Ilhan Omar and the Shifting Democratic Winds on Israel and Palestine


On Sunday night, Representative Ilhan Omar tweeted “It’s all about the Benjamins baby” in response to a statement by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy that he would “take action” against Omar as well as Representative Rashida Tlaib over their criticism of the actions of the Israeli government, criticisms that he had also stated were worse than Steve King’s embrace of white supremacy:

Omar’s tweet was a reference to a 1997 song by Puff Daddy & the Family, but was almost immediately construed by her critics as a nod to the anti-Semitic trope that wealthy Jewish power brokers wield outsized influence in politics (a stereotype that, it should be noted, McCarthy himself has raised even more explicitly, and damningly, in the recent past). While Omar quickly clarified that she was referring to the work of the pro-Israel lobbying group the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which has long played an influential role in DC politics—a 2014 New Yorker profile of the group estimated that in previous decades, “contributions from AIPAC members often constituted roughly ten to fifteen per cent of a typical congressional campaign budget”—it did little to head off allegations of anti-Semitism. Her tweets set off a news cycle of indignation (even Chelsea Clinton waded in) and a cascade of charges that Omar is anti-Semitic. On Tuesday, according to reports from the White House press pool, Donald Trump, noted peddler of anti-Semitism as well as noxious theories that have fed violence against Jewish Americans, even called on Omar to resign, and described her apology as “lame.” These sorts of accusations have trailed Omar as well as Tlaib since both were elected to Congress last year. (Omar had once written in 2012 that “Israel has hypnotized the world;” she has since apologized for that statement.)

Those charges have come largely from Republicans, who in recent years embraced even more hardline support for funding the Israeli military and policies on Palestine—all to the detriment of Palestinians—partly in an effort to appease their evangelical white Christian base as well as influential donors like the casino operator Sheldon Adelson. But prominent Democrats have also also made similar allegations: in response to Omar’s tweet, New York Representative Jerrold Nadler wrote that it was “deeply disappointing and disturbing to hear Representative Ilhan Omar’s (MN) choice of words in her exchange with a journalist yesterday, wherein she appears to traffic in old anti-Semitic tropes about Jews and money.” A few hours later, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other top Congressional Democrats, many of whom have spoken at AIPAC’s annual gathering, followed suit, issuing a statement condemning Omar’s “use of anti-Semitic tropes and prejudicial accusations about Israel’s supporters,” calling it “deeply offensive.” Writing that “we are and will always be strong supporters of Israel in Congress because we understand that our support is based on shared values and strategic interests,” they also noted that “legitimate criticism of Israel’s policies is protected.”

Omar “unequivocally” apologized on Monday afternoon, noting that “anti-Semitism is real,” before she redirected the conversation to what had been her point in her initial tweet: the significant role of AIPAC in shaping public policy towards Israel and Palestine:

There is a real, and frightening, rise in anti-Semitism in the United States right now, particularly coming from an emboldened white nationalist movement and its political mouthpieces. But it should go without saying that valid criticism of powerful political lobbies like AIPAC—whose leaders have boasted of their political pull—should be fair game. It’s clear, however, that many of Omar’s critics intentionally misread her tweet—which was flip, and assumed a kind of familiarity and casual tone that didn’t serve her point very well—by conflating criticism of AIPAC with anti-Semitism and turning a poorly framed tweet into a bad faith media frenzy. This is also not the first time that Omar has come under fire for her views on Israel and Palestine, despite consistently placing the political struggle against anti-Semitism alongside that of anti-Muslim bigotry and discrimination. (“Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are two sides of the same bigoted coin,” she wrote in November as she prepared for her freshman orientation in Washington.)

Rashida Tlaib, who is Palestinian American, has also been the target of largely rightwing and Republican attacks, as have the leaders of Women’s March Incorporated. Others, many of them Black activists and public figures on the left, have come under similar scrutiny in recent months, often stemming from their work around Palestine: in January, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute withdrew an award it planned to give the activist and scholar Angela Davis, with some, including Davis herself, arguing that it was due to her “long-term support of justice for Palestine,” including her support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, an international nonviolent direct action campaign that seeks to pressure the Israeli government to respect the rights of Palestinians. (The BCRI later reversed its decision.). And last December, Temple University professor and CNN pundit Marc Lamont Hill was fired by CNN after he spoke at the United Nations and called for “a free Palestine, from the river to the sea,” a phrase that critics believe is “an expression of support for the extermination of Israel.”

