Democrats In A Bind On Muslim Candidates
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Democrats In A Bind On Muslim Candidates

Are tough critics of Israel a sign of the party’s future?

House hopefuls Rashida Tlaib of Michigan. Screenshot from YouTube
House hopefuls Rashida Tlaib of Michigan. Screenshot from YouTube

Rashida Tlaib, a Democrat and the daughter of Palestinian immigrants, is running unopposed for a congressional seat in Michigan.

Democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez appears on the verge of becoming the youngest woman ever elected to Congress in a district that includes the eastern Bronx, Astoria, East Elmhurst and City Island.

Ilhan Omar, a Democrat, is favored to win a House seat in her left-leaning district that includes Minneapolis and the surrounding suburban area, which is home to the largest Somali community in the U.S.

If elected, she and Tlaib would become the first Muslim women in Congress.

What sets them apart is that they all have been highly critical of Israel, which is disconcerting to many Democrats and political analysts who question whether these candidates represent the start of an erosion of the bipartisan support Israel has always enjoyed in Congress. Some are deeply troubled by it.

“They will represent only a fraction of the Democratic delegation in Congress, but I am concerned it may be a trend that clearly does not represent the views of the American Jewish community as a whole, even though our community has voted overwhelmingly Democratic,” said Seymour Reich, a longtime Democrat and former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Ilhan Omar of Minnesota: Leading edge of Democratic Party? Lor ie Shaull/Flickr

He said that groups like J Street, the leftist political organization that supports a two-state solution and has supported candidates critical of some Israeli policies, should be enlisted to “reach out to these people. They speak the same language” and would be most effective in reaching out “to those who may be on the far left of the political spectrum.”

Reich added that it was ironic that establishment Jewish organizations have “shunned” J Street and other groups on the left, “but we now have to embrace them and ask them if they can arrest this development.”

The criticisms of Israel stem largely from the actions of Prime Minister Netanyahu and his right-wing government, insisted Reich. He said he is concerned the government “believes it can have the support of Republicans and evangelicals without reaching out to Democrats,” and that “this polarization … clearly has to be addressed.”

In an indication of the kind of bind a candidate like Tlaib puts Democrats in, J Street retracted its endorsement for her after comments surfaced about her support for a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “Pressure from the far left of the Palestinian community urged her to rethink her position,” in which she initially supported a two-state solution, J Street spokesman Logan Bayroff told The Jewish Week.

Yael Aronoff, director of Michigan State University’s Jewish studies Program and its Serling Chair in Israeli Studies, pointed out that although Israel still enjoys bipartisan support in the U.S., “there is room for growing concern about the future — whether it is a decade or 20 years from now. There have been challenges to bipartisan support, and it may be partly due to the fact that Netanyahu spoke to Congress against President Barak Obama’s wishes [in March 2015]. And some of the measures he has taken contribute to the challenges of bipartisan support because he clearly favored the Republican candidate for president.”

Congressional nominee Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez campaigning in NYC last month for Zephyr Teachout. She says she views the Middle East “through a human rights lens.” Getty Images

But Democratic political consultant Hank Sheinkopf maintains that the views of these three candidates is “nothing new” for the Democratic Party, in which “for some time there has been a trend of Democrats in significant numbers moving away from supporting the State of Israel. These are just more steps in a process that could happen in less than 10 years. Should the Democrats win the control of the House, Eliot Engel [the Jewish Congressman representing parts of the Bronx and Westchester counties] will be the last unabashedly pro-Israel chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee in our lifetime.”

But Ron Klein, chair of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, which bills itself as “the voice for Jewish Democrats and the socially liberal, pro-Israel values,” insisted that the three congressional candidates in question are the only “outliers from the Democratic Party’s very strong support for Israel. Hundreds of them support a two-state solution and know that having bipartisan support for Israel is crucial.” He said that Israel must “never be a partisan football; it can’t be. Fortunately for Israel, we are supportive.”

His group is not supporting “any of the three [women candidates],” he said, and plans to reach out to the three women to “persuade them to our positions.”

Aronoff, the Michigan State professor, pointed out that “you have to be careful when speaking of progressives in the Democratic Party. Many are critical of the occupation, the nation-state law, settlements in the West Bank, or the dominance of ultra-Orthodoxy over family matters and religion in Israel … but they still support Israel.”

In another congressional race that bears watching, the Forward reported that Democratic candidate Scott Wallace, running in suburban Philadelphia, chaired a charitable foundation that gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to organizations that support the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement against Israel. His race is considered a toss-up.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Presidents Conference, said the criticisms of Israel from these Democratic congressional candidates “means we have to work harder to sustain the support of the Democratic Party and counter any negative influences. It means we have to be very vigilant and check out candidates early on and not wait for a primary to ascertain their views — especially when they are running unopposed in the general election.”

He added: “What we are seeing is more polarization and divisiveness in the body politic in America and, like Europe, the center is being diminished but to a lesser degree.”

Several of those interviewed had questions about Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who earlier this month was photographed posing with pro-Palestinian activists and holding a sign reading, “From Palestine to Mexico, all the walls have got to go.” His spokesman later insisted to JTA that Booker “didn’t have time to read the sign, and from his cursory glance he thought it was talking about Mexico and didn’t realize it had anything to do with Israel.”

New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker is shown posing earlier this month with attendees at the Netroots Nation 2018 conference in New Orleans. Screenshot Twitter / @US_Campaign

But Hoenlein noted that the woman standing next to Booker in the photo wore a T-shirt that included a “declaration about Palestinians, and he had aides around him who should have called it to his attention if he didn’t realize what he was holding. For many people, it is not credible to say he didn’t know.”

Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, noted that Booker “was once a strong supporter of Israel who has become among the most hostile to Israel in the Senate.”

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, called on Booker to clarify his position, as did the president of a pro-Israel political action committee that helped Booker raise money for his campaigns. Booker has yet to comment.

The criticisms of Israel are also coming from some Republicans, ZOA’s Klein noted, saying that there were seven neo-Nazi white supremacists running for office in the U.S. who not only are not supportive of Israel but hate Jews.

Rabbi Cooper, writing a News Max, said Steve West, who won 49.5 percent of the vote in defeating three other candidates for a seat in the Missouri House, has written, “Hitler was right about what was taking place in Germany – and who was behind it.”

And the rabbi noted that Arthur Jones, who once headed the American Nazi Party, won a Republican primary after running unopposed in a district that includes part of Chicago.

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