Jonathan S. Tobbin
At first glance, it’s a one-sided struggle.
On the one hand, you have incoming House Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland. On the other, there is freshman Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib. Both Hoyer and Tlaib are Democrats, but they represent very different visions about the way their party should approach the Middle East.
Hoyer is the second-most powerful Democrat in the House and a prodigious fundraiser. He is also a longstanding supporter of Israel and plans to once again lead a trip to the Jewish state in 2019, where many freshmen members of Congress will learn about the importance of the alliance between the two democracies.
Tlaib, a Palestinian-American who was just elected to represent a suburban Detroit district, is a supporter of the BDS movement. She has just announced that she not only plans on skipping the AIPAC mission, but will also lead her own trip to the region. She will take them to the West Bank, where, unlike those who accompany Hoyer, she won’t meet any Israelis or even anyone from the Palestinian Authority. Instead, they will meet with a variety of Palestinians, including her own family members, who are dedicated to the “resistance” against Israel. Checkpoints and other areas of conflict will be featured.
Like her fellow congressional newcomer, Rep. Ilhan Omar—another Muslim-American who was just elected to the House from Minnesota—Tlaib is a supporter of the BDS movement that aims at isolating the Jewish state. Her goal is not to foster coexistence (hence, there will be no emphasis on peace projects), but rather to influence her colleagues to believe the lie that the condition of Palestinians is morally equivalent to apartheid or that of the Jim Crow South in the United States prior to the civil-rights movement.
Radicals like Tlaib, Omar and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of Queens, N.Y., have drawn the most attention among the new faces the Democrats will soon send to Washington. But most of the freshmen are more moderate. Most will also quickly realize that saying “no” to or challenging Hoyer is not the path to getting ahead.
Still, it would be a mistake to ignore Tlaib’s effort. To the contrary, the willingness of Tlaib and Omar to become outspoken proponents of BDS is sending a strong signal that an increasingly noisy anti-Israel faction is prepared to challenge the Democrats’ leaders on this issue. Just as important, it will undermine the liberal organization that has tried to establish itself as a rival to AIPAC: J Street.
It will be interesting to see how many Democrats join Tlaib because in doing so, even those who have not explicitly aligned themselves with and Omar on BDS, will be implicitly lending weight to that movement.
While some on the Jewish left and even in the organized Jewish world are committed to building relationships with Tlaib and Omar, their decision to go all in on BDS has drawn a line in the sand that no decent person should cross. If, instead of finding themselves isolated both within the Democratic House caucus and among Democrats in general, Tlaib and Omar join their Socialist comrade Ocasio-Cortez as the new young rock stars of the party, that will be a crucial sign that will tell us a lot about what is or is not acceptable discourse within its ranks.
BDS is not a movement that aims to merely criticize Israel’s policies. Its purpose is the elimination of the sole Jewish state on the planet. Its modus operandi is economic warfare, which given the success of Israel’s economy means it has been a colossal failure. Yet its strategic purpose is to legitimize discrimination against Jews and their state, as well as to stigmatize and isolate Israel’s Jewish supporters. That is why BDS is not only a form of anti-Jewish bias that is indistinguishable from anti-Semitism, but also provides an easy explanation for why acts of anti-Semitism soon follow wherever the movement pops up.
This radical faction will not be determining how most House Democrats will be voting on Middle East issues like aid to Israel and the Palestinian Authority, or even terrorism. The Democrats’ leadership is composed of elderly members like Hoyer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who value their ties to AIPAC and the notion of a bipartisan pro-Israel coalition.
But as the 2020 presidential campaign begins in earnest in the coming months, this faction, which has more support among grassroots party activists than it does among members of Congress, may be in a position to influence both the large field of candidates and the nature of the debate about foreign policy among Democrats.
In the end, the real loser here probably isn’t going to be AIPAC or Israel. The ability of Tlaib and Omar to function effectively despite their open embrace of an anti-Semitic creed will do more to undermine J Street than its mainstream competition.
J Street has never come close to making good on its initial hopes of rivaling AIPAC when it was established a decade ago. But it has been able to maintain a niche of support on the left as a voice of liberal Zionism.
Openly anti-Zionist groups like Students for Justice in Palestine, Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow are outflanking J Street on the left on college campuses, and many of its members are increasingly open to the support of BDS in one form or another. But the decision of Tlaib and Omar—and those Democratic legislators who join them—to eschew J Street’s trips to Israel and its efforts to influence Democrats to reject Israel’s government while still embracing the state are showing that the left-wing lobby’s efforts on Capitol Hill are also failing.
If Tlaib and Omar become the loudest voices on the Democratic left, then it means that the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” mantra of J Street is being replaced by the hateful propaganda of the BDS movement. If so, it’s a dark day for the Democrats—and all friends of Israel.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.