The Slatest

The Democrats Are Heading for a Clash Over Israel

A demonstrator raises his fist and chants "free Palestine" at a protest. The crowd behind him marches with signs calling for an independent Palestinian state.
A protest calling for an independent Palestinian state held outside the White House on March 4.
Alex Edelman/Getty Images

Before winning a historic election Tuesday night that catapulted her to national attention, Minnesota Democrat Ilhan Omar had to fend off an allegation of anti-Semitism based on a 2012 tweet in which she accused Israel of having “hypnotized the world” and accused it of “evil doings.” Omar defended the tweet this year by saying, “Drawing attention to the apartheid Israeli regime is far from hating Jews.”

Omar is one of several candidates who won on Tuesday despite having criticized Israel in terms not usually heard in mainstream U.S. political discourse. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, who along with Omar will be one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress, lost her endorsement from the liberal “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobbying group J Street in August after it became clear she did not support a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine. (She has also promised to work to cut U.S. military aid to Israel.) And New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez decried the killing of Palestinian protesters by Israeli armed forces as a “massacre” in May, then stumbled when pressed to explain her position in a PBS interview, saying she was not an “expert on geopolitics on this issue.”

Candidates like Omar, Tlaib, and Ocasio-Cortez—young women of color who ran and won as staunch progressives or even socialists—are being held up as personifications of the future of the Democratic base. That may also be true when it comes to the Democratic Party’s slowly shifting stance on Israel, a shift that is likely to create some tension when the incoming class of progressives meets the more moderate old-timers on the Hill.

A Pew poll released in January found that the share of Democrats sympathizing with Israel more than the Palestinians has fallen from 38 percent to 27 percent since 2001. Republicans have become significantly more supportive of Israel over the same period. An Economist/YouGov poll last month found that, as Haaretz put it, American “support for Israel is directly co-related to gender, age, economic status and political outlook. It is strongest among older, well-to-do, conservative white men and weakest among young, liberal, minorities and women.” Only 25 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds see Israel as an ally, just 29 percent of women, and only 19 percent of African Americans.

Left-wing criticism of Israel is nothing new, but it’s mostly remained outside of the halls of power. This new generation of candidates could bring the views long expressed in activist communities—and reflected in those polls—to Capitol Hill in a way we haven’t previously seen. A related shift that is moving this process along: Over the period that included Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s clashes with President Barack Obama over the Iran nuclear deal and Trump’s move of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, Israel has become an increasingly partisan rather than religious or cultural issue for Americans. The increasing identification of Israel as a “Republican” rather than Jewish issue has opened some space for mainstream liberal Democrats to be a little more critical, and left-wing ones to be a lot more critical.

This trend in the polls and the positions of elected officials has not, it should be noted, alienated Jewish Democrats. Despite Donald Trump’s warm embrace of Netanyahu’s government and increasingly bold criticism of the Jewish state from some candidates on the left, Jews voted for the Democrats in higher numbers than any other religious group Tuesday night.

But if the Democratic base, including many of the young Jews who are part of it, are increasingly comfortable criticizing Israel, that’s certainly not yet the case with the party’s senior leaders on foreign policy issues. Rep. Eliot Engel, who after last night is in line to take over the chairmanship of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, supported Trump’s Jerusalem move and opposed the Iran deal under Obama. Same goes for Engel’s counterpart on the Senate committee, just re-elected Robert Menendez of New Jersey, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. A clash between an incoming generation of progressives and their more conservative leaders seems inevitable.