Right-leaning pro-Israel groups are targeting Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat and outspoken critic of the Israeli government who is one of the most high-profile progressive members of Congress.
Much of that cash comes from political action committees opposed to more U.S. pressure on the Israeli government. Two such groups, Pro-Israel America and NORPAC, have bundled more than $400,000 for Melton-Meaux to date.
These Israel hawks’ investment in unseating Omar follows an expensive and ultimately unsuccessful intervention on behalf of House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel. Given Engel’s massive deficit in the in-person vote, the New York Democrat has all-but-officially lost to Jamaal Bowman, a progressive challenger who is more critical of Israel, in his June 23 primary.
Omar’s race provides this subset of pro-Israel activists and donors a fresh opportunity to demonstrate their strength after an embarrassing defeat.
“The stakes are high because Members of Congress are watching to see how much muscle these groups really have,” said Joel Rubin, a progressive foreign policy hand who ran Jewish outreach for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign and served as a senior official in the Obama administration’s State Department.
As of the end of May, Pro-Israel America, which was founded by two former staffers at the pro-Israel mega-lobbying group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, had raised over $303,000 for Melton-Meaux’s bid from hundreds of individual donors, according to official campaign finance disclosures.
NORPAC, a metropolitan New York City-area group, raised $106,000 for Melton-Meaux over the course of three virtual fundraisers in May and June.
Leaders of both organizations cited Omar’s left-wing views about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including her apparent support for the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel, as a motivation for supporting a challenge against her. (Omar, who supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, does not agree with BDS supporters’ goal of a single bi-national state.)
“Rep. Omar’s views are way out of step with her Democratic colleagues and the American public,” Jeff Mendelsohn, a former AIPAC official who runs Pro-Israel America, said in a statement.
The pro-Israel leaders also pointed to insensitive comments Omar has made that they consider anti-Semitic.
A lot of people wanted in on this one. Ben Chouake, NORPAC
“People are very motivated to get rid of someone who they feel is a racist against them and against their families,” said Ben Chouake, a New Jersey physician and president of NORPAC. “A lot of people wanted in on this one.”
While the groups are offering Melton-Meaux serious cash, their support comes with potential political risks since both organizations raise money for Republican candidates as well.
In particular, NORPAC, which has been around for much longer than Pro-Israel America, is a major source of campaign cash for top Republicans. This election cycle, about two-thirds of the money it has raised has gone to Republican candidates, including over $160,000 to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), the largest recipient of NORPAC cash in Congress in the past two years. (In 2018, NORPAC’s giving was inversely proportional, with about two-thirds of its fundraising going toward Democrats.)
“We are not party-driven,” Chouake said. “We’re issue-driven.”
Some major NORPAC donors even contribute to President Donald Trump. Howard Jonas, founder of the telecommunications firm IDT, donated the maximum individual contribution of $5,600 to Trump’s reelection, as well as $8,900 to the Republican National Committee.
Omar is already using the support of figures like Jonas against Melton-Meaux.
“Trump and his campaign don’t only have a problem with me and people who look like me — they are threatened by our growing progressive movement,” she wrote in a June 30 tweet soliciting new contributions. “So much so their donors are even funding our Democratic establishment opponents’ campaigns.”
Bad Blood From The Start
Omar elicited the ire of defenders of Israeli government policies essentially from the moment that she won her race to represent Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District in 2018. While she implied as a candidate that she did not support BDS, after her general election win, she announced that she was supportive of the policy even though she continues to question its effectiveness and does not agree with proponents’ dedication to a one-state solution. (Her campaign maintains that Omar has been consistent all along because she continues to harbor the same reservations about BDS’s effectiveness that she expressed as a candidate.)
Omar’s first two months in office were plagued by controversy over remarks perceived by many to be anti-Semitic. In Feb. 2019, Omar tweeted the rap lyrics “It’s all about the Benjamins, baby,” as a commentary on why House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) was vowing “action” against Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) for their views about Israel.
Omar’s comment reflected a widely held view on the left that groups like Pro-Israel America and NORPAC hold so much sway in Congress because of their campaign cash (“Benjamins” is slang for hundred-dollar bills imprinted with the image of Benjamin Franklin). But the comments provoked accusations from Jewish leaders and many Democrats that Omar was employing anti-Semitic tropes about Jews using money to control politics. Omar “unequivocally” apologized even as she reaffirmed her criticism of the “problematic role” of many lobbying groups, from AIPAC to the National Rifle Association.
