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Debate | Who is the future of the Democratic Party and what does it mean for Jews?

On Tuesday evening, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden announced his pick for vice president: California Senator Kamala Harris. While that was going on, Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar was in the process of winning her primary. The two women pose starkly different versions of the Democratic Party, especially when it comes to Israel. Harris is a pro-Israel stalwart, while Omar has endorsed the movement to boycott Israel.

We asked our two contributing columnists Joel Swanson and Ari Hoffman which of these politicians represents the future of the Democratic Party and what their victories mean for Jews?

JOEL SWANSON: Yesterday, a candidate won a primary election who has a long record of engaging in deadly anti-Semitic tropes. And no, I’m not talking about Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar’s convincing victory against Antone Melton-Meaux, though he outraised her by a substantial margin thanks to pro-Israel political action committees eager to unseat one of the very few vocal supporters of BDS in Congress.

Joel Swanson | Artist: Noah Lubin

Joel Swanson Image by Noah Lubin

I’m talking about Marjorie Taylor Greene, whose victory in a Republican primary in a deep-red Congressional district in Georgia virtually assures her a seat in Congress in November. Greene won her primary yesterday despite a long history of bigoted remarks, including endorsing the far-right QAnon conspiracy theory which the FBI itself calls a potential domestic terrorism threat, and saying that Muslims “do not belong in government.” Greene has engaged in overt anti-Semitism as well: she has accused the Rothschild family of running the QAnon conspiracy and called George Soros “the piece of crap that turned in – he’s a Jew – he turned in his own people over to the Nazis” – a repugnant slander against a Hungarian Jewish teenager doing what he needed to do to survive the Holocaust.

Now this anti-Semite will be a member of Congress.

So, why have we heard so much more from American Jewish organizations about Ilhan Omar than we have about Marjorie Taylor Greene?

The American Jewish Committee has repeatedly condemned Rep. Omar, but has said nothing whatsoever about Greene.

It’s surprising; after all, whatever you think of BDS, no Jews anywhere have died because of it. Meanwhile, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about Soros and Rothschild, like the ones spread by soon-to-be Representative Greene, have a body count, directly inspiring the Pittsburgh and Poway shooters. So why have Jewish organizations been so much more vocal about Omar?

I think it reflects the fact that we’ve so normalized far-right anti-Semitic tropes that a political candidate like Marjorie Taylor Greene hardly registers as notable. After all, conspiracy theories about George Soros, despite inspiring the deadliest violence against Jews in US history, are cited by politicians as mainstream as Rudy Giuliani and Donald Trump himself.

Meanwhile, Rep. Omar’s support for BDS is still an utter minority position in the Democratic Party, so much so that when the House of Representatives voted to condemn BDS last year, only 16 Democrats out of 232 in Congress voted against the resolution.

Omar stands out because she vocally defends Palestinian rights in a way that is completely rare in American politics, whereas someone like Marjorie Taylor Greene just fades into the background of the conspiratorial din of our times.

And that brings me to another important story yesterday. On the same day that Ilhan Omar won her primary election against a much better-funded challenger, Joe Biden chose California Senator Kamala Harris as his vice presidential running mate for November.

Senator Harris’s record on Israel is dramatically different from that of Rep. Omar. Harris has given well-received speeches to AIPAC in which she talked about raising money for the Jewish National Fund to plant trees in Israel. She’s to the right of even Barack Obama on support for Israel, as she co-sponsored a Senate resolution rebuking former President Obama for condemning Israel’s West Bank settlements.

At a time when Kamala Harris, a staunchly pro-Israel Democrat who defends the consensus of US military aid to Israel, is being elevated as a major new voice in the Democratic Party, maybe American Jews should not feel so threatened by the victory of one of the very few voices in Congress trying to challenge that consensus.

Maybe we should welcome Rep. Omar for opening a debate that someone like Kamala Harris would keep closed, by essentially agreeing with Republicans on Israel policy. And maybe our community organizations should have less to say about Ilhan Omar and more to say about the Marjorie Taylor Greenes of the world.

