In response to my analysis of Democratic sitting members of the House of Representatives, I was asked about Representative Keith Ellison of Minnesota, one of two Muslim members of the 2016-2018 House of Representatives and vice chair of the Democratic National Committee. In 1990, when Stokely Carmichael claimed that Zionists had collaborated with Nazis during WWII, Ellison called Zionism “a debatable philosophy.” Ellison has also long been associated with Louis Farrakhan, the antisemitic leader of the Nation of Islam. When a law student, Ellison had defended Farrakhan against charges of antisemitism and had participated in the Million Man March back in 1996.
Bernie Sanders appointed Ellison to represent him in negotiations over the Democratic Party platform in 2016 and stated that he wanted to sharpen the DNC’s language on Israel and its treatment of Palestinians. (Cornel West, a harsh critic of Israel, and James Zogby, an Arab-American community activist, were also appointed.) In Ellison’s 2006 bid for election, he explicitly renounced the Nation of Islam. He had written, “These men organize by sowing hatred and division, including anti-Semitism, homophobia and a chauvinistic model of manhood. I disavowed them long ago, condemned their views and apologized.”
But suspicions persisted. On 23 September 2013, Ellison attended a dinner for Iranian President Hassan Rouhani with Farrakhan included among the 30 or so other U.S. Muslim leaders. Further, though Ellison repeatedly insists that he has no relationship with Farrakhan, the latter posted a picture of his private meeting with Ellison on his Facebook page on which he denounced Ellison’s retraction quoted above as a result of the “Jewish control of politics, economics, Hollywood, music, media.” In an interview with Jake Tapper on CNN on 26 June, he doubled down and insisted that the 2016 meeting did not take place.
Ellison earned four Pinocchios from The Washington Post for his equivocating on his relationship with Farrakhan. Further, in 2014, Ellison was one of only seven House members to oppose supplementary funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system when Hamas lobbed 4,000 rocket strikes against Israel. Ellison defends himself by insisting that “My record proves my deep and long-lasting support for Israel, and I have always fought antisemitism, racism, sexism and homophobia.”
Chuck Schumer endorsed Ellison. “I saw him orchestrate one of the most pro-Israel platforms in decades by successfully persuading other skeptical committee members to adopt such a strong platform.” Yet Ellison has charged that, “Political Zionism is off-limits no matter what dubious circumstances Israel was founded under; no matter what the Zionists do to the Palestinians; and no matter what wicked regimes Israel allies itself with – like South Africa. This position is untenable.” Further, in 2010 he wrote, “The United States’ foreign policy in the Middle East is governed by what is good or bad through a country of seven million people. A region of 350 million all turns on a country of 7 million.”
What about Rep. André Carson (D-Ind.), the only other Muslim member of the outgoing House of Representatives who attended the same meeting as Ellison in 2016? Carson confirmed that he had attended but wrote, “I’ve spent my life fighting discrimination in every form, from anyone. As a Member of Congress, I have met with a diverse array of community leaders, including Minister Farrakhan, to discuss critical issues that are important to my constituents and all Americans. While many of these leaders have long track records of creating positive change in their communities, this does not mean that I see eye to eye with them on all beliefs or public statements. Racism, homophobia, islamophobia, anti-Semitism, xenophobia and other forms of intolerance have no place in our civil discourse. This is part of my responsibility as a Representative to the diverse constituency I represent. As public officials, we must all recommit ourselves to simultaneously advocating for our communities while fostering a more inclusive, tolerant society.” This contrasts with the case of Ellison where we also have an instance of a liberal but not noticeably far left member of the Democratic Party, but he is one who is both in a powerful position and holds a very equivocal and questionable view of Israel.
