The diverse class of Democratic freshman about to be sworn in come January has served as a source of pride, and a boost of excitement, for the party struggling to bounce back from the 2016 elections. With a class of politicians more diverse than American politics has ever seen, Democrats feel better positioned now to claim the mantle of representing the new America: young, feminine, of many races, ethnicities, genders and faiths.
But for the pro-Israel community, this new harvest of newcomers has also caused some concern, raising doubts whether with all these new faces and new political beliefs, the Democratic Party is still the party of Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, who take the stage year after year with passionate speeches at the AIPAC policy conference and whose door on Capitol Hill is always open for advocates on behalf of the Jewish state in need for a favor. Or, is the party evolving into a legislative force that reflects skeptical Democratic grassroots who have second thoughts about Israel’s conduct, its endless conflict with the Palestinians and its commitment to democracy?
While these concerns are understandable and have been raised in the past whenever a politician critical of Israel, from either side of the aisle, managed to move ahead and reach positions of power, there is a complicating factor this time around: the fact that much of the focus of pro-Israeli activists is on a small group of newly elected women, two of them of Muslim faith. Most notable are Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian-American, and Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar, both of whom are Muslim. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York firebrand who stunned the party with a primary upset and, at 29, is about to be the youngest member of Congress, has also been added to the list of new Democratic lawmakers likely to disrupt the party’s otherwise pro-Israel agenda.
Does the pro-Israel lobby have a problem with Muslims in Congress? Or with women? The short answer is no.
Tlaib and Omar are not the first Muslims to take a seat in the House of Representatives. They were preceded by Keith Ellison of Minnesota and Indiana’s Andre Carson. And a comparison between the two men and the newcomer women might be helpful in disarming what seems to be a collision course pro-Israel activists and young Muslim congresswomen have embarked on.
Keith Ellison has had his fair share of friction with the Jewish and pro-Israel communities. His involvement, early on in his political career, with the Nation of Islam, has raised deep concerns among Jewish Americans. As did his comments critical of Israel’s conduct during the 2014 military operation in Gaza, and his refusal to support a last-minute funding of missile defense systems to Israel. Ellison never ignored the criticism. Before taking office he issued a detailed letter to the local Jewish federation denouncing Louis Farrakhan, he joined Jewish-American groups on many issues and made an effort to explain his criticism of Israel, while vowing support for the idea of a Jewish state and voting in favor of American military aid to Israel. Andre Carson had a similarly rocky relationship with the Jewish community, and while less involved than Ellison, he too has kept in touch with Jewish groups and engaged in conversation on issues relating to Israel.
And this is, at least thus far, the main difference. Engagement.
Ilhan Omar recently raised the ira of pro-Israel groups after seemingly flip-flopping on the issue of boycotting Israel. During the election campaign she told a Jewish audience she viewed BDS as a practice that stops dialogue and one that is “counteractive” to the goal of reaching a two-state solution. Her campaign, however, later said Omar supports BDS, although she has doubts regarding its effectiveness. Supporting BDS has become a caus belli for the pro-Israel community, a demarkation line beyond which there can be no dialogue or understanding. As is the issue of American aid to Israel. This third rail was touched by Rashida Tlaib, who stated in an interview she will not vote for providing Israel with it’s annual military aid package, which now stands at $3.8 billion.
Are the two newly elected Muslim women more radical in their views on Israel than other progressive Democrats, or other Muslim lawmakers? Perhaps. But it is just as likely that some of these comments reflect a lack of nuance and a deficiency in understanding the Jewish community’s sensitivities. Omar’s view on BDS is, in fact, complex. She has been trying to balance support for boycott as a free speech cause with opposition to BDS as a useless tool in the battle for a two-state solution. It is just as likely that Tlaib’s views on aid to Israel are not as single-dimensional as may have come across in this one interview. Does she oppose any aid to Israel, including that used to protect Israelis from Iranian missiles? Probably not. At the same time it is probably unreasonable to expect a daughter of Palestinian refugees to back the funding of Israeli weapons used to further the country’s grip on the West Bank. Does Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez still believe the term “massacre” was the only one appropriate to describe Israel’s actions in Gaza? Probably not. She later stated she was not “an expert on geopolitics on this issue” while stressing her support for a two-state solution.
Which brings us back to engagement.
Any politician who has spoken to activists in her or his local Jewish community or national organizations can easily get a sense of where the lines are drawn. The Jewish community is far more accepting of criticism of Israel than many believe, especially in the past decade with J Street offering a platform for those who wish to take issue with policies of the Israeli government. But it is less tolerant to the use of terms such as “apartheid” or “massacre,” for example. Jewish Americans are likely to accept politicians who boycott a speech by the Israeli prime minister, but are not open to discuss a boycott on Israel. They can argue on the details of American aid to Israel, but not on the principle of providing U.S. military support.
For Ocasio-Cortez, Omar or Tlaib, these fine lines were likely unclear. All three could have easily settled for the model set by Ellison and Carson. And so could the Jewish community. Engaging in dialogue (and it really doesn’t have to include the obligatory “educational” tour to Israel sponsored by right, center or left-wing pro-Israel groups) with the community could help air many of the differences before labels are assigned.
And this is true not only for the up and coming Democrats, but also to the pro-Israel community, which seems to have dropped the ball when it comes to engaging young Democrats, especially those of different racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds. These young Democrats have been talking about Israel in terms close to their own experience: comparing Gaza to Ferguson, countering money sent to Israel with funding not given to inner-city communities, intersecting the experience of women with that of Palestinians. They’ve been talking, but not many in the pro-Israel community have been listening.
Now is probably a good time for both sides to get to know each other. They might not become best of friends, but history has proven that pro-Israel views and progressive politics can live together.