On Sept. 13, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., attended the Met Gala, the most glamorous red carpet in America, parading a floor-length white gown emblazoned with the words “TAX THE RICH” in bright red. A week later, she reversed a “no” vote and abstained from voting on supplemental legislation that would provide $1 billion to the “Government of Israel for the procurement of the Iron Dome defense system” and “in support of Operation Guardian of the Walls.” From her performative attempt at sartorial activism to her last-minute vote switch, Ocasio-Cortez’s symbolic tactics underscore her failure to articulate clear, concrete principles.
On the grounds that the U.S. should not provide unconditional financial support to aid Israel’s military and security apparatus while it commits human rights abuses against Palestinians, progressives in the House successfully pushed for funding of the Iron Dome air defense system to be removed from the spending bill. When the Iron Dome funding finally got put to a vote, the House decided 420-9 in favor of the standalone bill. Eight Democrats and one Republican voted against the measure, while Ocasio-Cortez appeared to take no position at all — except one of emotional distress. The next day, she released a 900-word statement describing why she was emotional during the vote.
“I want to be clear with our community that I am opposed to this bill, but ultimately cast a PRESENT vote. My job as your representative is to first and foremost serve with transparency and remain accountable to you, the people of New York’s 14th Congressional District,” wrote Ocasio-Cortez. She stated that the U.S. had already provided funding for the Iron Dome defense system through 2028 on top of other funding already allocated for Israel’s military.
The congresswoman added that in addition to “opposing the substance” of the bill, she thinks that “the process of bringing it to the House floor was deeply unjust.” She blamed “House leadership” for hastening the supplemental bill and ended her letter by expressing her commitment to “true, substantive movement of community support for human rights around the world — which includes cherishing and respecting the human rights of Palestinian people.”
While the sentiment sounds very honorable, Ocasio-Cortez’s “present” vote doesn’t exactly exemplify “cherishing and respecting the human rights of Palestinian people.” In fact, it directly contradicts it by further enabling the continued military campaign against the Palestinian people instead of taking a clear stance against it. After all, why would the concerns she outlined make her less inclined to vote against a rushed version of a bill she supposedly opposes? Furthermore, this is a vote on which the other members of the Squad voted against continued funding — so why not Ocasio-Cortez?
Some reporters have speculated that her vote switch reveals her Senate ambitions; she may have been trying to avoid accusations of anti-Semitism, which, predictably, the Squad’s criticism of the U.S.’s Israel policy and objection to unconditional aid was met with — for example, from Rep. Ted Deutch, D-FL, who objected to Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-MI’s description of the Israeli occupation of Palestine as a “violent apartheid system.” “To falsely characterize the state of Israel is consistent with those who advocate for the dismantling of the one Jewish state in the world,” he said. “When there is no place on the map for one Jewish state, that’s anti-Semitism, and I reject that.” It’s not uncommon for pro-Palestinian speech to be charged with accusations of anti-Semitism in the U.S. In fact, this is how Zionism has long defined the parameters of the game: If you protest Israeli policies, you assault the Jewish state, and by association, you attack Judaism. Tlaib was not questioning Israel’s right to exist — she was standing against the extended U.S. funding of military projects in a country that has committed human rights abuses.
Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-MI,the No. 3 in House GOP leadership, wrote in a tweet: “Iron Dome is a purely *defensive* system — it protects civilians when hundreds of rockets are shot at population centers. Whatever your views on the Israeli-Pal conflict, using a system that just saved hundreds, if not thousands, of lives as a political [chip] is problematic”.Maybe Ocasio-Cortez’s concerns are prompted by the same logic: the Iron Dome is a defensive missile, in contrast to other forms of military aid she has previously voted against. Although the Iron Dome is frequently advertised as a purely defensive weapon, the system vastly deepens an asymmetric conflict and extends Israel’s ability to defer its resolution indefinitely. The blatant imbalance of power — United Nations undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs Mark Lowcock noted after the most recent IDF incursion into Gaza that “[there] is no safe place in Gaza, where two million people have been forcibly isolated from the rest of the world for over 13 years” — has only been amplified by the cumulative $243.9 billion in inflation-adjusted U.S. foreign assistance to Israel between 1946 and 2019. The Dome is not truly a defensive mechanism; it is a system designed to give Israel unlimited offensive capacity without fear of any consequence.
Ocasio-Cortez’s rift from the Squad demonstrates that anti-Semitic accusations directly jeopardize her ambitions to rise within American politics. Although her vote switch would not have made a material difference, it certainly reinforced the obvious: A sincere commitment to Palestinian liberation precludes upward mobility in the U.S. political system — much to the dismay of Palestinians, who continue to bear the brunt of America’s blank check to Israel’s military aid. Despite all her “left” and identity-politics-ridden language championing the rights of “black and brown people,” Ocasio-Cortez refused to take a stance where it really matters. This is a perfect example of pseudo-activism that starts and ends with social media trends. Social media provides a safe space for fetishizing and parading anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist thought without actually challenging the system and advocating tangible change. To vote “present” on whether or not to fund the Israeli occupation of Palestine is to succumb to the pro-Israel lobby, and no tokenistic dress or Instagram Live stream can negate that.