What about the new members from the new, new left? Only 11 of the 61 non-incumbent candidates endorsed by Justice Democrats won their primaries. However, in the midterm elections in the U.S., the far-left in the Democratic Party made gains by individuals who are far to the left of Ellison. Were these gains significant? Did they come from the far-left or were these simply progressives? After all, the far-left and progressives are united on social justice issues and oppose neo-liberal fiscal policies. They both believe in fiscal expansion, redistribution, state aid and good wages for working people. They identify with voters who are frightened because they live in a world of precarious employment, poor housing and rising inequality. But are progressives and far-leftists united on procedural issues, on the core tenets of democracy, on procedural as well as substantive justice? Both groups believe in hope for the future rather than nostalgia for the past. They share a belief in agency and direct action, but are some forms of direct action incompatible with democracy?
This midterm cycle, Sanders’ legacy political organization, Our Revolution, backed a Democratic primary candidate in South Carolina’s 7th Congressional District, Mal Hyman, a professor of sociology at Coker College. He had worked on human rights in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. He was also a very vocal critic of corporate interests. On 26 June 2018, though trailing by 4,000 votes in the first vote (10,225 to 14,222 for Robert Williams), he was only narrowly defeated by Williams in the runoff. Williams, in turn, was defeated by his Republican opponent, Tom Rice, by almost 20 points.
There is little evidence that Hyman would have done better and may even have done worse. There is some evidence that the divisions in the Democratic Party shown in the primary were reflected in a lower turnout and diminished credibility among voters. And Hyman was just a progressive in the Sanders mold in his stances on the environment, education and universal coverage with a single payer plan. He opposed the move of the American embassy to Jerusalem, dubbed Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem as illegal, but does support a two-state solution. He is not an anti-Zionist, but is a harsh and one-sided critic of Israel.
Compare Hyman’s position with that of Leslie Cockburn. The latter is a distinguished journalist. Over thirty-five years, she has been a producer for CBS News “60 Minutes,” a correspondent for PBS “Frontline,” and a Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University. During her career, she has been awarded two Emmys, two George Polk Awards, two Columbia Dupont journalism awards, and the Robert F. Kennedy Award. However, she is also the co-author with her husband of the 1991 alleged exposé, Dangerous Liaison: The Inside Story of the U.S.-Israeli Covert Relationship.
The book is characteristic of the megalomania of the American left. If the far right believes that America can do no wrong, the left believes that America can do nothing right. Further, America’s greatest error was not the Vietnam War or the invasion of Iraq, but the recognition of and alliance with Israel. In the name of compassion for and solidarity with Palestinians, Israel is constructed as the arch villain. In that, the book betrays the Achilles heel of the left, the desire to identify core villains and exclude them from the polity of nations instead of creating a universal system for inclusion.
The specific criticism of Israel in that book is not merely harsh but extreme with little attention paid to the terrorist threat Israel faced. Israel is blamed even for goading Stalin into the Cold War and provoking Nasser into initiating the Six Day War in 1967. Israel is also blamed for instigating Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait because Saddam believed, correctly in the views of the co-authors, that the U.S. and Israel were conspiring to invade Iraq. Accused by Republicans and the Jewish Republican Coalition of antisemitism, J Street endorsed Cockburn and denounced the charges of antisemitism.
The question is whether she belongs to the fervent critics of Israel who support sanctions and boycotts directed at Israel. Or has she changed her views since 1991? Her election website stated that she would respect the relationship between the United States and Israel’s intelligence agencies and “do everything in my power to encourage its most productive and creative use to promote peace in the region and a two-state solution.” She comes across as a harsh and unfair critic of Israel, possibly a leftover from the past, but not as an anti-Zionist nor antisemitic.
Compare Cockburn to Republican Mark Harris, a pastor who ran for a seat in nearby North Carolina. He insisted that Jews should embrace Jesus if they want peace. “There will never be peace in Jerusalem until the day comes that every knee shall bow, every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” Should he be labeled anti-Zionist and/or antisemitic? In any case, his campaign has been charged with fraudulently rigging the vote so that his election win by only 1,000 votes has not been confirmed.
Cockburn ran in the Republican-leaning 5th district in Virginia that was up for grabs since the Republican member announced he was an alcoholic and would not seek re-election. A New York Times poll showed her leading her Republican opponent, Denver Riggleman, by 46% to 45%. However, she lost. She did reduce the difference between Republicans and Democrats from 17 to 7 points and succeeded in bringing out record numbers in support for her candidacy. She claims to have set the stage for a victory in 2020. Could she have won if she had not been accused of being anti-Israel in a district with large numbers of evangelicals who are strong supporters of Israel?
