What the Democrats' Ilhan Omar kerfuffle is really about
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi must be pulling her hair out.
The Democrats had only just reclaimed the majority, had barely begun to hold the Trump administration accountable, when one of her own members handed the opposition a perfect wedge with which to divide her party. The objection of Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) to being forced to "pledge allegiance" to Israel has ignited a firestorm of criticism from pro-Israel Democrats. Attempts to censure her then prompted a vigorous pushback from progressives who say the proposed resolution imposes a double standard. The controversy continues to escalate, and unlike the "green dream or whatever they call it," it isn't even about the Democrats' substantive agenda.
But it is about something important. I don't mean Israel and Palestine — that subject is important, but it isn't going anywhere; the conflict is largely frozen and the even the possibility of a change in government in Israel holds few prospects for real movement.
No, what this kerfuffle is really about is about who gets to define the boundaries of debate. And if the Democrats take this opportunity to finally decide that this isn't what our arguments should be about, even on hot-button issues, they might do the country — and their party — a very real service.
First of all, it's important to recognize what Omar was actually saying. She wasn't saying that American Jews have divided loyalties, sometimes favoring Israel over the United States. She didn't actually mention Jews at all. What she said was that she feels pressured to pledge her support for Israel as a condition for serving on the foreign affairs committee, and more generally to be part of "respectable" opinion. In this, she has a point, particularly given that AIPAC — the largest and most powerful pro-Israel lobbying group — supported a Senate bill, backed by the Democratic leader, that would have bolstered efforts at both the federal and state level to punish private entities that engage in boycotts against Israeli products, and which has been criticized by the ACLU as being an unconstitutional infringement on Americans' first amendment rights.
Omar is right, in other words, that the pro-Israel forces in American politics are eager to police discourse and punish those who criticize Israel in the wrong terms. And her defenders are right that the massive backlash against her comments kind of proves her point. The problem is that she's doing exactly the thing she's criticizing others for doing: policing the discourse, an activity that her progressive allies treat as central to politics when it's actually both a symptom and a cause of our political breakdown.
After all, what was Omar complaining about? That AIPAC distorts American policy towards Israel by the perfectly legitimate activity of spending money ("it's all about the Benjamins"), and that it has "the political influence in this country that says it is okay for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country." The language is telling: She doesn't merely say it's wrong to require Americans to voice support for Israel in order to do business with our government. She says it's wrong, and a sign of malign outside influence, for anyone to advocate such a thing. But of course, pro-Israel advocacy is as legitimate as any other kind of advocacy, including other advocacy that arguably impinges on free speech rights — like advocating limits on campaign contributions or political speech by corporate entities.
Omar at one point compared AIPAC to the NRA, saying that she should be allowed to be as vocal in her criticisms of the former as she is of the latter. But while the comparison is apt, it cuts against her argument. The NRA is not some foreign intrusion into American society. It derives its strength precisely from its deep roots in American culture, and the fierceness of the attachment of a significant minority of Americans to their second amendment rights. So, too, with AIPAC, which draws vast grassroots support from Christian groups, who in turn support Israel for reasons with deep roots of their own in American history and culture.
Meanwhile, if the NRA has morphed from a politically independent force to one that is overwhelmingly attached to the fortunes of one party, and if it has become increasingly extreme in its views, to the point of promoting paranoid conspiracy theories and encouraging violence, then that is a problem first and foremost because it implies that a significant and politically-active faction of Americans are willing to accept such views. And, once again, the same goes for organizations like AIPAC: If they have indeed become both more partisan and more extreme (and they have), that's a problem because of their legitimacy — because they also have substantial popular support — rather than the opposite.
The resort to boundary policing is a way of avoiding having to debate the actual underlying issues, avoiding having to persuade. And it prevents us from seeing honestly what the real contours of a conflict are. Omar, for example, has protested multiple times that she favors a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that she considers the BDS movement legitimate but counter-productive. Are those actually her views, or has she tailored them to fit within what she sees as the boundaries of legitimate discourse? I personally doubt it. I suspect, rather, that she favors justice for the Palestinians, and views the legitimacy of the Jewish state to be contingent on a just settlement, whatever the consequences of that settlement for the character of the State of Israel.
That view deserves to be heard, and debated, if for no other reason than it corresponds to the liberal end of Palestinian attitudes toward Israel. It's trivially easy to get people who have spent their lives inside the "two-state solution" box to think that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict itself only persists because of some malign influence. The boundaries of legitimate debate in America that make me question the sincerity of Omar's positioning also keep Americans from seeing the reality of the underlying conflict in its deep intractability.
And that blindness applies just as much to the Israeli side as to the Palestinian one. I wonder how many Americans are aware that the Israeli government, in a simultaneous exercise in boundary-policing and boundary-busting, just banned a major Arab party from participation in the next election for refusing to accept Israel as a Jewish state, while inviting members of the "Jewish Power" faction that touts the views of the late violent extremist Meir Kahane to participate and potentially join the governing coalition if the Likud party emerges victorious.
Seeing these issues clearly, and debating them honestly, won't necessarily help us come to agreement. But it might help us accept the depth of our disagreement. And if we can do that, in America, perhaps we will appreciate better the areas where we can find common ground, and build on those as the platform for progress.