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The Ilhan Omar Controversy Reveals a Larger Struggle Over Israel Among Democrats

9 minute read

The controversy that swirled around Congress this week after Rep. Ilhan Omar insinuated that politicians only support Israel because of donations from wealthy Jews died down as quickly as it began. Publicly rebuked by leaders of her own party for using “anti-Semitic tropes,” the freshman Democrat issued an apology.

But while this episode was short, the already tricky politics of Israel are likely to keep coming up — and keep getting trickier for Democrats.

As the Democratic Party gears up for a contentious 2020 primary, many observers are warning that the grassroots of the party may not be in sync with the traditionally strong support of Israel among lawmakers of both parties. Changing attitudes among younger voters, Israel’s recent political history and President Donald Trump’s vocal support for the country have all contributed to a shift in public opinion.

“We shouldn’t overlook the fact that on a retail level there is an erosion of support for Israel among Democrats,” said former Rep. Steve Israel, who served in Congress for nearly two decades and also chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “Those of us who support Israel need to educate potential candidates that this is not a political issue; this is not a partisan issue; this is an issue about two democracies in a challenging world.”

Until recently, criticism of Israel was largely relegated to the fringes of both parties. But over the last decade, Israel’s government, led by current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has shifted increasingly rightward. The country has defied international pressure by building controversial settlements in the West Bank and passed a measure affirming that the country is a Jewish nation-state, which some Arab Israelis criticized as a move toward a form of apartheid.

As a result, grassroots Democrats have been more open in critiquing what they consider Israel’s human rights abuses against Palestinians and unethical occupation of the West Bank. Polling shows that partisanship on this issue has intensified. The number of Republicans who favor Israel over Palestine in the conflict has increased 29% since 2001, while the number of Democrats who favor Israel has decreased 11% in the same time period, according to a 2018 report from the Pew Research Center.

Dov Waxman, a political science professor at Northeastern University and author of “Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict over Israel,” largely attributes this shift to a growing segment of younger Democratic voters, both Jewish and non-Jewish, who are unafraid to challenge this longstanding bipartisan area of agreement.

“Young people are more liberal, more progressive and they are increasingly being involved in electoral politics,” he said.

Waxman pointed to the young progressives who flocked in droves to Sen. Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary. If anything, Sanders’ willingness to challenge Israel’s military policies — he called the country’s use of force in the 2014 conflict with Gaza “disproportionate” — only heightened his popularity with that wing of the party, and was only a foreshadowing of the upcoming debate in Democratic circles.

“You are going to have a lot of Democratic candidates who are looking to represent the progressive wing of the Democratic Party and harness the energy that they have,” Waxman predicted. “In many ways the battle between the progressive and centrist wing of the Democratic Party is going to be played out over Israel.”

This puts the Democrats who have already announced their presidential candidacies — many of whom hail from the Senate, where bipartisan support is still a given — in a bind: how do they appeal to the progressive wing of the party while continuing to state unequivocal support for Israel?

“Presidential candidates need to be very careful to make a distinction between criticizing certain elements of U.S. policy towards Israel with which they disagree and being perceived as not supportive of the U.S.-Israel relationship,” said Israel.

Signs of walking this tightrope have already started to emerge, most recently over the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.

With growing support from progressives, the BDS movement has pushed companies to forgo business deals with Israel until it returns all land deemed occupied under international law; provide Arab-Israelis with the same rights as Jews; and gives Palestinians displaced in 1948 the right to return to their homes.

That in turn spurred a backlash among Israel supporters, with a recent Senate bill on Mideast aid seeking to make it easier for city and state governments to not work with companies that are involved in boycotting Israel.

The bill passed on a bipartisan basis, 77-23. But the dissenters were nearly all Democrats, including current or future 2020 candidates Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, Bernie Sanders and Sherrod Brown, citing concerns that it would hurt freedom of speech. (Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar voted for the measure.)

