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No, Ilhan Omar’s AIPAC comments were not anti-Semitic

As a pro-Israel Jew–albeit one who is not a fan of Netanyahu or much of current Israeli policy–I often bristle at the frequently militant tactics of anti-Israel and BDS activists. But that doesn’t mean I think they’re bad people. On the contrary, I recognize that the vast majority of them view Israel as a genuine violator of human rights and condemn it out of solidarity for oppressed peoples around the world.

Many Zionists don’t share my nuanced viewpoint. In fact, some go so far as to cast any criticism of the Jewish homeland as inherently anti-Semitic. In the case of one pro-Palestine Congresswoman, however, they’ve used a different tactic: casting her reasonable condemnations of the pro-Israel lobby as anti-Semitic through accusations of invoking anti-Semitic “tropes”.

Here’s the context

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) is a Somali-American who, in 2018, along with Palestinian-American Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), became one of the first Muslim women elected to the House of Representatives. She sits on the House Foreign Affairs committee, and recently came under fire for comments regarding Israel and the pro-Israel lobby in Washington.

Omar, a Palestine sympathizer and supporter of the anti-Israel Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement, decried, in a now-deleted tweet, the influence of the pro-Israel lobby on American politicians. The tweet read “it’s all about the Benjamins baby,” which implied that the U.S. Congress’ support for Israel is motivated by financial incentive. After coming under heavy fire from Democrats and Republicans alike who accused her of employing “anti-Semitic tropes” of Jewish financial control and puppeteering of politicians, Omar apologized.

Not long after, Omar again came under fire. This time, it was for suggesting that some members of Congress “push for allegiance to a foreign country.” She was accused of using an anti-Semitic trope of Jewish-Americans’ “dual loyalty” to both the United States and to Israel. Evidently, Omar stands firm in her convictions.

It would be much easier to swallow the claims of anti-Semitism if Omar’s assertions weren’t so damn accurate. While I don’t particularly sympathize with the pro-Palestine cause, I cannot deny the fact that the pro-Israel lobby has a stranglehold over the federal legislature. Saying so is not anti-Semitic because not all Jews are Zionists, and most American-Jews are not affiliated with the pro-Israel lobby.

In 2018 alone, pro-Israel lobbyists and donors made a staggering $22 million in campaign contributions to both Democrats and Republicans, according to a report by the Guardian. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC–the group referenced in Omar’s first tweet–does not make political contributions, but it did spend $3.5 million lobbying politicians and candidates in the 2018 cycle.

This cashflow has clearly manifested itself in policy concessions by the vast majority of lawmakers. One prominent example was S720, better known as the Israel Anti-Boycott Act of 2017, which would have imposed severe economic penalties on American businesses that participated in the anti-Israel BDS movement.

I was an intern for Senator Kirsten Gillibrand–a co-sponsor of S720–when the bill was introduced in Congress. It was also backed by by a bipartisan group of nearly 60 Senators ranging from Democrat Jeff Merkley to Republican Ted Cruz. It seemed like it was on its way to cruise to an easy victory. Then the public got a whiff of what was going on in the upper chamber.

Gillibrand was rebuked in phone calls and at town halls by constituents of all stripes–including pro-Israel Jews–for her support of the legislation. Eventually, she succumbed to overwhelming popular opposition and backed down from her sponsorship of the legislation that sparked fears of the suppression of first amendment rights. In her prior election cycle, she had been ranked seventh among Senators for the most campaign contributions from pro-Israel sources.

With the evidence of the pro-Israel lobby’s political and financial strength in Washington and its ability to persuade lawmakers to back unpopular legislation, it is difficult to look upon Omar’s comments as anything but purely factual. While I cannot speak to her prejudices or lack thereof–nor can anyone who is not personally familiar with her thinking–it is easy to believe she had a mindset not of malice or hatred, but of candor.

