For pro-Israel Democrats, the only thing that matters about 2020 is that former Vice President Joe Biden is at the top of the ticket. They have good reason to celebrate the fact that he is less hostile to the Jewish state than the alternatives Democrats could have chosen to be their presidential nominee. But they still have to be concerned about whether the ranks of the anti-Israel radicals in the party will be strengthened in the next Congress.
The real question about the party’s future rests not only on whether Clinton and Obama administration veterans still yearning to bash Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shift policy farther away from the nation’s support of Israel if Biden wins in November. Rather, it is whether the ranks of the radical “Squad” of far-left members of the House of Representatives will not only increase, but also acquire the clout to offset the influence of an aging party establishment.
Biden will almost certainly bring the United States back into the disastrous Iran nuclear deal if he wins, though he also opposes aid cuts to the Jewish state. Along with his chief foreign-policy spokesman Anthony Blinken, the nominee has sought to reassure Jewish voters that they are cut from a very different cloth than the elements in their party that have adopted toxic intersectional rhetoric and back the BDS movement. But even those who are most confident about that understand that younger Democrats and the party’s grassroots activists don’t share their desire to maintain close relations with Israel.
That’s why political insiders have been closely monitoring a series of Democratic House primaries.
The first ominous indication that a generational shift away from pro-Israel moderates is occurring came in a crucial primary in New York that ended the career of Rep. Eliot Engel. The 16-term veteran was not only a stalwart supporter of Israel, but also chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee and in position to blunt any effort of party radicals, like Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), to chip away at the Jewish state.
Jamaal Bowman, who was endorsed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), trounced Engel in his primary. Bowman, who says he wants to join AOC’s “Squad” of left-wingers in the House (assuming that it admits male members) doesn’t share the pro-BDS beliefs of two of the other members of that exclusive club—Omar and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.)—though he’s probably more in agreement with their beliefs than Engel’s.
Engel’s defeat opens up a competition among Democrats for the chairmanship of a key committee for supporters of Israel. Among the leading contenders, they are probably rooting for Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), who is next in line in seniority on the committee. Sherman is to the left of Engel, but still a mainstream Israel supporter. Still, it’s far from certain he will succeed as chairman. Two minority members, Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), have also declared their interest, and it would be foolish to bet against either in the current atmosphere in which race dominates all discussions.
Of those two, pro-Israel activists would prefer Meeks, who is a member of the Democratic leadership. They have good reason to worry about Castro, who opened his campaign for the spot by saying, “Our foreign affairs committee needs to catch up with where Democrats are in terms of foreign policy … too often Palestinian voices have been excluded.”
Still, some Democrats are hopeful that the ranks of “The Squad” will be thinned by primary challenges to both Omar and Tlaib.
Tlaib is the more vulnerable of the two, though the alternative is no bargain for Jewish voters. Tlaib, a Palestinian-American, advocates for Israel’s elimination and supports the anti-Semitic BDS movement. Her opponent—Detroit City Council member Brenda Jones—has ties to Nation of Islam leader and anti-Semitic hatemonger Louis Farrakhan, and may be just as hostile to Israel as Tlaib.
Omar is facing a challenge from Antone Melton-Meaux, who has raised millions from pro-Israel donors in an effort to defeat her. He is deeply critical of Israel’s government, though he opposes the BDS movement. While his fundraising shows just how desperate moderate Democrats are to knock off a House member who has engaged in anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist rhetoric, no one should count out Omar, who remains popular both among the younger contingent in Congress and at home, especially among the Somali community in Minnesota.
That’s not just because she’s as popular among Democratic activists as AOC in spite of making hateful statements that should have made her anathema among mainstream voters. The fact that the National Jewish Democratic Council is still dithering about whether or not to endorse her opponent with only two weeks before the primary shows that they probably think she’ll win. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who endorsed Omar this week, seems to share that conviction.
The last two years have shown that far from being ostracized, extremist anti-Semites like Omar and Tlaib are still considered Teflon rock stars by most Democrats. It’s also clear that they will gain more allies in the next Congress.
Is the possibility of a chair of the Foreign Relations Committee who’s more hostile to Israel, as well as more “Squad” members in the House, as important as what Biden will do? No. But it’s likely that the new generation of Democrats who are increasingly open to anti-Israel arguments will still have more of a say on foreign policy than the shrinking faction of centrists would like.
The applause from some veteran Democratic foreign-policy wonks, like Robert Malley and Ben Rhodes, to Peter Beinart’s recent anti-Zionist broadside in The New York Times shows that there is growing support for the positions embraced by Omar and Tlaib, even among those who may be running the State Department and the National Security Council if Biden wins.
It is not without reason that members of “The Squad” think they represent the future of the Democratic Party more than the veterans who are still supportive of Israel. What happens in November and the years that follow may show just how right they are—and how much of a disaster that will be for pro-Israel Democrats.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.