There are at least five areas in which Israel has moved to the centre of American politics: Donald Trump’s racism; the BDS movement; diaspora-Jewish Israeli relations; the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iran. I begin with the first, as much for continuity as anything else, and will include a discussion of the second in this blog.
Recently, Donald Trump, in his racist attack on four Democratic congresswomen of colour – Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan – told them they could go back to where they came from, though all four were American citizens and three were born in the United States. Soon after the massive tsunami of criticism hit him, he began to use Israel as a cover for his racism. Israel has now been inserted front and centre into the debate over his combined misogyny and white entitlement as Trump has tripled down on his attacks, but tried to shift the centre of gravity of his diatribe from his racially-charged comments to a defence of Israel.
According to Trump, the four members of “The Squad” are not only incapable “of loving our country,” but carry with them a visceral hatred of Israel. “They should apologize to America (and Israel) for the horrible (hateful) things they have said.” This pairing of the cover-up of his racism with a defence of Israel is not a one-off remark, but has quickly emerged as a central theme of his campaign for re-election.
Trump defended his 14 July remarks by claiming that the four congresswomen hate the United States, support terrorists, are communists, are destroying the Democratic Party, and, last but far from least, carry a deep loathing for Israel and characterized their views as both anti-Israel and antisemitic 11 different times in twitter attacks as well as at rallies. In reality, the four congresswomen have very different views of Israel, both from each other and certainly from Donald Trump’s characterization.
Tlaib, a Palestinian-American, is the most critical of Israel. She supports a one-state solution, a bi-national state in line with the views of a small minority of Jewish Zionists, such as Martin Buber, at the time the state was founded. More recently, the one-state solution has been generally deemed to be an impossibility as a bi-national solution and is adamantly rejected by Palestinians if the drift to a Jewish-dominated greater Israel emerges. However, a slight majority of Palestinians now agree with Tlaib and support a one-state solution based on an equality of both the Palestinian and Jewish nations.
In May, when Tlaib was interviewed about the creation of the state of Israel, she talked about her relatives who lost their jobs and their land at the time and added, “All of it was in the name of trying to create a safe haven for Jews, post the Holocaust, post the tragedy and horrific persecution of Jews across the world at that time.” She then made a second surprising point. “And I love the fact that it was my ancestors that provided that, right?” and that thought gave her a “calming feeling.”
Republicans juxtaposed the phrase “calming feeling” with Tlaib’s reference to the Holocaust, when there was no such connection in what she said. That inspired House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to ask GOP leaders to apologize for distorting what Tlaib said. However, Tlaib engaged in her own distortion. Only a small minority of Palestinians welcomed creating a “safe haven” for Jews during the Holocaust. The Palestinian political leadership openly, especially the grand mufti of Jerusalem, Mohammed Amin al-Husseini, cooperated with the Nazis.
Rep. Ilhan Omar, in contrast, in an op-ed in The Washington Post in March, urged both sides “to move toward a peaceful two-state solution. (my italics) Omar recognized that Israel has been the historical homeland of the Jewish people. “The founding of Israel 70 years ago was built on the Jewish people’s connection to their historical homeland, as well as the urgency of establishing a nation in the wake of the horror of the Holocaust and the centuries of anti-Semitic oppression leading up to it.” She added, however, that, “We must acknowledge that this is also the historical homeland of Palestinians. And without a state, the Palestinian people live in a state of permanent refugeehood and displacement. This, too, is a refugee crisis, and they, too, deserve freedom and dignity.” She has urged the U.S. to take, “A balanced, inclusive approach to the conflict,” one that “recognizes the shared desire for security and freedom of both peoples.”
President Donald Trump said almost the same thing last September when he expressed his support for a two-state solution. Ironically, he later said that he would endorse a one-state solution if it was agreed upon by both peoples. The difference is that Omar has vociferously supported the rights of Palestinians, opposed Israeli settlement policy in the West Bank and criticized the lobbying efforts of AIPAC. Trump in one of his tweets wrote that, “they (only Omar made this slip for which she later apologized) accuse people who support Israel as doing it for the Benjamin’s.” Omar had used this slang term for $100 bills to infer that US policy on Israel was in good part determined by Jewish political donations, a characterization that relied on a standard antisemitic trope of Jewish money deforming the democratic political process.
