At a time of heightened anti-Muslim discrimination and hatred, the Democratic establishment has taken unprecedented steps to single out a Muslim representative for her criticisms of AIPAC and the U.S.’s relationship with Israel. After first publicly rebuking Rep. Ilhan Omar, the Democratic establishment, led by House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi, began drafting a resolution condemning anti-Semitism, amounting to an indirect censure.
The move has spectacularly backfired, threatening deep fissures in the Democratic Party as accusations of anti-Semitism tear apart the Labour Party in the U.K. The rush to heed calls for a resolution has only further exposed the Democrats’ close ties to pro-Israel groups and, more alarmingly, has given a tacit green light to the racism and Islamophobia that fuels the Trump administration and its supporters.
The Democrats’ focus on Omar has invited accusations of hypocrisy, given their silence in the face of Trump’s many anti-Semitism comments and a long history of anti-Semitism in the GOP. Unfortunately, the Democrats’ outsized response made them appear in more agreement with Trump, who dismissed Omar’s apology as insincere and called for her expulsion from Congress.
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Worse, Democrats have left Omar more vulnerable to the fresh wave of racism and Islamophobia unleashed by the right following her comments, including a poster in the West Virginia statehouse smearing her in connection to the 9/11 attacks. The FBI is now investigating a threat to kill Omar after a photo of graffiti that read “Assassinate Ilhan Omar” was circulated on social media.
With the escalating backlash from progressives in the House, as well as the Islamophobic threats of violence toward Omar, House leaders delayed the vote and sought to pacify criticisms by amending the resolution to include language condemning anti-Muslim bias. Reps. Eliot Engel and Nita Lowey, who publicly reprimanded Omar, clarified their stance to distance themselves from this Islamophobic rhetoric. But much damage has already been done. For a Democratic leader to introduce such a pointed and political piece of legislation shows the establishment’s wider ignorance of Islamophobia, despite the role of anti-Muslim hatemongering in defining many of the Trump administration’s policies.
Trump built his campaign on fervent anti-Muslim statements and xenophobic promises, with an attendant rise in reported hate crimes against Muslims. However, these policies and rhetoric did not start with Trump. They build on nearly two decades of collective punishment toward Muslims under both a Republican and Democratic administration: the creation of an extrajudicial prison system, the expansion of drone wars across Muslim countries, the surveillance of mosques, and the self-policing of communities through Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) programs, which targets Omar’s state of Minnesota, home to the largest Somali population in the U.S.
Omar is hardly the first to field the opprobrium levied at critics of the Israeli occupation. The charge of anti-Semitism has been a reliable and effective tool to silence dissent, but as a number of Jewish critics have pointed out, this effort distracts from actual anti-Semitism and bolsters harm and violence against Palestinians.
The aggressive effort to stop Omar is part of a wider strategy to stem activism against the Israeli occupation. Twenty-six state legislatures have passed bills criminalizing the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which launched in response to Israel’s open defiance of a 2004 International Court of Justice advisory opinion declaring the wall in the West Bank illegal. The Senate passed the Combat BDS Act earlier this year, with similar aims to isolate boycott supporters.
In her original comments, Omar named AIPAC, which Vox pointed out, boasts that “the United States Congress has provided Israel with the strongest support of any institution in the world.” The efforts of the pro-Israel lobby have been well documented: Pro-Israel groups provide bipartisan campaign funding, skewing heavily toward Democrats, and exert significant efforts to sway U.S. foreign policy.
Despite the Israel lobby’s outrage at the suggestion that it holds any influence, Israel has long been referred to as the 51st state. In a 1971 op-ed for The New York Times, former diplomat David G. Nes identified the singular support that Israel enjoyed from the U.S. through economic, military, diplomatic and cultural channels. “Unique also,” Nes noted, “is Israel’s almost total immunity from criticism in this country.”
The prospect of losing this immunity in the Democratic Party’s leftward shift has clearly alarmed pro-Israel groups. AIPAC activist Stephen Fiske named Omar along with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Rashida Tlaib as “three people who, in my opinion, will not be around in several years.” An AIPAC-affiliated Republican said he had suggested challenging Omar in 2020. Their fears stoked by new members like Tlaib and Omar build on larger concerns within the Jewish community, which has seen a “widening split within the liberal American Jewish community regarding Israel.”
Omar and her allies have sought to underline the crucial difference between anti-Semitism and criticism of Israel’s actions and policies. She has also made clear that she’s learned to use careful language on such a sensitive issue, especially given that anti-Semitism is still thriving in many quarters. Over the past few years, as real anti-Semitism has risen in the US — made clear by Charlottesville, the Pittsburgh massacre and the sharp increase in anti-Semitic violence — Israel’s supporters have doubled down on the false equation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism.
If this disgraceful episode produces a piece of legislation condemning religious discrimination and intolerance, it will be a bitter silver lining. Democrats have largely kept their eyes closed to Islamophobia, piping up only when it’s politically expedient. Though they’ve moved to capitalize on the bump they receive from momentarily embracing the progressive new members of their party in Congress, they don’t hesitate to hold these members at arm’s length — or outright feed them to the wolves. Such whiplash will alienate their progressive base, which Republicans are surely noting.