Jewish community's most watched vote: Ilhan Omar


August 21, 2020

(JTA) — No matter what happens in Ilhan Omar’s primary today, one thing is clear: Some Jewish voters in Minnesota and across the country will be deeply disappointed.

Omar has the support of some local and progressive Jews who are excited about supporting a member of “The Squad,” a quartet of prominent progressive freshmen congresswomen that also includes Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib.

But Omar — who represents Minnesota’s 5th District, which includes Minneapolis — has repeatedly angered a large segment of the pro-Israel community and other Jewish voters with comments that critics say promote anti-Semitic tropes about American Jews and Jewish influence on politics.

Her challenger, Antone Melton-Meaux, describes himself as a pro-Israel progressive and has made Omar’s comments on Israel a key part of his campaign. He has drawn major support from national donors in recent months as a spate of high-profile congressional primary upsets have emboldened those who would like to see Omar serve only one term.

Polls have shown Omar with a commanding lead. An upset would demonstrate how damaging and divisive Omar’s Israel narrative has become — but an Omar victory would add another signal that supporting boycotts of Israel is not disqualifying for American politicians. She and Tlaib are the only members of Congress who openly support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel.

In multiple primaries this year, Israel advocates have poured resources into the campaigns of longtime Israel allies who ultimately lost. They included New York Rep. Eliot Engel, the head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Lacy Clay, a Missouri congressman whose challenger, Cori Bush, had expressed support for the BDS movement.

The dynamics of the Minnesota primary are different in that the challenger, not the incumbent, is seen as friendlier to Israel. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi endorsed Omar, meaning that anyone providing resources to her opponent would be working against the Democratic leadership, a potentially costly move.

Some Democratic and nonpartisan Israel advocacy groups have stayed quiet during the race. But Melton-Meaux’s campaign has attracted big-time backing in recent months: After raising approximately $400,000 between December and April — a respectable amount for a challenger taking on an incumbent in a House race — he raised $3.2 million between April and July, the Star Tribune reported. Omar raised slightly over $1 million in each of those periods.

Melton-Meaux donors included NORPAC and Pro-Israel America, two political action committees that tend to lean right on Israel policy. Those groups have been critical of Omar because of her comments about Israel. 

In 2012, before joining Congress, she tweeted that Israel “hypnotized the world.” As a new member of Congress, with the tweet under renewed scrutiny, she apologized.

But in February 2019, Omar responded to a tweet from Rep. Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican who had called for action to be taken over Omar’s past statements suggesting that Israel policy in Congress was driven by money. 

“It’s all about the Benjamins baby,” she wrote in a tweet that raised eyebrows.

Asked to clarify what she meant, Omar responded “AIPAC!”

AIPAC, or the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, is the largest pro-Israel lobby in the United States. Critics said that Omar was invoking two anti-Semitic tropes: again that Israel exerts too much political pressure on U.S. government, and that money was inherently involved in that pull. Many took her words to mean that Omar believed AIPAC pays American politicians to be pro-Israel.

The comments earned her national rebuke, including from many of her Democratic colleagues.

In a subsequent op-ed for The Washington Post, Omar defended her critiques of Israel as calling for a more “balanced” policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but she also called Israel the “historical homeland” of Jews.

But when she and Tlaib tried to visit Israel on a congressional trip, they were denied entry. A 2017 Israeli law entitles the state to deny entry to boycott Israel activists. It was the first time that the Jewish state refused to allow in members of Congress. 

Several people in Omar’s district have since said that the congresswoman began a dialogue with the Jewish community in the wake of the controversy but failed to see it through. Local Jews told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that they were not assured by a meeting she held with them about her 2012 tweet, before her AIPAC comments.

“She didn’t apologize for the tweet, she didn’t say she would take it down and she tried to put in in the context of the Gaza dispute, but it was unsatisfactory from our standpoint, from my standpoint, that she didn’t seem to recognize the seriousness of the trope,” State Sen. Ron Latz said.

Rhona Shwaid, a Minneapolis attorney and Melton-Meaux supporter who met with Omar and a group of local Jews following the AIPAC comments, echoed that sentiment.

“She was nice in the meeting and commented that ‘this is the beginning of a conversation,’” Shwaid told Jewish Insider. “But we never heard back from her, and after that she made additional comments that were questionable and some of her votes have been questionable.”

Avi Olitzky, a local rabbi who has met with Omar but is supporting Melton-Meaux, wrote in a JTA op-ed last month, “While I’ve been grateful for those conversations, it’s not enough. We need a representative in Congress who both hears and listens to us — someone who is willing to absorb our concerns and advocate for us in Congress.” 

Olitzky said later that he was “beyond dismayed” by an Omar mailer that called out three Jewish donors to Melton-Meaux’s campaign — and no one else.

Melton-Meaux, a mediation lawyer, has caught the eye of the Jewish community in other ways. Following law school, he earned a master’s degree in theology, Hebrew and preaching at the Union Theological Seminary, Jewish Insider reported. He also worked at a senior living center, The New Jewish Home in New York City, and delivered a d’var Torah at a 2012 Jewish Community Relations Council meeting in St. Paul.

Omar, who is Muslim, is the first Somali American in Congress and the first Black woman to represent Minnesota in the House. She has support from some in the local Jewish community, especially among progressives.

“I value the close relationship I have with leaders throughout the 5th District, including members of the Jewish community,” Omar told JTA in 2019. “I look forward to continuing a relationship based on open dialogue, mutual respect, and combating hatred and intolerance towards all persecuted communities.”


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