The Ilhan Omar Effect

Ilhan Omar. Washington, January 2019.

The House of Representatives, it was announced on Thursday evening, passed a resolution condemning “all forms of hatred.” On its face, there is much to recommend this. Who, after all, is not against hate?

This is possibly the most reliably mainstream position in the entire political spectrum. Of course, it doesn’t take a great deal of political will or nous to concoct a measure against something that only a vanishingly small number of people are explicitly for. As usual, the devil is in the details.

In days of yore, Social Security was often described as the “third rail of American politics,” a reference to the electrified rail of a subway track that will kill you if you touch it. Experience has shown this to be overblown.

In fact, it has nothing in terms of symbolic and political power to compete with the reflexive support for Israel characteristic of both sides of the political aisle in American politics. Indeed, it was one of the few things on which both major parties could consistently agree, with political competition only in terms of the manner, rather than the degree of support.

On the left, support for Israel rested in large measure on memory. The state of Israel as a refuge for a people subjected to systematic mass murder by the Nazis and their helpers was one central pillar.

This was often paired, at least among people born before 1960, with the image of the plucky new state punching above weight against a horde of malign foes intent on its destruction. Support for the ostensibly leftist goals of the early kibbutz movement, while prominent in some circles in Europe, was notably absent.

On the right, these narratives coexisted, particularly since the 1980s with a variety of evangelical Philo-Semitism that is only slightly less creepy than the overt Jew-hatred that it purports to reject. On this view, the formation of the state of Israel was a harbinger of the coming of the rapture.

This was good for Christians, a large proportion of whom would (so they hoped) be likely to be called home to the blissful presence of good. For Jews, the prospects were less rosy since, although they would experience political gains in the short term, their ultimate fate would still be eternal damnation.

One can look at the latter view with a jaundiced eye but, in truth, even the former view has its problems. Foremost among this is that it is predicated, at least for some of its adherents, on the premise that the existence of the state of Israel will give Jews somewhere else to go besides here.

As Peter Beinart noted in a recent critique of the policy of conflating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, recent studies by the Anti-Defamation League (2016) and the Pew Research Center (2018) found that anti-Semitic views tend to be most often expressed by the same older subset of Americans who express strong support for Israel. Absence, it seems, makes the heart grow fonder. It does so especially when one is far away waging noble battle against groups of people whom Americans tend to view as disagreeable and not quite human.

But the verities of American politics are fleeting, and change is very much in the air these days, at least as far as the Democratic Party is concerned.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, freshman representative from the Bronx and master of social media, has garnered much of the attention thus far, offering direct, effective, and plain-spoken challenges to the business as usual of the House of Representatives.

The motto taught to incoming legislators is, “You’ve got to go along to get along.” Much of the discomfort that Ocasio-Cortez has caused to her colleagues of both stripes has been her unwillingness to toe that particular line.

Things got rather more severe this week when, during a panel discussion, Ilhan Omar, one of two Muslim women among the new crop of congressional representatives, spoke of, “the political influence in this country that says it is ok to push for allegiance to a foreign country”.

Omar’s use of the phrase “allegiance to a foreign country” was ill-considered. But the substance of her remarks, as numerous commentators and political figures (subsequently including Nancy Pelosi) noted, could not reasonably be construed as anti-Semitic.

The key word here is “reasonably.” Omar was subjected to torrents of abuse, including a death threat. She had already been a target since entry into the House. Roseanne Barr, disgraced television actor and a bellwether for all manner of intellectual bankruptcy, said that Hamas was now in the US government.

The president, who had claimed that the explicitly anti-Semitic protests in Charlottesville involved some “very fine people,” described it as a “black day”. All of which goes some way to demonstrating the truth of Omar’s contention that her status as a Muslim woman means that her statements are often (and quite systematically) misconstrued.

Up to this point, this was all just about par for the course for the American political system. The Democratic leadership in Congress began to take steps commensurate with their long-held commitments, putting together a measure condemning anti-Semitism meant unequivocally to chastise Omar.

The plan was to get the thing done quickly: administer a little discipline to a wayward member, reinscribe the party’s core values, and move on with the business of thwarting the more lunatic elements of the president’s agenda unimpeded by the putative bad acts of an individual member.

But the script was destabilised during a meeting of the Democratic caucus meeting on Wednesday when members complained that Omar was being unfairly singled out. Why was this the occasion for a resolution when the president has repeatedly expressed racist views about Mexicans and blacks and demurred when called upon to condemn the anti-Semitism of the Charlottesville demonstrators?

This criticism (especially with respect to Islamophobic remarks) could be extended to many members of the Republican congressional delegation. They did, of course, opt to censure the notoriously bigoted Iowa representative Steve King, But that was mostly because he was foolish enough to give voice in public to sentiments that a large proportion of the members of his party hold privately.

All of this presented (and continues to present) a problem for Nancy Pelosi and the old guard leadership of the Democratic Party. They are already challenged by an insurgency from the left wing of the party, mostly dormant since the years of the Carter Administration. While causing certain complications, it also brought obvious benefits.

AOC is smart, relatable, and media savvy. While she may, at times, do or say things that alienate the party’s blue dog faction, the payoff is that she attracts lots of votes from millennials whose interests and concerns she understands viscerally. If Pelosi knows nothing else, she recognises that the wing of the party the AOC represents is one that has to be courted.

Ilhan Omar creates a different, more intractable problem. Support for Israel is important for the Democrats in order to keep it from becoming an issue. The accusation of anti-Semitism carries a great deal of symbolic weight. The accusation that one lacks vigour in support for Israel also conveys dangerous implications. The last thing that the establishment wing of the party wants is an easily accessible point on which the president and his allies can criticize them.

The Democrats are all about the risk-averse pursuit of votes. Whether or not criticisms of lack of support for Israel from the right are made inherently absurd by the overt racism of the side expressing them, the media environment is such that public assertions of this kind have traction practically irrespective of who makes them.

This is the problem for Nancy Pelosi and her associates. The other side of the coin of the survey information noted above is that people who grew up in the era of the intifadas and after (especially millennials and beyond) simply don’t have the reflexive support for Israel inscribed in their world of ideas.

While surveys suggest that millennials tend to have fewer actually anti-Semitic views, at least if one does not simplistically define anti-Zionism as anti-Semitic in and of itself, they also tend to be less immediately dismissive of the claims of the Palestinians.

The point here is not, or not so much, the justice of this or that belief with regard to Israel. The point is that the Democratic Party now has another vector of concern in what they were hoping would be a unified march to the 2020 elections.

The alarm that this raises can be seen in the first instance in the fact that the comment made at the end of the Democratic caucus meeting that they should try not to argue the whole thing out on Twitter got a good if nervous laugh.

Pelosi started the process of coping by announcing that she didn’t think that Omar had “anti-Semitic intentions” before passing a milquetoast resolution opposing things that every civilised person opposes (and which Omar herself voted for).

The generational conflict in the Democratic Party has taken on a new dimension. The question as to whether all aspects of Israeli policy were commensurate with the national interest (and perhaps with broader interests as well) is being asked in a way that it has not since the Eisenhower Administration.

This was always likely to happen after the good ship Hillary hit the rocks two years ago. It is not clear at this point exactly how or whether the Democratic leadership will weather the storm.

Photograph courtesy of MPAC National. Published under a Creative Commons license.