The Democratic Party is developing an Israel problem. The latest mini-crisis occurred when Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota’s Fifth Congressional District tweeted that support for Israel in Congress was a product of the financial influence of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. AIPAC is the major lobbying group advocating pro-Israel policies in the United States and consists of a primarily Jewish membership.
One traditional anti-Semitic trope refers to a vast Jewish financial conspiracy to achieve nefarious outcomes. By channeling this narrative, Representative Omar brought condemnation on herself from many sources on the left and right. The tweet’s effect was compounded by an equally problematic one in 2012, declaring that “hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evildoings of Israel.” Omar has also in the past been in trouble for posting allegedly homophobic tweets besmirching Senator Lindsey Graham.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other figures in the Democratic establishment urged Omar to apologize. The Trump administration piled in, with both President Donald Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence calling on Omar to resign. Although the Minnesota congresswoman apologized, she has reportedly used the incident to raise funds from her supporters.
Attacks on Omar provoked a backlash from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Her defenders have noted correctly that the “Israel lobby” has significant influence over American policy and therefore Omar’s point was in essence correct. For example, Adam Jentleson, former chief of staff for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, asked, “So we’re just gonna pretend Sheldon Adelson [major conservative donor to pro-Israeli causes] doesn’t exist?” Some progressive Jews also voiced support for what they saw as legitimate criticism of AIPAC’s undue influence on Capitol Hill.
Some voices on the left have gone further and argued that identifying AIPAC and its agenda with the American Jewish community is inherently anti-Semitic. In a recent op-ed for The Washington Post, Mairav Zonszein wrote that “pretending that Israel is the major concern for all Jews – and that anyone who criticizes its policies is engaging in anti-Semitism – is itself a form of scapegoating, a classic anti-Semitic trope.” Indeed, the Jewish community does not have a monolithic approach toward Israel and many of its most virulent supporters are non-Jews.
A second criticism was that attacks on Representative Omar were motivated by her race and religion. The freshman member of Congress is a woman of color of Somali descent. As one of the two first Muslim women, and the first naturalized African citizen, to be elected, she is rightfully seen as a trailblazer and role model. Nylah Burton, a notable black Jewish commentator, wrote, “The subsequent tidal wave of backlash directed at Omar has made it clear that this particular racist tactic – excessive criticism and censuring of a person of color who advocates for Palestinian rights, on the grounds of anti-Semitism – has become a tried-and-true weapon of the right.”
Attacks on Omar fit into a disturbing pattern of people of color facing backlashes from pro-Israeli forces for taking pro-Palestinian stances. Recent scraps over statements made by Alice Walker, Tamika Mallory, Marc Lamont Hill and Angela Davis were similar. Some of these attacks were more justified than others, but the overall picture of Jewish activists concerned about anti-Semitism pitted against black activists concerned about Israeli human-rights violations has repeated itself.
This is a serious problem for the Democratic Party as both constituencies are essential parts of its voting coalition. Some 70% of American Jews faithfully vote Democrat, making them a central part of the party’s constituency. Traditionally, most of these voters (and important donors) held solidly pro-Israeli views and the Democratic establishment followed suit.
Black voters have also long been an integral part of the party coalition. According to one estimate, blacks have voted for the Democratic presidential candidate 87% of the time since the 1970s. In addition, black women (who are disproportionately involved in these disputes) are now the most reliable Democrat voters. Just as important, there is an increasingly significant number of non-black voters of the Democratic progressive wing (including a large number of Jews) who view politics through the prism of identity politics. They tend to view all criticism levied at a person of color as racially motivated.
The constant sparring over issues related to Israel and anti-Semitism have placed the Democratic contenders for the presidential nomination in a bind. Therefore, it is not surprising that none of the candidates spoke out on the controversy surrounding Omar’s tweets.
This is part of an established pattern of behavior. Candidates by and large approach the issue by placing themselves between the two camps. Early frontrunner Kamala Harris, the junior senator from California, has been an outspoken supporter of the Jewish state throughout her career. In 2017, she spoke proudly at an AIPAC summit. However, in 2018 she insisted on an “off record” speech that was not acknowledged by her campaign. Presidential hopefuls Kirsten Gillibrand and Cory Booker skipped the conference completely. This is a stark contrast with the past when luminaries such as Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden served as keynote speakers.
The Democratic hopefuls have also tried to showcase a moderate approach to Israel in Congress. This month, the Senate passed a bill protecting the right of state governments to refuse to do business with companies that boycott Israel. The bill was highly problematic in that it was perceived as impinging upon the free-speech rights of proponents of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement. In the past, Democratic lawmakers would almost automatically vote for any bill promoted by AIPAC. However, opposition to BDS can no longer be taken for granted in the Democratic Party. Omar and Rashida Tlaib, a representative from Michigan, both support it. Taking the middle ground, Elizabeth Warren, Gillibrand, Booker, Harris, Bernie Sanders and Sherrod Brown all voted against the bill.
The senators tried to avoid taking a strong position against Israel by explaining that while they opposed BDS, they did not support the stifling of free speech. The outlier is Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, who both agreed to give a public AIPAC speech and voted for the anti-BDS legislation.
The fact that only one candidate is banking on a traditional pro-Israel policy is telling. The Democratic establishment continues to back Israel. But candidates know that the future of the party will be more pro-Palestinian and are adjusting their stances accordingly. A recent poll found that while Democrats over the age of 65 favor Israel over the Palestinians by 12 points, Democrats under 34 favor the Palestinians by 11 points. Young American Jews are also less sympathetic to Israel than previous generations.
Omar and Rashida Tlaib and their high-profile ally Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez represent the future of the Democratic Party in more ways than one. They are younger, ethnically diverse, more progressive and anti-Israel. A future in which the Democrats are hostile to Israel while the Republicans embrace it may be closer than ever.