Israel lobby faces off with Palestinian rights movement in Ilhan Omar primary

The Democratic race for Minnesota's Fifth Congressional District has become the latest proxy war over the future of U.S. policy toward Israel.

U.S. Congresswoman Ilhan Omar speaking with supporters of U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders at a campaign office in Las Vegas, Nevada. February 9, 2020. (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)
U.S. Congresswoman Ilhan Omar speaking with supporters of U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders at a campaign office in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

The reputation of Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar as an unabashed critic of Israel and supporter of Palestinian rights, along with her other leftist political positions, has earned her great admiration from American progressives. But that reputation has fueled a serious primary challenge that will, two years after her emergence onto the U.S. national stage, come to a head on August 11, the date of the Democratic primary for Minnesota’s Fifth Congressional District.

Omar’s challenger, 47-year-old lawyer and mediator Antone Melton-Meaux, has harshly attacked Omar for her record on Israel during the congressional race. His stances have earned him the support of Israel lobby groups, which have raised over $500,000 for his candidacy, making up 20 percent of Melton-Meaux’s total campaign haul.

With hawkish Israel advocates lining up behind Melton-Meaux and the Palestinian rights movement going all in to support Omar, the race for Minnesota’s Fifth Congressional District has turned into a proxy war over the battle to shape U.S. policy toward Israel.

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It did not take long for Omar to become a top target for the U.S. Israel lobby. In November 2018, days after winning a resounding victory in her district’s  general election, Omar’s campaign told the youth-focused publication MuslimGirl of her qualified support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which targets Israel over its human rights abuses against Palestinians. In doing so, Omar became the first Congressional member-elect to publicly back BDS.

Weeks after her inauguration in February 2019, Omar, who is also among the first Muslim-American women elected to Congress, sparked controversy with a series of Twitter posts that blamed the Israel lobby’s campaign donations for Congress’ stances on the Jewish state.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the AIPAC Conference in Washington DC, on March 6, 2018. (Haim Zach/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the AIPAC Conference in Washington DC, on March 6, 2018. (Haim Zach/GPO)

The following month, Omar again weighed in on Israel, saying she wants “to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is okay to push for allegiance to a foreign country,” a veiled reference to Israel and its supporters in Washington. A vast number of Congressional members issued reactions against the statement, with both the Republican and Democratic leaderships condemning her remarks as antisemitic.

Due in large part to those remarks, Omar has been locked in an expensive, bitterly-fought primary race. Minnesota’s Fifth District is heavily Democratic, so whoever wins the primary is all but assured to win in the November general election.

The August 11 primary is thus one of the last chances for hawkish Israel advocates to make a mark this campaign season.

While Israel lobby groups have helped to successfully defend a number of Democratic incumbents, they have also lost some high-profile allies, include New York Congressman Eliot Engel, who was defeated by progressive Jamaal Bowman last month; and St. Louis Congressman Lacy Clay, who was defeated by Black Lives Matter activist Cori Bush last week. Rashida Tlaib, the first Palestinian-American woman elected to Congress, also held on to her seat as she easily defeated Brenda Jones, the Detroit City Council president, in the race to represent Michigan’s 13th District.

An Omar victory would further bolster the rising power of the Palestinian rights movement, which in recent years has increasingly flexed its muscles in American electoral politics. A loss, though, would mark a high-profile victory for the pro-Israel lobby — and the defeat of one of the Palestinian rights movement’s top allies in Congress.

Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib speak at an event hosted by CAIR-Minnesota in Minneapolis, August 19, 2019. (Brad Sigal/Flickr)
Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib speak at an event hosted by CAIR-Minnesota in Minneapolis, August 19, 2019. (Brad Sigal/Flickr)

For now, Omar’s campaign is projecting confidence that she will win, releasing an internal poll last month that showed her in the lead by 37 points. She has won high-profile endorsements from Minnesota political figures like Keith Ellison, the state’s attorney general, and from national progressive icons like Senator Bernie Sanders.

