The election of Ilhan Omar to Congress last fall represented a breakthrough for Muslim women. It seemed to prove that the American Dream, as Martin Luther King Jr. envisioned it, was still alive.
Elected to the House of Representatives in a safe Democratic district in Minnesota, the 37-year-old Ms. Omar came to the United States as a refugee from Somalia. Along with Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib, who is also Muslim, and New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ms. Omar was part of the new wave of progressive Democrats who arrived in Washington in January vowing to shake up the capital and its clubby ways.
On that count, Ms. Omar has not disappointed. By openly attacking fellow Democrats for their unwavering support for Israel, and tying it to campaign contributions by powerful Jewish lobby groups, she has driven a wedge into her party that threatens its chances in the 2020 presidential election. The charges of anti-Semitism levelled against her party echo those hitting the British Labour Party under Leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Along with the “soak-the-rich” tax policies and “socialized medicine” that progressive Democrats are pushing, the intraparty spat over Israel is a gift to Republicans, who seek to brand Ms. Omar and her ilk as radicals unfit to govern. U.S. President Donald Trump now claims Jewish voters are fleeing the Democratic Party as anti-Semitism is allowed to creep into its ranks.
He has even borrowed a name for it: Jexodus, a term coined last month by a group of young conservative Jews who claimed to be “tired of living in bondage to leftist politics.”
Jewish Americans have been faithfully Democratic voters for decades. In every presidential election since 2000, around 70 per cent of Jewish voters have marked their ballot for the Democratic candidate. Support for the Republican nominee went from 19 per cent for George W. Bush in 2004 to 30 per cent for Mitt Romney in 2012, when some Jews voiced discontent over Barack Obama’s tough-love approach to Israel.
In 2016, however, Mr. Trump’s coddling of white supremacists helped consolidate Democratic support among Jewish voters. The President’s unwillingness to condemn the racist and anti-Semitic slogans brandished by protesters in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017 – insisting there were “some very fine people on both sides” of the duelling white-nationalist and anti-racist protests there – served to further alienate Jews.
So far, there is no recent polling evidence that suggests a swing to Republicans among Jewish voters. But Ms. Omar’s outbursts have forced the party’s candidates for the 2020 presidential nomination to line up behind her or against her. U.S. policy toward Israel now promises to figure as prominently in the primary campaign as Medicare-for-All and the Green New Deal, with all three being lines in the sand for progressives.
It does not augur well for the party. Plenty of Democrats think Ms. Omar is just a troublemaker. In tweets and statements, she has employed several anti-Semitic tropes about Jews and money and Jews’ hypnotic powers, only to later declare she was unaware of the historical stigma attached to her words.
She did it again last month, when she tweeted that support for Israel was “all about the Benjamins” – a reference to the U.S. $100 bill, which has Benjamin Franklin’s face on it. Her suggestion that the U.S. Jewish lobby, led by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, had been buying off members of Congress to support Israel could hardly have been as innocent as she claimed.
“Congresswoman Omar’s use of anti-Semitic tropes and prejudicial accusations about Israel’s supporters is deeply offensive,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and fellow Democratic leaders said then. “We condemn these remarks and call upon Congresswoman Omar to immediately apologize for these hurtful comments.”
Ms. Omar did that, sort of, tweeting: “Anti-Semitism is real and I am grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of anti-Semitic tropes. … At the same time, I reaffirm the problematic role of lobbyists in our politics, whether it be AIPAC, the NRA or the fossil fuel industry.”
To be sure, Jewish-American voters are themselves split over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing policies and the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. But few would question the Jewish people’s right to an independent state in their ancestral homeland, especially when that state is the only true and functioning democracy in a region where basic human rights are suppressed by all its Muslim-led neighbours, including by the Hamas government in Gaza.
By failing to adequately discipline Ms. Omar – for instance, by removing her from the House Foreign Affairs Committee – Ms. Pelosi is tempting history. Everyone knows what happens when anti-Semitism is allowed to creep into political discourse. Democrats should be careful.