The Democrats' pathetic whataboutism over anti-Semitism

Democrats, you're better than this

Ilhan Omar.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Alex Wong/Getty Images, Wikimedia Commons, javarman3/iStock)

The ugly controversy over freshman Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn) and her comments about Israel took on new life last week, when she made a remark during a panel discussion about "the political influence in this country that says it is okay for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country." Then on Sunday she tweeted that she "should not be expected to have allegiance/pledge support to a foreign country," seemingly playing into anti-Semitic tropes about dual loyalty. Instead of quietly meeting with Omar, as they did after her "It's all about the Benjamins, baby" tweet, Democratic leadership has taken the unprecedented step of scheduling a floor vote to condemn dual-loyalty smears, albeit without referring to her by name.

You can think of about 300 things that would be better use of the Democratic Party's time in Congress, especially as committees are finally ramping up their investigations of the president's long and sordid business and political history. But the circling of wagons on the left around Omar, together with a tendency to 'what about' her comments — what about Steve King, what about the president noting that there were some 'very fine people' at a rally where people were chanting "Jews will not replace us," what about the constant and racially coded invocations of George Soros as a Democratic Party puppeteer by leading Republicans, what about the Republican Party's near-universal embrace of Islamophobia — is also problematic.

To be blunt, if you support a revision of American policy in Israel, and some form of justice for the long oppressed Palestinians, you simply cannot have the country's most prominent elected critic of America's Israel policy repeatedly tripping over language that can be read as anti-Semitic. That's true even if you are inclined to give her remarks the most generous possible read — she wasn't charging anyone with dual loyalty and was only talking about how she doesn't want to be forced into a commitment to Israel.

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Changing the debate about Israel in the United States and shaking the Democratic Party's ossified senior leadership out of its unthinking commitment to the policies of a series of increasingly right-wing Israeli governments is going to be an uphill battle even if everyone involved in that project is incredibly careful about their language.

It is important to be deliberate about word choice even if a significant number of evangelical Republicans — at this point the Israeli right's core constituency in America — believes that Jews will accept Christ as their ruler during the prophesied end times or burn in a lake of fire. It is important to be deliberate about word choice even though Omar has been subjected to nightmarish attacks and insinuations from other members of Congress, and even though indicted Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) won re-election by running an openly racist fear campaign against his challenger, Ammar Campa-Najjar. There's no censure for him. Yes, it's an outrage. But not saying things that are deliberately or accidentally anti-Semitic is something that has value on its own terms because it is the right thing to do.

Ironically, uncritical defenders of Israeli policy often use this very form of what aboutism to deflect attention from crimes committed against Palestinians. Why the focus on tiny little Israel, they say, when the Chinese are oppressing the Uighers and Tibetans, or when a long civil war in the Congo has killed millions, or when the Burmese government is conducting a full-on genocide against the Rohingya? To focus on Israel's comparatively tame transgressions must itself be evidence of anti-Semitism. What about Hamas, they say. What about the peace deal they were offered at Camp David. If you've studied the conflict, you can recite this litany from memory. It's a bad faith effort to redirect attention away from the Israeli government's illegal, 52-year occupation of the West Bank and its determination to keep Palestinians in an indefinite legal, political, and humanitarian limbo.

Deliverance from that predicament, particularly over the past 20 years, has sometimes felt further away than ever. Since the breakdown of the two-state peace process at the turn of this century, there has been precious little space in American politics to debate the ongoing and mostly unquestioned U.S. support for Israeli policy. But that has begun to change. There is now nearly a 20-point gap in favorability for Israel between Democrats and Republicans, and younger Democrats are much less likely than their older counterparts to describe Israel as an ally. While overall public opinion is still far from making this a general election winner — support for Israel remains robust — the trend is unmistakable. America's more social justice-minded young people have no use for the argument that the U.S. must stand by the Israeli government no matter what.

In other words, the controversy over Omar's comments is transpiring at precisely the moment when America's long two-party consensus on American foreign policy in Israel is breaking down. Thanks to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's open alliance with the Republican Party, and his repeated insistence on inserting himself and his government into both domestic American politics and into U.S. foreign policy on the side of a radicalized, uncompromising GOP, most younger Democrats view our reflexive support for Israel as a problem. And they are starting to vote as if they believe it.

Last year Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) became the first two Muslim women elected into Congress, and they immediately became the two highest profile congressional critics of U.S. policy in Israel. At a time when the president himself has engaged in years of anti-Muslim rhetoric, stoking fear and loathing of America's besieged Muslim community, many on the left were and remain inspired by Tlaib and Omar's successful, groundbreaking campaigns. Both were destined to become boogeywomen for the unhinged racists on the American right, egged on by the latest haterade spectacle on Fox News. In their efforts to persevere through this coordinated campaign of hate and lies, both deserve our support.

And yes, Omar's defenders are correct: Her criticism of America's Israel policy was destined to be smeared as anti-Semitic no matter what she did or said. Some of the fire coming at Omar from fellow Democrats like Rep. Juan Vargas (Calif.) is preposterous. Yesterday he tweeted that "questioning support for the U.S.-Israel relationship is unacceptable."


But these types of ridiculous comments are hardly representative of what American Jews are feeling. They are also a critical Democratic voting bloc who voted nearly three to one for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and who represent a margin-of-victory constituency in states like Virginia, Colorado, Florida, and Nevada. While some progressive Jews have said that they are unbothered by Omar's remarks, many others are. Democrats cannot afford to alienate them, and they should be willing to listen when these allies say that Omar's words are hurtful, not just for expediency but — not to belabor the point — because it is the right thing to do.

That said, the decision to bring this kerfuffle to the floor of the House is preposterous. Democratic leaders are opening up a needless split in their own party by calling Omar out like this, when they could better direct their precious little censure resolutions at much more problematic actors like Steve King or Duncan Hunter or Lee Zeldin. The matter should continue to be dealt with internally unless and until it becomes clear that Omar simply cannot be persuaded to avoid a clearly communicated list of anti-Semitic tropes. And leaders could gain more credibility by rejecting the absurd and anti-American attempts to criminalize boycotts of Israel and by listening to activists who reject the party's unjust stance on the issue.

But Democrats are doing no one any favors — especially not the Palestinians — by pretending that Omar's comments were innocent.

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