ARI HOFFMAN: Joel: you’ll find little disagreement here that the victory of people like Marjorie Greene indicate a body politic that is in less than tip top shape. The incursion of fringe and extremist ideologies into broad public discourse is truly one of the maladies of our age, and one of the long-term curses of an online and social media fueled culture with which we are only belatedly and ineffectively starting to reckon. QAnon in particular is a noxious force, and it is an utter disgrace, if utterly unsurprising, that Greene has earned Trump’s endorsement. When combined with other instances of anti-Semitism on the right during this primary season, and the persistence of the obsession with George Soros, it paints a picture of a dangerous flirtation with the habits of mind and sickness of spirit that always cash out in terms of blaming the Jews.

Ari Hoffman | Artist: Noah Lubin

Ari Hoffman Image by Noah Lubin

What is happening on the other side of the aisle is to my mind far more interesting, because it will take center stage in what increasingly looks like a post-Trump future. The selection of Kamala Harris to be Joe Biden’s VP nominee on the same day that Ilhan Omar won her primary against an opponent backed by the Democratic pro-Israel establishment is a clarifying moment in the battle for the future of the Party. This has been an ongoing storyline for those following along, from the Bernie ascendance to the wave of progressive upsets in the primary season.

It’s hard not to see the Biden-Harris ticket as something like both the triumph of centrist Democrats and their last stand. The next generation might pull the lever for Joe, but their hearts are not with the old man from Scranton.

But here’s the crux of the question: Which faction should Jewish Americans support? Here I firmly believe that our community needs to side with the moderates. The rise of the Omar and Tlaib wing has expressed itself in public statements that target Jewish influence and politics in a way that has been mercifully foreign to American politics in recent history, and their antagonism to Israel is existential rather than rooted in policy disagreement. The logic of BDS, of which progressive heroes like Omar, Tlaib and recently elected Cari Bush are all committed, is not only toxic in itself but will inevitably lead to a stance that sees American Jews who value Israel as an internal enemy.

It’s easy to scoff at the failed attempts to defeat this new wave, but the truth is that American Jews should be sobered by their political failure to dislodge politicians committed to ends that a vanishingly small number of Jews support.

America’s political parties are not static entities, and this is a moment when both are in moments of profound transition. I consider it fortunate that the presidential primary has led to a ticket where both candidates have stood with American Jews, and reflected their priorities and valued our voice.

To be sure, there have and will be moments of disagreement with both Biden and Harris. The notion that Biden and Harris are indistinguishable from Republicans when it comes to Israel is belied by very real divergences.
But what reassures me about them coming out on top is not the transcripts from their AIPAC appearances. It is the urgent need for American Jews to rebuild the center of our politics, a stretch of political terrain that encompasses the center-right, center-left, and center-center.

We need to lead this project because we have the most to lose from a politics that elevates Ilhan Omar and Marjorie Taylor Greene.

When politics are boring and balanced, Jews thrive. Not the worst slogan for Biden-Harris 2020.

JOEL: I bring up Marjorie Taylor Greene’s Congressional primary victory yesterday because I find the organized American Jewish community’s muted response to her candidacy, in comparison to their response to the candidacy of Ilhan Omar, quite telling. To take just two examples, the American Jewish Committee’s website shows that they have talked about Ilhan Omar in 19 press releases, and Marjorie Taylor Greene in zero. The Anti-Defamation League has issued 54 press statements about Ilhan Omar. About Marjorie Greene? Zero.

To be sure, some of this discrepancy might reflect the fact that Rep. Omar has been a public figure for a few years longer. But some of it no doubt reflects the priorities of the organizations that claim to represent American Jews, which for a variety of reasons that we could debate at length have been disproportionately focused on fighting BDS, at the expense of conspiratorial right-wing anti-Semitism.

So here is where I have to push back on your conflation of Ilhan Omar on the left and Marjorie Greene on the right as “dual sources of political extremism that threaten American Jews.” Rep. Omar can be accused of at worst speaking clumsily about the influence of pro-Israel donation money on the American political debate surrounding Israel. But the truth is, pro-Israel lobbying groups did devote a lot of money to defeat one of the few pro-BDS voices in Congress. Rep. Omar’s challenger, Antone Melton-Meaux, raised the second most money from Israel lobbying groups in the 2020 election cycle, behind only Rep. Eliot Engel, whose candidacy was also unsuccessful. And the failures of both of these well-funded efforts — to support one consistently pro-Israel incumbent and take another incumbent down — should cause some reflection in the community about where American Jewish priorities really lie.

