Democrats are finally getting wise to Republicans' antisemitism smears


The leadership’s firm response to attacks on Rashida Tlaib stand in contrast to their equivocation over Ilhan Omar. Democrats must fight back against divide and conquer tactics.
Rashida Tlaib’s empathetic statements about the Holocaust and the Nakba were misrepresented by Republicans in a ‘desperate’ attempt to smear her, Nancy Pelosi said.
 Rashida Tlaib’s empathetic statements about the Holocaust and the Nakba were misrepresented by Republicans in a ‘desperate’ attempt to smear her, Nancy Pelosi said. Photograph: Shawn Thew/EPA
At first, it looked to be more of the same: another week, another rash of false accusations of antisemitism launched by Republicans against one of the two new Muslim-American congresswomen. This time it was Rashida Tlaib who found herself under attack for comments she made on a Yahoo News podcast. \
Tlaib had tried to speak about the interwoven tragedies of the Jewish and Palestinian people, of the Holocaust, and the Nakba (in Arabic, the catastrophe). Though perhaps in a manner less than ideal, Tlaib was attempting to broach a difficult subject—how the creation of a national home for Jews in the wake of the Holocaust also led to the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.


Predictably, Republicans pounced. Led by Liz Cheney and Lee Zeldin, a bevy of right-wing figures took Tlaib’s words out of context, twisting and manipulating them to portray them as antisemitic, contorting what was meant as a clear statement of empathy – a recognition of the shared experience of suffering – into something malicious.
But then something surprising happened. Instead of joining the Republicans in attacking their junior colleague, as they had in the case of Ilhan Omar in March, leading Democrats like Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer rallied behind Tlaib. “Republicans’ desperate attempts to smear @RepRashida & misrepresent her comments are outrageous,” Pelosi tweeted. “President @realDonaldTrump & House GOP should apologize to Rep. Tlaib & the American people for their gross misrepresentations.” “If you read Representative Tlaib’s comments, it is clear that President Trump and Congressional Republicans are taking them out of context,” Hoyer told The Hill. “They must stop, and they owe her an apology.”
Such defenses of Tlaib constitute a marked change in tone from just two months ago, when Omar’s comments about the pro-Israel lobby led to an intra-Democratic party squabble over a congressional resolution to condemn antisemitism. (After protests from within the party over the singling out of Omar, the resolution was broadened to a general condemnation of bigotry.) The Democratic party leadership, it seems, is just now beginning to learn that the Republicans intend to use baseless accusations of antisemitism as cudgel against outspoken left-wing Democrats, especially those who criticize Israel, and that this is part of the Republicans’ cynical attempt to peel Jews away from the Democratic party, a plan whose absurdity is perhaps best captured by the blinkered, Trump-endorsed “Jexodus” initiative.

Of course, seasoned establishment politicians such as Pelosi and Hoyer rarely make such dramatic pivots purely out of the goodness of their own hearts. They also appear to be feeling the pressure from the Democratic party’s activist base, which for the most part has vigorously defended Omar and Tlaib from both Republicans and centrist Democrats’ attacks.
Hoyer himself is facing a 2020 primary challenger from the left: McKayla Wilkes, a 28-year-old mother of two and supporter of Medicare for All, who criticized Hoyer for failing to condemn Israel’s killing of Palestinian civilians during the latest round of violence in Gaza. Even if Wilkes does not defeat Hoyer, her campaign has already made an impact. If there was any doubt, competition works.
But while statements like Pelosi and Hoyer’s are a good start, they are far from enough. The Democratic leadership must more assertively call attention to how the Republicans’ use of false accusations of antisemitism is meant to distract from the growing racist and antisemitic white nationalist tendencies within the Republican party.
Representatives Omar and Schakowsky set a powerful example of how to do this in a recent op-ed that charged President Trump with normalizing and emboldening white nationalism – through his rhetoric as well as his administration’s decision to shut down federal programs designed to combat right-wing extremism. More forcefully challenging the right’s weaponization of false antisemitism accusations will enable Democrats and their supporters to more effectively identify and combat real antisemitism whenever it rears its ugly head.
And not only that. For years, fear of accusations of antisemitism – and the backlash those accusations could spark – has prevented the Democrats from standing up to successive far-right Netanyahu governments in Israel and the pro-Israel lobby in the United States. (Though, of course, that is not the only reason; leading Democrats such as Pelosi and Hoyer never miss an Aipac conference, and they have been rewarded handsomely for their loyalty.) But this has put the Democratic leadership increasingly at odds with its base, most of whom are repulsed by the strong ties between Trump, Netanyahu, and other far-right leaders around the world, including those prone to antisemitic comments and gestures, such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro.

Moreover, most Democratic voters, and including the majority of Jewish Democrats, want to see their party more aggressively push for a just resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, even, or perhaps especially, if that means strongly criticizing Benjamin Netanyahu and his government. A recent poll released by JStreet, a liberal pro-Israel lobby, found that 69% of Democratic voters are less likely to support a candidate who says “the United States should continue financial and military aid to Israel without any restrictions, regardless of whether Israel expands settlements or annexes Palestinian territory.” Such a position, in practice an endorsement of making US aid to Israel conditional, is far to the left of what party leaders have long taken to be consensus.
Against an emboldened alliance of racist white nationalists and far-right, pro-Israel forces, the Democratic party leadership must change tact. Challenging the white nationalism on the rise within the Republican party, rejecting false accusations of antisemitism against left-wing politicians, and pressuring an Israeli government poised to annex the occupied West Bank are all integral parts of an agenda that can respond to the new political terrain.
To be sure, doing all of this at the same time will not be easy, and it will require Democratic leaders to demonstrate bravery and steadfastness that, for the most part, they have hitherto failed to show. But there is no other option. And if the Democratic party leaders fail to rise to the occasion, angry and energized primary voters will replace them with politicians who will.
The right is undergoing a process of extremization at breakneck speed—and not only around issues of race and foreign policy, but also gender equality, women’s rights, environmental justice, and more. The right’s strategy is one of divide and conquer—to sow tension and mistrust between various parts of the left-liberal coalition, between Jews and Muslims, working-class whites and African Americans.
The Republicans’ consistent use of outrageous, false accusations of antisemitism, especially against prominent women of color like representatives Omar and Tlaib, is a central part of that strategy. Fighting back against this as hard as possible this is not only what Democrats must do if they want to defeat Trump, the Republicans, and the surging white nationalist movement; it is the right thing to do, too.

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