Opinion

Ilhan Omar and the Democrats' Dilemma: Punish anti-Semitism, or Appease It, Corbyn Style

Right now, the Democratic Party isn’t morally equivalent to U.K. Labour’s anti-Semitism run wild. But if they don’t draw a firm line in the sand, if they rely on whataboutism, if they decide condemning anti-Semitism 'privileges' Jews – the signs are ominous

Ilhan Omar listens as lawmakers speak about the Voting Rights Enhancement Act on Capitol Hill, Washington, February 26, 2019.
AFP

Is the Democratic Party being Corbynized? Given that the leadership of the party in Congress and its top presidential candidates are all supporters of Israel, even if some of them have been critical of the Netanyahu government, it’s an absurd question. 

Nor is there anything like the tolerance for anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic invective that has become routine in Britain’s Labour Party that is closely identified with the views of its leader, Jeremy Corbyn.

But though most elected Democrats are still comfortable with AIPAC and the U.S.- Israel alliance, they still need to figure out what to do about Ilhan Omar.

>> AOC Defends Omar as anti-Semitism Storm Roils Democratic Party >> Why the Ilhan Omar anti-Semitism Controversy Isn’t Going Away Anytime Soon

The Minnesota congresswoman was one of the stories from a 2018 midterm election that demonstrated her party’s commitment to advancing women, minorities and immigrants. Omar is the first Somali-American elected to Congress; she made history by forcing the House to change its rules about female head coverings to accommodate her Muslim beliefs. 

But Omar’s support for the BDS movement and her animus against Israel and its supporters — a position she shares with fellow Democratic freshman legislator Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan — is proving to be a thorny problem for a party that would like to devote all of its energy to the task of attacking the Trump administration.

Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar smiling during a news conference with Nancy Pelosi on Capitol Hill in Washington, November 30, 2018.
Bloomberg

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi thought she had solved the problem with a stiff rebuke of Omar in January after she tweeted her belief that support for Israel was "All about the Benjamins" funnelled by AIPAC. The speaker made it clear to Omar that nothing short of a contrite apology for spreading an anti-Semitic smear that outraged Democrats as much as Republicans would do. 

Omar did as she was bid and, as she had done when called out for her 2012 tweet about "Israel hypnotizing the world," claimed she was ignorant of the implications of her remarks.

As far as her party was concerned that was the end of it and Pelosi had no trouble posing for the cover of Rolling Stone magazine this past week with both Omar and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as "The Women Shaping the Future." But far from learning her lesson, Omar was soon doubling down on her attacks on both the pro-Israel community and fellow Democrats. 

Last week Omar told an audience at a "Progressive Town Hall" in Washington that she and Tlaib were being targeted by "Jewish colleagues" and others who were motivated by bias against Muslims when they raised the issue of her anti-Semitism. But rather than deflect those charges, she added to them by saying, "I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is okay to push for allegiance to a foreign country."

Lest anyone be in doubt as to what she was talking about, she repeated this dual loyalty theme in a tweet responding to Rep. Nita Lowey of New York, a veteran liberal Jewish Democrat, who urged her to retract her comments. As Omar put it, "I should not be expected to have allegiance/pledge support to a foreign country in order to serve my country in Congress or serve on a committee." 

The response to this from some on the left was to accuse Omar’s critics of being hypocrites. 

They pointed to vile accusations by some West Virginia Republicans that identified Omar with the 9/11 attacks or mentioned what they said were equivalent GOP examples of anti-Semitism. 

Some were less than persuasive, such as that of liberal Jewish writer Peter Beinart, who has been an ardent defender of Omar as well as of other anti-Zionists, when he said President Trump’s calling one of his chief critics, Rep. Adam Schiff, "shifty little Schiff" was as bad as what Omar had sad. 

Others, such as those who took offense at Republican Rep. Jim Jordan’s denunciation of billionaire impeachment advocate Tom Steyer (who has a Jewish father), in which he spelled his last name with a dollar sign rather than an "S" were more to the point, though it’s possible to attack major political donors (such as those that Democrats target for supporting Republicans) without it being an act of prejudice.

Yet this surge of "whataboutism" that calls to mind defenses of Corbyn doesn’t make Omar’s embrace of anti-Semitic themes any less culpable in a party that wants to portray itself as having clean hands on prejudice. As Jonathan Chait noted, "To change the subject to the lower standards of the Republican Party is eventually to adopt those standards as your own."

Nor are repeated calls for more "dialogue" to educate her — as Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz advocated - or yet another resolution adopted by the House denouncing anti-Semitism (and now delayed for redrafting to be more "inclusive" of other bigotries) but not singling out Omar, a reasonable answer. 

Omar has already demonstrated that her apologies lack sincerity, and that she thinks liberal pro-Israel Jews like the former Democratic National Committee chair are the real problem.

The fact that President Trump has now weighed in against Omar will not persuade Democrats to act against Omar. That he considers her stands to be "a dark day for Israel!" rather than for American Jews, may be considered by his critics as somehow also implying dual loyalty. But it is probably more reasonable to interpret it as a lament for the growth of anti-Zionist sentiment on the left that her stands illustrate.

But irrespective of what Trump is tweeting, Omar has made it clear that the issue isn’t mere criticism of Israel - but that the links between BDS and anti-Semitism are real. If the only Congressional supporters of a movement dedicated to Israel’s destruction can’t refrain from attacks on its Jewish supporters that are inherently anti-Semitic that should be a wake up call for Democrats about the need to cut their ties with Omar.

Those waiting for Pelosi to dish out a real punishment to Omar, such as booting her out of her coveted seat on the House Foreign Relations Committee, are doing so in vain. That’s not because Pelosi isn’t angry, but because she is aware of Omar’s standing in a party that is drifting to the left and in which intersectional theories about Israel are becoming more popular among minority constituents that regard the Minnesotan as a heroine.

If Omar emerges without having suffered the kind of penalty that Republicans inflicted on Rep. Steve King for his embrace of white nationalism by taking away his committee assignments, Democrats will have effectively undermined their narrative about Trump and the GOP being uniquely hateful.

That won’t make the Democratic Party the moral equivalent of Labour. But it will be a signal that Democrats are unable to draw a firm line in the sand about toleration of anti-Jewish hate when it comes from their party’s young rock stars. The implications of such an outcome for the future of a party that most American Jews consider their political home are ominous.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS (the Jewish News Syndicate) and a contributing writer for National Review. Twitter: @jonathans_tobin