Representative Ilhan Omar, Democrat of Minnesota, attends a press conference in Washington, DC. Photo: Mandel Ngan / AFP

Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota’s Fifth Congressional District has yet again leveled criticism of American supporters of Israel in a manner some found to be anti-Semitic, and the fallout has revealed a sea change in attitudes towards Israel in the Democratic Party. 

“I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is okay to push for allegiance to a foreign country,” Omar told supporters in Washington on February 27. The comments came just weeks after Omar was involved in a dust-up over a set of tweets criticized as being anti-Semitic. 

To many observers, these fresh comments conjured up the antisemitic trope of “dual loyalty.”

Sea change

One of the sources of discrimination towards Jews in modern and ancient history has been the accusation that they are not fully loyal to their country of citizenship, but rather act to advance foreign interests such as those of world Jewry or communism. In recent years, Jews have been accused of advancing the interests of Israel at the expense of those of their country of citizenship. This is despite the phenomenon that much of the staunchest support for Israel and the Netanyahu government in the US has come from Zionist Christians.

Last month, Omar apologized for her words following blowback from her party superior, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and others. This time, however, she was unrepentant.

She responded, “I know that as long as I breathe that I will continue to make people uncomfortable in the best way possible.” It is increasingly hard to believe the use of anti-Semitic tropes is accidental, as her statements represent a recurring pattern.

New party lines

Republicans reacted predictably by attacking the Minnesota Representative. President Donald Trump tweeted, “It is shameful that House Democrats won’t take a stronger stand against Anti-Semitism in their conference.” 

In the House of Delegates chamber in West Virginia, a sign was placed linking Ilhan Omar to the 9/11 attacks, earning rapid condemnation. 

More surprising has been the reaction within the Democratic Party, which appears to indicate a significant shift in attitude towards Israel and relations with the American Jewish community. The initial response was conventional. Eliot Engel and Nita Lowey, two veteran representatives of Jewish descent, drafted a resolution condemning antisemitism, which did not mention Omar by name.

House Speaker Pelosi, who is close to several powerful pro-Israeli donors, moved the initiative forward. She was soon startled by fierce objections, particularly from the Black Caucus and the Progressive Caucus in the House. A closed meeting of House Democrats turned into an arena of confrontation. Several members complained that Omar was being singled out unfairly and that racist remarks from the Trump administration were not met with similar responses.

The most notable opponent was influential freshman Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. She tweeted, “incidents like these do beg the question: where are the resolutions against homophobic statements? For anti-blackness? For xenophobia? For a member saying he’ll send Obama home to Kenya?” The latter was a pointed reference to Republican Mark Meadows, who halted a Congressional hearing for assurances that he was not being labelled a racist, only to have a 2012 video emerge of him vowing to send the nation’s first black president “home” to Kenya. 

Three leading US Presidential candidates have meanwhile voiced support for Omar. Bernie Sanders, the Senator from Vermont, himself of Jewish descent, released a statement warning against the urge to “equate anti-Semitism with legitimate criticism of the right-wing, Netanyahu government in Israel.” Elizabeth Warren, the senior Senator from Massachusetts took a similar stance, arguing that “branding criticism of Israel as automatically anti-Semitic has a chilling effect on our public discourse.” Senator Kamala Harris of California warned that “the spotlight being put on Congresswoman Omar may put her at risk.” Other candidates such as Kirsten Gillibrand and Cory Booker failed to take a concrete stand. Not a single candidate criticized the Minnesota Representative substantively.

The major liberal news outlets also supported Omar.  The New York Times ran a feature on the undue power of AIPAC in the United States. Meanwhile, the Washington Post claimed that the debate over anti-Semitism should be avoided as it was harmful to the party.  The hashtag #IstandwithIlhan trended on Twitter. The tide was clearly turning in favor of the Minnesota Representative.

There were of course Democrats who did come out strongly against Omar’s words. Most notable among those were Mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, and New York Mayor Bill De Blasio. However, it was clear which way the tide was turning.

Watered-down resolution

Pelosi decided to add reference to anti-Islamic bias in the resolution to placate critics. In an effort to mend fences with opponents, the House Speaker went on the record defending Omar, saying: “I don’t believe it was intended in an anti-Semitic way.”

Opponents of the resolution pushed their advantage further until the resolution’s initial intent was no longer recognizable. The resolution that was finally put to the floor referred to the dangers of “white supremacy” in targeting traditionally persecuted groups followed by a long laundry list of ethnic groups, including Jews somewhere between African Americans and Sikhs. It passed 407 to 23 on Thursday in its new, unobjectionable, form. All Democratic members, including Omar, voted in favor.

The inability of the Democratic Party leadership to even mildly rebuke a Representative for taking such a stance is nothing short of revolutionary in terms of party policy towards Israel and its American supporters. When Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib were elected to the House of Representatives, it was hailed as a potential harbinger for change in the Democratic Party and its attitude towards Israel. It is not merely that the two are the first female Muslim members of Congress. The two were critical of Israel in a manner not before seen. Not merely taking umbrage with the treatment of Palestinians but also openly supporting the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

In an article written in December of last year, Peter Beinart predicted that these women and their supporters “owned the future” of the Democratic Party. He was correct. However, even Beinart could not have predicted how quickly this change would come.

Now that BDS-supporting members of the party have proven their undeniable impact on the conversation, the era of strong bipartisan support for Israel in Congress is over. There is no turning back.

The question now becomes, will open anti-Semitism now become acceptable in the party, excused as legitimate criticism of Israel? The Labour Party in the United Kingdom underwent a similar process which harmed both British Jews and the electoral prospects of the party. The challenge ahead for the Democrats as they become the party of criticizing Israel and its supporters, is to remain focused on policy and the issues without devolving into the language of hatred and persecution.

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