Israel/Palestine Looms Large Over Minnesota Primary

Originally published in Jewish Currents on July 17, 2020.
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REP. ILHAN OMAR, who represents Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District—which includes all of Minneapolis and some surrounding suburbs—is well-positioned to win re-election this year. She faces four challengers, but Minnesota Congressional incumbents virtually never lose, and she has the endorsement of the state’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) Party, support from other high-profile politicians like Attorney General Keith Ellison, and a prolific fundraising operation.

But despite her strong odds, Omar does have one challenger who is running a relatively viable campaign. Antone Melton-Meaux, a Black Minneapolis-based lawyer, was backed by nearly a third of the DFL’s delegates for the party’s endorsement, and raised a whopping $3.2 million between April and June, next to Omar’s $472,000 in the same period. A sizeable portion of Melton-Meaux’s money has come from national pro-Israel groups that have endorsed him: Pro-Israel America and NORPAC. As HuffPost first reported, those groups, which are also significant donors to Republican candidates, have bundled more than $450,000 for Melton-Meaux to date. Their fundraising comes just weeks after they poured money into New York’s 16th Congressional District primary, in an unsuccessful effort to save Rep. Eliot Engel’s seat from progressive challenger Jamaal Bowman.

In some ways pro-Israel groups’ investment in the Minnesota race is unsurprising, as Israel/Palestine has been a flashpoint throughout Omar’s time in office. Melton-Meaux is the only Congressional challenger endorsed by Pro-Israel America, which is backing 40 candidates this cycle. Executive Director Jeff Mendelsohn, who describes Pro-Israel America as “an online portal” with over 100,000 members, said it was easy to find donors willing to back Omar’s opponent. “Our members and people beyond our membership recognize her positions as dangerous and antithetical to the US–Israel relationship that they value,” he said.

Though Melton-Meaux has not made questions about Israel central to his messaging, they dovetail neatly with his campaign’s narrative that Omar hasn’t been “focused on the 5th.” He argues that her controversies on the national stage and her “divisiveness” have detracted from her ability to work for her constituents. In contrast, he highlights his background as a mediator. “I live in conflict, and I know how to understand that there are very deep-seated differences that people come into a situation or dispute with,” he said. “What is amazing to me is that even with those differences in mind, people can have honest conversations and you can create really powerful solutions that didn’t exist before.”

The search to find someone to primary Omar began almost immediately after she won her general election. “Literally when Congresswoman Omar won there were calls going around to other electeds—particularly Black and Indigenous and people of color—testing the waters, before she even had a record in Congress,” said Andrew Johnson, a Minneapolis City Councilmember who Omar used to work for. “There were a lot of people who were called and said no, and I’ve personally spoken to a number of them.”

In the spring of 2019 The Hill ran a story on these struggling recruitment efforts. By December Melton-Meaux had jumped into the race, though he denies being recruited by any group or person. “He has chosen to pursue this office because of a deep commitment to service and a concern with the current representation our district is receiving,” said campaign spokesperson Lee Hayes.

Some aspects of Melton-Meaux’s candidacy have resonated with Jewish audiences. Earlier coverage of the race from Jewish media outlets like Jewish Insider and The Forward has emphasized his knowledge of Hebrew, which he studied in college and divinity school, as well as his Jewish communal ties. These publications have also highlighted Melton-Meaux’s opposition to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. On his website, Melton-Meaux promises to “always oppose BDS,” though he insists he would not support anti-BDS laws that infringe on First Amendment rights. “I look at this from the perspective of a mediator, and BDS creates undue pressure on Israel, incredible barriers and headwinds,” he told me. “But I’m also a lawyer who believes in the Constitution, and I’m an African American man who has been protesting, and I will protect individuals’ right to protest.”

This is not wholly unlike how Omar has expressed her own position on BDS, at least at times. In August of 2018, when Omar was running for Congress, she was asked “exactly where [she] stand[s]” on BDS, and told a synagogue crowd she did not think the movement was “helpful” in getting to a two-state solution. It “stops the dialogue . . . I think the particular purpose for [BDS] is to make sure that there is pressure,” she said, “and I think that pressure really is counteractive.” But five days after winning her general election, Omar said she “believes in and supports the BDS movement, and has fought to make sure people’s right to support it isn’t criminalized.” Some Jewish constituents felt deceived. Omar, however, denied there was any discrepancy in her statements, maintaining that one can support a non-violent protest movement without believing in the efficacy of all of its goals or tactics.

Later on she would introduce a resolution, along with Reps. Rashida Tlaib and John Lewis, affirming the First Amendment right of Americans to participate in boycotts. In a speech that same day she reiterated her support for a two-state solution, and emphasized that while Americans must condemn those who use violence, “we cannot simultaneously say we want peace and then openly oppose peaceful means to hold our allies accountable.”

For some Jewish constituents, the difference between Omar’s and Melton-Meaux’s positions on this issue is decisive. “I agree with most of [Omar’s] policy positions, but as a Jew the BDS stuff hits too close to home,” said Barbara Bearman, an 85-year-old Jewish voter in Minneapolis who plans to vote for Melton-Meaux. “With all the antisemitism that’s rising worldwide, it’s frightening. I don’t like being a single-issue voter . . . but this is a single issue that frightens me.”

