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What Congress members did on their summer vacation in Israel

A congressional trip provides evidence that pro-Israel Democrats aren’t yet an endangered species, though the coming year will test their influence.

Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives in Israel with President Reuven Rivlin (seated, at left) next to House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). Credit: Mark Neiman/GPO.
Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives in Israel with President Reuven Rivlin (seated, at left) next to House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). Credit: Mark Neiman/GPO.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Americans spend a lot of time complaining about Congress. They complain that nothing gets done, and they carp that its members spend too much time playing politics. But whether or not you think that they are a bunch of overpaid and underworked hacks, even members of the House and Senate are entitled to a little time off. And so every August, the political circus generally leaves Washington and heads elsewhere.

Where does everyone go? For a great many members of the House, the answer is Israel. And that speaks volumes about how, despite the problems faced by the pro-Israel community, the alliance between the United States and the Jewish state remains rock-solid.

This week, some 41 House Democrats led by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) were in the country demonstrating solidarity with the Jewish state. Another 31 Republicans led by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy are following them, with the two delegations holding a joint press conference at the beginning of next week. That means that approximately 16 percent of the House will spend part of their summer vacation in Israel, touring and, hopefully, learning a thing or two about the conflict, history, geography and culture of America’s sole democratic ally in the Middle East.

These trips are being sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation, which is affiliated by AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby. And given the numbers of participants, which is higher than in past years, it must be considered a vote of confidence in the U.S.-Israel alliance.

This is significant at a time when opposition to Israel from within the Democratic Party has gotten louder primarily due to the presence of two supporters of the anti-Semitic BDS movement in the House: Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.). Though it’s not clear if any of their colleagues will join them, the two are planning on leading their own trip to the region later this month, which is likely to be a propaganda triumph for Israel’s enemies, and unfortunately, will most likely get far more attention than the far larger mainstream Democrat and Republican delegations.

That’s a shame, but it’s also understandable. Members of Congress going to Israel to express support for the Jewish state is such a mainstream and ordinary thing that it isn’t considered newsworthy. By contrast, Omar’s and Tlaib’s efforts to trumpet the sentiments shared by a growing percentage of the left wing of the Democratic Party may not represent the views of most Americans, but does play into a narrative of intersectional hate against Israel that will factor into next year’s presidential election.

So while those who point to the enormous disparity between the numbers of members of Congress who spent their summer vacations expressing support for Israel and the few who will go there to trash it won’t be wrong, there’s still plenty of reason to worry about the future.

In the aftermath of last November’s election, concern about the possible influence of Omar and Tlaib, and fellow “Squad” member Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), seemed silly. The reins of power in the Democrat-controlled House would be in the hands of people who were strong supporters of Israel, like Hoyer and House Foreign Relations Affairs Committee chair Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.).

Yet as we’ve seen in the last several months, AOC, Omar and Tlaib have become political rock stars and the toast of the late-night television shows, as well as favored commentators on liberal media. They may be heavily outnumbered in the House on issues like BDS, but they’ve already shown their ability to face down and roll over Hoyer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, as when Omar escaped censure by the House over her very vocal anti-Semitic rhetoric.

As we head into 2020, the next stage of their battle with the party establishment is about to unfold. AOC gained her seat by knocking off Joe Crowley, a member of the House Democratic leadership. But next year, similar challenges by energetic left-wingers in the AOC mold will seek to hand the same fate to strong backers of Israel like Engel, House Judiciary Committee chair Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) and House Appropriations Committee chair Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), as well as others elsewhere in the country.

Moreover, the sympathy that Omar and Tlaib have gotten from their party’s grassroots—and the fact that President Donald Trump will be touting his historic support for Israel during next year’s campaign—may give an edge to those primary challenges. Even worse, should the Democrats ultimately nominate one of their more left-leaning presidential contenders, their party’s platform and the tenor of the campaign may wind up being highly critical of the Jewish state, which many on the left tend to think of as an overseas “red state” because of Trump’s popularity there.

That means that “the Squad” will have many more allies in 2021, and that the number of stalwart, pro-Israel Democratic veterans will shrink.

It should be remembered that Democrats won their House majority not because of the efforts of AOC, Omar and Tlaib, all of whom won safe Democratic seats, but by electing moderates in swing districts. A significant percentage of those members stand with Hoyer. And while AOC and her pals will be looking to use their celebrity status to help elect more radicals this year, moderate pro-Israel Democrats can and should seek to aid any primary challenges to them in 2020.

For now, Hoyer is right to boast that Democrats like him, who care about Israel, and who—contrary to the smears of some of his party’s presidential candidates—don’t think Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a “racist” vastly outnumber the opposition. But as long as the party’s grassroots are trending left and deeply influenced by false intersectional theories about Israel being a manifestation of “white privilege,” the influence of AOC, Omar and Tlaib is more likely to grow in the coming year than to shrink.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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