Ilhan Omar is both a canny political operator and a con artist who specializes in gutter smears. And thus there is no question about who won the fight she picked with Nancy Pelosi and Democratic congressional leadership, desperate to sweep the party’s anti-Semitism problem under the rug.
Speaking live on CNN before the introduction of a resolution that was originally intended to condemn anti-Semitism, and indirectly Omar, but wound up condemning “all forms of hate,” Pelosi looked like a deer caught in the headlights, stuck between one of the Democrats’ traditional constituencies and the party’s insurgent progressive base.
A new Gallup poll released last week shows that while most Americans favor Israel in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (59 percent to 21 percent), net sympathy for Israel is declining dramatically among liberal Democrats. Since 2013-2016, “the percentage who sympathize more with Israel minus those sympathizing more with the Palestinians” has gone from +17 to +3. In other words, Palestinians are replacing Israelis in the hearts of the party’s base.
The inability of senior U.S. Democrats, including senior Jewish members of Congress, to muster a counteroffensive, or even much of a defense, shows that a pillar of the increasingly disoriented liberal political establishment is being pulled down by institutionalized identity politics.
Liberal Jews are being replaced—but by whom or what, exactly? It’s hard to put a name on it. Let’s call it progressivism, or the American version of the U.K. Labour Party’s Corbynism. It’s intersectional, sectarian, nominally collectivist in its economics, and boldly Third Worldist in its political convictions. It is also, therefore, fundamentally anti-Israel.
“I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country,” said Omar. Why, she asked, can’t she talk “about a powerful lobbying group that is influencing policy?”—that is, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. The previous month Omar said that sympathy for Israel in Congress was bought by Jewish money—“It’s all about the Benjamins, baby.” When asked what she meant, she boldly clarified: “AIPAC!”
The Jewish members of New York’s Democratic congressional delegation who first pushed for the resolution—Reps. Nadler, Engel, and Lowey—could not ever have intended to identify Omar by name. They were not going to launch a campaign they were sure to lose. As it turned out, they couldn’t even get a pro forma denunciation of anti-Semitism.
What eventually happened, though, was even worse: Their efforts were seized on by progressives and the Congressional Black Caucus to enshrine a hierarchy of grievance, read into the congressional record, that puts “people of color” at the top and leaves Jews and the rest skirmishing for position at the bottom.
Ignoring Omar’s own remarks, and enumerating attacks on African-Americans and Muslims, the text denounces racism against “African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and other people of color, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, the LGBTQ community, immigrants, and others.”
Rep. Jim Clyburn, House Majority Whip and a supporter of Louis Farrakhan, explained the rationale. Since, Omar had spent four years in a refugee camp in Somalia, her experience was “more personal,” than those whose “parents are Holocaust survivors.” Omar herself is hurting, said Clyburn. “I can tell you she is living through a lot of pain.”
Maybe the Democratic Party’s new math is why no one is making too much of the African-American kids beating up Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn. Because the former sit at the top of the hierarchy of grievance, it’s OK for them to work through their pain by punching down at the latter. Condemning them, or Omar, would only cause more pain.
Omar’s statements are not accidental, not slips of the tongue, and they will not disappear after more dialogue—no matter how much advice she receives from the honest brokers of interfaith comity about how the proper way to criticize Israel is to focus narrowly on the Likud Party or Bibi Netanyahu. Nope, it’s all fair game—she’s going after Israel, the very physical fact of it, as well as the American Jews who dare support a U.S. ally which is also supported by a large majority of the American public.
The Democratic Party leadership is complicit. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi gave Omar a seat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee even though she knew from the outset that the newly elected congresswoman would use it as a platform to attack the U.S.-Israel relationship, which she openly rejected and disdained. Or did the 32-year-long congressional veteran really think a woman who tweeted how the Jewish state had “hypnotized the world” was going to argue for giving more money for Israel’s missile defense?
Pelosi is on her way out, retiring after this session. Like the New York representatives who drafted the resolution, her energy is waning and no match for the charisma of Omar and her allies.
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Is Omar an anti-Semite? “It is possible for leaders,” Barack Obama said of the Iranian regime, “to be cruel, bigoted, twisted in their world views and still make rational calculations.” Omar’s rhetoric communicates the agenda that she and her allies are driving—their rational calculations.
