Antisemitism debate exposes new fault lines in US politics

Antisemitism debate exposes new fault lines in US politics

An Israeli prime minister who has embraced Donald Trump and taken rightwing populism from his playbook. And a group of fiery young Democrats unafraid to question their elders or challenge the status quo. Put together, the elements were bound to be explosive.

Democrats were expected to offer a resolution condemning antisemitism on the floor of the US House of Representatives on Wednesday following the latest provocative comments by Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, who in January became one of the first two Muslim women in Congress.

However, late on Tuesday it was reported that the vote had been postponed and the resolution is now more likely to be taken up on Thursday.

Meanwhile, the language of the resolution will be broadened to include anti-Muslim bias, the Associated Press reported, following talks on Capitol Hill that ran late into Tuesday evening – a sign of the delicate balancing act for Democrats on a notoriously complex issue spanning identity politics, party politics, geopolitics and a generational divide

Democrats and Republicans alike have long expressed a rock-solid alliance with Israel. Leaders of both parties frequently address the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) conference in Washington, which is coming up later this month.

Omar and other critics suggest that Aipac has too much sway over US policy. At last year’s conference the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, delivered a bellicose speech and “saluted” Trump for his plan to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal.

Indeed, Netanyahu and Trump have perhaps the closest relationship of any two Israeli and US leaders in history, and much in common. Israel’s attorney general has said he intends to indict Netanyahu on corruption charges, while Trump is under investigation by the justice department, House Democrats and the federal prosecutors of the southern district of New York. Both men have punched back aggressively and cried “fake news!” Both men are also accused of siding with far-right extremists at home and abroad in ways that threaten their respective democracies.

So while there is nothing new about the US-Israel relationship drawing scrutiny from the left, the political moment is ripe. And it coincides with a younger generation far more willing to challenge old orthodoxies of foreign policy. In Congress, they are personified by Democratic newcomers including Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib, who is also Muslim.

“Being opposed to Netanyahu and the occupation is not the same as being antisemitic,” Omar, a hijab-wearing Somali American, tweeted on Sunday. “I am grateful to the many Jewish allies who have spoken out and said the same.”

But Omar has apologised for a 2012 tweet in which she said Israel had “hypnotised” America, then again for suggesting that members of Congress support Israel because they are paid to do so. Both remarks were condemned for employing antisemitic tropes, including by some who do not shy away from criticising Israel when the occasion demands.

Then came a third incident. Speaking at a progressives’ town hall event in Washington last week, Omar said: “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.” Again, there was bipartisan outrage. Democrat Eliot Engel, chairman of the House foreign affairs committee, said it was a “vile antisemitic slur”. But this time Omar refuses to say sorry.

Kerri Evelyn Harris, a progressive former 2018 Democratic candidate for the US Senate in Delaware, was in the audience as Omar spoke. “She was very emotional when asked that question and her voice broke holding back the tears,” Harris said via text message. “The media is pulling out pieces of her comment in what I consider to be an attempt to divide people.”

She added: “It’s a high-ratings controversy and the party and the movement alike are allowing it to drive a wedge out of reaction.”

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