and justice for all people, without exception,” continued Duss. “DMFI has shown repeatedly that they are not a part of that — in fact they’re fighting against it. So people need to understand what they’re dealing with when they answer DMFI’s calls or consider accepting their endorsement.”
Anti-Muslim, anti-Palestinian bigotry
The lobby group’s recent PR trouble started over news that ought to have been joyful: the announcement on Twitter of the engagement of Waleed Shahid, a spokesman for the group Justice Democrats, and Emily Mayer, the former political director for anti-occupation Jewish group IfNotNow.
Responding to the news on Twitter, the pro-Israel blogger Elder of Ziyon wrote: “A co-founder of IfNotNow finally gets to realize her life’s ambition to become a Shahid” (”shahid” is the Arabic term for “martyr”). Sam Lauter, a long-time activist with AIPAC, a DMFI board member, and a former aide to Joe Biden, responded by saying: “Don’t stoop to their level. (Although it is a well done word play.)”
Outrage ensued at Lauter’s claim that the anti-Muslim joke was “a well done word play.” Lauter later expressed regret for the tweet, and ultimately deleted his account, while DMFI said: “Sam is right to apologize. He accurately labeled his comment as stupid and inappropriate. It in no way reflects the views or values of our organization.”
…just a @DemMaj4Israel board member and former Biden aide saying he's entertained by textbook racism as a response to me and my partner getting engaged
— Emily Mayer???? (@emilyfmayer) April 13, 2021
But Lauter’s laugh at a racist joke led to more scrutiny of another of DMFI’s board members: Archie Gottesman, who is also a board member for Zioness, a group marketing itself as a feminist Zionist movement, and the Israel on Campus Coalition. In a message highlighted by satirist Eli Valley and academic Diana Greenwald, Gottensman wrote in 2018 that “Gaza is full of monsters. Time to burn the whole place,” in response to an Israeli army tweet noting that Palestinians were allegedly burning condoms to fire at Israel during the Great March of Return in the blockaded strip.
“Gottesman’s genocidal comments can’t be divorced from the scores of Israelis marching through Jerusalem chanting ‘death to Arabs/burn the Arabs,’” said Ahmad Abuznaid, the executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights.
After Gottesman’s tweet received widespread attention, Eli Clifton, a senior adviser at the Quincy Institute, an anti-war think tank, surfaced a Facebook post from January 2019 in which Gottesman, commenting above a picture of Palestinian-American organizer Linda Sarsour and Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, mocked Palestinian refugees and wrote “terrorist Palestinians.” Like Lauter, Gottesman expressed regret for the posts, saying on Twitter that her “angry posts” were “wrong and indefensible.” She deleted her Twitter and Facebook accounts soon after.
“I just keep thinking about what would have happened if these exact comments were made by a staffer or board member of a progressive organization about Israelis and Jews instead of Palestinians and Muslims,” said Shahid, the spokesman for Justice Democrats. “It’s deeply sad how there is little to no accountability for the most horrendous and egregious forms of anti-Muslim and anti-Palestinian bigotry within some of the highest levels of the Democratic Party ecosystem.”
And when @DemMaj4Israel's Archie Gottesman wasn't calling for the extermination of Palestinians on Twitter she was on Facebook mocking refugees and "terrorist Palestinians who have no goals." pic.twitter.com/2fLGH5Daox
— Eli Clifton (@EliClifton) April 16, 2021
Responding to +972’s query about the board members’ remarks, DMFI spokeswoman Rachel Rosen said: “DMFI has consistently condemned anti-Arab bigotry whether expressed by political figures in Israel, the Republican party in the U.S. or by our own board members. Both of our board members apologized for their words and stated those words did not reflect their values, while DMFI made clear what they said was wrong and inconsistent with our values as well.”
Rosen added: “The hypocrisy of our critics is evident from the fact while our board members made apologies, we have yet to hear any remorse from anti-Israel leaders for the continuing catalogue of antisemitic statements they have made.”
But any hope that DMFI or its board members would tone down their social media presence quickly evaporated on May 3, when DMFI accused Nancy Kaufman, a respected Jewish American leader, of “enabling antisemitism” as part of a Twitter post pushing back against an effort by progressive groups to get Kaufman nominated as the Biden administration’s envoy on antisemitism. After progressive Jewish activists slammed DMFI for yet another attack, DMFI deleted its post and expressed regret.
DMFI arrived on the American pro-Israel lobby scene in January 2019, promising to counter what Mark Mellman, the group’s president, called “a very small problem”: a growing group of Washington lawmakers, such as Betty McCollum and Rashida Tlaib, who were openly criticizing Israel for its 54-year-old military occupation and its oppressive policies against Palestinians.
DMFI has close ties to AIPAC, the powerful and longtime Israel lobby group. Eleven of DMFI’s board members have worked at, volunteered with, donated to, or spoken at AIPAC events. But while DMFI has aligned itself with one political party, unlike the proudly bipartisan AIPAC, it has effectively replicated AIPAC’s work in shielding Israel from criticism in Washington. In December 2020, for example, +972 revealed DMFI had sent Congressional Democrats a memo defending Israel’s destruction of the Palestinian village of Humsa al-Fuqa in the occupied West Bank.
A key DMFI strategy to beat back critics of Israel is to targete lawmakers with personal attacks, with the group going so far as to call Tlaib’s and McCollum’s views on Israel “antisemitic.”
These attacks have extended to others as well. In 2020, Jamaal Bowman, a Black education activist and former middle school principal, ran against Eliot Engel, a foreign policy hawk and longtime ally of the Israel lobby. In June of that year, DMFI aired television ads in the district that attacked Bowman over unpaid taxes, which some criticized as playing into racist tropes about Black people. DMFI also ran an ad against Bernie Sanders during the run-up to the 2020 Democratic Iowa caucus, citing his heart attack and leftist politics to kneecap his presidential primary success.
While DMFI’s board members may have apologized in an attempt to make the controversy go away, their comments highlighted how similar rhetoric has long been tolerated in mainstream political circles. AIPAC’s annual conference, for example, attracts hundreds of Democratic lawmakers every year, eager to showcase their pro-Israel bonafides and schmooze with AIPAC activists who could help their political careers.
AIPAC has also invited anti-Muslim activists, such as Steve Emerson, to speak at their conference. AIPAC reportedly gave $60,000 to the Center for Security Policy, an anti-Muslim group, as part of a campaign to thwart the Iran nuclear deal. In 2020, the lobby invited the anti-immigrant Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz and Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić, who has praised war criminal Slobodan Milošević, to speak at their conference.
Both DMFI and AIPAC remain influential within the Democratic Party despite their links to anti-Muslim and anti-Palestinian figures. But both groups may have trouble ahead.
In a March poll, 53 percent of Democratic voters told Gallup that they support increasing pressure on Israel — an increase of 10 points since 2018. A 2019 Data for Progress poll found that 64 percent of Democratic voters support reducing aid to Israel over its human rights abuses. That sentiment is now being translated into legislation: last month, Congresswoman McCollum introduced a landmark bill to prohibit U.S. aid to Israel from being used to demolish Palestinian homes, arrest Palestinian children, or annex Palestinian land.
As more Democrats pay attention to Israeli human rights abuses, DMFI may find it more difficult to stamp out criticism of Israel, no matter how many smears they employ.