Here we go again… Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota is one of the most pro-Palestinian people ever to serve in Congress, so she has been challenged in the Democratic primary August 11 by a pro-Israel candidate, and the Israel lobby is pouring money into his campaign. Antone Melton-Meaux has raised $3.2 million to Omar’s under-$500,000 in the last quarter, and even the JTA says he “is drawing support from pro-Israel donors.” Or as JVP Action says today, Melton Meaux is “supported by anti-Palestinian groups.”
No doubt Omar ought to be able to make an issue of money coming in from outside the district that has an agenda. She did so with a mailer, first reported by Vice News, saying that Melton-Meaux is “in the pocket of Wall Street” and “in the pocket of the medical industry.” Again, classic riffs in a political campaign.
But the fact that the mailer mentioned three donors by name, John Gray, Seth Klarman, and Stanley Weinstein– and also added “Michael, a donor from Scarsdale, New York” — is today being held up as supposed evidence of Omar’s antisemitism. The three men identified by last name are all Jewish, Vice says in its headline; so Omar is feeding an antisemitic trope, the “claim that wealthy Jews use their money to control public policy.” Though how anyone would know that Jonathan Gray (his actual name) is Jewish without googling him beats me.
Though Vice also points out that Melton-Meaux himself raised the issue of money and foreign policy. He sent out an email responding to questions people have been asking him.
“Why do you have so much support from Jewish people/pro-Israel? … Will the money you’ve received from the Jewish community influence your policy decisions?”
No, I disagree with Netanyahu, Melton-Meaux answers that question.
Then Vice concedes that — yeah, that’s where Melton-Meaux is getting his money.
As Melton-Meaux acknowledges, it’s simply a fact that much if not most of his support is coming from national pro-Israel groups and Jewish donors.
NORPAC and Pro-Israel America, a pair of hawkish pro-Israel groups that back both Democrats and Republicans, have combined to bundle nearly a half-million dollars for Melton-Meaux.
So the Israel lobby is the driving force behind Melton-Meaux’s contributions. And god knows, he has sold Israel: early on in the campaign, his global affairs issues page contained just one issue, fulsome support for the Israel partnership as “vital” to US national security, and he repeatedly bashed BDS. (Now he’s expanded that page with the Americas and human rights). Yesterday he assured the Jewish community that he would never condition aid to Israel– unlike Omar.
But if Omar tries to bring it up, she gets smeared. Lesson, don’t try to make Israel a wedge issue in U.S. politics. That’s what the Israel lobby wants, no critical discussion of Israel.
The first response to all this is that the lobby is on its back foot. It poured money into the Eliot Engel-Jamaal Bowman race in New York June 23, because Engel, the chair of House Foreign Affairs and an AIPAC favorite, is a dean of Israel support in the Congress. Democratic Majority for Israel raised on the order of $2 million for Engel in the closing weeks; and Engel still lost, by a lopsided margin.
These young progressive candidates are reaching voters in spite of the money spent against them. The polling says that Omar is ahead of Melton-Meaux by double digits, so all the spending might backfire.
The next response is that pro-Palestinian politicians, be they only a handful, represent a giant threat to the Israel lobby, by legitimizing a critical discussion about Israel in the Democratic Party. It is one thing to say that the rank-and-file of the party supports the use of sanctions against Israeli expansionism, and is supportive of the BDS campaign for Palestinian human rights that Melton-Meaux is deadset against. The party leadership doesn’t want those ideas to filter up to the politicians. Ilhan Omar supports BDS, and has pushed legislation to counter anti-BDS measures. The party wants to marginalize her. As we reported, the Biden campaign was willing to put a lot of progressive issues on the table with the Sandersites — from green new deal to immigration to economic justice — but it refused to compromise on Israel.
This surely has a lot to do with donors. As I say ad nauseam, the traditional conventional wisdom is that 50 to 60 percent of Democratic campaign contributions come from Jews, and that in order to get that money candidates have to craft pro-Israel messages. Congressional campaigns all over the country go to AIPAC to get a policy statement before they even hire a campaign manager, Stephanie Schriock of Emily’s List told J Street.
In fact, Trump’s attacks on the Democratic Party as anti-Israel are part of what Rep. Elissa Slotkin of Michigan told a Jewish audience a year ago is an effort to “grab… our donors.”
The Democratic Party is also fighting for pro-Israel donors. A man mentioned in Omar’s mailer, Seth Klarman, used to give to Republicans but in the Trump era he gives to Democrats. Klarman is a “billionare” who “love[s] Israel”, according to the Times of Israel. Klarman is chairman of that newspaper, which reports:
Klarman’s interest in Israel appears to be fairly recent — but very strong. Sparked by his concerns about terrorism following the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington, DC, he visited the country and became convinced Israel was getting short shrift in the press. That led him to donate money to pro-Israel media monitoring groups like CAMERA and MEMRI, and culminated in 2012 with his founding of The Times of Israel online daily with former Jerusalem Post editor David Horovitz.
“As a longtime student of the history of anti-Semitism, I know that this blind hatred is never the fault of Jews,” he said at the time. “Moreover it is clear to me that anti-Zionism is simply the newest form of anti-Semitism. When the Jewish state is singled out above all others for criticism, such as it is at the United Nations, this is anti-Semitism.”
These days Klarman is giving millions of dollars to Democratic Party-aligned PACs (Pacronym, Unite the Country, Priorities USA). And just in April he gave over $800,000 to various Democratic Party arms.
No doubt Klarman’s money is one reason that the Democratic Party is laying down a hard line on Israel in its party platform. Biden wants to keep those millions flowing.
But again, if you want to talk about this, you’re engaging in an antisemitic trope.
Omar famously got caught up in this relentless circle of accusation in February 2019, soon after arriving on the Hill. Discussing the unanimity of pro-Israel voices in Congress on twitter, she said “It’s all about the Benjamins, baby” (quoting Puff Daddy in reference to $100 bills); and when pressed, said she was referring to AIPAC, the rightwing Israel lobby. Omar was slagged as antisemitic by Batya Ungar-Sargon of the Forward for suggesting that foreign policy was being influenced by Jewish money. When Ungar-Sargon has herself said that 95 percent of American Jews support Israel; all but equating Jewishness and Zionism. So you’re damned if you do or if you don’t.
We know where this debate goes from what happened to Jeremy Corbyn in the UK– a purge of pro-Palestinian voices, to the point that a Labourite shadow cabinet minister gets sacked for even suggesting that Israeli policing methods have been adopted by the Minneapolis police officers who killed George Floyd.
The Democratic Party is trying to do the same thing, purge pro-Palestinian voices in the party. This battle is sure to rage through November.
Thanks to James North, Dave Reed, and Adam Horowitz.