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How Democrats Are Grappling with Left-Wing Antisemitism
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How Democrats Are Grappling with Left-Wing Antisemitism

A reckoning has only just begun.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer looks on during a news conference following a closed-door lunch meeting with Senate Democrats at the U.S. Capitol November 28, 2023 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Last Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer delivered a remarkable speech about the wave of antisemitism that has washed over the United States since Hamas’ massacre of Israeli civilians on October 7.

Speaking as “the highest-ranking Jewish elected official ever in American history,” the top Democrat in Congress acknowledged forthrightly that the ongoing spasms of antisemitism are predominantly coming from the far left, not the far right.

Many of the people justifying or glorifying the October 7 massacre, Schumer said, “aren’t neo-Nazis, or card-carrying Klan members, or Islamist extremists. They are in many cases people that most liberal Jewish Americans felt previously were their ideological fellow travelers.” The New York Democrat’s speech was directed toward “those who are inclined to examine the world through the lens of the oppressors versus the oppressed,” arguing they should “take note that the many thousands of years of Jewish history are defined by oppression.”

The speech won plaudits from across the aisle, with Schumer’s Republican counterpart, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, labeling it “extraordinary” and thanking Schumer for delivering it. “I associate myself with his remarks,” McConnell said on the Senate floor. “I share his disgust at the alarming rise of antisemitism in America and around the world in the wake of the October 7 attacks.”

Some of Schumer’s fellow Democrats were similarly laudatory. Rep. Steny Hoyer, the Maryland Democrat who stepped down from House leadership at the end of the last Congress, said Schumer delivered a “good speech” and conceded that it’s a “fact” that “a lot of the pro-Palestinian [rhetoric] is coming from the far left in the party.” 

But pressed by The Dispatch this week, other Democrats were more reluctant to speak inconvenient truths about the current wave of antisemitism. 

“It’s not just the antisemitism, which is very real, it’s Islamophobia as well,” Sen. Bernie Sanders told The Dispatch when asked about Schumer’s speech and what can be done to combat antisemitism. “As you know, my city, [Burlington, Vermont]—we had a terrible shooting, three Palestinians.”

“What’s important to know,” Sanders continued, “[is that we’re] talking about government policy right now of a right-wing Israeli government. People have a right to be critical of the policies of the government, as I am. But it’s important to differentiate antisemitism … one is not and must not be anti-Jewish because you disagree with the policies of the current government of Israel any more than you would be anti-Muslim because you disagreed with the governmental policies of Saudi Arabia.”

Asked if he agreed with Schumer’s view that the current wave of anti-semitism is predominantly coming from the left—and what he makes of that as a progressive hero—Sanders declined to answer. “These are really fair questions,” he admitted. “But they require more thought that I can give you in a hallway.”

The reality of the situation may have been clarified for Sanders this week when Briahna Joy Gray, the press secretary of his 2020 presidential campaign, cast doubt on reports that Hamas terrorists have raped the Israeli women they killed or have taken hostage—because “no female victims have offered testimony.” On Wednesday, she wrote that “apartheid states” like Israel “do not have any ‘right’ to exist.” Asked for comment Wednesday on his 2020 spokeswoman’s anti-Israel rhetoric, Sanders’ Senate press office did not reply.

Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut was similarly circumspect when pressed on Schumer’s conclusion about antisemitism and the left. “I think there’s an awful lot of hateful speech on the left and the right,” he said. But Murphy did offer one concrete idea to combat antisemitism: banning TikTok. “Part of what I really worry about is the way that social media sites drive this narrative, especially for young people,” he said. “The way that TikTok is talking about Gaza is designed to divide Americans from each other.” While Murphy had previously been reluctant to embrace a ban, the events of the last two months have pushed him toward the view that it’s “probably time to say that we shouldn’t have a Chinese-owned social media company force feeding divisive information to our kids.”

Murphy’s focus on social media may be interpreted as an implicit acknowledgement that Schumer is right, as there’s a considerable overlap between the American left and young Americans. A November Pew poll found a third of adults between ages 18 and 29 regularly get their news from TikTok, and an October Harvard/Harris poll found that 51 percent of Americans aged 18 to 24 agreed that “the Hamas killing of 1200 Israeli civilians in Israel can be justified by the grievances of Palestinians.”

This week, two flashpoints revealed how the Israel-Hamas war and antisemitism in America are roiling the relationship between the hard left and mainstream Democrats.  

