The new crop of progressive political stars in the House and a base more sympathetic to the Palestinians than ever before helped push a half-dozen White House aspirants to break with the pro-Israel lobby last week on a major bill, even as it passed with support from Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and other high-ranking Democratic officials.
But the simmering divisions and debates inside the party blew up on social media Sunday night, when Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar suggested in a series of flippant tweets that the top House Republican’s support for Israel was “all about the Benjamins” — or tied to financial backing offered by the right-leaning American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
Earlier in the day, a pair of Democratic House newcomers sought to gather signatures for a letter rebuking Omar over her tweets and, in a move likely to escalate the controversy, her support for the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement — known as BDS — against Israel in response to its treatment of Palestinians.
The ongoing political shift came clearly into focus last week when nearly all of the Democratic presidential hopefuls — with Sen. Amy Klobuchar a notable exception — voted against a Senate bill that would allow state and local governments to withhold contracts from those who participate in BDS.
“There are ways to combat BDS without compromising free speech, and this bill as it currently stands plainly misses the mark,” New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker — who had co-sponsored a similar bill as recently as November — said in a statement last week to Jewish Insider.
Most of the other Democratic presidential candidates and potential candidates in the Senate — including Sanders, California Sen. Kamala Harris, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown — opposed the legislation, all citing free speech concerns that overshadowed their opposition to the boycott efforts.
The election of two BDS supporters — Omar and Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib, the first Muslim women in Congress — to House Democratic ranks last year pushed the issue to the forefront.
“Elected officials should be particularly sensitive and careful on the question of the role played by campaign contributions in influencing US policies toward Israel and the Middle East,” he said, adding that they “should also refrain from labeling all criticism of Israeli actions or policies as ‘anti-Semitic,’ in a transparent effort to silence legitimate discussion and debate.”
What’s not yet clear is whether Democrats, including the party’s new progressive vanguard, are willing to go any further in breaking with the Israeli government or curbing long-standing US support.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, whose reported threat to “take action” against Omar and Tlaib over their criticism of Israel appears to have prompted Omar’s tweets, is now accusing top Democrats of an “abdication of leadership.”
Grassroots Jewish progressive groups like IfNotNow, which was formed in 2014 during a conflict that became known by many as the Gaza war, believe opposition to Israel’s presence in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem — often described as “the occupation” — fits in naturally with other, increasing popular priorities, many of them championed by Sanders.
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