(Read the Arabic version of this article here.)
As expected, the investiture of the most diverse Congress in U.S. history is ruffling feathers and upsetting the status quo in Washington, DC. New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez now garners as much media coverage as Tweeter-in-Chief Donald Trump, and Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib, the first Palestinian Muslim congresswoman, has bluntly stated that the new Democratic House hopes to impeach Trump. The most contentious moment for the new Democratic House members came last week, however, when another new legislator, Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, tweeted what anyone who follows U.S. politics knows quite well: America’s pro-Israel lobby has an outsized and deleterious impact on U.S. domestic and foreign policy, not to mention a dampening effect on free and open public debate about the Middle East. As one of two new Muslim women in congress, and the first and only U.S. legislator to wear a hijab, the Somali-American representative opened an overdue debate about the role of the pro-Israel lobby in shaping foreign policy and constraining public discourse.
What occasioned Omar’s February 10 tweet–-which she posted in response to a tweet by progressive journalist and leftist gadfly Glen Greenwald–-was Republican Rep. and House Minority leader Kevin McCarthy’s comments about her and Rep. Tlaib’s support of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement to end the Israeli Occupation. McCarthy, who himself has made anti-Semitic comments about the role of wealthy Jews like George Soros and Michael Bloomberg in Democratic policy-making, called on Congress to “take action” against Omar and Tlaib for supporting BDS. This was not a matter of Republicans versus Democrats, though; one of the first issues taken up by the current Congress was a bipartisan effort to criminalize the BDS movement in the United States. The Senate’s top priority during the 34-day government shutdown was to pass Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s “Combating BDS Act,” which aimed to provide federal support and legal backing for states’ attempts to stop BDS through such means as loyalty oaths and funding restrictions.
In response to McCarthy’s comments, Glenn Greenwald, who is Jewish, tagged Omar and Tlaib in a February 10 tweet, remarking that “It’s stunning how much time U.S. political leaders spend defending a foreign nation even if it means attacking free speech rights of Americans.”
“It’s all about the Benjamins!” Omar responded, quoting the lyrics of a 1999 rap song by Puff Daddy, later indicating she was referring to the American Israel Public Action Committee (AIPAC).
The Democratic and Republic leadership on Capitol Hill, along with the mainstream media, reacted swiftly, scolding Omar for using age-old “anti-Semitic tropes” to insinuate that Jewish money controls the U.S. government. Pundits and commentators, including Chelsea Clinton, took to the Internet and airways for days with tweets, essays, analyses, condemnations, and even some defenses of Omar. The depth of emotion Omar’s short tweet provoked speaks volumes about the power of AIPAC to limit what can be said about America’s unwavering financial, military, and diplomatic support for a country that is clearly an Apartheid state and a major violator of International Humanitarian Law.
Fear of campaign finance retribution from AIPAC spurred Democratic and Republican leaders alike to condemn Omar unequivocally. By February 12, Omar had issued an apology for using words that could be taken to be anti-Semitic in intent. While humbly bowing to the Democratic party leadership on the phrasing of her comment, however, Omar did not back off on her criticisms of the role of pro-Israel lobbyists and organizations in shutting down needed debate, and compared the problematic financial influence of AIPAC to that of other big lobbies, most notably the National Rifle Association (NRA).
If her constituents and supporters worried that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had “clipped her wings,” Omar demonstrated that she remained unbowed and unbroken in her determination to call out human rights abusers and critique racist and imperialist policies. Within days, she was back in the headlines again, this time for her tough questioning of U.S. Special Envoy to Venezuela Eliot Abrams in a hearing on the House floor on February 13. Omar was just a school girl when Abrams last held an influential position in a U.S. Administration. Those of us over the age of 50 will remember him as a key player in the 1980s Iran-Contra affair during the Reagan administrations. If not for a presidential pardon by George H.W. Bush in 1989, Abrams might still be in jail now. Asking him if he would support military intervention against Maduro’s government in Venezuela, Omar bluntly asked the smug Abrams “Why should the American people believe anything you say?” Abrams, unaccustomed to being criticized and called to account—particularly by a young woman of color wearing a hijab—was apoplectic.
