Skip To Content

Support the Forward

Funded by readers like you DonateSubscribe
Back to Opinion

2020 Democratic Hopefuls Didn’t Abandon Israel. They Abandoned Jews

The American left has entered a period of overcorrection on Israel.

If for a while there was the impression that criticizing Israel would get you branded an anti-Semite, we have now officially entered the territory where saying anti-Semitic things will be sanctioned by the left as long as they relate, however circuitously, to Israel.

Nothing makes this clearer than the response from Democratic presidential hopefuls to Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s remarks that waded into anti-Semitic territory. In a series of tweets and comments, Omar evoked anti-Semitic conspiracies about Jewish money and dual loyalties (“It’s all about the Benjamins!” “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is O.K. for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country” and “I should not be expected to have allegiance/pledge support to a foreign country”), terrifying and infuriating American Jews. She also was subject to grossly Islamophobic attacks, including threats to her life (the FBI is investigating an assassination threat scrawled on a gas station bathroom).

In response to Omar’s words, House Democrats have been struggling to pass a resolution against anti-Semitism, coming up against progressives anxious to stay focused on fighting Republicans.

On Wednesday night, three Senators running for president in 2020 chimed in– Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren – all hitting the same notes in their statements.

All three refrained from calling Omar’s words anti-Semitic. All three insisted instead that one can criticize Israel without being anti-Semitic – though Omar’s comments weren’t about Israel at all.

“Anti-Semitism is a hateful and dangerous ideology which must be vigorously opposed in the United States and around the world,” Sanders said in a statement. “We must not, however, equate anti-Semitism with legitimate criticism of the right-wing, Netanyahu government in Israel. What I fear is going on in the House now is an effort to target Congresswoman Omar as a way of stifling that debate. That’s wrong.”

Warren’s statement made similar points. “We have a moral duty to combat hateful ideologies in our own country and around the world—and that includes both anti-Semitism and Islamophobia,” she wrote. “In a democracy, we can and should have an open, respectful debate about the Middle East that focuses on policy. Branding criticism of Israel as automatically anti-Semitic has a chilling effect on our public discourse and makes it harder to achieve a peaceful solution between Israelis and Palestinians. Threats of violence — like those made against Rep. Omar — are never acceptable.”

And Harris took things one step further, worrying that criticism of Omar was endangering her.

“We all have a responsibility to speak out against anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, racism, and all forms of hatred and bigotry, especially as we see a spike in hate crimes in America,” wrote Harris. “But like some of my colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus, I am concerned that the spotlight being put on Congresswoman Omar may put her at risk. We should be having a sound, respectful discussion about policy. You can both support Israel and be loyal to our country. I also believe there is a difference between criticism of policy or political leaders, and anti-Semitism. At the end of the day, we need a two-state solution and a commitment to peace, human rights, and democracy by all leaders in the region — and a commitment by our country to help achieve that.”

These statements were as shocking for their fecklessness as they were for their uniformity. None demanded any accountability from Omar. All misconstrued her words as being legitimate criticism of Israel, when what they actually did was misconstrue the U.S.-Israel relationship as filtered through American Jews in ways that evoked anti-Semitic canards.

All of these statements were clearly pandering to a progressive audience willing to overlook anti-Semitism from one of their own.

And what they reveal is not that the Democratic hopefuls have abandoned Israel; they are absolutely right that one can — and should! — criticize Israel without being anti-Semitic.

They have, however, abandoned Jews.

In accepting the far-left narrative that Omar’s words, which clearly utilized the grammar of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, were simply critical of Israel, Harris, Warren and Sanders were sending a clear message: We will whitewash anti-Semitism when it’s politically expedient, so long as it is tied, however tangentially, to Israel.

To see how limited these statements are, one need look no further than a true, brave critic of Israel who never strays into anti-Semitism: Betty McCollum.

Unlike Omar, whose attempts to bring justice to the Palestinians has been limited to tweets and offhanded remarks that offend Jews, McCollum has actually done her job, introducing legislation like the Promoting Human Rights by Ending Israeli Military Detention of Palestinian Children Act, which seeks to prevent the use of United States tax dollars for the Israeli military’s detention of Palestinian children.

And her statement about Omar reveals the same courage in her convictions:

“My Minnesota colleague, Rep. Ilhan Omar, believes she has spoken honestly and forcefully about an issue of importance to her,” wrote McCollum. “Many of my colleagues, especially my Jewish colleagues, interpreted her words as personal attacks and deeply offensive. The situation is dividing Democrats, which is exactly what the Republican minority and President Trump are seeking to achieve.”

She went on: “Rep. Omar has the right to speak freely, and she also must take responsibility for the effect her words have on her colleagues, her constituents, and the policies Democrats seek to advance. She has the power to remedy this situation with her colleagues and prevent it from happening again in the future. Democrats have an important agenda to advance and for any Member of Congress to be successful it takes the support of at least 217 colleagues to pass a bill. No one does this job alone.”

McCollum shows that it’s possible to criticize Israel without being labeled an anti-Semite, and that it’s possible to have a no-tolerance policy for hate or injustice whether it’s perpetrated against or by Jews.

While it’s great to see Democrats running for office willing to criticize Israel for its disastrous treatment of the Palestinians, they should find the moral courage to stand up to the progressive left, especially when it comes to anti-Semitism.

It’s not Israel they are abandoning with this overcorrection; it’s their own Jewish constituents.

I spent much of this year arguing the 2020 will not be about Israel. It wont. But it just might be about Jews. And that’s so much worse.

Batya Ungar-Sargon is the opinion editor of the Forward.


Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.