Minnesota congresswoman Ilhan Omar has recently been at the center of controversy in the mainstream media as part of their usual method of demonizing anyone who calls themselves a socialist and diverting attention from the real issues that affect the working class. Her statements on the influence of pro-Israel lobbyists on Congress have led to accusations of anti-Semitism, while her remarks on the suppression of civil liberties after 9/11 have led to death threats from the far-right fringe.
The attacks have come from Trump himself, who has stated that “Islam hates us” and has instituted a “Muslim ban” on travelers and refugees from a number of majority-Muslim countries. In this context, Ilhan has received death threats for allegedly “disregarding 9/11.” Prominent Democrats have hounded her for her mild criticism of Israel and her criticisms of AIPAC. To these cynical bourgeois politicians, any criticism of Israel, especially from a Muslim woman, is automatically considered “anti-Semitism.” One day, they praise her for her identity, and the next day they use her identity as a stick to attack her.
By being outspoken on issues which are crucial to US imperialism (like Israel, Venezuela, state surveillance) she has attracted a lot of support and sympathy as well as the wrath of the representatives of the ruling class in the media. We wholeheartedly reject these disgusting, racist attacks and threats against Ilhan Omar, which also emanate from the Democratic Party leadership. This underlines the futility of the strategy followed by Omar and others in Congress who describe themselves as socialists, who think they can reform the Democratic Party or advance genuine socialist policies through it. Marxists do not support the Democratic Party in any way, shape or form. All experience shows that rather than “pulling the Democrats to the left,” such people, however well intentioned they may be, get absorbed and neutralized by the party machinery. They end up serving as left cover for one of the main pillars of capitalist rule, and many honest activists become demoralized as a result, as we have explained before.
The controversy provides us with an opportunity to state our positions on a number of issues, including the nature of the Israel/Palestine conflict and the oppression of Muslims within the United States.
Ilhan has stated that the support for Israel by members of Congress is “all about the Benjamins”—although she later retracted this. While the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) certainly spends plenty of money to gain influence, the idea that this money is at the root of US support for Israel is flawed. Her similar statements about AIPAC’s efforts to “push for allegiance to a foreign country” are similarly confused. US imperialism was integral to the founding of the State of Israel in 1948 and continues to spend billions of dollars every year to prop up the Zionist regime. The US is set to spend $3.3 billion in 2019 to support what is one of its main imperialist allies in the Middle East. At the same time, because Israel is one of the main allies of US imperialism in the Middle East, it is sometimes able to exert pressure and push for its own policies in Washington, in a classic case of the tail wagging the dog.
Lobbyists like those at AIPAC play a role in making sure that Israel is looked after by its big imperialist brother. AIPAC serves to facilitate the “friendly relationship” between Israel and the US. Members of Congress certainly take AIPAC money as a perk of the job, but these imperialist politicians would almost certainly support Israel with or without those lobbying dollars. The real outrage is that US workers are forced to pay taxes to prop up the imperialist ruling class of Israel, which bases its position on the oppression and dispossession of Palestinians.
A genuine socialist member of Congress would also speak out against the US-Israel relationship. But they would do so by explaining the real history of Israel and Zionism. Zionism is a capitalist ideology which advocates a Jewish nation-state in the name of “Jewish unity”—i.e., the idea that both Jewish capitalists and Jewish workers have the same interests. In reality, the interests of Jewish workers coincide with those of all workers, regardless of their religion or ethnicity—just as the interests of the capitalists of all countries coincide.
The founding of Israel was a colonialist project from the beginning. It was regarded with suspicion by workers organizing in the growing European socialist parties and labor unions in the early part of the 20th century. The Bolsheviks, who had many Jewish Central Committee members, including Trotsky, advocated that Jewish workers unite with other workers against the capitalists at home, rather than moving thousands of miles away to build a utopian state under the domination of the Jewish capitalists. They argued that the way to fight and defeat anti-Semitism was not to leave the continent but to struggle for socialist revolution across Europe and the world. The Bolsheviks began putting this idea into practice after they came to power, as the Jewish workers helped found the Soviet Union alongside non-Jewish workers, striving together to build a republic of labor.
Tragically, however, Stalinism meant the reversal of the positive steps taken by the early USSR. Then came the Holocaust, perpetrated by the Nazis, whose rise to power was facilitated by the criminal policies of the Social Democracy and Stalinists. This shattered the labor movement throughout Europe, and militant Jewish workers were targeted first and foremost. After the war, many Jews sought to flee the conditions of poverty and humiliation in Europe and found a new home in the newly founded state of Israel. However, these lands were already occupied. Land was stolen outright from the Palestinians by the Zionists and given to the newly arrived Jewish refugees, forcing Palestinians out of their homes and into refugee camps at gunpoint.
By using the divide and conquer tactic, Jewish immigrants were given a stake in the economy, while Palestinians were driven out, demonized, marginalized, and brutally oppressed. Labor unions were segmented between Jewish and Arab workers, cutting across their organic class unity. This tragic legacy of dispossession and violence is the historical root of the national oppression of Palestinians today. The conditions of poverty and military occupation by Israeli troops have triggered several mass uprisings, or intifadas, over the years.