It’s Obama’s agenda, and that’s why liberal Jews are effectively scapegoating Omar. It is too painful to identify the real source of the problem: An American president that the Jewish community not only overwhelmingly supported but also defended even as his language and his policies clearly spelled danger for them. They believed his validators because they wanted to—the Jewish journalists, diplomats, policymakers, Obama’s envoys to the Jewish community who all vouched for him, how he felt love for Israel and the Jews in his “kishkes.”
At the end of last week Omar seemed to criticize Obama, listing the Obama policies she disliked—immigration, deportation, drone strikes, etc. Omar later contended she wasn’t running down the previous president, but it’s a common dynamic in progressive political movements: Pointing out the failures of the fathers (and mothers) is how you keep the second generation mobilized.
Omar’s attack on Obama as just another “pretty face” who committed plenty of his own crimes is a marker of how fast the new Democratic politics that Obama pioneered have gained traction since his big Iran deal win. Where Obama and his surrogates always claimed that re-aligning the U.S. with Iran, or tilting towards the Palestinians, or condemning Israel at the U.N., were measures being taken for Israel’s own good, and therefore in fact proved how much they cared about Israel, progressives like Omar feel no compunction to engage in such rhetorical flimflam, to palliate “donors” or anyone else. Their pitch is simple: Israel is evil and should be eradicated. What Obama and his surrogates whispered and implied, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and their fellow progressives now feel confident enough to say openly.
OK, it’s bad, sure, but it’s not just the left, say folks who want to still seem reasonable in a fast-changing political landscape now dominated by social media. The right is awful, too. Look at the Ohio congressman who spelled the name of the progressive megadonor whose father was Jewish—“Tom $teyer.” Bad, said Rep. Nadler. And what about all the conservative pundits who keep saying George Soros, a Jew, spends his billions funding progressive networks—it’s true, OK, but saying that is still evidence of anti-Semitism! And then there’s Trump, who didn’t denounce the white supremacists at Charlottesville strongly enough.
The proof that Trump and the institutional right aren’t the main issue is not that Trump says he loves Israel, has Jewish family members, moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, etc. No, the proof is in history books, which teach us that minority populations do not ever publicly denounce the powerful majorities that actually threaten their status and safety. The liberal Jewish establishment is turning away from the real problem, because it’s too scary.
The power of AIPAC, and the liberal Jewish establishment it represents, resides in having resolved dialectically a set of ancient anti-Jewish tropes. The vehicle, amazingly enough, is a Jewish state. Through this key U.S. ally, Israel, Jewish money, power, and influence can advance the U.S. interest while at the same time strengthening the position of American Jews. AIPAC therefore needs both a strong Israel and a strong America—and a Washington in bipartisan agreement on both. But this last piece of the fabric has frayed.
Without AIPAC and its infrastructure, there is no institutional U.S. support for the peace process. Why? Because only 21 percent of Americans sympathize more with the Palestinians than with the Israelis. Just as the evangelical Christian community is the base of U.S. support for the Jewish state, it is the liberal Jewish establishment that advances the idea of a Palestinian state.
So why did Obama rub this community’s nose in the ground? Why did he have to corner AIPAC, for instance, by appointing Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense, a man who referred to it as the “Jewish lobby” and proudly announced that, unlike some of his peers, he was not an “Israeli senator”?
Then there was the Iran deal, the making and marketing of which was a bloody affair, intended not only to secure the president’s key foreign policy initiative, but also to humiliate his opponents.
Accordingly, the president, and a complicit press corps, used anti-Semitic conceits to bludgeon Jewish community leaders, Democrats as well as Republicans. They were beholden to “donors” and “lobbies,” and more loyal to Israel than their own country. There’s barely a stone’s throw from what Obama said to what Omar has said and tweeted.
Obama explained that the Islamic Republic uses anti-Semitic rhetoric as an “organizing tool.” He went after AIPAC not because he personally dislikes Jews or Israel, but because he promised to radically transform America. So he had to start with the one institution he had absolute control over: the Democratic Party. He hacked away at the Jewish community because American Jewry is the pillar of the liberal political establishment.
By targeting AIPAC, and rejecting the foundational nature of the U.S.-Israel relationship, Obama crippled the party’s then-dominant liberal wing and empowered the progressives, whose ranks the Jews are more than welcome to join—but on new terms. On Rep. Ilhan Omar’s terms.
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Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).