But the furor generated by Omar’s recent tweets speaks to two significant developments in Democratic politics: an emerging shift in the status quo on the question of the fundamental rights of Palestinians and a parallel backlash working to constrain that growing movement. Both Omar and Tlaib are supporters of the BDS movement, joining other Democratic elected officials on the national stage like Pramila Jayapal and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in criticizing the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians. This is no small thing for high-profile (and increasingly popular) members of Congress. Even as recently as 2016, then-presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’s remarks on the need to “treat the Palestinian people with respect and dignity” during a debate with Hillary Clinton were so striking that news outlets described it as “unprecedented” and a “watershed moment in Democratic politics.” As one Democratic strategist noted at the time, “There is no requirement anymore in Democratic politics to have a strict, orthodox pro-Israel position.”

The debate over anti-BDS legislation currently before Congress is a case in point about the shift, with many Democratic senators objecting to the bill, including several who have announced they plan to run for their party’s presidential nomination. Those senators, including Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Cory Booker, couched their opposition to the bill over its potential to chill free speech, and not over support for the BDS campaign. “I do not support the boycott, I think the boycott is wrong. But I think outlawing protected free speech activity violates our basic constitution,” Warren said in a representative statement. (Of the Democrats who have declared they intend to run for their party’s nomination, only Senator Amy Klobuchar supported the bill.)

Despite the fact that none of the senators who opposed the bill did so over support for Palestine (with even Sanders stating that he does “not support the BDS movement”), Palestinian rights activists see their votes as a sign of change. “They’re making a different political calculus than they were before,” Rebecca Vilkomerson, the Executive Director of Jewish Voice for Peace told Jezebel, referring to the senators who voted against the anti-BDS legislation. In previous years, she noted, the bill would have likely sailed through the Senate. “It’s an indicator of the ways that the winds are blowing.”

As many journalists have observed, support for the policies of the Israeli government among younger Jewish Americans as well as self-identified progressives has steadily been eroding. According to a Pew survey from last January, fewer and fewer Democrats “sympathize more with Israel than Palestinians” (27 percent versus 25 percent), a large shift from even just two years earlier. All of this together feels like a slight fracturing of consensus, which has worried those within the party who wish to maintain unwavering support for an Israeli government that is increasingly being criticized for its turn to the right. In a sign of this concern, a group of Democrats that includes former governors and members of previous Democratic administrations has created a new lobbying group and political action committee, a sort of AIPAC-light. (As the Forward pointed out, 11 of its 15 board members have “either worked or volunteered for it, donated to it or spoken at its events.”) Calling themselves the Democratic Majority for Israel, the group is, per the New York Times, “alarmed by the party’s drift from its longstanding alignment with Israel” and will be “supporting lawmakers and candidates in 2020 who stand unwaveringly with [Israel].”

While the group’s president (and long-time pollster) Mark Mellman dismissed the growing numbers of Democratic officials who are challenging as “a few discordant voices,” he also expressed concern over the changing views of the Democratic voting public. “Israel was once seen as much more of the David in the struggle,” he said. “Now Palestinians are seen as the more put-upon group.”

Alyssa Rubin, a member of the leftist Jewish American group IfNotNow, told Jezebel she believes that it is no longer viable to be “progressive except for Palestine.” “If Democratic politicians really asked ordinary Democrats— young people, women, people of color, Jews—they would know that these people don’t actually support the occupation and the continued oppression of Palestinians, and see the status quo in Israel as really a disaster for both Palestinians and Israelis,” Rubin said.

Vilkomerson of Jewish Voice for Peace agreed: “It’s really across the board that people, especially women, people of color, and young people, are starting to see Palestinian rights as an integral part of the progressive agenda.”

The election of Omar and Tlaib shows that it is no longer necessary for popular, coalition-building national politicians to mute their criticism of the policies of the state of Israel. And the party’s voters, at least its most progressive wing, are increasingly on their side—both in their support for the rights of the Palestinian people and the fight against anti-Semitism in the United States. But as the intensity of the backlash to Omar and others who voice support for Palestine shows, it’s a complicated line to walk, with a long road ahead.

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