Opinion

Republicans Spoke Up Against Steve King. Shouldn’t Democrats Speak Up Against Ilhan Omar?

It’s getting harder to label radicals like Ilhan Omar, pro-BDS and hostile to Israel, as marginal to the Democratic Party. Days after the GOP neutralized Steve King’s Congressional influence, the Democrats elevated Omar’s

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

The last thing American Jews need is another entry in the alphabet soup of organizations purporting to represent their interests. But the argument for a new group calling itself the Democratic Majority for Israel, unveiled in late January, took on new urgency thanks to the serial comments of one of the congresswomen from its own party whose influence it hopes to offset.

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) is one of a group of young, female newcomers to the House of Representatives who have caught the media’s imagination. The first Somali-American representative, who had the rules of the House changed to allow a woman to wear a head covering, she is a trailblazer.

Along with her Palestinian-American colleague Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), Omar epitomizes the diversity in a Democratic Party that has thrown its doors open to women and minority candidates.

Then Rep.-elect Rashida Tlaib of Michigan looks to the gallery from the house floor before being sworn into the 116th Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington. Jan. 3, 2019
Carolyn Kaster,AP

But Omar and Tlaib also represent the sharp lurch to the left among elements of the Democrats’ base. Both are supporters of the BDS movement and opposed to Israel’s existence as a Jewish state. Both have also made statements that are arguably anti-Semitic - or, at least, statements far too close to well-worn anti-Semitic tropes.

>> Read more: Ilhan Omar has sparked panic in AIPAC | Opinion

Omar tweeted in the past about Israel "hypnotizing" the world (a phrase, she says, she recognized only six years later, and after her election, as an "anti-semitic trope I unknowingly used") and Tlaib raised the dual loyalty canard about opponents of BDS: "They forgot what country they represent." (Tlaib responded to a storm of criticism by saying that she was referring to U.S. Senators, and not U.S. Jews.) 

The Democratic Majority for Israel hopes to remind the public that although Omar and Tlaib are getting a lot of the attention in the new Congress, most elected Democrats remain supporters of Israel. Well-financed and staffed by veteran Democratic insiders like Mark Mellman and Ann Lewis, the DMI hopes to have an impact on the 2020 election.

But instead of the DMI or even the Democratic Party leadership taking the lead against Omar and Tlaib for their outlier views on Israel, it was a Trump true believer Republican who was in the spotlight.

Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY) is one of only two Jewish Republicans in Congress but also has ties to Breitbart and ex-Trump advisors Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka, who both fundraised for him. Zeldin would not thus be considered representative of any more than the quarter of American Jewry who support Trump - and certainly not of the U.S. pro-Israel community in general.

But when he went head-to-head with Omar - who’s also recently opined Israel was more an Iran-style theocracy rather than a democracy, and resembled U.S. segregation - shouldn’t there have been a broader constituency backing his challenge? 

When Zeldin blasted both Omar and House Democrats for "empowering/elevating" "crazy" positions like those advanced by Omar, and declared, "Your anti-Semitic & anti-Israel hate is strong & wrong," and demanding Omar denounce an anti-Semitic voice mail left for him, the Minnesota congresswoman and her supporters accused him of being an Islamophobe and intolerant of female Muslim colleagues. 

Omar indeed condemned the voice mail, and referred to the hate mail she also receives and invited Zeldin to discuss it over Somali tea in her office. Zeldin bracketed his acceptance with his refusal to back down on any tolerance for BDS, which he and the mainstream Jewish community links to anti-Semitism.

Yet as uncomfortable as pro-Israel Democrats may be with Zeldin, they're keeping mum, while Zeldin articulated the Jewish community concerns that Omar received a coveted appointment to the House Foreign Affairs Committee in spite of her radicalism and willingness to defame Israel.

Indeed, the escalation of the Twitter feud between Omar and Zeldin allowed him to assume the pose of defender of the pro-Israel and Jewish communities in the confrontation. 

Representative Steve King, speaks in South Carolina on May 9, 2015.
Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

The problem this poses for Democrats goes beyond the minimal real-world influence wielded by Omar and Tlaib.

Omar’s appointment to the House Foreign Affairs Committee came days after Republicans took action against one of their own radicals, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) a xenophobe credibly and serially linked to white nationalists and neo-Nazis. The GOP leadership stripped King of all of his committee assignments, neutralizing his influence.

That sent a message about their own desire to separate themselves from extremism even though, as Democrats noted, they are also stuck with Trump, who has his own history of making offensive statements about minorities.

The irony for Democrats is that the new chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee is Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), whose views on the Middle East are more in tune with the Likud than that of most Democrats. Yet both he and the other members of the Democratic leadership were notably shy about publicly criticizing Omar or Tlaib. House Democratic caucus chair Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) called them "esteemed colleagues." House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was silent. 

The best that Engel could do in response to Omar’s comparisons of Israel to Iran and to Jim Crow-era America, and her misleading attacks on the concept of a Jewish state, was to say that he hoped she would "continue to grow." 

Demonstrators carry signs and Palestinian flags during a 'Chicago Coalition for Justice in Palestine' protest in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., on Tuesday, May 15, 2018.
Bloomberg

In the current toxic political environment where the center has arguably collapsed, it’s getting harder to label people like Omar as marginal. The same can be said of Zeldin, whose pro-Trump views made him something of an outlier three years ago but now place him in the mainstream of his party.

There are those who worry that conflating criticism of BDS with attacks on Omar and Tlaib (who espouse extreme left views on other issues besides Israel) will link the pro-Israel community to Islamophobia. But the notion that calling the pair to task for blatant bias is a slur against all Muslims effectively gives them and the BDS movement a pass for any expressions of prejudice.

The fact that Republicans have become a lock step pro-Israel party in recent decades, while the Democrats are increasingly split on it, may mean that young voters will come to associate the Jewish State with Trump. Liberal supporters in J Street also see Democratic Majority for Israel, with its ties to AIPAC, as a challenge to their own efforts to oppose the Netanyahu government.

But so long as Democrats appear to be acting as if they are more afraid of offending radical supporters of BDS than the pro-Israel community, they will wind up allowing Republicans like Zeldin to use it as a wedge to make the argument that their party can’t be relied on to oppose anti-Semitism from the left, let alone back the Jewish state.

That sentiment is only bolstered when other new Democratic stars like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez gushes about a conversation with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who’s almost universally recognized as complicit with the striking rise of anti-Semitism on the UK left.

In a political atmosphere where Omar has become a media darling, Zeldin’s ability to seize the moment as the champion of the Jewish state demonstrates why pro-Israel Democrats can’t allow themselves to be quiet about Omar and Tlaib or anyone who crosses the line between criticism of Israel and support for BDS.

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