While anti-Semitism is a scourge on the rise, Omar’s comments are likely rooted in policy, not prejudice. The claim that there are “anti-Semitic tropes” present in her statements is, at best, subjective. At worst, it is a blatant and bad faith attempt by her opponents to discredit contentious but reasonable political speech.

There is no clear malice towards the Jewish community, and the message she is trying to send can be conveyed in but a few other ways. If her words are anti-Semitic, then that would render most true, fact-based critiques of the pro-Israel lobby anti-Semitic as well. Perhaps that is what her accusers want.

The bulk of her detractors derive from two camps: moderate or establishment Democrats and conservatives. Both groups have ample political motive to try and undermine Omar. Conservatives naturally view the left-wing Representative as an adversary, while moderate and establishment Democrats do not want her and her left-wing colleagues to push the party further left and, they believe, alienate swing voters as a result. It is not coincidental that they have built a rhetorical trap wherein any statement by Omar conveying her true beliefs about Israel and Palestine are automatically anti-Semitic.

Setting aside the fact that there is clearly a degree of Islamophobia permeating some of the more right-wing condemnation of Omar–as evidenced by Fox News host Judge Jeanine’s comments about Omar’s religion being antithetical to the Constitution–therein also lies a degree of implicit anti-Semitism as well. In attacking Omar’s benign comments as anti-Semitic, and drawing America’s commentariat into a fierce, week-long debate over them, her detractors are distracting from true and malicious examples of anti-Semitism which are, at present, on the rise in America.

Some point to the frequency with which Omar comments on Israel–as opposed to other Middle Eastern countries, which commit far more grave human rights offenses–as evidence that she is “obsessed” with the topic. This, they posit, proves that she holds a deep and irrepressible loathing of Israel and the Jewish people which cannot be contained. However, there is a logical explanation for why Omar’s sights are fixated on Israel.

The United States gives upwards of 3.2 billion dollars in financial aid to Israel annually, which is far more than it gives to any other country not actively engaged in a war. The US has an extremely close economic and political relationship with the nation.

Omar views Israel as a human rights abuser, a claim which, while debatable, is nonetheless shared by a substantial number of Americans and is at least somewhat valid. In her capacity as a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, she views Israel as the country upon which American lawmakers have far and away the most influence. Syria’s and North Korea’s human rights abuses–grave though they are–cannot be so easily swayed by American policymakers. It’s also worth pointing out that Omar has criticized the policies of Saudi Arabia, another country over which the US has disproportionate influence.

On full analysis, the wide condemnation of Omar’s remarks has been unreasonable. Charlottesville marchers chanting “the Jews will not replace us,” is anti-Semitism. Former Maine Governor Paul LePage saying “the Jewish people in America have been great supporters of the Democratic Party… that’s where their money comes from for the most part,” is anti-Semitism. Pastor Louis Farrakhan likening Jews to termites and blaming them for black slavery is anti-Semitism. Ilhan Omar calling attention to the pro-Israel lobby’s strength in Washington–regardless of what you believe about Israel and Palestine–is not anti-Semitism.

Learn more

The Guardian – Ilhan Omar apologizes after being accused of using ‘antisemitic tropes’

Global News (Canada) – When is criticism of Israel anti-Semitic?

Haaretz – Gillibrand Becomes First Democratic Presidential Candidate to Criticize Omar’s ‘anti-Semitic Tropes’

Andrew Solender ’20 is the Editor-in-Chief of the VPR and a political science major and history correlate. He has worked as a political reporter for Chronogram Magazine, Inside Sources, and City & State NY. 

Follow this author on twitter: @AndrewSolender

One Comment

  1. Jeff Blankfort March 19, 2019

    Well argued. Anyone bothering to read any edition of any of the scores of Jewish community publications in the US, which are NOT intended for outside audiences, would quickly see that affection for Israel and what is happening there, is what dominates Jewish community politics today, across the religious spectrum.

    Calling what is observably and factually the truth an “antisemitic trope” threatens to make that charge analogous to “the boy that cried ‘wolf’.”

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