“She is an anti-occupation champion,” said Arianna Feldman, a member of the Minneapolis-Saint Paul chapter of the progressive Jewish group IfNotNow, which endorsed Omar’s re-election campaign last week. “I’m excited to be in partnership with her, to not only support her in the anti-occupation work that she’s doing but also in the fight against white nationalism and antisemitism.”

Omar’s record on Israel-Palestine goes well beyond the controversies that most Americans know her for. 

In her two years in Congress, she has co-sponsored fellow Minnesota Rep. Betty McCollum’s landmark bill to ban Israel from using U.S. military aid in the detention of Palestinian children; used her perch as a House Foreign Affairs Committee member to criticize a Congressional effort to condemn the BDS movement; authored a first-of-its-kind resolution that affirmed Americans’ constitutional right to boycott for social justice, in a rebuke of federal efforts to punish BDS advocates; and, after being banned from Israel over her BDS support, criticized Israel’s occupation and broached the idea of cutting U.S. aid to the country.

“We give Israel more than $3 [billion] in aid every year. This is predicated on them being an important ally in the region and the only democracy in the Middle East,” Omar said at an August press conference following the Israeli government’s decision to deny her entry to the country. “But denying a visit to duly elected members of Congress is not consistent with being an ally, and denying millions of people freedom of movement or expression or self-determination is not consistent with being a democracy.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyhau delivers a speech against the Iran nuclear deal to the U.S. Congress, Washington DC, May 20, 2015. (GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech against the Iran nuclear deal to the U.S. Congress, Washington DC, May 20, 2015. (GPO)

Rasha Mubarak, a Palestinian-American activist and political strategist, told +972 that Omar and colleagues like Rashida Tlaib have voiced new perspectives on U.S. foreign policy not typically heard in Washington.

“In Congress, [they’ve created] a new far left and injected a consistency in the struggle for liberation for all people that’s inclusive of Palestinian rights,” said Mubarak. “[Omar] has shaken up the way people talk about Palestine in Congress, and she has exposed a lot of truth about oppressive forces here within the States and outside the States.”

Melton-Meaux, her primary opponent, has decidedly different views on Israel-Palestine. He frequently speaks about the importance of the U.S.-Israel alliance, opposes BDS, supports U.S. military aid to Israel, opposes conditions on that aid, and believes the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem should stay where it is. Melton-Meaux has also repeatedly criticized Omar’s statements on the power of the Israel lobby, calling her divisive and saying she has hurt her district’s Jewish community.

“He’s such a mensch. This is someone we want to represent us. He’s thoughtful, he’s nice, he has good values,” said Ben Chouake, the president of NORPAC, an Israel lobby group that has bundled over $100,000 in donations for Melton-Meaux.

Chouake admitted that Omar will be tough to beat because of her national profile, but says she deserves to be booted from Congress because “she’s a bad person. She’s for BDS, which is antisemitic. Everybody knows it. Her foreign relations policy is Israel, Israel, Israel.” (In fact, Omar speaks out on a wide variety of foreign policy issues, from the Saudi war in Yemen to U.S. military operations in Africa).

Activists with IfNotNow protest in Rep. Engel's office, Washington D.C., November 20, 2019. (Courtesy of IfNotNow)
Activists with IfNotNow protest in Rep. Engel’s office, Washington D.C., November 20, 2019. (Courtesy of IfNotNow)

But Beth Miller, the government affairs manager for Jewish Voice for Peace Action, the first national Jewish group to endorse Omar’s re-election, argues that the scrutiny Israel lobby groups have subjected Omar to is rooted in Islamophobia.

“The trend we see is when progressive women of color like Ilhan Omar speak out for Palestinian rights and speak out about the fact that lobbies do play a role in politics, they get attacked as antisemitic,” said Miller.

Miller and JVP Action are confident, though, that the persistent attacks on Omar will not lead to her defeat. As Omar’s primary drew closer, they raised funds for her campaign and held events with her to drum up excitement for her re-election.

Miller says Israel advocates’ attacks on candidates like Omar are falling short, proving that the Democratic base is ready to support Palestinian human rights.

“The tired old Democratic establishment and Republican talking points don’t land anymore,” she told +972. “Palestinian rights is a winning issue.”