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What victories for BDS in Congress means for American Jews

It’s hard to know when the wave began, but there can be no doubt that it’s gaining strength. In a series of primaries across the nation, progressive challengers have succeeded in ousting incumbents in Democratic primaries. These incumbents have included some of the most pro-Israel stalwarts in government.

Their ouster suggests a much bigger story: American Jews are increasingly losing their voice in American politics.

Ari Hoffman | Artist: Noah Lubin

Ari Hoffman | Artist: Noah Lubin

The most recent political winners are some of Israel’s harshest critics. Cori Bush, who unseated William Lacey Clay, a fixture of politics in St. Louis, expressed a commitment to BDS on her website, before deleting the comment. Similarly committed is Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, a previous insurgent whose strident anti-Israel sentiment did not preclude Nancy Pelosi from endorsing her.

Tlaib trounced her primary opponent, as might Ilhan Omar, who has long embraced a brand of anti-Jewish rhetoric.

It is not so much that questions of Israel are central to why and how these candidates won. It’s that the Jewish communal voice on Israel has become so self-doubting and confused that it’s no longer worth listening to at all.

While efforts to spin these results as positive developments have predictably tried to argue that strident support for BDS has no relation to the well-being of American Jews, the opposite is true: These are defeats for American Jewry and should be treated as such.

Both Rep. Tlaib and her “Squad” colleague Rep. Omar have made dark insinuations about Jewish loyalty; Tlaib accused Israel’s advocates in the Senate of forgetting what country they represent, which many took as code for dual loyalty, and Omar has repeatedly dog whistled about Jewish money.

Their continued electoral success exposes quite the opposite of their infelicitous comments: a Jewish community with precious little ability to sway elections or inflict an electoral cost against candidates who make hay targeting Israel or even American Jews.

American Jews are not too strong a force in national politics; we are preposterously weak.

In asserting that support for BDS in the halls of Congress is neutral or even benign for American Jews, those who celebrate Tlaib’s and Bush’s victories overlook the truth that organizing politics against the Jewish State is often predicate and prelude to hostility to Jews closer to home. This has been true all over the world, from Soviet purges against Zionists to Iran’s hostage Jews forced to parrot the mullah’s anti-Israel provocations to malignant expressions of anti-Zionism on these shores. BDS is everywhere flirtatious with anti-Semitism. Its aspirations are eliminationist, and its popular expression often veers into outright Jew-hatred.

The reality is that the vast, vast majority of American Jews support Israel, and ideologues motivated by animus towards it will necessarily see those Jews, much of our community, as the enemy. All of this makes the inability of Jews to effectively make the case against them that much more glaring.

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Years of AIPAC conventions and Jewish organizing have failed to make hostility to the State’s existence a red line. It isn’t even a line in the sand. Speaking out against Israel doesn’t make you the latest victim of cancel culture; it makes you a U.S. congresswoman.

It’s true that there have been some victories for those Americans who refuse to choose between their pride in Israel and their support for a liberal direction in domestic politics. The nomination of Joe Biden gives the party’s reins to a pol with a long history of supporting the Jewish State, and the DNC’s convention platform reiterates that support with language that is a pleasant surprise after the revolt over pro-Israel language in 2016. The victory of Ritchie Torres in his primary in the Bronx is another bright spot. Each of these achievements is worth building on.

These latest returns indicate that American Jews might be staring down the prospect of long-range political homelessness. A choice between Ilhan Omar and Donald Trump should make all of us uneasy.

Neither right-wing populism nor left-wing woke politics offer a viable landing spot for the American Jew who feels that she should not have to amputate her Jewish dignity or moral compass when she heads into the ballot box.

To turn around their political luck Jews need to support candidates and causes that will aid us in rebuilding the center of the political spectrum, not pull us into the quicksand of extremism. The task goes beyond restoring true bi-partisan support for Israel, although that matters. Jews better than anyone know that a political system that starts to harbor anti-Semitism of whatever stripe is one that is flashing warning lights.

The elections of these past few days are just those lights. These results are not the end of the world. But they certainly indicate that at the moment, American Jews are not living in the best of all possible worlds.

Ari Hoffman is a contributing columnist at the Forward, where he writes about politics and culture. His writing has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Tablet Magazine, The New York Observer, Mosaic Magazine, The Jerusalem Post, The Times of Israel, and The Tel Aviv Review of Books. He holds a Ph.D. in English Literature from Harvard and a law degree from Stanford.

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