In a speech to a pro-Palestinian Washington audience a few weeks later, Omar lamented the “political influence in this country that says that it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country.” Omar’s full remarks express solidarity with her Jewish constituents who find “sanctuary” in Israel, but critics argued that her reference to “people who push allegiance to a foreign country” revived the historically anti-Semitic charge that Jewish Americans are not entirely loyal to the United States.
Omar cleared the air in a Washington Post op-ed outlining her human rights-focused approach to foreign policy. In the essay, she argues that the U.S. would have more credibility admonishing adversaries like Iran and Venezuela if it also held allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel to higher standards.
Omar has also apologized for a 2012 tweet critical of the Israeli invasion of Gaza that used offensive rhetoric. “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel,” she wrote at the time.
A Threat To The Hawkish Bipartisan Consensus
Omar represents one of the most reliably Democratic House seats in the country. The district, which encompasses Minneapolis and some of its suburbs, is the historic heart of the state’s small but significant Jewish community.
Despite their disagreements on some policy questions, Omar has engaged with her Jewish constituents. Rabbi Avi Olitzky, who leads a St. Louis Park congregation and sits on AIPAC’s national council, reports having a fine working relationship with Omar.
“Though there are a number of topics, especially around the U.S.-Israel relationship, on which Rep. Omar and I do not see eye to eye, I am grateful for the opportunity to continue that dialogue,” he said. “She has welcomed me into her office to have those conversations.”
“J Street has a good relationship with Rep. Omar and her office and regularly consult with them about promoting our shared goals of diplomacy-first U.S. leadership, Israeli-Palestinian peace and human rights in the region,” J Street spokesman Logan Bayroff said in a statement.
Notwithstanding her support for BDS, which remains a minority position among rank-and-file Democrats, Omar’s overall approach to the U.S.-Israel relationship is consistent with the direction of the party. Nationwide, more than two-thirds of Democratic voters back tying U.S. aid to Israeli compliance with historic U.S. policies, including opposition to settlement expansion, according to a Center for American Progress poll.
Meanwhile, in Congress, where resolutions condemning BDS still pass with large, bipartisan majorities, Omar’s support for placing tougher conditions on U.S. aid to the Israeli government is becoming more mainstream. As the Israeli government has adopted increasingly right-wing policies, even some staunchly pro-Israel Democratic politicians have given the idea their imprimatur. One such Democrat, Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a member of party leadership, introduced an amendment that would bar use of U.S. aid for Israeli annexation of the occupied West Bank.
Preserving a bipartisan consensus in which conditioning U.S. aid to Israel remains politically costly is a priority for groups like Pro-Israel America and NORPAC. They believe that Israel’s security concerns justify its ongoing occupation of Palestinian lands; that U.S. intelligence cooperation with Israel provides U.S. taxpayers an invaluable return on their $3.8-billion-a-year assistance to the Jewish state; and that efforts to pressure Israel unfairly single the country out among recipients of U.S. aid. (In fact, Omar’s stance toward Saudi Arabia, another U.S. ally and military collaborator, appears to be harsher than her views on Israel: She has called for the U.S. to stop selling the country weapons altogether.)
In an interview, Melton-Meaux told HuffPost that while he opposes annexation, he also opposes conditioning U.S. aid to Israel in response to it.
“It is important for us, in the United States, to be voicing our concerns,” he said.
They want someone that will be a listener. Antone Melton-Meaux, Rep. Ilhan Omar's primary challenger
Unlike the pro-Israel groups fundraising for him, Melton-Meaux supports then-President Barack Obama’s nuclear nonproliferation agreement with Iran in 2015. He wants the United States to reenter the agreement, though he would like to do away with the sunsetting provisions that ended restrictions on Iran’s nuclear capacities after 15 years. He also wants the U.S. to play the role of an “honest broker” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Asked why he thought the more hawkish groups were so supportive of his bid, Melton-Meaux said, “They want someone that will be a listener, someone that will work hard at bringing the parties together, that won’t have ideological purity tests when it comes to these types of conversations.”
Neither Pro-Israel America nor NORPAC claimed to have a clear policy litmus test for the candidates it endorses. “Pro-Israel America endorsed Antone Melton-Meaux because he opposes Rep. Ilhan Omar’s divisive politics and supports the important alliance between the U.S. and Israel, a partnership that benefits both countries,” Mendelsohn of Pro-Israel America said.
Joel Rubin, who has also worked as an aide on Capitol Hill, sees something more strategic at play in the coalescing of right-leaning pro-Israel groups behind Melton-Meaux.
“What Ilhan Omar represents is a voice that provokes a conversation” on U.S. aid to Israel and BDS in the halls of Congress, Rubin said. “The point of supporting a challenger to her is to try to stifle that voice.”
