Stop Alleging Anti-Semitism Just to Score Political Points

The conversation about Israel has become a toxic partisan firefight, bereft of insight or vision.

Ilhan Omar
Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

There’s little doubt that Israel is shaping up to be one of the hottest of hot-button issues in the 2020 presidential-election cycle. While one might hope that a presidential campaign could feature a productive discussion about policy toward a region vital to U.S. interests, what we’re likely to have instead is a toxic political firefight, rife with partisan attacks and recrimination, bereft of insight or vision.

Republicans are already attacking critics of Israeli government policy as “anti-Israel,” or even “anti-Semitic.” They have set out to drive a wedge between the progressive and more centrist wings of the Democratic Party, focusing in particular on people of color, women, and, most cynically, the two newly elected Muslim women in Congress.

The first order of business in the Republican-controlled Senate was taking up legislation to suppress the free-speech rights of pro-Palestinian activists and extend U.S. legal protection to Israeli settlements in the occupied territories.

When many senators—including almost every declared Democratic 2020 presidential candidate in the chamber—objected to the legislation on First Amendment grounds, Republicans such as Senator Marco Rubio accused them of secretly supporting the problematic Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, which does not recognize the right of the Jewish people to a state.

On the far left, vocal advocates for Palestinian rights cast the issue in winner-take-all terms as well, too often failing to recognize that the Jewish people have their own right to self-determination and their own history of pain and suffering. While these activists justly denounce Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories beyond the Green Line, they don’t often acknowledge the toll the conflict has taken on Israelis—and they haven’t shown a willingness to call to account extremists on the Palestinian side, such as Hamas.

This week’s furor over Representative Ilhan Omar’s tweets highlighted the unhealthy state of the discourse. Omar engaged in an exchange on Twitter, singling out financial contributions from a prominent pro-Israel group as the explanation for American policy when it comes to Israel. While money plays a significant and detrimental role in many areas of our politics, including pro-Israel politics, Omar’s comments evoked disturbing anti-Semitic tropes about Jews, money, and power.

The tweets played into the hands of those looking to enforce limits on criticism of Israel—allowing House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who has justly faced criticism for his own tweet evoking anti-Semitic tropes, to try to claim the moral high ground.

A healthy national debate over Israel and Palestine should welcome a wide variety of views and perspectives, and it should be possible to criticize Israeli actions without being dismissed as an anti-Semite, or to promote American support of Israel without being accused of buying influence. When the debate descends into an exchange of charges of anti-Semitism, you can be sure we’re not teeing up a reasoned discussion about the shape of American policy.

Being afforded the space for criticism brings with it an obligation on the part of the critics to think about the impact of their words—and tweets. And critics of the critics should be called to task when their rhetoric crosses the line to Islamophobia and racism.

Sadly, the noisy political firefight means there’s little chance of having the discussion that’s actually needed about how to end the nearly century-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Getting this right means reversing a political dynamic that rewards political grandstanding and devalues those who stand up for a future in which Israelis have security and recognition and Palestinians have freedom and self-determination.

The United States won’t play a productive and necessary diplomatic role so long as its political leaders would rather score political points than work to bring about that better future.

The majority of Americans support a two-state solution, recognize the humanity of both peoples, and reject the absurd idea that one side or the other bears sole responsibility for the conflict. Instead of debating who’s the bigger bigot, the 2020 candidates should explain how the United States will be both pro-Israel and pro-Palestine by helping the two peoples find a way out of their tragic and deteriorating conflict.