As has happened often during his presidency, on July 14, Donald Trump hit the “tweet” button and a media storm erupted. The only difference was that this time the Jewish world was at the centre of that eruption.
In that tweet, the US President called four first-term Democratic members of Congress – who are among Trump’s most vocal opponents and are aligned with the Democratic Party’s far-left – traitors and told them to “go back where you came from.” (He said the next day that he disapproved of chants at rallies to “send them back”.) Trump then tweeted that they are Israel haters, antisemitic and demanded they apologise to Israel. He added: “They talk about Israel like they’re a bunch of thugs, not victims of the entire region.”
So what is the record of “The Squad”, as they have dubbed themselves, on Israel? Are these four individuals antisemitic? Should they heed Trump’s call to “apologise” to the people of Israel?
Following Trump’s tweet, the Democrat-controlled US House of Representatives passed a resolution “condemning President Trump’s racist comments directed at Members of Congress”. Despite three out of the four Members of Congress targeted by Trump being US-born, the President denied that he was being racist.
Whether the US President is racist or used racist terminology is not the focus of this analysis. Rather, the focus is upon Trump’s decision to bring Israel into his social media conflict with elected Democratic congresswomen Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley.
For its part, the Israeli Government has offered no official response to Trump’s outburst.
American Jewish leaders, however, have been outspoken. Jonathan Greenblatt, head of the Anti-Defamation League, wrote in an opinion piece that “politicising the widespread support for Israel and throwing around accusations of anti-Semitism is damaging to the security of Israel and the Jewish community”.
The Republican Jewish Coalition – a group trying to persuade more Jewish Americans to vote for the Republican party – released a statement saying they agreed with Republican Senator Lindsey Graham. Senator Graham echoed Trump’s accusation that the four “hate Israel… They’re antisemitic. They’re anti-American.”
Omar and Tlaib have both been regular, outspoken critics of Israel during their 18 months in Congress. They should not be confused with those on the political left who support Israel, while criticising the policies of the Netanyahu Government. The pair’s statements are radical and have at times appeared to reflect antisemitism.
Ocasio-Cortez has occasionally joined Omar and Tlaib’s Israel-bashing, and has also defended them from criticism of their more controversial comments. It is important to note though that Pressley is reported to have a good relationship with her constituent Jewish community in Boston, and has no significant record of extreme remarks about Israel or Jews.
In February this year, the most damaging of Omar’s comments attracted condemnation, not just from Trump, but from Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, the most senior Democratic Member of Congress. Omar was forced to backpedal.
The Minnesotan tweeted that support for Israel by US politicians was “all about the Benjamins”, a reference to US hundred dollar notes which feature a picture of Benjamin Franklin.
In doing so, Omar used her sizeable platform to spread one of the most nefarious antisemitic libels: that Jewish people use money to wield global power.
Pelosi said Omar’s “use of antisemitic tropes and prejudicial accusations about Israel’s supporters is deeply offensive” and condemned her comments. Omar apologised “unequivocally”, adding “my intention is never to offend my constituents or Jewish Americans as a whole”.
It was not a one-off though. She has used the same antisemitic tropes before.
Before her election to Congress for Minnesota’s 5th district , she tweeted “Israel has hypnotised the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.”
A key supporter of the Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment (BDS) movement against Israel, Omar introduced a bill to Congress defending Americans’ right to support the BDS movement just days after Trump attacked her so publicly.
Not only do the leaders of the BDS movement seek to eliminate Israel as a Jewish state, but Omar’s bill sought to equate boycotting Israel with historic movements in the United States to boycott Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany in the lead up to World War II, the USSR after its invasion of Afghanistan and apartheid-era South Africa.
StandWithUs CEO Roz Rothstein, a daughter of Holocaust survivors, has said, “These comparisons tarnish the legacy of historical movements for justice by associating them with a campaign of hate. It is sad that someone who has been a target of bigotry herself is promoting a global boycott aimed at ending Israel’s existence.”
In the end, an anti-BDS bill passed by a vote of 398-17 on July 23, with Ayanna Pressley voting in favour. It is unclear if Omar’s pro-BDS bill will ever be debated.
Omar’s pro-BDS resolution is co-sponsored by another Trump target: Tlaib.
The Representative for Michigan’s 13th District paid homage to her family’s heritage when she was sworn-in to Congress last year wearing the traditional Palestinian garment, the thobe. However, rather than using her voice to encourage Palestinians to negotiate their way to peace, security and their own state, Tlaib too is a committed supporter of BDS.
In the run up to her election, she reportedly told Jewish organisations that she was a supporter of a two-state peace. However, once endorsed as the Democratic candidate, she told a media outlet “It has to be one state … This whole idea of a two-state solution, it doesn’t work”. She also withdrew her previously stated support for American financial assistance to help Israel defend itself in a volatile region.
Research by the Israel Advocacy Movement has also shown that Tlaib counts among her friends and advisers people with close personal connections to Palestinian terrorists.
Turning to Ocasio-Cortez, in June the New York congresswoman repeatedly called American border detention facilities “concentration camps”, despite pleas by Holocaust memorial institutions, including Yad Vashem, to refrain from using that term.
As well as the obvious factual inaccuracy, Yad Vashem senior historian Robert Rozett implored Ocasio-Cortez: “As worthy of attention that this subject may be, it is important to recognise that the Holocaust is not necessarily an appropriate reference point for all human suffering.” Ocasio-Cortez has not backed down on her use of this terminology.
While not as frequently anti-Israel as Omar and Tlaib, Ocasio-Cortez called the death of Palestinians during the violent March of Return demonstrations last May a “massacre” and a “mass shooting of protesters”. Hamas’ own Ministry of Health claimed 50 of the 62 killed by the IDF during the clashes were members of terrorist groups.
Many American Jews are clearly conflicted by the Trump-“Squad” feud and the attempt to make Israel and Jews its focus. A survey by the American Jewish Committee of 1006 Jewish Americans in June found that nearly half consider themselves Democrats and nearly three-quarters disapprove of Trump, including his handling of US-Israel relations.
Yet Brookings Institution visiting fellow James Kirchick has noted that “a number of American Jews have become uncomfortable with their traditional political home” in the Democratic party thanks to anti-Israel radicals like Omar and Tlaib. Yet Trump’s call for the Congresswomen to go back to where they came from, echoes the damaging – and long-held – antisemitic accusation that Diaspora Jews are not loyal to the countries they live in, he added.
If there is any positive takeout from the sordid situation, perhaps Trump’s ham-fisted rhetorical campaign has at least shone some light on the radical and damaging views of Omar and Tlaib with regards to Israel and the wider Jewish world. While an apology to the Jewish state seems unnecessary, it is incumbent on US Democrats to steer clear of the two representatives’ extreme views on Israel, even while taking on Trump and his problematic rhetoric in this affair.