Examine the case of another alleged far leftist backed by Bernie Sanders in a primary race against Sharice Davids in the 3rd district in Kansas, Brent Welder, a labour lawyer and worker’s rights advocate. (Ocasio-Cortez (O-C), whom I will discuss shortly, also backed Welder.) He ran an anti-billionaire, anti-giant corporation campaign. The issue was not his defence of working people, badly needed on the left, but his stereotyping of the rich and corporations as uniformly villains. Welder lost by over 2,000 votes to Davids, another lawyer (graduate of Cornell), but both a Native American and a lesbian. Davids went on to win over her Republican four-term incumbent, Kevin Yoder, by almost 30,000 votes. She is the first Native American woman to serve in Congress. Her roots are in community organizing and identity rather than labour politics.
In contrast, on 26 June 2018, Joseph Crowley, a veteran progressive, was defeated in the Democratic primary by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, an apparent far-leftist and the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. She depicted Israel as occupying Palestine and not just the West Bank. Given an opportunity to correct herself, she doubled down by “slamming Israel’s Occupation of Palestine.” Jo Crowley had been a co-sponsor of H.R.1221, the International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace Authorization Act of 2017. (The predecessor was H.R. 1489.) Crowley is a progressive; Ocasio-Cortez is a far leftist.
Initially, many commentators expected O-C to lead the fight against Nancy Pelosi as speaker. However, she declared that, “All the challenges to Leader Pelosi are coming from her right, in an apparent effort to make the party even more conservative and bent toward corporate interests. Hard pass. So long as Leader Pelosi remains the most progressive candidate for Speaker, she can count on my support.” Nevertheless, O-C remains a strong leader believing in disruption of decision-making and aggressive direct action, going to the barriers for a climate-change protest within 24 hours of her election, and not just being an advocate for progressive health, environmental and inequality issues.
The key distinguishing features of the far-left focus on both procedural issues and Israel. On 30 November, Tlaib strongly criticized CNN for firing Marc Lamont Hill. “Calling out the oppressive policies in Israel, advocating for Palestinians to be respected, and for Israelis and Palestinians alike to have peace and freedom is not antisemitic.” Hill, a Marxist activist and professor of media studies at Temple University, had called for a “free Palestine from the river to the sea.” He subsequently and disingenuously insisted that his speech had not called for the elimination of Israel, but only for the support of Palestinian freedom and self-determination. He is not only a harsh and one-sided critic of Israel, he has openly questioned its right to exist. He has also worked openly with Farrakhan. Speaking about injustice everywhere uniquely included the elimination of only one state, Israel.
Another individual case newly elected to the House of Representatives from the far left includes Ilhan Omar elected from Minnesota’s 5th district. Ilhan Omar is a hijab-wearing Somali who arrived in America at the age of 14 as a refugee. She was the second Muslim elected. Rashida Tlaib, an activist of Palestinian descent and proponent of the end of both Zionism and Israel, was also elected in Michigan’s 13th district. These zealots call for a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
What about Ayanna Pressley, the first black woman elected to Congress from the 7th district in Massachusetts? After all, she not only supports immigration reform, but calls for defunding the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) as an “existential” threat to immigrant communities. Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), the leader of the moderate New Democrat Coalition, called abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement “unhelpful”. Nevertheless, Pressley is much more of a traditional progressive Democrat as indicated in her rise through the party and recognition of the political process as well as the support for her by Alex Goldstein, a Jewish Zionist and leader of the anti-BDS campaign.
In sum, members of the far-left have been elected to the House of Representatives, but they are very few in numbers. Further, in the vast majority of districts, such candidates tend to lose rather than win marginal seats. In the range of political groupings within the Democratic Party, from centrists and liberals to progressives and far-leftists, the last category is very small though it now has a foothold in the Democratic Party.