Because the truth is, Marjorie Greene and Ilhan Omar are not equal threats to American Jews, and to conflate them is not helpful to our community as we move forward. For one, as the Anti-Defamation League has documented, the vast majority of extremist political violence in the United States today is committed by the sorts of far-right extremists who wade around in the fever swamps of QAnon, and not by BDS-supporting leftists. Out of 270 anti-Semitic incidents documented by the ADL in 2019, at least two-thirds were committed by the far-right. Marjorie Greene’s rhetoric has dealt in the sort of tropes that have inspired actual violence against American Jews, in a way that Ilhan Omar, whatever you think of her, simply has not.

And American Jews, whatever the organizations that claim to speak for us may think, perceive this difference clearly. Four in five of us consider the far-right to be a “very serious” or “moderately serious” threat to American Jewish lives, while only one-third of us think this about the far-left.

American Jews, on average, just don’t perceive BDS to be as much of a threat to our safety as some prominent voices believe, which is probably why we rank Israel-related issues near the bottom of our list of political priorities – twelfth out of fourteen – when we determine our votes.

Your point about Kamala Harris relates to one final important difference between Marjorie Greene and Ilhan Omar that makes me bristle at attempts to compare them as “twin sources of ideological extremism in America”: Whatever you think of Omar’s positions, the elevation of the stalwartly pro-Israel Kamala Harris as a major party leader shows that Omar’s ideas remain marginal within her political party, even if they’re becoming a bit more mainstream.

On the other side, in comparison, Donald Trump echoes the exact same rhetoric coming from Marjorie Greene.

So I ask again, on a day when Kamala Harris is the top political name dominating headlines, where should American Jewish priorities lie?

ARI: I understand your frustration about the sometimes muted response to new forms of ideological danger, and I think you’re right to partially attribute it to Omar’s longer turn on the political stage. But I think there is another reason as well: Anti-Israel politics has long been seen as a form of anti-Jewish politics, from its origins in the Soviet Union and the Arab world into its adoption by elements of the far-left. Organizations have a playbook to combat it, and its jump into something like the political mainstream set off alarm bells that are still ringing for many American Jews.

The alt-right, conspiracy fueled terrain that we are beginning to see penetrate our politics and inflict real world harm is newer, and we need to learn how to fight back effectively. The Jewish organizations you treat with skepticism have actually been at the forefront of fighting these trends, but they need to do more. My hunch is that few of our readers would doubt that white supremacy poses a deadly threat to American Jews, reflecting the numbers you’ve cited.

I am less interested in exactly quantifying the threat to Jews from the far-left as opposed to the far-right than in fighting both with vim and vigor. I want to keep Jews safe while they pray in shul, and I also want to prevent young Jews on campus from being drummed out because they support Israel. I worry about George Soros conspiracy theories, and stay up late at night noticing how anti-Zionism is increasingly setting the tone in progressive politics. As we have discussed before, I’m also inclined to believe that an anti-Zionist politics is bound to land in a place that is hostile to Jews, or else will force them to renounce an element of their Jewishness to gain entry. There is an ugly history of accepting Jews conditionally, and I worry about the litmus tests increasingly in vogue.

If the distance between Harris and Omar is greater than that between Greene and Trump, I think that is a good thing. Nobody should view the GOP under Trump as the model for what a modern political party should aspire to. There is work to be done rebuilding the Republican Party, and the future health of our political system will hinge on that reconstruction.

But it takes two to tango, and I think a Democratic Party committed to old school liberal values that keeps its woke energies at a healthy distance is one that can continue to provide a home for American Jews.

A moderate and vital center is our best shot to keep this whole show together. And yes, that means warding off danger from both right and left. Everything we know about anti-Semitism is that it is of every politics and no politics. It is its own politics, and I don’t see why that shouldn’t be true on these shores just as much as in faraway lands.

JOEL: Just briefly, I’ll begin by responding to what you say about Jews being “drummed out” of university campus spaces because they support Israel. There are, indeed, examples of that happening, and I’ve denounced them before and will continue to do so. But the truth is, most Jewish students feel entirely comfortable on university campuses in the US. A Stanford University study of Jewish students found that an overwhelming majority felt “comfortable on their campuses, and, more specifically, comfortable as Jews,” while Brandeis scholars find that “Jewish students do not think their campus is hostile to Jews.” Four in five Jewish university students do not feel that the criticism of Israel they hear on campus is anti-Semitic or blames them as American Jews for the actions of Israel.

A few legitimately bad instances aside, American Jews feel pretty safe and comfortable on campus, which is very far from the anxiety we feel about our place in the broader American culture writ large.

