Why attempts to unseat ‘the squad’ are likely to fail

The Israel Lobby is getting weaker on the community level and it no longer commands the same electoral power it used to.

The ''squad''
Congress women Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Ayanna Pressley respond to remarks by President Donald Trump at a press conference in Washington [File: AP/J Scott Applewhite]

During the recent set of Democratic Presidential debates in Detroit, a national Jewish publication sent its reporter to the city to learn the views of local Jewish community leaders on President Donald Trump, the progressive wing in the Democratic Party and the nation’s evolving perceptions of Israel. The reporter met key figures from the community in a roundtable discussion. What he found out was eye-opening.

There was consensus among participants, who were all either campaigners for the Democratic Party or Democratic-leaning, that Democratic Detroit Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, who is the Detroit-born daughter of Palestinian immigrants and one of just two House members who back the boycott of Israel, must be defeated at all costs.

“We in this community will go against Rashida Tlaib,” Lisa Lis, identified as a philanthropist and contributor to Democratic candidates, was quoted as saying. Other participants agreed, telling the reporter that they had already reached out to Brenda Jones, the Detroit City Council president whom Tlaib defeated in last year’s primary, and who is considering another run. The participants also revealed that “pro-Israel folks were already socking away money to target Tlaib.”

But that was not even the most alarming part of the conversation. A “pro-Israel lay leader” who wanted to remain anonymous, accused Tlaib, and the three other progressive Democratic Congresswomen of colour that make up the quartet known as “the squad”, of relying on racial identity politics instead of policy just like Trump. For the squad, the lay leader said, “[Who] the weaker one is and the darker one is” determines who is “in the right”. An “anti-intellectual” posture that “bodes ill for Jews and Israel”, he added.

From this damning portrait, we can deduce that the wealthy elite of some Jewish communities across the United States are frightened about the rise of progressive candidates like Tlaib because they break the mould of the traditional Democratic Congressional candidate. They are not beholden to the Israel Lobby and its donors, so they do not need to check with AIPAC before they make public statements about Israel and Palestine. They are emboldened.

They can, as Tlaib and Congresswoman Ilhan Omar plan to do, conduct their own congressional tour of Palestine, bypassing entirely the traditional, quasi-mandatory AIPAC-sponsored trip to Israel. They can, as Tlaib and Omar have done, endorse the BDS movement. They can, as Tlaib has done, even endorse a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and defy a funder like the lobby group J Street, which withdrew its support after she did so.

Jewish-American leaders could react to this new breed of Democratic representatives in one of two ways: They could seek common ground with the rebellious candidates and agree to disagree on subjects like Israel, but collaborate on the many domestic issues where there is consensus, or they could declare an all-out war and seek their removal from Congress.

As the report on Detroit illustrates, some Jewish community leaders who are pro-Israel have clearly chosen the second option. In the past, with their support, the Israel Lobby was able to easily unseat senators or House members they believed were anathema to their agenda. But times are changing and such an approach is likely to fail this time.

The four members of the squad, Tlaib, Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, may have struggled more than their mainstream counterparts to win their first race for Congress, but they are struggling no longer. Each has developed a national base through a surge of media coverage, in addition to the support they derive from their own local communities.

Even if the pro-Israel forces could oust Tlaib in the next election, doing so would do more harm than good to the Jewish community, as it would generate furore among the popular congresswoman’s grassroots supporters.

Taking a stance against Tlaib because of her views on Israel would put Detroit’s Jewish community at odds with the city’s other minority groups at a time when solidarity is most essential. Historically, Jews have worked to generate alliances with like-minded ethnic groups. Burning all bridges with groups that could help them topple the Trump administration would harm not only American Jews themselves but all minority groups in the country.

Despite the supreme confidence of Detroit’s Jewish leaders that they can unseat Tlaib, there is evidence of an increasing weakness on the part of the national Israel Lobby in pursuing its pro-Israel objectives. In addition to the rise of insurgent progressive Congressional candidates willing to buck the system, earlier this month a major player on the national pro-Israel scene, The Israel Project (TIP), met its demise.

The group, founded in 2002, was one of the most vocal and muscular in pro-Israel advocacy in Washington, DC. It sought to drive a pro-Israel media agenda by planting pro-Israel stories and combating anti-Israel reporting. Its most recent leader, Josh Block, who resigned in June, got his start at AIPAC and was known for his take-no-prisoners approach.

TIP was initially extremely successful in achieving its goals, but in the last few years it stumbled badly amidst the increasing polarisation in US politics, and the actions of Israel’s far-right Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also contributed to this process.

TIP relied on donations from both Democratic and Republican donors to survive. However, when Netanyahu made his hostility towards the Obama administration clear, Democratic donors to the organisation started to gradually disappear. And when TIP and other pro-Israel groups launched a full-force media attack to destroy then-President Barack Obama‘s signature foreign policy achievement, the Iran nuclear deal, the alienation of Democrats was exacerbated. And after two years of the Trump presidency and his strident, extremist approach to Israel, race relations and white supremacy, even some Republican donors faded away. That sealed the NGO’s fate. It closed its doors for good last week.

While it is too early to tell whether the fall of TIP is a harbinger of things to come, it is clear that it failed to read the changing mood in the Democratic Party and the US. Whether this pattern will repeat itself in places like Detroit, and lead to the fall from grace of Jewish groups and individuals who put the interests of Israel above the progressive agenda, remains to be seen. But it is a distinct possibility.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.