State Rep. Austin Theriault, one of Golden’s Republican opponents, said the congressman should condemn some of his more progressive colleagues.

October 13, 2023

Growing left-wing split on Israel and Palestine shows itself in Maine

by Michael Shepherd

Wednesday’s pro-Palestine rally in Portland’s Monument Square that led to rebukes from big-name Maine politicians was an example of a long-term trend of diminishing sympathy toward Israel on the American left.

This is something that has been measured in polling over the last decade or so. For the first time, Gallup found this year that Democrats sympathized more with Palestine than they do with Israel in the long-term Middle East conflict, bucking the U.S. foreign policy status quo.

The context: Divides between President Joe Biden and progressives illustrate this on the heels of Hamas’ brutal weekend invasion of Israel. The president defended Israel in a Tuesday speech, while some on his left “sought a more nuanced description of the escalating conflict,” as CNN put it, including a focus on Israel’s blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

That is what Maine saw on Wednesday. Hundreds attended a pro-Israel rally at a synagogue in Portland at the same time as the smaller downtown pro-Palestine demonstration held by left-wing groups. Notably, the Maine chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America joined the event as a sponsor, with a leader saying it was to help provide security there.

The DSA is a major player in Portland politics, racking up some victories in recent years. Nationally, it is going through a reckoning on Israel, something that Politico reported on Wednesday. Progressive members of Congress are letting memberships lapse and criticizing chapters for their roles in pro-Palestine rallies, including one in New York City.

What they’re saying: That chapter issued an apology in a statement that later focused on the right-wing Israeli government’s “escalating human rights violations and explicitly genocidal rhetoric.” In Maine, some demonstrators were clear that their support for Palestine does not extend to Hamas but still blamed Israel.

“I hope this rally doesn’t get twisted in any type of way as support for … Hamas or innocent life loss,” one demonstrator in Portland told CBS News 13. “We are saying that the U.S. needs to stop funding the Israeli military occupation and return land and liberty to the people of Palestine.”

The backlash was swift from many establishment figures in Maine. Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat from the swing 2nd District, issued a statement denouncing the rally, although state Rep. Austin Theriault, one of Golden’s Republican opponents, said the congressman should condemn some of his more progressive colleagues. Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, did not comment.

Rep. Chellie Pingree, a progressive Democrat from the 1st District who has broken with Maine’s delegation on certain Israel-Palestine issues before, sharply condemned Hamas in a statement that said the U.S. must support Israel but that aid “must be predicated on preserving humanity and not on perpetuating greater cycles of violence.”

What’s next: That shows the official line from Democrats is reasonably united around Israel but different in tone. The trend in this debate is resembling Republican fissures on Ukraine’s war with Russia. In March, 53 of them in the Maine House of Representatives voted against a resolution of support for Ukraine.

The Israel-Palestine debate may not make it to the halls of the State House, but the timing of Wednesday’s rally and the groups involved are showing that it is at least an undercurrent in the politics of Maine’s largest city.