The BDS movement does not have much support in Congress: Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaib are the only two backers. But Waxman said the argument that the BDS provision subverted free speech gave Democrats cover for now, predicting future votes would be more controversial. “It doesn’t mean they support BDS,” he said of these Democrats. “It just means they support free speech.”

Daniel B. Shapiro, the Obama-era U.S. ambassador to Israel, said he’s confident that even if politicians become more critical, there are still limits to criticism of the country.

“If there are people who are trying to get candidates to adopt much more extreme positions, such as the elimination of the state of Israel or adopting BDS as an approach to try to delegitimize Israel or get Israel to change its policy, I don’t think they’ll be very successful and I think those positions will remain at the margins of the debate,” he said.

But Omar’s comments proved to be another test. Some Senate Democrats jumped to reprimand her tweets; Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said her tweets were “offensive and irresponsible,” while Delaware Sen. Chris Coons said it had “no place in our discourse.” None of the likely 2020 presidential candidates issued official statements, although some, like Klobuchar and Booker, provided brief comments.

These candidates, however, also did not appear to face any explicit backlash for their silence, suggesting it may have been politically expedient to sit out the controversy. And observers say that, more than anything else, speaks to the potential tectonic shift within the party.

Indeed, Omar’s tweets did not anger younger progressive activists the way they did party leadership. “My general honest perception of her tweet was that it wasn’t anti-Semitic, and that it’s really important to be able to talk about the fact that lobby groups try to influence politics and that’s what she was saying,” said Rebecca Vilkomerson, the executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, a liberal organization that advocates against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. “It’s very concerning if anytime someone talks about some of the levers of politics, there’s an immediate call to label that anti-Semitic. Because what that does is shut down and suppresses a really important political discourse.”

“Obviously, the tweets have ignited a firestorm, but I think it has exposed something we have known to be true for a long time, which is that the Democratic base is really shifting in this country,” Vilkomerson continued. “More and more people are supporting Palestinian rights as part of a broad progressive agenda, and so people who support Palestinian rights are also the people who support the fight for $15, support Medicare for all and want to abolish ICE. I think Rep. Omar represents that group of people.”

Still, the tweet came amid a period of rising violent anti-Semitism in the United States and abroad. It was just four months ago that 11 Jewish Americans were shot and killed at a Pittsburgh synagogue service. In its annual audit on anti-Semitic acts, the Anti-Defamation League reported the number of incidents in the United States increased nearly 60% in 2017 — the biggest single-year jump ever recorded.

Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, told TIME it’s important to keep the recent uptick in violence against Jewish people in mind when considering Omar’s tweets and the backlash that followed. “Anti-Semitism is a clear and present danger right now,” he said, noting the rise of violent attacks against Jewish people is not just limited to the United States. “In the U.S., in the U.K., in France, in very violent ways, anti-Semitism isn’t some abstraction, it isn’t a talking point for an elected official. It is an unfortunate and very real reality that Jewish communities are confronting.”

The public debate also comes just a month after Women’s March, Inc. faced allegations of anti-Semitism due to the associations some of its leaders have with Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam leader who has compared Jewish people to termites. Though the first iteration of the march, the day after Trump’s inauguration, saw millions of people flood the streets of Washington, D.C. In 2019, only one-fifth as many people showed up.

Republicans, cognizant that activists are grouping these issues together, have already started to seize on the divisions. “Ilhan Omar is the anti-Semite we thought she was,” read the subject line from the National Republican Congressional Committee early Monday morning.

Observers say that this could help Republicans peel off moderate, center-right Democrats who have strong views on Israel, potentially helping the GOP make inroads in key states like Florida which have large Jewish populations.

“The Republican party and the Republican activists and right-wing Jewish American activists have been trying to make it an issue for decades,” said Waxman, the political science professor. “And I think they smell blood now, so to speak.”

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Write to Alana Abramson at Alana.Abramson@time.com and Abby Vesoulis at abby.vesoulis@time.com