While the amount of sheer suffering by Palestinian workers is overwhelming, their natural allies are the exploited Jewish working class. It is in the interest of every worker, regardless of religion, national identity, or ethnicity, to struggle against the exploiters for better wages, conditions, and, ultimately, control over the means of production. As Marxists, we fight for a socialist revolution led by the workers, peasants, and poor, and for a Socialist Federation of Israel and Palestine, as part of a Socialist Federation of the Middle East.
A democratically planned economy would allow for a high standard of living for everyone in the region. On this basis, the religious, ethnic, and national tensions built up over decades will lose their force and begin to subside. In this way, we can guarantee the right of return for refugees, as well as an end to the violence and barbarism plaguing the region. Socialism is international, or it is nothing!
Ilhan also takes aim at many of the broken and discredited institutions in the US. Advocating for a program similar to Bernie Sanders’s, she calls for Medicare for All, free college tuition and the cancellation of student debt, a $15-per-hour minimum wage, a federal jobs program, and affordable housing. Marxists support any reforms that improve the lives of the majority, as limited as they may be. But we also point out that all of this can never be fully implemented within the confines of a capitalist system in senile decay. The capitalist crisis impels its politicians to impose austerity—or else face the music of capital flight and smear campaigns in the press. This is why a truly dignified life for all can only be won as part of the working class’s struggle for socialism.
The program Ilhan proposes may seem “radical” compared to the national DNC establishment, but it is, in fact, par for the course for Minneapolis politics. Nearly every Democrat in this city for the past 70 years has run on a similarly “progressive” program, with minor differences depending on the decade. But even these modest aims have not been achieved, despite the Democrats’ decades-long dominance of city government, and often the state as well.
In comparing the policies advocated by “middle-of-the-road” Democrat Jacob Frey, Minneapolis’s mayor, with those of Ilhan, there is very little difference in words. Both advocate affordable housing for all, racial equity, and a $15 minimum wage. However, while politicians like Frey say many fine things, affordable housing is actually on the decline in Minneapolis.
The Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party is the establishment party in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Though its name references a time when a viable statewide alternative to the two main parties was created by a movement of workers and farmers in the 1930s, it was subsumed into the Democratic Party in 1944. It went from a party that openly called for state ownership of key industries and price controls for agricultural produce, to a party led by the McCarthyite Hubert Humphrey, who would go on to support legislation that would have allowed the internment of Communist Party members in camps.
Many well-meaning workers believe that electing more women from diverse backgrounds will solve the immense racial gap in this state, and they support Ilhan because of her identity. While race and gender are factors when determining who does and doesn’t make it into Congress, voting for a candidate simply because of their identity and not because of their program is a mistake. Given that Ilhan remains within the stranglehold of the anti-worker Democratic Party, we cannot and do not offer her our political support. If she broke from the Democrats, however, and called on organized labor to do so as well, this could expedite the formation of a mass socialist party. Given her position in the public eye, she has the potential to help break the logjam of the current one-party setup in this state.
Ilhan recently gave a speech at a rally of Amazon workers in Shakopee, encouraging their efforts to organize for decent working conditions. This garnered her support from a layer of the labor movement, especially the Amazon workers in that struggle. Her support for workers’ struggles is commendable, but it is in contradiction with the fact that she is part of the Democratic Party, a party which represents the interests of the capitalists.
An independent socialist member of Congress attending a picket of Amazon workers would encourage their strike while offering a bold vision of politically fighting the bosses by building a labor party to represent the workers. This would serve to unite the working class collectively with a political vehicle driven by themselves, allowing them to go beyond the bounds set by capitalism and the Democratic establishment. As it stands, Ilhan is serving to further entrench the labor movement within a party whose interests are diametrically opposed to those of the workers.
The struggle at Amazon underlines the oppression of Somali workers in Minneapolis, which has one of the largest racial wealth gaps in the country, and is the largest population of Somali people outside of Somalia. The capitalists treat Somali workers as cheap labor wherever they can, and only give in to workers’ demands after militant struggles. Somali workers disproportionality live in low-income neighborhoods and public housing, and they are regularly spied on by the FBI’s Countering Violent Extremism program. The capitalist politicians claim that there is only so much that can be spent to aid refugees here at home, while they spend billions of dollars in their never-ending wars in the Middle East and Africa. After 9/11, the bourgeois media went into overdrive in their quest to scapegoat Muslims generally for America’s problems. This has resulted in an enormous amount of NSA spying, hate crimes, and attacks on the rights of Muslim workers.
We must oppose racial and religious oppression and hypocrisy with a program of class struggle. With a class-independent, militant workers’ party, we could mobilize millions to advance a series of transitional demands that link today’s struggles to the enormous potential that would be unleashed under socialism. The workers’ struggle and the struggle against oppression is the struggle against capitalism!