Perhaps the clearest policy difference between the two candidates on Israel/Palestine concerns conditioning military aid to Israel. Omar supports conditioning aid if Israel pursues annexation—a position shared by a small minority of progressive Democrats in Congress, including Bernie Sanders. Melton-Meaux says he too opposes annexation, but would not condition aid as a way to pressure Israel.

Some of Omar’s critics who now support Melton-Meaux are less concerned with the particularities of Omar’s policy stances than with her rhetoric around Israel and pro-Israel lobbying. In the first month of her term, an old tweet resurfaced in which Omar, responding to Israel’s November 2012 attack on Gaza, wrote that “Israel has hypnotized the world.” (Omar initially called the wording “unfortunate” and later acknowledged the language was “offensive.”) Shortly after this, when Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy accused Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaib of antisemitism, Omar tweeted that McCarthy’s attacks were “all about the Benjamins baby.” An editor at The Forward accused Omar of tweeting an antisemitic trope and asked who she was alleging to have paid politicians to be pro-Israel. Omar quickly responded, “AIPAC!”

Omar’s tweets roiled Washington. Senior House leadership issued a resolution condemning her remarks, and urged Omar to apologize, which she did. But when Omar later said at a DC coffeehouse that she wanted “to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is okay to push for allegiance to a foreign country,” a new wave of controversy ignited. The US House soon passed another resolution condemning antisemitism and other forms of bigotry, in response to the outrage sparked by Omar’s comments.

“I would have liked to support Congresswoman Omar but I can’t,” said Ron Latz, a Jewish state senator representing the Twin Cities metro area, who is supporting Melton-Meaux and did not support Omar in the 2018 primary. “She has demonstrated an antipathy for Jewish issues and Jewish sensitives and towards Jews themselves.”

Other local Jews say they have found little objectionable in Omar’s record, and feel compelled to stand up in her defense. “I do not find any antisemitism in what she has said, and she’s also shown a willingness to learn and has modified her views,” said Sylvia Schwarz, an activist with Jewish Voice for Peace-Twin Cities. “The Jewish community here is not monolithic.”

Beth Gendler, the executive director of the National Council of Jewish Women Minnesota, spoke highly of her group’s working relationship with Omar in Congress. “She listens to us, and has been a really important partner of ours,” she said. “Have some of the things she said been antisemitic or played into antisemitic tropes? Yeah, sure, antisemitism is in the air we breathe. Is some of the backlash because she’s a black immigrant woman wearing a hijab? I would hazard to say yes.”

Libi Baehr, an activist with IfNotNow Twin Cities, said her group of primarily millennial Jews took it upon themselves to stand up for Omar when the backlash to her tweets blew up. “We definitely feel a responsibility to vocally show up,” she said. IfNotNow members in both Minneapolis and Washington, DC visited Omar’s Congressional offices with freshly baked challah in solidarity, and the Twin Cities group has since spoken out about what they see as a double standard with Rep. Betty McCollum, a white Minnesota Congresswoman who is strongly critical of Israel.

“I did not think people’s pain and disappointment [with Omar’s comments] was unfounded,” said Baehr. “It was an unforced error, and she could have avoided the issues that came up after she had said those things if she had thought about it a little more. That said, I do think a lot of good came out of it, a lot of honest reckoning.”

The turmoil over Israel has faded into the background in recent weeks, as politics in the district have turned sharply to discussions around policing and racial justice, with Omar and Melton-Meaux responding in ways that reveal their contrasting political styles.About a week after Floyd was killed, Omar introduced legislation to create a federal agency tasked with reviewing all deaths in police custody. Two days later, she joined a group of protesters in Minneapolis organized around a call to defund the police, where she spoke about the limits of police reform and her own experience as a Black woman raising children in the United States, and defended calls to dismantle the Minneapolis Police Department.

Melton-Meaux has also tried to capitalize on the protests, telling Jewish Insider George Floyd’s killing has “amplified” his overall message that “leadership matters.” His campaign released two commercials in June, one emphasizing his experience as a Black man in America, and the second emphasizing his commitment to social justice and conflict resolution. His campaign has taken a more optimistic view on the potential of police reform, though he also supports redistributing some money from policing into housing, healthcare, and schools.

Voters in Minnesota’s 5th appear satisfied with Omar’s approach. Yesterday, following Melton-Meaux’s big fundraising announcement, her campaign released new polling conducted by Change Research that showed the Congresswoman leading Melton-Meaux 66–29% among primary voters in the district. The pollsters found Omar had a 70% approval rating, compared to 40% for Melton-Meaux, who also “still lag[ged] in name recognition.” Melton-Meaux’s campaign declined to share results from their internal polling, but said “what it does show is Antone’s message of leadership, unity, and accountability is resonating.”

Even if Melton-Meaux’s supporters can’t stop Omar from winning re-election, many of them still hope to prevent the kind of blowout win Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had in her recent primary, where the New York Congresswoman trumped her challenger with 72% of the vote. (Bowman’s victory was more modest; the latest available figures have him 25 points ahead of Engel, though with nearly 40,000 absentee ballots outstanding.) Melton-Meaux’s backers—like Engel’s—think that by spending big, they can at least diminish the mandate of the victor.

“Of course we want to win, but even if we don’t, part of life is the struggle to do good and that means you find and support good people,” said Dr. Ben Chouake, the president of NORPAC. “Our job was to give Antone enough money so that people could hear him, and then they’ll make their decision.”

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