For Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), their timing couldn’t be any better. They are reveling in the victim status that they have achieved due to their confrontation with President Donald Trump, in which he said that the pair and the other two members of the far-left group nicknamed “the Squad” should “go back where they came from. Along with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who first coined the group’s name, and Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), they’ve become heroines of the anti-Trump “resistance” with even moderate colleagues, the mainstream media and much of the organized Jewish world defending them.
So now was the perfect time for them to seek passage of a measure that’s close to their hearts: a resolution defending the “right” of Americans to boycott to carry out boycotts “in pursuit of civil and human rights.” Though the resolution doesn’t say so explicitly, the point of the effort is to defend the BDS movement against legislative efforts to prohibit boycotts of Israel. The two BDS supporters have also brought along a highly influential supporter to co-sponsor their legislation: Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the 79-year-old icon of the civil-rights movement.
Yet while these two are making the most of their celebrity at a time when those attending Trump’s latest rally are yelling the troubling new call of “Send her back!” chants directed at Omar, this is exactly the moment when Democrats need to dump them. It may be hard for liberals to criticize Omar and Tlaib at a moment when Trump is assailing them. But if Democrats want to retain the moral high ground that they think they’ve won by opposing Trump’s barbs aimed at these four women, they need to correctly label Omar’s and Tlaib’s efforts as a vicious attempt to prop up an anti-Semitic movement.
The BDS movement has gained influential allies on the left with respect to legislation aimed at undermining their boycotting Israel. The ACLU and other liberal groups have joined with BDS advocates in claiming that these laws are violations of free speech. They’ve also received some support from Jewish groups like the left-wing lobby J Street, which regards the effort to combat BDS and other forms of anti-Semitism coming from progressives as a distraction from the campaign to wrongly blame right-wing Jew-hatred and violence on Trump.
Omar and Tlaib and other Israel-haters—and they have made it quite clear that’s the case—have also sought to position their cause as a natural successor to the movement to boycott apartheid-era South Africa. They see BDS as an intersectional cause that all supporters of civil rights should get behind. Lewis’s presence alongside the squad co-sponsoring the resolution illustrates a willingness of the political left to accept the notion that there is an analogy between efforts to combat racism and the Palestinian war on Israel, called intersectionality.
But there are two reasons that should cause Democrats not merely to reject this resolution, but to hold its sponsors accountable for a defense of hate.
The first is that BDS is not about supporting human rights. It’s about denying rights—to Jews. The goal of the BDS movement isn’t to criticize Israel’s government or to pressure it to adjust its borders to create a Palestinian state. It’s about eliminating the one Jewish state on the planet. It seeks to deny to Jews rights that no one would think of denying to any other people. It’s rooted in denial of Jewish history and faith, and though its direct object is economic warfare on Israel, its goal of the Jewish state’s elimination can only be achieved by a genocidal war.
The second is that the anti-BDS legislation that has been passed by 27 state legislatures, and which is being debated at the federal level, doesn’t restrict anyone’s free speech. Anti-BDS legislation wouldn’t stop anyone from publicly opposing Israel’s existence. But it does say that any entity that engages in discriminatory commercial activity cannot also do business with the U.S. government.
Boycotts of classes of individuals—in this case, the Jews of Israel, and by extension, their American Jewish supporters—is not protected speech. If that were so, the entire edifice of American civil-rights law would collapse. If it’s kosher to refuse to buy or sell products or to engage in academic or other exchange programs with Israel on the grounds that doing so is an expression of a political opinion, then by definition it would be just as legal to treat African-Americans, Hispanics, LGBT persons or any other minority or group in the same manner.
The irony here—and the dead giveaway that Omar and Tlaib’s purpose is anti-Semitic—is that the political left denies the right of anyone to boycott on the basis of race, religion, place of origin or sexual orientation. And yet, these two congresswomen think that the one exception to that rule is for Jews and their state. The fact that Omar compared boycotts of Israel to those organized against Nazi Germany is another tipoff that she isn’t a critic of Israel; she’s a brazen anti-Semite.
It is nothing short of astonishing that respected supporters of civil rights like Lewis would embrace such a cause. But that is a product of the distorted lens of American politics in 2019.
The test here for Democrats is not whether or not they oppose Trump’s taunts of the squad, or even if they think his pointing out that Omar and Tlaib are anti-Semitic doesn’t mitigate the egregious nature of his comments. But Trump being against someone doesn’t give them impunity to spread hate, even when they cloak their invective—as Omar and Tlaib have been doing—in the language of “human rights.”
Is it too much to ask Democrats not merely to oppose this pro-boycott resolution, but to confront and censure Omar and Tlaib for their anti-Semitism? Judging by the recent past, when the same House Democrats who unanimously censured Trump failed to call out Omar by name for her anti-Semitic statements, the odds aren’t good. But if Trump’s opponents want to pretend to be defenders of morality, then that’s exactly what they must do.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.