The latest debate over Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota — whether she made anti-Semitic remarks or is anti-Semitic, how her fellow Democrats should respond and what the overall party’s views on Israel should be — is not a particularly significant electoral story. It is, however, potentially important in terms of both party politics and policy. And it’s worth understanding how those two dynamics could both be true at the same time.
Let’s start with the electoral insignificance of the hubbub around Omar, who has suggested that there is a push to essentially require Americans to declare “allegiance” to Israel and that campaign donations from organizations that work on Israel policy have an unfair influence the political system. (Many critics say the remarks played into anti-Semitic tropes, while Omar says she was merely criticizing the role of lobbyists in government.) The Republican Party has long strongly defended Israel’s government in disputes with the Palestinians and has aggressively courted Jewish voters. But traditionally most Jewish voters have identified as Democrats — that’s been incredibly stable and shows no signs of changing.
Jewish Americans also vote heavily Democratic, which is not a surprise considering the party identification numbers in the chart above. In 2004, the Jewish vote was about 74-25 percent in favor of Democrats, according to exit polls. In 2016, it was basically the same, 71-23. President Trump has arguably taken the Israeli government’s position over the Palestinian one on key issues more than any previous American president, but Democrats again won the Jewish vote 79-17 in 2018. The idea that Jewish voters currently aligned with Democrats will jump to Republicans because of the Omar controversy is simply far-fetched. And as only between 2 and 3 percent of voters are Jewish, according to exit polls, even a big swing in their preferences would make only a small difference overall.
But the debate over Omar’s comments is illustrative of, and taps into, broader trends within the two parties.
For Democrats, there’s a real divide over what U.S. policy toward Israel should be. On one side are Democratic officials, both Jewish and non-Jewish, who are wary of the Israeli government, arguing that it is too antagonistic to the Palestinians and not really interested in the so-called two-state solution that has long been the official U.S. policy for resolving the conflict in the Middle East. These Democrats are particularly frustrated with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been aggressive in pushing for Israel to establish settlements in new areas in the West Bank, land that the Palestinians feel they should control. Netanyahu has also increasingly aligned himself with the Republican Party, further irritating Democrats.
To these Democrats, being pro-Israel should be not synonymous with always defending the Israeli government, particularly Netanyahu. As president, Barack Obama was largely aligned with this wing of the party.
On the other side are Jewish and non-Jewish Democrats who are more reluctant to criticize the Israeli government and Netanyahu. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is perhaps the most influential Democrat in this bloc. (To state the obvious: I have distilled a fairly complicated issue into a very simple divide, and many Democrats are in between these poles.)
These debates generally have tracked along ideological lines — more liberal Democrats have been more willing to criticize Israel than more centrist figures have been. And that partly explains what is going on now on Capitol Hill. I should emphasize that much of this controversy is simply about Omar’s statements, which if not outright anti-Semitic are at least controversial. In particular, her tweeting, “It’s all about the Benjamins baby,” in reference to the political influence of the pro-Israel lobbying group American Israel Public Affairs Committee, was unsurprisingly viewed as invoking the anti-Semitic smear that Jewish people use money to control policy and politics. But Democrats’ reaction to Omar’s comments has broken along similar lines to reactions to the Green New Deal, which is championed by the party’s young, most liberal wing and viewed warily by older and more moderate Democrats. Omar’s most prominent critics are older Democrats and moderates, while figures such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and some younger and more liberal Democrats say the party has been too harsh in criticizing the Minnesota congresswoman.
The more progressive wing of the party essentially forced House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other party leaders last week to back away from a House resolution that would have focused on condemning Omar and anti-Semitism. The party instead passed a more wide-ranging measure that denounced anti-Semitism but also anti-Muslim bias and other forms of discrimination.
To be clear, I’m not saying that Omar’s comments were fine, or suggesting that her Democratic critics are insincerely using this issue to weaken a rival faction in the party. But the debate is playing out over existing fault lines between party’s progressives and its more old-guard figures, like Pelosi.
This debate gets at important dynamics within the Republican Party too. The GOP’s pro-Israel stance, while not bearing fruit with Jewish-American voters, has another important electoral dimension: It appeals to evangelical Christian activists and voters who are aligned with Netanyahu and conservatives in Israel. So taking pro-Netanyahu positions helps Trump please a key part of his base. But Republicans now have two additional reasons to highlight Omar’s remarks and the tensions within the Democratic Party over Israel.
First, with a Democratic Party that is united in opposing Trump, highlighting any division among Democrats is useful for Republicans. So last month, Senate Republicans forced a vote on a measure that allows state governments to sever ties with companies who support the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against the Israeli government. (Basically, BDS calls for companies and governments to suspend economic relations with the Israeli government.) The Senate vote almost perfectly split the Democrats, with 25 Democrats voting for the measure (backing the pro-Israeli-government position) and 22 voting against it, including 2020 candidates Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. (Many Democrats, such as Sanders, don’t support BDS but argue the anti-BDS bills violate free speech rights.)
Second, casting Omar and some Democrats as anti-Semitic gives the Republicans a way to change the political debate on race and identity, which has been dominated for nearly four years by Democrats (and others) casting Trump as racist. The Omar controversy is a rare opportunity for Republicans to cast Democrats as insufficiently concerned about a minority group — and they are taking full advantage.
For all these reasons, I don’t expect this issue to die, but instead to shift from Omar and Capitol Hill to the presidential campaign. I think Republicans’ real goal is to force the Democratic presidential candidates to choose between fairly mild rhetoric condemning Netanyahu’s government and more aggressive stances that could be cast as “anti-Israel.” This push by Republicans won’t necessarily change any votes in November 2020, but it will create more fissures among elite Democrats. And in some ways, the Republicans’ goal is also Omar’s. Her approach may not been the smartest, but I think she is trying to push her party toward a real debate on its views about Israel. Omar right now looks like she is losing that debate — her party’s leaders have already publicly rebuked her twice. But in a party that is shifting to the left on nearly every issue, I wonder if the next Democratic president will sound more like Omar (on her less controversial days) than Schumer when they talk about Israel.
From ABC News: