The Democratic leadership's Israel fiasco
The Democratic leadership is in hot water over Israel. The issue is a controversy over Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), who attended a recent event with Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) about the influence of the Israel lobby and the plight of the Palestinians. In response to a question about the cynical use of anti-Semitism accusations to shut down criticism of Israel, she said, "I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is okay for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country."
The accusations of anti-Semitism instantly rolled in, and now the Democratic leadership is considering a resolution condemning Omar, associating her with a lot of baldly anti-Semitic rhetoric she never said. Facing a backlash, they have since delayed the vote and may alter the resolution.
This demonstrates the increasing divergence between the Democratic leadership's knee-jerk deference to Israel and its ruling party Likud, and growing skepticism from the Democratic rank-and-file. It can't last forever.
People disagree about whether Omar's comments went afoul of tropes about Jews having "dual loyalty." She has refused to apologize, while emphasizing that "[w]e must be willing to combat hate of all kinds while also calling out oppression of all kinds. I will do my best to live up to that. I hope my colleagues will join me in doing the same." For my part, I do not remotely believe there was anti-Semitic intent behind what she said. As Jordan Weismann suggests, "The more likely explanation for these statements is that she’s an inexperienced politician who arrived at the U.S. as a refugee from Somalia at age 12 and probably came of age in left-wing circles where vocal opposition to Israel was the norm, and there wasn’t a lot of thought given to words that Jews consider anti-Semitic dog whistles."
More importantly, contrary to the accusations of many conservative and liberal Israel supporters, Omar did not say Jews were pushing for an allegiance to Israel, as Glenn Greenwald writes. It's an important distinction. Due to the fact that Jews are only a small fraction of the U.S. population, the vast majority of die-hard American Likud partisans are actually evangelical Christians (incidentally, many of whom support Israel due to their belief that the Book of Revelations prophesies that before the apocalypse can happen, all Jews must be gathered together in Israel).
That said, I do believe she didn't think through what she was saying. As Eric Levitz writes, why shouldn't America have a close alliance or relationship with another country? (Many leftists, including myself, have argued the U.S. should get closer to the Nordic social democracies.)
The problem is not "allegiance" (whatever that means) as such, it is allegiance to Israel, because it maintains political control over 4.8 million people in the West Bank and Gaza who have no vote in their government and few other political rights. Gaza in particular is an open-air prison, strangled economically by an Israeli blockade (structured to benefit Israeli businesses), regularly bombed by Israeli jets, with snipers at the ready to shoot anyone who approaches the prison fence — including civilians and journalists.
This is important for Americans, because Israel does this with the unquestioning backing of the U.S., including enormous subsidies and (with rare exceptions) free use of America's veto on the U.N. Security Council.
Likud, meanwhile, is an extremely right-wing force closely associated with other right-wing parties around the world. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (who has held office since 2009, as well as from 1996-1999) has been carefully cultivating virulently racist authoritarians in Eastern Europe for international political support, up to and including overt anti-Semites.
In keeping with this strategy, Netanyahu has been meddling increasingly openly in American politics, trying hard to get Mitt Romney elected in 2012 and taking up the Republican invitation to deliver a speech to Congress in an effort to dynamite former President Obama's nuclear deal with Iran.
Unsurprisingly, the wide streak of anti-Semitism in the Republican Party does not impede this relationship either. Netanyahu didn't ditch the GOP over a Trump ad saying rich Jews (George Soros, Janet Yellen, and Lloyd Blankfein) control the levers of global politics. He didn't either when Trump said the white supremacist "Unite the Right" rally at Charlottesville — where torch-wielding mobs chanted "Jews will not replace us," and where a neo-Nazi drove his car into a crowd of leftist demonstrators, wounding 35 people and killing one — contained "very fine people."
Nor did he when a Trump supporter — clearly inspired by constant Republican demonization — allegedly sent a mail bomb to Soros' house. Nor did he when another right-wing extremist, who espoused the Republican conspiracy theory that Soros was conniving to bring Muslims refugees into the U.S., massacred 11 Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue. (Also, somehow Republicans who are baying "anti-Semite" at Omar failed to get so worked up over Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) calling Jewish Democratic donor Tom Steyer "$teyer" in a tweet).
— Ben Shapiro (@benshapiro) September 17, 2015
Finally, there are the allegations of corruption. Netanyahu will reportedly be indicted soon on charges of bribery and "breach of trust" stemming from alleged government payouts to obtain positive media coverage and luxury goods. (There is an election in Israel on April 9.)
If the Democratic leadership wanted to have some sensitivity training or something to make sure that Palestinian advocates framed their arguments properly, few people would complain. But instead, they are powerfully demonstrating that in fact the Democratic political leadership is enormously biased towards Israel, against Palestinians, and that is the primary motivation behind their criticism of Omar. Some are not at all subtle about it — as Rep Juan Vargas (D-Calif.) wrote on Twitter: "It is disturbing that Rep. Omar continues to perpetuate hurtful anti-Semitic stereotypes that misrepresent our Jewish community. Additionally, questioning support for the U.S.-Israel relationship is unacceptable." Senate Minority Leaders Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) previously said outright at an AIPAC conference that there is no peace in Israel because Arabs "don't believe in the Torah."
But Netanyahu's government and constant electoral activism against the Democratic Party has seriously poisoned the reputation of Israel among ordinary Democrats. Where in 2008 about half of Democrats used to sympathize with that country, only about 27 percent do so as of 2018. Why wouldn't they?
Events like this are only going to further expand the divisions between the leadership and the party base. Why on Earth are they circling the wagons to protect a horribly unjust country run by a guy who serves as a Republican operative? If the Israeli government is going to work hand-in-glove with the GOP to undermine the Democrats, perhaps they don't deserve absolute deference from the latter party — or even $38 billion in military subsidies. And if the leadership keeps letting themselves get jerked around like this, more and more will conclude that it's time for some fresh faces at the top.