In a hyper-partisan, highly polarized red vs blue America, the politics of Israel and the Middle East in general have always been complicated. Rather than breaking down neatly along party lines, there are profound divisions within both Republican and Democratic ranks on issues relating to the U.S. role in the Middle East. We’ll discuss the intramural GOP fight at another time, but it’s beginning to look like the early action in next year’s election cycle will be in Democratic House primaries.
The great majority of Democrats in Congress are reliably pro-Israel. But the numbers of those who vote against the interests of the Jewish state are growing, and it appears that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has decided it’s time to push back harder. The Jewish Insider reported last week that AIPAC is escalating its efforts to take on Democratic incumbents who have stood against Israel, actively recruiting candidates to run against Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.).
In the past, AIPAC has given some support to challengers against anti-Israel officeholders, but has kept a relatively low profile to avoid becoming a target for progressive activists in those districts. But by telegraphing their intentions so early against Omar and Bowman, the pro-Israel group is making it clear that they are willing to be on the receiving end of attacks from the opposition if that’s what will be required to achieve their goals.
The opposition is more than happy to oblige. De facto “Squad” leader Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) sent out a fundraising appeal on Bowman’s behalf last week that featured the warning phrase, “AIPAC is at it again.” In the message, Ocasio-Cortez revisited some of the attacks she had leveled against AIPAC in the past and accused the organization of plans to “target progressive working-class candidates of color.”
This fight is going to get louder and nastier in the months ahead. The result will be an even sharper divide between the Democrats’ progressive base and establishment center over the Jewish state, at a time when the Biden administration has prioritized a possible security accord between the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel and as Democratic leaders try to prioritize party unity heading into next year’s elections.
Last year, AIPAC found itself in the crosshairs of many Democratic voters when its political action committee endorsed 37 Republicans who had voted against the certification of Joe Biden’s election. The organization’s leaders correctly pointed out that support for Israel is the only criterion for their endorsement and that the PAC supported roughly an equal number of candidates from both parties. Not surprisingly, an American Jewish community that votes heavily Democratic in most elections virulently expressed its unhappiness. But AIPAC’s job is to build relationships among Israel backers in both parties, and they stood their ground.
But making friends represents one type of political challenge—making enemies is another. To be fair, it’s not as if AIPAC went hunting for incumbents to target for defeat. The original “Squad” has now roughly tripled in size. Nine House members voted against a resolution last month stating that “the state of Israel is not a racist or apartheid state,” which is a fairly low bar for measuring anti-Israel sentiment. Several other members have signed on to a variety of other bills that financially or rhetorically target the Jewish state. As progressives within the Democratic caucus continue to gain strength, this challenge will almost certainly increase. AIPAC’s public pushback is designed not only to discourage current members from this type of behavior, but to warn others tempted to join their ranks that the political consequences of this brand of anti-Zionism would be severe.
Republicans have their own problems with their most ideologically extreme members, including a former president who has been soft-pedaling criticism of the Charlottesville rioters for several years. The ugly nationalism that oozes into bigotry and antisemitism on the far right is a growing threat. But American Jews are well-practiced and comfortable fighting against an ultra-conservative menace. Standing up to the far left is less instinctual, but just as necessary.
Originally published by the Jewish Journal.