American Jews have long found their natural home within the Democratic Party. The Zionist sentiments of Theodore Herzl, the triumph of Israeli forces under the leadership of David Ben-Gurion, and the institution of the Israeli kibbutzim, shared living spaces that embodied the communal spirit of the young nation, mirrored the ethos of American Jewry and the Democratic left in numerous ways: the vision of a shared national destiny, reinforced by a common Jewish heritage; sensitivity and rectification of socioeconomic disparities; and a robust social safety net to ensure the nation’s survival for posterity. These links fortified Jewish loyalties to the New Deal Coalition of the Democratic Party and gave way to mutual understandings, with President Harry Truman becoming the first world leader to recognize the new state (only eleven minutes after her founding). From 1948 on, Jews voted for Democratic contenders for president in droves, the only exception being a single-digit victory for Jimmy Carter over Ronald Reagan in 1980 in the midst of the Middle Eastern oil and Iran crises.
The Republican Party on the other hand, stereotypically rooted in notions of white Anglo-Saxon elitism and extreme political isolationism, appeared to scorn the American-Jewish population and the prospect of a Jewish state for years to come. To many on the right, Israel in its socialist upbringings served as an outpost for Soviet influence in the Middle East to such an extent that during the Suez Crisis of the late 1950s, President Dwight Eisenhower’s response to Israeli fears of Arab insurgency was lukewarm at best. “Tricky Dick” Nixon was notoriously anti-semitic and evasive of Jewish media figures. Even Ronald Reagan, exalted as the epitome of American conservatism, never once visited the state of Israel as president. The most pivotal formal moments of reconciliation between Israel and her Arab neighbors, the Camp David and Oslo Accords, both occurred under Democratic administrations.
Republicans Switch Positions
The paradigm was jolted as America began to transition to the post-Cold War Era by a contingency perhaps even more fervently loyal to the state of Israel than American Jews: southern Evangelicals. Galvanized by the sexual revolution, 1960s hippie counterculture, and the ruling of Roe v. Wade, throughout the late twentieth century, they attempted to reconstruct a more pious and less frivolous mainstream American culture that venerated traditional Judeo-Christian ethics.
At its core was a deep respect for the nexus of the Jewish and Christian canons, “Eretz Yisrael,” the Jewish state, with the city of Jerusalem at its core. The likes of Jerry Falwell and Billy Graham infused this ideology, traditionally associated with Southern Democrats, into the platform of the Republican Party. Presidents George W. Bush and Donald Trump bolstered the recognition of a strong and effectual Israel into Republican orthodoxy.
Israel’s Newfound Neoliberalism
Increasingly favorable attitudes from both parties towards the state of Israel accompanied a worldwide transition from protectionism to globalism and internationalism and the advent of mass-produced, widely-available technologies as a result. Thatcherism and Blairism propelled Great Britain onto this course, as did Boris Yeltsin’s shock therapy of the newly-formed Russian Federation.
Israel followed suit particularly in the 1990s, where Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, and Benjamin Netanyahu in his first non-consecutive term oversaw the construction of multilateral alliances, greater intellectual output from the country’s top-tier universities such as the Technion and Hebrew University, and the swift relocation of the nation’s scientific and economic hub to Tel Aviv, allowing Israel to establish its footing on the world stage.
In its transition too from socialism to neoliberalism, the Democratic Party continually touted Israel as a haven of equality, innovation, and social progress in a region fraught with adversity. Republicans progressively championed the state as a beacon of capitalism and economic diversification, in stark opposition to its neighbors, who grappled with the resource curse of excessive oil. These are qualities characterized by Israel’s record of economic prowess and military success against all odds.
Today’s Progressive Skepticism of Israel
In recent years, the country’s rapid and bipartisan march toward economic internationalism has left a void in the American left for the traditionally populist and economically leftist crowds who resent the political consensus that pushed through NAFTA and the Iraq War. While much of the right and mainstream left have come to embrace pro-Israel causes that have resulted in greater military, scientific, and technological inventions and capabilities, some on the distant left have formed a new block entrenched in vehement opposition to Israel’s successes, underpinned by Western values, and supposed infringement upon the rights of Palestinians and her Arab neighbors.
