U.S. Congress members should be warned that if they deviate from mainstream orthodoxy vis-à-vis Israel they will soon discover that they will be the target of accusations and sustained attacks.
Rep. Ilhan Omar learned this early in her first term in Congress. She was targeted with accusations of anti-Semitism because of her criticisms of Israel’s violations of Palestinian human rights and because of her support for the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
And Congress members who deviate from “the party line” should be prepared for party members to orchestrate challenges for their seat. As early as March 2019, several Minnesotan Democrats, including State Senator Ron Latz (DFL) and Steve Hunegs of the Jewish Community Relations Council, sought to find a challenger to Omar for this year’s DFL primary. Two African American legislators were approached as potential candidates, but neither “took the bait.”
Congressional history is replete with examples of members who have been condemned and have seen their legislative careers under threat and ended by pro-Israel groups because of their criticisms of Israel and their support of human rights for Palestinians.
Past legislators who suffered the ire of these groups are Earl Hilliard (first African American to represent Alabama since Reconstruction), Cynthia McKinney, and more recently, Keith Ellison and Betty McCollum.
In 2019, Rep. Omar’s mere presence as the first Somali American, former refugee, hijab-wearing Muslim, woman in Congress evoked some visceral levels of enmity—Islamophobia, racism, and xenophobia. It made her easy prey to the false narrative that she might be anti-Semitic.
GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy, who once called for Omar to be hanged for treason for an imagined offense, threatened censure of Omar and Rep. Rashida Talib of Michigan for speaking out against Israeli policies saying “it’s unacceptable in this country. Omar responded to his threats tweeting that McCarthy’s tactics are “all about the Benjamins, baby.”
Batya Ungar-Sargon, opinion editor for The Forward, entered the exchange, challenging Omar by questioning who she was referring to when saying that we are “paying American politicians to be pro-Israel,” and immediately accused Omar of tweeting an “anti-Semitic trope.”
Thus, the “anti-Semitic” accusation effectively took off. Surely unaware of the road she’d soon travel, Omar succinctly replied, “AIPAC!” And then the pile-on began with voices and actions from Democrats and Republicans alike.
Reminiscent of the McKinney saga, a political newcomer has become a leading challenger to unseat incumbent Rep. Omar. Antone Melton-Meaux’s pro-Israel stance has earned him endorsements by several prominent, establishment DFL Minnesotans and donations of nearly $500K. Ironically, Melton-Meaux criticized Omar’s source of donations saying most came from outside of the 5th District but very little of his has come from within the district.
On his website the challenger describes himself as “a progressive,” but he has not adopted the progressive Democratic policies of Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, or the cancellation of all student debt, policies which are at the core of Omar’s work in Congress.
The challenger’s policy perspectives under the broad topic “Global Affairs” are limited to the single focus and title, “Israel/Palestine.” Phrases like “Israel . . .a beacon of liberal democracy;” pop from the page. He expresses opposition to BDS but does not acknowledge the context and reason for this Palestinian-led, South African-inspired movement.
And in responding to the military occupation forced upon millions of Palestinians, Melton-Meaux speaks of easing “the pressure of occupation on Palestinians,” but never advocates for its end. Hence, here is a so-called “progressive” African American, who surely knows the history of American apartheid, if not lived it, but who condones policies that reinforce a second-class, subordinate, unequal existence for Palestinians.
For anyone who has paid attention to how politicians speak about Israel/Palestine in advancing legislation that favors Israel, it is clear that Omar’s challenger is repeating the talking points of pro-Israel lobbyists. Thus, it appears his willingness to promote a pro-Israel position has earned him a lucrative endorsement from pro-Israel America, which steers donations from its networks to candidates who adopt pro-Israel positions.
Oddly, Omar’s detractors have criticized her attention to foreign affairs and human rights, accusing her of neglecting her constituents. But Melton-Meaux’s position on Israel is the highlight of his campaign.
In interviews when he is asked what he plans to do differently for the neighborhoods that make up the 5th District, he never says what he plans to do nor does he articulate a program, not even in editorials that primarily castigate his opponent’s views on foreign policy. And while he is being promoted by some as an alternative, he has no real community or organizing experience that says he has spent time with people in the District to assess their needs.
Apparently, Melton-Meaux’s campaign serves as a warning to those who would dare support the rights of Palestinians.
Sanna Nimtz Towns is a two-time Fulbright Scholar and educator, who has worked in solidarity with Palestinians in their struggle for self-determination and freedom.