The Democratic Party faces a test of character. Most mainstream institutions have failed such tests in recent years but, in the spirit of Samuel Beckett, let’s try again and fail better this time. The trial confronting the electoral vehicle of American liberalism is whether liberals still have a firm grip on the wheel or the extremists in the back are doing the driving.
This week, Donald Trump tweeted that Ilhan Omar, a freshman congresswoman from Minnesota’s fifth district and a Somali-born refugee who became a US citizen in 2000, and three other US-born congresswomen should ‘go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came’. Trump’s tweets were racist and un-American and have inspired racist and un-American chanting. Republicans reluctant to condemn the President’s racism are cowardly enablers. But Trump’s baiting of her does not excuse Omar's own baiting of Jews.
Omar has introduced a resolution in defence of boycotts. While the text doesn’t mention Israel explicitly, in her accompanying media comments Omar made it clear that she has in mind specifically the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS). BDS aims to isolate, stigmatise and delegitimise Israel in the political, commercial, academic and cultural sectors.
Boycotters refuse to work with Israelis or Israeli organisations, protest shops that sell Israeli goods and demand the cancelling of performances by Israeli artists. According to the left-wing anti-Zionist scholar Norman Finkelstein: ‘It’s not an accidental and unwitting omission that BDS does not mention Israel... [T]here’s a large segment of the movement that wants to eliminate Israel.’
While BDS on its face appears merely anti-Israel, the Anti-Defamation League notes that ‘Many of the founding goals of the BDS movement... along with many of the strategies employed in BDS campaigns are anti-Semitic’. Organising boycotts of Jewish vendors or campaigning for special markings to be affixed to their products has long been a facet of anti-Semitism, most notoriously by the Nazis after coming to power in Germany. In echoing the practice of boycotting Jews, BDS singles out the Jewish state as the Jew of the world and treats it accordingly. The German parliament drew this comparison when it voted in May to recognise BDS as anti-Semitic.
Omar herself gives the game away when she declares:
‘Americans of conscience have a proud history of participating in boycotts to advocate for human rights abroad, including... boycotting Nazi Germany from March 1933 to October 1941 in response to the dehumanisation of the Jewish people in the lead-up to the Holocaust’.
The Nazi reference is no gaffe. Omar has shown time and again that she knows how to push Jews’ buttons. In 2012, she wrote: ‘Israel has hypnotised the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel’. Earlier this year, she declared US support for the Jewish state was ‘all about the Benjamins baby’ (Benjamin Franklin appears on the 100 dollar bill). In yet another incident, she decried ‘the political influence in this country that says it is okay for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country’. When one of her Jewish colleagues pointed out that ‘dual loyalty’ was a well-worn anti-Semitic canard, Omar told her: ‘I should not be expected to have allegiance/pledge support to a foreign country in order to serve my country in Congress or serve on committee’.
Omar is a troll who knows what she’s doing, knows how much it hurts Jews but continues because she is driven by prejudice, paranoia and a desire to remake American foreign policy along her lines. Her choice of the boycott issue is not coincidental and comes after 27 US states passed laws denying contracts to businesses that engage in discriminatory boycotts of Israel. Progressives whose position on free speech of late has been ‘muh gammon, lol’ are suddenly very exercised about First Amendment rights.
As Professor Eugene Kontorovich of George Mason University, who helped draft some of the statutes, notes: none of the laws in question limits freedom of speech. They simply forbid state contracts from going to organisations involved in boycott activity and were modelled — cleverly — on existing statutes denying procurement to businesses that discriminate against sexual or gender minorities. Businesses are free to boycott every last inch of Israel but they have no constitutional right to receive state contracts while doing so. Omar is cloaking in the language of Madisonian idealism her campaign for economic warfare on the Jewish state.
The test for Democrats is whether they can rise above partisanship to condemn Omar for her rhetoric and campaigns. She could be an American Jeremy Corbyn in the making and the Democrats need only look across the pond to see what comes of indulging someone like that.