An Ideological Conflict
Like Omar, Melton-Meaux has a unique personal story to tell. His ancestors were enslaved in Kentucky until slave owner John Meaux emancipated them and granted them his land when he died in 1828. Meaux’s white descendants challenged the will in court, but Melton-Meaux’s ancestors won their freedom thanks to a Kentucky Supreme Court ruling. Melton-Meaux’s father fought to integrate a local Kentucky high school in the 1950s and went on to become one of the first Black electrical engineering graduates from the University of Kentucky.
Melton-Meaux, who grew up in Cincinnati, is an employment lawyer with his own workplace mediation firm. He also has ties to the Jewish community that date to his days as an undergraduate at Washington University in St. Louis, and is proficient in biblical Hebrew thanks to a masters degree he obtained from Union Theological Seminary, a Christian divinity school in New York City.
Asked why he decided to run, Melton-Meaux said he believes that Omar has pursued national fame at the expense of attention to the district. His campaign slogan is “Focused on the 5th.”
“She hasn’t shown up for voters and she hasn’t shown up for votes,” Melton-Meaux said, claiming that Omar has missed 40 votes in her first term in the House. “She is distracted with Twitter fights with the president or even with the Democratic Party.”
Omar’s campaign website states that she has a 95% participation rate in more than 800 votes. She missed some votes due to a relative’s death from COVID-19 and the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, according to the campaign.
Omar has introduced 17 amendments that passed in the Democratic-controlled House. One of them, an expansion of federal funding during COVID-19 for subsidized school lunch programs, became law as part of the CARES Act relief package in late March.
Melton-Meaux has attracted some organic support in the district unrelated to foreign policy, including from prominent Black figures like former NAACP President Nekima Levy Armstrong and attorney Don Lewis, a friend and colleague of Melton-Meaux’s.
Speaking broadly about his criticism of Omar, Lewis said, “Her focus is on broader issues that tend to enhance her celebrity to the detriment of the local interests of the district.”
Beneath the surface, it’s clear that Melton-Meaux and many of his local supporters are simply not as progressive as Omar.
Melton-Meaux and Lewis both characterized themselves as progressives who are just more pragmatic and results-oriented than Omar. Moderate Democrats have long cited concerns about efficacy to disguise their ideological qualms about more left-wing politicians. For example, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ran for president in 2016 as a “progressive who gets things done.”
Melton-Meaux supported one of Omar’s more moderate competitors in the Aug. 2018 House primaries and cast a vote for Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) in the state’s March 3 presidential primary. Omar voted for Sanders, as did the voters in Minnesota’s 5th (Warren came in third after former Vice President Joe Biden).
The contrast between the two candidates on the issues is also significant. Melton-Meaux supports creating a “primary care for all” health care system and public health insurance option, rather than Medicare for All. While Omar favors tougher rent regulations and an expansion of public housing, Melton-Meaux couples his support for expanded public housing with a plan to distribute vouchers to low-income renters. Melton-Meaux, whose son attends a charter school, is a champion of charter schools; Omar is a skeptic.
Though Omar is the Congressional Progressive Caucus’ whip, Melton-Meaux said only that he was “open” to joining the CPC. And unlike many Democrats, Melton-Meaux initially told HuffPost that he does not have a policy of refusing corporate PAC money, though he said it has not yet come up because he hasn’t received any offers. (Melton-Meaux’s campaign spokesperson followed up with HuffPost after publication to clarify that the campaign does have a policy of refusing corporate PAC money.)
Perhaps for those reasons, Melton-Meaux has also attracted a lot of donations from financial industry executives, including a $2,800 check from Jonathan Gray, the president of the private equity giant Blackstone. Blackstone has been in the news for filling the campaign coffers of House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.). In December, Neal stalled a bipartisan effort to reform “surprise” medical billing that would have hurt Blackstone’s bottom line.
In addition to the support of the state Democratic Party and organized labor, Omar appears to have the cash to withstand an onslaught. As of the end of March, she had spent more than $2 million and had more than $1.3 million left over. More than 99% of the donations she receives are under $200; the average contribution is $18.
She also has the endorsement of Ellison, who is now Minnesota Attorney General. Ellison’s role as chief prosecutor of the Minneapolis police officers charged with murdering George Floyd has earned him national attention.
Ellison told HuffPost that his support for Omar stems from years of working with her on progressive priorities like Medicare for All, climate change and workers’ rights.
“I believe she is for these things because she’s been doing these things since I met her … She was fighting for people,” he said. “These other folks might be nice, but we have to take their word for it because there’s no evidence that they have done much of anything for anyone.”