It was Rep. Gregory Meeks who led an aborted push to ask the Biden administration Monday to delay a $735 million missile sale to Israel amid the ongoing war in Gaza. Rep. Mark Pocan organized the series of speeches on the House floor condemning Israel. And Rep. Betty McCollum drafted a landmark bill calling on the United States to restrict its military aid to Israel shortly before the current fighting began.
But it was two other Democrats — Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, the first two Muslim women elected to Congress — who have been held up as the most dangerous critics of Israel by many American supporters of the Jewish state.
AIPAC, the prominent pro-Israel group, spent roughly $2,000 on a series of Facebook advertisements this week attacking progressive Democrats. While one featured Pocan in a collage of five members of Congress, Tlaib, who represents the Detroit area, was at the center of that image. Another image singled out Omar, who is from Minnesota, and juxtaposed her with Hamas rockets shooting into the night sky.
“When Israel targets Hamas,” the ad read, “Rep. Omar calls it an ‘act of terrorism.’”
AIPAC now running ads with @IlhanMN’s face next to Hamas rockets.
If this isn’t blatant Islamophobia, I don’t know what is. pic.twitter.com/XSvCbpKsjJ— Jeremy Slevin (@jeremyslevin) May 18, 2021
Omar had, in fact, Tweeted on May 10 that “Israeli airstrikes killing civilians in Gaza is an act of terrorism.” But her office was quick to condemn the AIPAC advertisement — a spokesman called it “blatant Islamophobia.” AIPAC told the Forward in a statement that the ad was “completely fair and accurate.”
The spat, along with a photo of Tlaib addressing President Biden on an airport tarmac in Michigan that went viral and served as the centerpiece of the front page of The Washington Post Wednesday, was a reminder of the outsized attention the two women have drawn since their election in 2018 when it comes to the political conversation around Israel.
To supporters, the pair are trailblazing progressive icons who are not deterred by vitriolic attacks and attempts by more conservative Democrats to unseat them.
“While we’re always outraged at the attacks on Ilhan and Rashida, they have made the decision to risk their careers to take these positions regardless of the consequences,” said Linda Sarsour, a cofounder of the Women’s March and director of MPower Change, a progressive advocacy group for young Muslims.
Omar came under fire two years ago for saying on Twitter that Congressional support for Israel was “all about the Benjamins baby,” a reference to political donations that critics said invoked antisemitic tropes about Jews and money. Tlaib shared and then removed a tweet last year that said “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” a reference to a single state of Palestine in what is currently Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.
She and Omar are also the only two members of Congress who openly support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction movement targeting Israel (though Rep. Cori Bush of Missouri tweeted and then deleted support) and has leveled harsh criticism against Israel during the current conflict in Gaza.
Omar has described some of the Israeli airstrikes on Gaza as war crimes and accused some Israeli officials of practicing “ethnic cleansing.” Tlaib referred to Israel on Twitter as “apartheid, oppression, occupation” on Wednesday afternoon.
Those inflammatory comments have made Tlaib and Omar — along with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and, increasingly, Sen. Bernie Sanders — lightning rods for criticism from supporters of Israel and a target of conservatives who want to paint Democrats as hostile toward the Jewish state.
“These aren’t insignificant backbenchers who are speaking out,” said Matt Brooks, director of the Republican Jewish Coalition. “These are real players in the Democratic Party right now whose voices are listened to at the grassroots level.”
Omar and Tlaib’s offices did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.
Some on the left say that the level of backlash against Omar and Tlaib cannot be explained only by their rhetoric or policy differences from progressive colleagues, and blame it on their race, gender and religion.
“AIPAC and other Israel hawks have spent decades dehumanizing Palestinians, pushing Islamophobic propaganda, and trying to convince our community that criticism of Israeli policies from people of color is inherently dangerous and antisemitic,” said Morriah Kaplan, a spokesperson for the left-wing Jewish group IfNotNow.
Both IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace, which is closely allied with many pro-Palestinian groups, frequently defend Omar and Tlaib, and delivered challah to Omar’s office after the controversial “Benjamins” tweet.
The two congresswomen, who are part of the so-called Squad along with Ocasio-Cortez and a clutch of other young, left-wing Democrats, are connected to the progressive movement outside Congress to a greater extent than longtime liberal stalwarts like McCollum, who was elected to represent her St. Paul district in 2000.
Brent Sasley, who studies Israel and Jewish politics at the University of Texas Arlington, said the election of Omar and Tlaib was tied to a new kind of left-wing activism typified by the Women’s March and the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as the rise of leftist organizations within the Jewish community like IfNotNow that challenge the bipartisan consensus on U.S. support for Israel.
“They’re seen as a threat to that position,” Sasley said. “And then they’re both women of color and that’s seen as a threat and disruption of the way mainstream American politics have been done for so long.”
For Jews on the right and left, Reps. Omar and Tlaib are centerstage