New House Democrats seen as lightning rods on Israel debate

Four lawmakers presented themselves on social media as a collective – a “#dreamteam” – of progressive women preparing to shake up Washington.

November 18, 2018 05:06
2 minute read.
Muslim Democratic congressional candidate Ilhan Omar calls Israel ‘apartheid regime’, July 10, 2018.

Muslim Democratic congressional candidate Ilhan Omar calls Israel ‘apartheid regime’, July 10, 2018.. (photo credit: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/LORIE SHAULL)


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WASHINGTON – A “squad” of four freshmen congresswomen has attracted national attention for its youth, diversity and symbolism of women’s empowerment. But it also represents a challenge to longstanding support for Israel within the Democratic Party.

As Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan took their first tour of Capitol Hill since winning their seats, they wasted no time challenging conventional norms, partaking in sit-ins in their party leader’s office and distancing themselves from delicate campaign language on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

These four lawmakers present themselves on social media as a collective – a “#dreamteam” – of progressive women preparing to shake up Washington. And policy on Israel is one of many issues that unite them.

They have each characterized Israel as an oppressive government, disproportionate in power to Palestinians in need of voices in Congress. But throughout the 2018 campaign, all four declined to endorse the BDS movement.
That began to change this week.

Omar, a Muslim American born in Somalia, whose family fled the civil war there, told a website through her campaign that she “believes in and supports the BDS movement, and has fought to make sure people’s right to support it isn’t criminalized.” She had campaigned in favor of a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians and characterized the boycott movement of Israel as unhelpful to that pursuit, but has also attacked the state harshly, once tweeting that “Israel has hypnotized the world” and is engaged in “evil doings.”

Whether Omar will lead the rest of her squad to this position remains to be seen. While Pressley campaigned on a promise to oppose US military aid to Israel that would be used for “the detention and mistreatment of Palestinian children,” she declined when pressed to take a definitive stance on BDS. And the same was true of Ocasio-Cortez, perhaps the group’s most prominent figure, who throughout the campaign suffered through a series of press interviews challenging her knowledge of the conflict.

Only Tlaib, a Palestinian American, indicated support for BDS during the campaign. She vacillated on her support for a two-state solution and lost her endorsement from J Street, a liberal organization that advocates for Israeli-Palestinian peace, in the process.

Omar, Tlaib, Pressley and Ocasio-Cortez join a faction of the Democratic House caucus that has already been itching for more aggressive legislation on Israel. Over the summer, a bill that focused on Palestinian human rights – and that suggested Israel was an oppressive actor – gained 28 cosponsors from the Democratic bench, including Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, a leading intraparty opponent of California’s Nancy Pelosi, the leading candidate for House speaker.

And their Israel politics may impact the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries. Of all US senators considering a run for the party’s nomination – including Senators Kamala Harris of California, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York –  none have joined 57 of their colleagues across the partisan aisle to cosponsor the Israel Anti-Boycott Act.

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