At a hearing before the House Education and Workforce Committee on Tuesday, the presidents of three elite private universities—Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—testified about the rise of antisemitism on their respective campuses. When pressed by GOP Rep. Elise Stefanik on whether calling for the genocide of Jews violates their schools’ code of conduct regarding bullying or harassment, all three presidents refused to explicitly say yes. “It depends on the context,” Harvard’s President Claudine Gay said. “Antisemitic rhetoric, when it crosses into conduct that amounts to bullying, harassment, intimidation—that is actionable conduct.”

Some Democratic lawmakers were appalled. “Harvard ranks last out of 248 universities for support of free speech,” Reps. Jake Auchincloss and Seth Moulton—both of Massachusetts—said in a joint statement. “But when it comes to denouncing antisemitism, suddenly the university has anxieties about the First Amendment. It rings hollow.”

But the Democrats’ biggest intra-party rift occurred on Tuesday afternoon, when the House voted on a resolution “strongly condemning and denouncing the drastic rise of antisemitism in the United States and around the world.” The measure passed 311 to 14 with 95 Democratic votes in favor, but 92 Democrats voted “present”—and 13 didn’t vote at all. The biggest sticking point for many was language included in the resolution that “clearly and firmly states that anti-Zionism is antisemitism.”

“Folks, this isn’t complicated,” tweeted Rep. Jerry Nadler, a New York Democrat who voted present. “MOST antizionism—the type that calls for Israel’s destruction, denying its right to exist—is antisemitic. This type is used to cloak hatred of Jews. Some antizionism isn’t that. Thus, it’s simply inaccurate to call ALL antizionism antisemitic.” (The word “all” was not actually in the resolution.)

Only one Republican took issue with the language in the resolution, with 216 voting in favor of it. The lone “no” House GOP vote came from Rep. Thomas Massie—a libertarian from Kentucky—who tweeted a meme that claimed Congress is prioritizing Zionism over American patriotism. The post was swiftly condemned as antisemitic by Matt Brooks, the head of the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC).

Sam Markstein, the RJC’s national political director, expanded upon Brooks’ comments in an interview with The Dispatch. “We as an organization feel it’s our duty to do this when it’s on our side, whether it’s Tom Massie or disgraced Rep. Steve King in Iowa,” he said, pointing to the organization’s support of a successful primary challenge to King. “We feel like we have established our credibility on this issue, as opposed to, frankly, the other side.” 

Thankfully, in Markstein’s view, that may be starting to change, with the Democratic Majority For Israel (DMFI) PAC prepared to back primary challengers to anti-Israel incumbents.

Mark Mellman, founder and president of DMFI, expressed frustration with how Tuesday’s vote played out. “At an intellectual level, it’s a sort of somewhat nuanced issue,” he told The Dispatch. “At a practical level, it’s not. There’s some theoretical world in which anti-Zionism is not antisemitism, but in the real world in which we live the overlap is almost 100 percent.” Still, he said that his group wouldn’t target House Democrats who voted “present” on Tuesday, focusing instead on the “relatively few of them that are sort of implacably hostile towards Israel.”

Mellman declined to discuss his group’s priorities in Democratic primaries, but two obvious targets include Democratic Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Jamaal Bowman of New York. Omar—who has accused pro-Israel Americans of having a dual-loyalty toward Israel and America—is being challenged again by former Minneapolis City Council member Don Samuels, a Democrat who in 2022 fell just 2 points shy of unseating the incumbent. 

On Wednesday, Bowman himself drew a formidable primary challenger, with Westchester County Executive George Latimer announcing his bid for New York’s 16th Congressional District. In a statement, the Democratic Majority for Israel PAC hailed Latimer’s entry into the race, criticizing Bowman for his “deeply troubling track record, which includes demeaning, demonizing, and delegitimizing Israel, while failing to address his constituents’ concerns about the alarming rise of antisemitism in their communities.”

Mellman is optimistic the influence of lawmakers like Omar and Bowman is waning. “They’re already a marginal force in the party,” he said of the anti-Israel faction among congressional Democrats. “I think they’ll be further marginalized [in upcoming Democratic primaries].” While many of those primaries are still taking shape, it’s clear that the Democratic Party’s reckoning over left-wing antisemitism has only just begun.

John McCormack is a senior editor at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was Washington correspondent at National Review and a senior writer at The Weekly Standard. When John is not reporting on politics and policy, he is probably enjoying life with his wife in northern Virginia or having fun visiting family in Wisconsin.