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Can the Republican Party finally win over minority voters?

17 March 2019

7:00 AM

17 March 2019

7:00 AM

 Washington, DC

Republican strategists have long complained about how, every election, the Democrats mobilise minority groups against them. Now they’re trying to turn the tables. Right-wing social media warriors, encouraged by @realDonaldTrump, have spent months talking about ‘Blexit’: a black voter exit from the Democratic party. This week, the President and others have begun calling for a ‘Jexodus’ — a Jewish exodus — too.

How Trump must delight in those clunky portmanteaus. He knows that, while black voters usually vote Democrat, they are not altogether anti-Trump. He also senses that Jewish voters, traditionally the most left–liberal people in America, are alarmed at a new Democrat tendency to bash Israel. Suddenly, left-wing anti-Semitism has become a talking point, much as it has in Britain. As with Jeremy Corbyn’s Jewish issue, it is hard to tell real prejudice, right-wing spin and hysteria apart. What’s certain is that this story will dominate the news in the months ahead.

At the centre of the controversy are two congresswomen elected in November: Ilhan Omar, from Minneapolis, and Rashida Tlaib, from Detroit — the first Muslim women in the House of Representatives. Omar is a Somali-American who wears colourful hijabs. In 2012, she tweeted that Israel had ‘hypnotised the world’. Then, last month, she wrote that Israeli influence in American foreign policy was ‘all about the Benjamins baby’. Benjamins is ghetto slang for dollars and Jews have a reputation for being rich.

That tweet prompted such outrage that Omar felt compelled to ‘unequivocally apologise’ — though a few days later she reiterated her concern about ‘the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push allegiance to a foreign country’. Many commentators claim Omar is guilty of pushing the hoary old ‘dual loyalties trope’ about the Jewish diaspora. She probably is.

Tlaib, the daughter of Palestinian immigrants, is another social media user who is angry at Jewish influence. After the Democratic presidential hopeful Kamala Harris posed with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, she tweeted: ‘Hoping you are still part of the resistance to racism against ALL people. This picture says otherwise.’ On Instagram, she has followed ‘free.palestine.1948’, which compares Jews to rats and suggests that Israelis carried out 9/11.

Tlaib and Omar’s anti-Semitic tendencies have been gleefully seized upon by their political opponents. Republican talking heads now frequently claim that, while Trump is the most pro-Jewish president ever, the Democrats have become a party which is anti-Israel, ‘our only ally in the region’.

Omar and Tlaib deserve a lot of the flak. Neither has said anything about the many millions of Benjamins that oil-rich Gulf states spend lobbying Washington. It’s also worth noting that both have successfully used the charge of ‘Islamophobia’ to deflect accusations of anti-Semitism. Last week, in response to the Omar furore, Congress took the unimaginative step of proposing a resolution to condemn anti-Semitism. But even that was deemed too edgy, and the Democrat–controlled House insisted the resolution be broadened into a still blander statement against ‘anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, racism, and other forms of bigotry’. To the surprise of absolutely no one, it passed with a huge majority. Isn’t democracy beautiful?

Such equivocation — denouncing all forms of intolerance so you don’t have to condemn one — suggests that the Democrats are now going through similar contortions to the Labour party’s in recent years. A radical and internationalist progressive movement, which identifies more with Arab causes than Israel, is taking charge of the established party. It holds democratic capitalism in contempt and sees Israel as an enemy of justice in the Middle East. Like Corbynistas, the new Democratic radicals are quick to distinguish between opposing Zionism (good) and hating Jews (bad). The distinction often becomes fuzzy.

There are big differences between the Democrats and Labour on this issue. For one, the Jewish vote in America is much more significant than in Britain. New York has the biggest Jewish population of any city in the world, Los Angeles comes third, San Francisco fifth and Chicago sixth. These are all profoundly Democratic metropolises, and bonds between Jews and the left are therefore more durable on this side of the Atlantic.

Barack Obama may have had a fractious relationship with Israel, but in 2012 almost 70 per cent of American Jews voted for him. In fact, for more than a hundred years, Jews have consistently backed Democratic candidates, usually by huge margins. Republican politicians know that, which is why their professions of love for Israel are more often about shoring up support from pro-Zionist Christian evangelicals than anything else.

Unlike today’s Labour leadership, the Democratic party elite remains fiercely loyal to Israel, even if the grassroots are not. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker, told a conference last year that ‘If this Capitol crumbled to the ground, the one thing that would remain would be our commitment to aid, I won’t even call it aid, our cooperation with Israel. That’s fundamental to who are.’ Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader, is himself Jewish and will later this month speak at the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee conference. We can expect a similar pledge of allegiance from him.

Yet as Team Trump now realises, the relationship between the Democrats and Israel is nowhere near as solid as Pelosi and Schumer insist. Several contenders for the party’s 2020 nomination have refused to condemn Omar. Bernie Sanders, the most popular declared candidate, who is also Jewish, suggested the attacks on her were a way of ‘stifling’ righteous criticism of the Israeli government.

On both sides of the Atlantic, the political left is becoming ever more antagonistic towards Israel. That attitude is increasingly mixed up in anti-Semitism. Even so, the more pundits and the political class decry the trend, the less people seem to care. As Corbyn knows, being denounced by the mainstream media can do wonders for a politician’s standing. Omar and Tlaib may be the new bêtes noires on Fox News, but they have gained a lot of supporters in recent weeks.

‘Jexodus’ may well be a Trumpist fantasy. But the friendship between the Democratic party and Israel is fast deteriorating.


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