Omar’s tweet, and the debates it has generated, are shining a bright light on emerging generational, ethnic, regional, ideological, and class rifts within the Democratic party. Reactions to her tweet reveal deep disagreements and divisions within the American Jewish community as well. Especially since Israel’s horrifying Operation Cast Lead assault on the Gaza Strip in late 2008, more American Jews have been willing to criticize Israel, publicly and privately. Dissent over Israel’s human rights violations as well as disagreements with Israel’s leadership have been growing in the American Jewish community, especially among young people. For two decades, the extreme right has held power in Israel, and at present, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s political sentiments align much more closely to those of Donald Trump and the extreme and fascistic right wing in the U.S. than to the views of moderate American Jews. Israel’s racist and draconian policies towards Palestinians in the occupied territories as well as its repressive moves against Palestinian citizens of Israel have become harder and harder for liberal American Jews to defend.
From J Street (the moderate alternative to AIPAC), to the emergence of groups like Jewish Voices for Peace, a wider and more vigorous debate over U.S. support of Israel has gained ground among American Jews, and this has rippled out into a wider public debate beyond the Left and Arab American and Muslim American organizations and activists who have decried Israeli actions for decades. After three brutal Israeli military attacks on Gaza in a decade, and in an Internet age that affords Americans with a wider variety of media coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than ever before, the pro-Israel lobby and its allies in the media and policy worlds are finding it harder to control public discourse about Israel’s cruel policies and practices.
All of this portends a looming confrontation between the two wings of the Democratic Party. On one side are young, multi-ethnic, and progressive Democrats and Democratic Socialists who are fed up with the status quo on many fronts, from expensive health care to bloated military spending to environmental crises. They are rightly suspicious of Wall Street’s outsized influence on the Democratic party. Among this wing of the party, some feel that AIPAC is to Democrats what the NRA is to the GOP. Young people in America face a gloomy future, especially after the 2008 market crash. High-interest student loans and rocketing housing prices are crushing young Americans, causing them to put off marriage as they struggle to make ends meet. Many college graduates with full-time jobs also work in the gig economy doing freelance work or driving for Uber. Critiques of neoliberal capitalism and favorable attitudes towards socialism are increasing among America’s youth.
The Democratic establishment, on the other hand, is comprised of a much older and wealthier demographic that is out of touch with the daily struggles so many Americans of all ages are experiencing. Although committed to women’s rights, the pro-choice movement, and educational reform, establishment Democrats are tone deaf to the struggles of folks unlike them: the base of the party, comprised of people who did not go to Ivy League schools or land jobs with 6-figure salaries in the financial sector. People who do not look like Hilary Clinton, and who felt strong affinities with Bernie Sanders, are a mystery to the Democratic elite, and they make too little effort to understand how and why a big rift has emerged in the party. This rift was starkly evident during the 2016 presidential campaign, particularly at the Democratic Convention, when supporters of Bernie Sanders felt marginalized and shut out of the process by the establishment’s support of Hillary Clinton. Many Sanders supporters did not vote in November 2016, which goes a long way towards explaining why Donald Trump is now president. (Bernie Sanders, by the way, came out in support of Ilhan Omar’s criticism of AIPAC last week.)
Disenchanted younger Democrats did vote in last November’s midterm congressional elections, however, bringing a vibrant new cadre of progressives, young people, women, and minority representatives to Capitol Hill. Their constituencies are very open to critiques of Israel and AIPAC’s role in U.S. politics. If the Democrats want to take back the White House in 2020, they would be wise to listen—and even defer—to Ilhan Omar and the other new members of Congress, rather than trying to silence them. The fact that AIPAC and its supporters failed to muzzle or destroy Rep. Omar might be a good harbinger for progressives’ success in 2020. The White House will be the Democrats’ to lose if the party’s old guard refuses to make space for politicians like Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, Tlaib, and the other new members of the House.