Ben Clerkin

Is this the year that the ‘Squad’ are finally unseated?

Progressive Democrats are alienating moderates with their Gaza activism


Rashida Tlaib, pictured in 2018 (Photo: JNS/Shutterstock)

May 07, 2024 12:37

Two years ago, “Squad” founder member Ilhan Omar came within 2,500 votes of being unseated by a fellow Democrat thanks to anger over her radical policy to defund the police.

This year, the latest polling has her neck-and-neck with the same challenger, Don Samuels, who tells the JC he has closed the gap in no small part because Omar has alienated mainstream voters even further by aligning herself with Hamas and against Israel.

Since October 7, the House representative for Minnesota has accused the Biden administration of “greenlighting the massacre of Palestinians”, and Israel of both “genocide” and “apartheid”.

Omar’s views are deeply out of step with the rest of the country. Recent Pew research found that 58 per cent of Americans polled believe Israel’s reasons for fighting Hamas are valid.

It’s the same story across America. Members of the “Squad” – radical Democrats, so named by the nicknamer-in-chief Donald Trump – are facing primary challengers in August who believe that the anti-Israel stance is the final straw with voters tired of their divisive policies.

Two of them, Jamaal Bowman and Cori Bush, are being targeted by the Jewish Democratic Council of America (JDCA), which is closely aligned to the Democratic establishment and has never before backed challengers against incumbent Democrats in primary races.

Samuels hasn’t attracted the support of the JDCA, at least not yet, but he believes such wider challenges to replace the Squad with more moderate Democrats in August will make Joe Biden more electable in November.

It will be harder for Republicans to paint Biden as the leader of a party of student activists, trying to force an extreme agenda on America completely at odds with the country’s core values. But Samuels, 74, says that Omar, 41, and her fellow progressives have already done huge amounts of damage to the party. She has “laid the groundwork” for Trump: “She makes the Democratic party look like a bunch of leftists. Her name was invoked every time the Republicans wanted to raise some money against the ‘crazy’ Democrats. And of course, she also raised money from their response. So it was just a mutuality of benefit that was devastating to the Democratic party.

“And she takes the same departure on the Israeli-Hamas issue. I still believe that we need to stop killing civilians now. But we have to put the hostages in the mix and stop pretending that the terroristic reaction is understandable and justified and historically relevant. And that Israel’s reaction is the only problem.”

Samuels himself has a more balanced view of the war than Omar, but is hardly a pro-Israel advocate. “Personally I would have not invaded [Gaza],” Samuels says. “But I understand Israel felt the need and deserved the opportunity to have a strong reaction. That has, of course, over time gotten more extreme and more traumatic for the people of Palestine and those of us who observe it.”

Like Samuels, the two would-be “Squad” defenestraters endorsed by the JDCA, Wesley Bell and George Latimer, are taking their opponents to task over Israel.

In St Louis, Bell, 49, leads Bush, 47, by 22 points according to a recent poll. Bush has accused Israel of an “ethnic cleansing campaign”. In response, Bell, an attorney and a fellow progressive, said she was “wrong” and “misguided”. The issues for primary voters in St Louis are more than just Israel; they also include a federal investigation into Bush hiring her own husband with campaign money. But Israel might just help to tip the balance.

In New York, Bowman, 48, is seen by many strategists as the most beatable member of the Squad. A new poll has him 17 points behind his challenger, Latimer.

Footage was recently unearthed of Bowman publicly casting doubt on reports that Israeli women were raped on October 7 and calling the revelations “propaganda”. He regularly accuses Israel of genocide.

Latimer, 70, firmly backs Israel, and visited in November. The district has a significant Jewish population. Of all the contests to disband the Squad, this is the one in which the shockwaves from the war against Hamas are most likely to be felt.

Another vulnerable progressive is Summer Lee, 36, who is facing Bhavini Patel in Pennsylvania. In a fiery debate in January, Patel attacked Lee for taking weeks to delete a tweet that falsely blamed Israel for the Al-Shifa Hospital bombing. “To me, that’s stoking hatred. That’s stoking antisemitism. And it puts people in our communities in a tragic, dangerous position,” Patel told her.

Last month more than 40 rabbis in the Pittsburgh area signed a letter accusing Lee of using “divisive rhetoric” that is “perceived as openly antisemitic”.

In a poll taken in the days after October 7, only 38 per cent of the respondents in the district said they had a favourable view of Lee.

But whatever else happens in the primaries, it won’t be a root-and-branch removal of the Squad. Rashida Tlaib, who voted against a bill to ban Hamas terrorists from the US, is running unopposed, as is Ayanna Pressley, who claimed a child is killed every 15 minutes in Gaza. And Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – known everywhere as AOC, and who recently accused Israel of “genocide” in the House – faces Marty Dolan, a long-shot she is likely to brush off.

The iron grip the Squad exerts in some areas on the local Democratic party apparatus, Samuels contends, is a result of typical left-wing manipulation of the system. “In many cases, those members do not represent their own voters,” he says.

“Activists have discovered the process and figured out that a minority of people can gain control of the outcome by taking over the party’s machine and presenting to the public, in the primary, a candidate that they have shoehorned into first place.”

It’s particularly sad for Samuels to be challenging Omar because he voted for her when she was first elected in 2018. He felt that as a female Muslim immigrant she was uniquely well placed to help with the “reconciliation of our complex community”.

“But she was, in fact, someone who had developed the skill to weaponise or utilise those characteristics or identities as a sort of victimhood in an era where being far left and being out of the mainstream was seen as somehow heroic. And therefore, she has led in that same kind of pattern.”

By contrast, Samuels, himself an immigrant from Jamaica, projects a positive vision of the future. He says he is “very hopeful about America, I’m very grateful to America”, unlike so many on the radical left who openly despise the West.

Whether the son of a pastor triumphs in his battle remains to be seen. Minneapolis has a large Somali Muslim community but is also home to St Louis Park, historically a centre of Jewish life in Minnesota. There are also two other Democratic challengers, although Samuels’ campaign looks to have the most promise.

The battle Samuels and every other challenger to the Squad is fighting is much more than a local dust-up. Every one is for the very heart, soul and even future of the Democratic party. Israel has become the new dividing line between fringe radical and mainstream views. America will watch each contest keenly as it decides if the Democratic party can be trusted with the keys to the country.

May 07, 2024 12:37

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive