Jonathan S. Tobin
Austin is a Texas college town better known these days for its trend-setting music scene than for being the capital of the Lone Star State. But last week, it also provided a test case that may say a great deal about the direction of the Democratic Party and the very uncomfortable dilemma facing pro-Israel Jewish Democrats.
What happened was that Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) was invited to be the keynote speaker at a citywide Iftar dinner. That a local Muslim community would want to host her is hardly surprising. Omar is seen as a role model in the sense that she is, along with her friend Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), both elected last November, one of the first two Muslim women to serve in Congress. As someone who wears a hijab even on the floor of the House of Representatives, her career is especially inspiring to Muslim Americans.
But unfortunately, Omar is more than just an illustration of how the American dream still works to provide immigrants and minorities with unlimited opportunities to succeed.
She has made a name for herself not by talking about the concerns of Minnesotans, but by the outrageous manner in which she has trafficked in anti-Semitic tropes as she pursues her advocacy against Israel. Along with Tlaib, she is one of the only two open supporters of the anti-Semitic BDS movement that promotes boycotts against the State of Israel. She has claimed that Jews are buying the support of Congress for Israel and questioned the loyalty of her congressional colleagues who are pro-Israel.
Despite this, the Democrats elevated Omar to a seat on the House Foreign Relations Committee and refused to name her in a resolution denouncing anti-Semitism.
She quickly learned that the support her remarks generated from her party’s left-wing sector gave her impunity to spew anti-Semitism. Even more importantly, partisan divisions are now so intense that the gibes thrown in her direction by U.S. President Donald Trump only encouraged more Democrats to back her. Indeed, party leaders, as well as the Democrat’s cheering section in the media and on the late-night comedy shows, have accepted the notion that Omar was a victim of Islamophobia who was being singled out for criticism only because she was a Muslim.
But what happened in Austin should stand as a warning to anyone who has any expectation that mainstream party leaders think it’s possible to avoid Omar, let alone rebuke her.
The scheduled guest of honor at that Austin Iftar dinner was the city’s mayor Steve Adler.
Though Austin is a liberal island sitting in the middle of red Texas, Adler is no left-winger. He’s widely considered a moderate Democrat and one with a national profile since he’s the leading backer of South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign.
More to the point, he is also Jewish and deeply involved in the local community, including spending years as the regional board chair of the Anti-Defamation League and a supporter of Israel.
That’s why members of the Jewish community reached out to him asking him not to attend the dinner alongside Omar, or if he did, to use it to speak out against what she has been spewing. As Jay Rubin, the immediate past CEO of Shalom Austin, the local Jewish federation, said to him in a letter he subsequently made public, Adler had an opportunity for a “Sister Souljah moment” where he could confront an extremist rather than appease one.
But Adler didn’t listen to their pleas.
In his remarks, the mayor tried to explain the damage done by the spreading of anti-Semitic tropes and narratives. He said that there was an obligation to denounce hateful language, and that “being selective in our sanctions can create an even more insidious evil.”
But while that line could have been interpreted as a rebuke to those on the left who denounce Trump and right-wing anti-Semitism but are silent about Omar and Tlaib, the next sentence showed what he really meant.
According to Adler, “It is patently wrong for people to weaponize condemnation and to use it as a cheap political organizing tool by only directing it toward those they wish to demonize because of their identity, if they wear hijab, for example. Just as there is no innocent use of a trope, there is no innocent failure to call out transgressions equally and everywhere.”
With those words, he signaled that the only guilty parties were Omar’s Republican critics, and that she was deserving of our sympathy rather than a person who spread anti-Semitism. And by not calling out Omar by name, he was guilty of doing exactly what he claimed that he opposed.
In her own remarks, Omar denounced anti-Semitism, yet somehow failed to account for her own anti-Semitic actions and words, as well as her support for Israel’s destruction.
While Adler was clearly trying to avoid antagonizing Muslims and left-wing supporters of Omar, his speech was an abysmal failure that demonstrated his cowardice, as well as illustrating the nature of the current political climate.
If even a popular, pro-Israel Jewish Democrat like Adler was afraid to stand up to Ilhan Omar in his own city, then it’s not clear under what circumstance any member of that party would think they could afford to do so.
That means that the battle to quarantine an anti-Semite like Omar to the margins of American politics has been lost. Not only are she and Tlaib among the young rock stars of their party, they have far greater influence than anyone would have thought only a few months ago.
It is at this point that fair-minded people must ask themselves how the influence of the anti-Israel and anti-Semitic left can be contained, let alone rolled back. The evidence coming out of trendy Austin is that as far as the Democratic Party is concerned, it’s a lost cause.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.