Trump repeatedly treats the four congresswomen as having a singular mind set on Israel and has accused them of talking “about Israel like they’re a bunch of thugs.” They “are anti-Israel” and “hate Israel.” However, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts is an open supporter of Israel. Yet he included her with those who “hate Israel with a true and unbridled passion.” This was well after The Times of Israel ran a story in November 2018 called, “How we got Ayanna Pressley Wrong on Israel.”
As a city councillor in Boston for 11 years, Pressley received strong support from the Jewish community there. She is an open supporter of Israel, backs a two-state solution and opposes BDS, though she opposes making BDS illegal on the basis of the First Amendment. “I steadfastly support a two-state solution that will safeguard Israel’s future as a Jewish and Democratic state, and establish a sovereign and independent Palestinian [state]. … We must avoid efforts to unilaterally blame and deny legitimacy to either side, and should instead work towards building a just solution that recognizes the trauma suffered by both populations.” Yet Pressley voted for the House of Representatives recent motion this July, that was passed by an overwhelming majority – 398 – 17. 16 Democrats voted against the resolution including Tlaib and Omar.
The motion opposed “efforts to target American companies that are engaged in commercial activities that are legal under United States law, and all efforts to delegitimize the State of Israel,” and accused the BDS movement of undermining “the possibility for a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by demanding concessions of one party alone and encouraging the Palestinians to reject negotiations in favor of international pressure.” The resolution also urged “Israelis and Palestinians to return to direct negotiations as the only way to achieve an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” and offered Israel increase.
This was in dramatic contrast to an amendment to an anti-BDS resolution two months earlier that was defeated 222-200. The amendment would have preventing firms that support the anti-Israel BDS movement from receiving tax subsidies as part of Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement Act intended to boost retirement savings. d security aid. Even before the vote, the resolution had been sponsored by 350 members from both parties to send a powerful message that the House of Representatives “explicitly rejects discrimination directed against the Jewish state through economic, cultural and political boycotts.”
Most disquieting, however, Trump has accused all four congresswomen of being “antisemitic”; they talk about “evil Jews,” he said. Omar once in 2012 tweeted about the “evil doings of Israel,” but that is very different than calling Jews evil. Moreover, Omar also apologized for that remark.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) has tweeted her support for Omar, not for her position on Israel, but for her right to criticize both Israel and American foreign policy in the Middle East. In response to criticisms of Omar by Rep. Vargas, AOC asked if he would explain whether “it’s unacceptable to even ‘question’ US foreign policy.”
AOC, though also critical of Israel, particularly its policies in dealing with Gaza, on a PBS Firing Line show in 2018, clearly and unequivocally stated that she supports a two-state solution. “I believe absolutely in Israel’s right to exist. I am a proponent of a two-state solution.” However, she also called the deaths of Gazans “a massacre” and added, “I hope my peers have the moral courage to call it such. No state or entity is absolved from the mass shooting of protesters. There is no justification. Palestinian people deserve basic human dignity, as anyone else. Democrats can’t be silent about this anymore.”
She defended her position by sometimes arguing that she was not intimately familiar with the details of the conflict – it was not exactly at her kitchen table as she grew up – and that she approached the issue as a humanitarian activist rather than as a Middle East policy wonk. That, however, was not a sufficient justification for Israel supporters who criticized Hamas for continuing to lob mortars and send incendiary devices into Israel.
It would appear that AOC bought into the Al-Jazeera line that the July 2018 activities on the border of Gaza and Israel were simply protests about “the right of return” rather than deliberately organized challenges to current Israeli policies, especially with regard to Gaza. In another controversy, in June AOC called U.S. detention facilities on the Mexico-U.S. border “concentration camps.” She refused to withdraw the phrase in the face of an understandable backlash that rejected the equation of the border facilities, however horrific, with concentration camps.
The bottom line, the four congresswomen have varied views of Israel and are critical to different degrees. None of them is antisemitic nor even anti-Israel per se, even Tlaib, who supports a one-state solution. Leaders around the world have been correctly revolted by Trump’s racism and even for his demand that the four women “apologize to the people of Israel for saying the US internment facilities for illegal immigrants were like ‘concentration camps’.”
With the help of Alex Zisman