Politics

The Lesson Democrats Should Take From the Ilhan Omar Controversy

It’s finally OK to criticize Israel.

Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar
Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar
Alex Wong/Getty Images

The day that began with a media furor around Rep. Ilhan Omar’s recent tweets did not end the way many on the left feared it would. While centrist Democrats and the party’s leadership predictably criticized the first-year congresswoman from Minnesota for her tweets about the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee), most of the party’s progressive base rallied behind her. Omar’s tweet about “the Benjamins” may have been ill-advised—many thought it traded, whether intentionally or not, on the anti-Semitic idea that Jewish money controls the government—but by the news cycle’s end it had performed a kind of public service, focusing attention on, and in a way demonstrating, the power the pro-Israel lobby wields in American politics. Articles detailing the way AIPAC marshals its significant resources and extensive influence to shut down criticism of Israel and bolster support for Israeli policies appeared not only in reliably left-wing publications like the Intercept, but also among the gatekeepers of acceptable liberal opinion like Vox. If Omar’s intention was to shift public debate about AIPAC’s role in U.S. politics, she seems to have succeeded.

This is an encouraging lesson for the Democrats going forward. It is not only the case that the bipartisan consensus on support for the Israeli government has fractured, but that the Democratic Party’s consensus has as well, with the progressive wing now eager and emboldened to push leftward on the issue of Israel-Palestine. Recent polling strongly suggests their constituents want this: A 2018 Pew survey found that the share of liberal Democrats who sympathize more with Israel than the Palestinians has declined from 33 percent to 19 percent over the course of just two years. A shift of this speed and magnitude means that the Democrats can afford more ambitious policy proposals on Israel-Palestine, especially heading into the 2020 election. Reps. Omar and Rashida Tlaib, who is Palestinian, together with longtime left-wing stalwarts like Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, can take the lead.

Where to start? Make U.S. military aid to Israel contingent on Israel’s behavior—perhaps on a total settlement construction freeze or a return to direct negotiations with the Palestinians. Neither of these are likely to go through without a dramatic shift in the balance of partisan power in Washington, but they are both reasonable strategies for putting pressure on Israel to change its policies, and their failure would illustrate the power of the pro-Israel lobby and the Israeli government’s recalcitrance. This strategy would also force politicians who call themselves progressives, many of whom would like to avoid the Israel issue entirely, to choose a side.

The question is what siding with Omar and Tlaib will cost them, and for progressives looking to appeal to younger voters, the answer is: not a lot. Among young people, support for Israel is low—just one-quarter of respondents ages 18–29 in a 2018 Economist/YouGov poll said they considered Israel an ally. A small but reliable segment of the Democrats’ base, American Jews are also unlikely to stop voting for the party even if it becomes more critical of Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing, religious governing coalition have run afoul of the majority of American Jews, who are overwhelmingly liberal and secular. Israel under Netanyahu has become a place whose values are increasingly out of step with those of Jews in America, and on occasion even in direct conflict—as demonstrated by Israel’s refusal to accommodate liberal religious denominations at the Western Wall and the state-run rabbinate’s rejection of the legitimacy of Reform Judaism, the largest denomination in the U.S.

Plus, most American Jews do not take Israel into primary consideration when making decisions about voting; a recent poll conducted by the liberal Jewish lobbying group JStreet found that only 4 percent of Jewish voters listed Israel among their top two issues in 2018. Orthodox and more traditionally observant Jewish voters, who do tend to prioritize Israel, will complete their migration from the left to the right, but rather than try to appeal to them by appearing sufficiently “pro-Israel,” Democrats should just let them go.

Democrats’ support for the Israeli government has never just been about the Jewish or youth vote, though. Centrists in the party continue to believe in the possibility of winning over the ever-elusive constituency of moderate Republicans disgusted by the GOP’s transformation in the age of Trump, a fantasy that the elections in 2016 and 2018 should have dispelled. Then there is the reality that AIPAC does enforce the pro-Israel line, in part, through its ability to marshal substantial financial support—though not through direct donations—for political candidates, who in turn have an interest in supporting pro-Israel policies. Democrats who move to criticize Israel more forcefully will have to go without these funds. But Omar, Tlaib, and others have won without AIPAC support, and hopefully their growing influence in the party will demonstrate to others who share their views on Israel-Palestine what’s possible.

Still, even if progressive politicians avoid any rhetorical slip-ups or miscalculations, they are likely to face attacks for speaking out against AIPAC in the future. The right will be more than happy to wield accusations of antisemitism against critics of Israel (and to conflate criticism of Israeli policy or AIPAC with criticism of Jews) to distract from the pervasive racism and bigotry within its own ranks and to play to their evangelical base, numerically much larger than the Jewish population in the United States.

The conclusion for progressives from the last 48 hours is that they should not cower. They should instead be prepared to point out the right’s hypocrisy and focus the conversation on the substantive political issue at hand: the way AIPAC and other pro-Israel lobbying groups—for example, CUFI (Christians United for Israel), an evangelical Christian Zionist group—maintain U.S. support for a brutal and unjust status quo in Israel-Palestine. Progressives must rightly insist that there is nothing anti-Semitic about criticizing this and demonstrate effective of ways of doing so, as columnist Mehdi Hasan did well, writing that opposition to AIPAC need not be different from progressives’ general opposition to big money in politics and the pernicious effects of other lobbying groups like the NRA.

It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that people’s lives depend on it. Indeed, lost in the takes and tweets of the past few days was the human tragedy at the heart of all of this: the immense suffering of the Palestinians living under occupation in the West Bank and blockade of Gaza. As long the United States continues to help maintain these realities in Israel-Palestine, it will remain an issue in American politics.

An emboldened progressive wing of the Democratic Party that is willing to challenge the forces in American politics that entrench and uphold the occupation will not end it or the human rights abuses it produces right away. But after decades of a bipartisan consensus on Israel that has led to unquantifiable suffering for Palestinians as well as Israelis, it is a start.