But as for your broader claim that anti-Zionism is setting the tone in progressive politics, I find that claim hard to square with the fact that the Democrats are running a Biden-Harris ticket in 2020, a ticket led by two politicians who, whatever you personally think of the merits of BDS, have consistently opposed it. You and I have debated at great length in the past the question of whether anti-Zionism is inherently anti-Semitic, or whether there are merits to certain anti-Zionist arguments that Jews can accept without renouncing our Jewish peoplehood, so I won’t rehash all of that debate right now. But separate from the normative question of anti-Zionism is the descriptive question of how much purchase it has in American politics, and there I think the answer is, very little.

The Democratic Party overwhelmingly opposes BDS, and the Democratic Party platform does not even call for an end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, let alone acknowledge an anti-Zionist argument against the idea of a Jewish state itself.

That’s why I think we have to be grateful to politicians like Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Cori Bush, for opening up a much-needed discussion of Palestinian rights that is rarely represented in American politics at all. There’s very little danger that an election cycle fought between a Biden-Harris and Trump-Pence ticket is going to ignore the interests of Israel. But there is a lot of danger that, when even the center-left presidential candidate is personally intervening to block his party’s platform from mentioning the occupation of the West Bank, Palestinian rights and Palestinian peoplehood will be ignored entirely.

We should be grateful to Ilhan Omar for representing a lone, minority voice against that possibility.

At a fundraiser on Sunday, Trump attacked the overwhelming majority of American Jews who vote Democratic: “Unfortunately there are Jews that don’t like Israel,” he said. This isn’t the first time Trump has engaged in this sort of rhetoric; last year he called American Jews who vote Democratic — which, remember, is three in four of us — “very disloyal to Israel.”

I think this is important to highlight, because it emphasizes an ideological threat which our community has not fully prepared to address: By emphasizing the supposed anti-Semitic threat posed by BDS supporters who accuse American Jews of being overly loyal to Israel, we’ve missed out on the fact that the president of the United States himself is accusing us of being dangerous for the opposite reason, for not being loyal enough to Israel, and thereby not fitting into President Trump’s ethnonationalist view of the world. As an ethnonationalist, Trump sees the United States as the country of white Christians, so he can understand Jews who prioritize the country of the Jewish people along the same lines. But the fact is, most American Jews don’t prioritize Israel in the voting booth. As a minority community that has faced tremendous persecution in our history, American Jews prioritize political pluralism and liberalism; there are more than twice as many self-identified Jewish liberals as conservatives in the US, which is roughly the reverse of the rest of the US population.

Our community’s prioritization of minority rights and pluralism makes us a unique threat to President Trump and everything he represents, which is why he would so much rather interpret “Jewish politics” as synonymous with “Israel politics.”

But they aren’t synonymous, and this is a moment for us to realize that.

ARI: To the extent that a Biden-Harris ticket reflects the values of American Jews, I think that is something to celebrate. But it is also something that has taken work, in front of the cameras and behind the scenes.

To a certain degree, I understand your frustration, and that of many American Jews, with organizations and institutions that seem detached from your concerns and anxieties. I have my own critiques of these organizations — who doesn’t? But Jews remain a tiny minority in America, and if we continue to find this country a congenial place to live and work, that takes work, not just critique. Our prosperity is more tentative than we know.

It also takes non-Jewish allies like Joe Biden to join the cause with us.

I’m also not sure about the Palestinian cause being ignored: Bernie Sanders centered that cause, and nearly won the nomination. Those of us who have moved in elite cultural and educational spaces would be hard-pressed to agree that Palestinians are somehow ignored. I just wish that speaking for Palestinian rights didn’t so frequently involve hostility to Jews.

No Jew should take President Trump as the arbiter of what it means to be a Jew, just as we should tune out efforts from the left to tell us that one cannot be both a “good” Jew and a Zionist. But I do think the comments you highlighted find their counterpoint in the Omar/Tlaib contention that Zionism is a sign of disloyalty.

Tlaib, Omar, and others have a right to their seats. But I refuse to pretend that how they use their platform is good for me, my community, or my vision for this country. It isn’t, and Jews should feel comfortable saying that. Even if we lose an election along the way.

Joel Swanson is a contributing columnist for the Forward and a Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago, studying modern Jewish intellectual history and the philosophy of religions. Find him on Twitter @jh_swanson.

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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