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Democrats’ hand-wringing over anti-Semitism vote reveals a party in flux

Why We Wrote This

House Democrats emerged from the 2018 election as the most diverse group of representatives in history. Now they are grappling with divisions in party ideology that could be growing pains – or a growing rift.

Andrew Harnik/AP
Comments by Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., about political influencers pushing ‘allegiance’ to Israel have sparked a House vote on anti-Semitism.

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The House is expected to vote this week on a resolution formally condemning anti-Semitism – the second vote to stem from comments by Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., in as many months.

But even as older House Democrats have sought to censure Representative Omar, younger members have defended her.

“[I]ncidents like these do beg the question: where are the resolutions against homophobic statements? For anti-blackness? For xenophobia? For a member saying he’ll ‘send Obama home to Kenya?’ ” Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez of New York tweeted.

The split over what constitutes anti-Semitism and how to deal with it is part of a broader struggle among Democrats as the party strives to present itself as the inclusive countermeasure to President Trump. Though 2018 made a case for focusing on nontraditional and minority voters, it’s also shown that a party trying to build on that approach could find itself rethinking a lot of difficult – and longstanding – issues.

Democrats “are trying to figure out who they are, who they represent,” says sociologist Deana Rohlinger. “These more mainstream politicians are increasingly coming under challenge from people who were outside the Beltway and wanting more of a voice.”

Even as they set their sights on opposing President Trump, Democrats are increasingly contending with ugly – and public – internal rifts that distract from the party’s chosen message and undercut its unity.

Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar last week criticized Israel’s political influence in the United States at a bookstore event, setting off a firestorm among top Jewish members of the House of Representatives, who say the remarks play into stereotypes about American Jews and “dual loyalty.”

Now the House is expected to vote on a resolution formally condemning anti-Semitism – the second such vote to stem from comments by Omar in as many months. In early February, the congresswoman tweeted that support for Israel was “all about the Benjamins.” (She has since apologized.)

But while senior House Democrats – such as Reps. Jerrold Nadler, Eliot Engel, and Nita Lowey, all of whom are Jewish – have sought to censure Ms. Omar, younger, more progressive members have defended her.

“It’s not my position to tell people how to feel, or that their hurt is invalid. But incidents like these do beg the question: where are the resolutions against homophobic statements? For anti-blackness? For xenophobia? For a member saying he’ll ‘send Obama home to Kenya?’ ” Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez of New York tweeted.

The split over what constitutes anti-Semitism and how to deal with it is part of a broader struggle among Democrats as the party strives to present itself as the inclusive, multicultural countermeasure to President Trump. Though the 2018 election made a case for focusing more directly on nontraditional and minority voters, it’s also shown that a party trying to build on that approach could find itself rethinking a lot of difficult – and often longstanding – issues.

Democrats “are trying to figure out who they are, who they represent,” says Deana Rohlinger, a sociologist at Florida State University who studies mass media and political participation. “These more mainstream politicians are increasingly coming under challenge from people who were outside the Beltway and wanting more of a voice.” 

The rift has become fodder for critics, taken attention away from the party’s agenda, and highlighted the uncertainty about what type of candidate has the best chance of defeating Trump in a general election.

Instead of focusing on the expected passage this week of H.R. 1 – the big package of bills laying out House Democrats’ legislative goals for the next two years – Speaker Nancy Pelosi has had to handle ideological conflict within her ranks. She and House majority leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland have had to delay the vote on the anti-Semitism resolution so they could add language around anti-Muslim bias to the draft.

Some Republicans have fanned the flames, recognizing the political benefits of a Democratic Party that seems less pro-Israel than it used to be. At a celebration of the GOP at West Virginia’s capitol last Friday, a poster surfaced that linked Omar’s election to fading memories of the 9/11 attacks. The National Republican Congressional Committee, the House Republicans’ campaign arm, has repeatedly called for Omar’s removal from the Foreign Affairs Committee.

The Republican Party, especially under Trump, doesn’t face the same kind of pressure to condemn every perceived racist or sexist comment its members make. A 2016 Pew Research Center survey found that 78 percent of Republicans say people these days are too easily offended. Only 37 percent of Democrats agree.

Indeed, the GOP only recently reprimanded Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, for asking why white supremacy was problematic, even though the congressman had been making racially charged remarks for years. Other Republican lawmakers have made what critics called anti-Semitic comments – like accusing billionaires with Jewish roots of buying elections – with much less blowback than Omar has faced.

None of these members have apologized specifically for their remarks. (Representative King, for instance, said only that he regretted “the heartburn that has poured forth” as a result of his comments.)

“There are a lot of Americans who don’t think we need to apologize” for anything, says Carah Ong Whaley, a political science professor at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. “This is a fault line, a division between the parties.”

On the 2020 campaign trail, divisions in party ideology have forced Democratic presidential candidates to seriously weigh their past positions and how to address them. A public reversal on a polarizing issue – as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York made in saying she “really regretted” her pro-gun position as a House representative – could help in the primaries. But it could turn off voters in more conservative areas in the general election, raising questions about such a candidate’s ability to beat Trump in states that are more purple than blue.

“There are some tensions there,” Professor Whaley says.

Yet some say this internal struggle is necessary if the Democratic Party is serious about embracing diversity. True inclusivity, they say, means dealing head-on with the inevitable conflicts that arise when people with different backgrounds and ideas come together under a single banner. At the same time, it calls for a sense of compassion from leaders and the public – and a recognition that it’s going to take some time for the party to come to terms with all the change it’s undergoing.

“In this political moment, leaders running for president are unable to ignore certain issues and topics,” says Alexandra Rojas, executive director of the political action committee Justice Democrats, which helped elect progressives like Ms. Ocasio-Cortez. “There has to be room for growth for people changing their positions. But we have to demand accountability, and we have to challenge their genuineness from people who are hopping on the bandwagon of progressive issues.”

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., co-chair of the Progressive Caucus, says that it’s important to call out discrimination wherever it occurs and that Omar may not always state her opinions in the best possible way. That doesn’t mean she – or anyone else – is not entitled to some space to learn to do better.

“Apology, graciousness, and the ability to recognize the hurt caused to people and a willingness to continue to grow – what better things could you ask of people?” Ms. Jayapal said in an interview last month. “We should acknowledge that.”

Editor’s note: The quote from Alexandra Rojas has been updated to reflect the fact that the interview took place before the House resolution.

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