Enter the so-called “Squad” of American politics, a group of four young female progressives who rode the anti-Trumpist “blue wave” in the 2018 midterms and secured congressional representation in four deeply urban and blue seats. Of them, New York City Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has become the de facto spokeswoman and Rep. Ayanna Pressley has essentially governed in line with her fellow Massachusetts Democrats. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who succeeded John Conyers following his resignation from his urban Detroit seat, has sparked numerous controversies for her haste to impeach Donald Trump and booing of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at a Bernie Sanders campaign rally in early 2020.
But Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minneapolis has earned the ire of the mainstream American pro-Israel coalition for her demonization and delegitimization of the Jewish state. Her assertion that it’s “all about the Benjamins” for the American pro-Israel lobby invoked anti-semitic tropes used commonly in Nazi Germany and Tsarist Russia to conflate Jews with financial greed. Critics of hers cite these hurtful and visceral comments, as well as her absenteeism from her district the paucity of earmarks passed for her constituents, as grounds for an electoral challenge. Several Republicans, including MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell and Lacy Johnson have expressed interest in running against Omar. But given her district’s insurmountably blue partisan lean, any viable challenge must come from within her party.
Characteristics of MN-05
Minnesota’s 5th congressional district is located entirely within Hennepin County, Minnesota, encompassing Minneapolis proper and the immediate western suburbs of St. Louis Park, Robbinsdale, Brooklyn Center, and Hilltop. Its partisan voter index of D+26 places it as the most Democratic district in Minnesota. The inner city of Minneapolis is far more progressive than its peripheral areas, which have succumbed to national suburban trends.
The 3rd district, comprised of Minneapolis’s wealthy, college-educated western suburbs that shifted around eight points towards Hillary Clinton from Barack Obama in 2012, helped flip control of the US House of Representatives to Democrats by electing center-left Dean Phillips over incumbent moderate Republican Erik Paulsen. The 2nd, which covers suburban Dakota County south of Minneapolis, concurrently witnessed Democrat Angie Craig beat incumbent representative and former conservative talk-show host Jason Lewis. Phillips and Craig have distinguished themselves as reliable pro-Israel voices in Congress. The Democratic brand of the 5th district, however, is far more leftist, in large part due to its ethno-religious characteristics.
The 5th is the most demographically diverse district in the state, as just under 2/3rds of its residents are white. Its political identity is heavily shaped by its prominent minority groups; around 10% is Hispanic/Latino, and at 6%, the Asian community is small but increasing, particularly in the district’s more wealthy areas. Yet the most influential demographic in this district, and by far the most instrumental in selecting representatives, is the district’s African-American population, specifically Somali-Americans. Minneapolis is home to the largest number of Somali immigrants of any metropolis in the United States. While the vast majority lean strongly to the left like their white counterparts in the district, they are distinct in their deep Sunni Islamic faith.
The vibrant Somali community of Minneapolis and Minnesota’s 5th have transformed the metropolis into the core of Somali-American cuisine, arts, and tradition. They have lived under uninterrupted Democratic representation for more than fifty years, but in recent years have elected candidates who fully reflect their distinct cultural identity. Keith Ellison was elected to this seat in 2006 as the first Muslim-American congressman. In light of Ellison’s successful bid for Minnesota Attorney General twelve years later, Somali-American Muslim Ilhan Omar was easily elected to replace his seat. Any primary challenger who wishes to be successful must fully embody some or all of these characteristics.
Who Can Win This District?
The ethnic and religious demography of the district require that its representative be diverse and unabashedly progressive, though anti-semitic or anti-Zionist tendencies need not mixed into the fold. Anti-Israel sentiment is neither inherent nor necessary in this urban district, where severe economic woes and divisive national rhetoric surrounding marginalized religious groups are enough to mobilize the voters to seek justice and change. Primary challenger Antone Melton-Meaux touts his credentials as a lifelong progressive, pragmatist, proud resident, and strong advocate for economic and infrastructural development. A challenge to Ilhan Omar is an uphill battle, as is any primary campaign against an incumbent, but Omar is hardly entrenched, has experienced a sour relationship with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and is believed by many from both sides to value cheap rhetoric over results.
The district’s high voter turnout compared to other comparable American urban areas means that a campaign centered on direct outreach to the city’s vast Muslim community, a promise to uphold bread-and-butter constituent needs over national infamy, and unbridled progressivism could gain enough momentum to give Rep. Omar a scare and encourage her to become more attentive to the needs of those whom she serves, regardless of result. Any effort to change the current narrative would restore confidence among American Jewry that all their leaders, no matter their background or intent, will govern on behalf of their values.