The Democrats' identity politics minefield

Ilhan Omar.
Ilhan Omar. Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock

Rep. Ilhan Omar has once again exposed a rift in the Democratic caucus. A dozen House Democrats rebuked the polarizing Minnesotan for appearing to equate the United States and Israel to Hamas and the Taliban, adding that her comparison "at best discredits one's intended argument and at worst reflects deep-seated prejudice."

Omar's fellow members of the Squad were incensed. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) alleged that, by "skipping private conversations" and publicly chastising Omar in a way that will likely draw news coverage, they put Omar in danger. "Freedom of speech doesn't exist for Muslim women in Congress. The benefit of the doubt doesn't exist for Muslim women in Congress," protested Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), who accused Democratic leaders of "relentless, exclusive tone policing of Congresswomen of color."

Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) went further. "I'm not surprised when Republicans attack Black women for standing up for human rights," she tweeted. "But when it's Democrats, it's especially hurtful. We're your colleagues. Talk to us directly. Enough with the anti-Blackness and Islamophobia."

This comes not long after high-profile progressives found themselves unable to condemn anti-Semitic attacks, allegedly provoked by recent fighting between Israel and Hamas, without also denouncing Islamophobia.

The Democratic conference hails from a wider variety of immigrant backgrounds than previous generations, making unity on thorny issues in the Middle East more difficult. But there have also been changes on the left that make it harder for them to support a wealthy Western country like Israel in a fight with Muslim people of color. Where Jews fit on the intersectionality spectrum is complicated. Progressives have an easy template for dealing with racial and religious disputes that pit minorities against white racists, but a harder time adjudicating disputes that arise between different minority groups.

Omar and Tlaib, the first two Muslim women elected to Congress, have been known for their sharp criticisms of Israel. Even some of their Jewish Democratic colleagues feel the pair sometimes crosses the line.

Democratic leaders are trying to tamp down the conflict. Omar also clarified she "was in no way equating terrorist organizations with democratic countries with well-established judicial systems." But in a new era of identity politics, Democrats are likely to return to these issues again.