American political trends go in waves, big ones that last months and years, small ones that last a week or so and are soon forgotten. The controversy surrounding Minnesota’s newly elected Rep. Ilhan Omar has been blown way out of proportion for very specific reasons, but it is part of a larger project to defend and protect Israel against all critics.
Rep. Omar is one of the first two Muslim American women elected to Congress in November 2016, along with Rashida Tlaib from Michigan. Omar, who emigrated to the U.S. from Somalia, chooses to wear the hijab, which in and of itself is a daily, silent rebuke to the exclusionary politics emanating from the current White House. A change of the House rules to allow a Congressmember to wear a hat or head covering, enacted just before Omar took her seat, is a good example of the policies of tolerance and access that will benefit all Americans—a Jew who chooses to wear a yarmulke, a Sikh who wears a turban, perhaps someone wishing to cover their cancer baldness, and every grade school student who sees such diversity at the highest rungs of government.
Omar committed the cardinal sin of daring to say out loud what every member of Congress knows, that AIPAC funnels significant campaign contributions to officeseekers who will unconditionally support to Israel’s priorities.
Plenty of ordinary citizens, and increasing numbers of Congressmembers, rely on the guarantees of free speech to criticize the highly influential lobbies in Washington, and in our state houses, for the NRA, for Big Pharma, for fossil fuels, tobacco, health insurance companies, and others. But Omar committed the cardinal sin of daring to say out loud what every member of Congress knows, as well as ever larger segments of the American voting public, that AIPAC—the American Israel Public Affairs Committee—funnels significant campaign contributions (Omar called them “Benjamins”) to officeseekers and officeholders who will faithfully lend unconditional support to Israel’s priorities. As was famously the case with Georgia’s Rep. Cynthia McKinney, a politician can also be cast out of office thanks to an orchestrated campaign of vilification against her, as an opponent of Israeli policy, and to scaled-up fundraising for her challenger.
The firestorm around such critics of Israel often focuses on persons of color who can more easily be singled out and isolated than whites. It reinforces the idea, in a racist society, that Black people and Muslim people do not conform to the standard “Judeo-Christian” value of backing our much-touted “only democratic ally in the Middle East,” disregarding any notion that perhaps people of color in this country might see parallels between their own dispossessed condition and that of the Palestinians in “settler states.”
The moment for this crusade
Omar also raised the criticism that many of our legislators seem to owe more loyalty to Israel than to our own country. Under pressure, Omar has walked back the language she used in her brief Twitter comments, but it’s important to keep in mind the moment at which the crusade against her has risen up.
It comes at a time when the United States has flagrantly tossed aside any and all recognition of Palestinians and legitimate Palestinian rights in “Greater Israel,” i.e., Israel proper, Gaza, East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights. The embassy has been moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, further obliterating the chance that one day East Jerusalem might be the Palestinian capital. The president presumes to create a consummate “deal” on the ongoing Israel-Palestine crisis without even talking with the Palestinians.
Trump’s ambassador to Israel, his former bankruptcy lawyer David Melech Friedman, is a longtime donor to the Jewish West Bank settlement community that has appropriated land that would once have formed part of a new Palestinian state. Long-held American support for a two-state solution, acknowledging the national aspirations of both sides, has gone up in smoke. And the U.S. says not a word when the Israeli armed forces fire wantonly on demonstrating Gazans hundreds of feet behind the heavily fortified border with Israel. Most members of Congress are too intimidated by AIPAC to raise their voices against such policies, and the situation on the ground only gets worse as the international reputation of both Israel and the U.S. plummets.
At the same time a nationwide campaign has emerged, organized by the efficient Israeli hasbara (public relations propaganda), to pass a series of state and federal laws against Americans “demonizing” Israel or supporting the Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), a worldwide nonviolent campaign to bring attention to Israeli policies similar to the anti-apartheid effort against white supremacist South Africa in the 1980s and early 1990s. A bill sponsored by AIPAC called “Combating BDS” passed the Senate on February 5.
As an example of the kind of language used in this legislation, either proposed or already in effect, wording from a Texas law demands that any company or even private contractor doing business with the state promise not to take any action “intended to penalize, inflict economic harm on, or limit commercial relations with Israel, or with a person or entity doing business in Israel or in Israel-controlled territory.” Currently on appeal is the case of one Bahia Amawi, a school speech pathologist of Palestinian background who privately chooses not to purchase Israeli products, would not sign this commitment, and was promptly let go from her job.
Apparently “dual loyalty”—to protect Israel even when that obligation trumps commonly understood free speech rights at home—is okay.
Free speech in the Jewish community has been severely curtailed in recent years owing to heightened sensitivity over criticism of Israel. Students in the campus-based Hillel organization are not allowed to program any speakers or discussions which depart from the official Israeli line. Jewish film festivals routinely bar entries deemed too critical of Israel, and young Jews recruited to spend a free 10-day educational holiday “Birthright” tour of Israel are discouraged from asking any impertinent questions about the Palestinians, nor are they brought to see either the Jewish settlements or the centuries-old Palestinian communities in the West Bank.
In fact, it turns out that majorities of American Jews are far more loyal to traditional values of tolerance, egalitarianism and civil liberties—which have provided Jews in America probably the most religious and cultural freedom Jews have ever experienced at any time in history—than they are to the ever more right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu. Many American Jews, who overwhelmingly vote Democratic, are offended by Netanyahu’s lovefest with the GOP, and recoil in disgust at the GOP-controlled House of Representatives inviting him to speak to Congress without even notifying Obama’s White House that they had asked a foreign dignitary to come to America and circumvent the Executive Branch.
American Jews by and large demonstrate a mass disaffection with most of Israel’s policies, such as its treatment of the Palestinians and the devastating siege of Gaza, its own absence of religious freedom and the control over private matters, such as marriage, by the Orthodox rabbinate, the quickening pace of settlement expansion, and in some areas the unequal treatment of women.
Despite the fact that politicians often appeal to the Jewish vote on the basis of strong support for Israel, polling regularly indicates that among the issues American Jewish voters are concerned about, Israel rates far from the top.
The AIPAC philosophy and the current attack on Ilhan Omar are part of a campaign not to unite the Jewish community around common interests, but to divide the country and split off Jews from one another into hateful camps over a manufactured claim of “anti-Semitism.” AIPAC’s happy allies in the evangelical movement, who believe that Jesus will return to Earth once all the Jews have gathered again in the Land of Israel so they can be converted to Christianity en masse, are delighted to sit so close to the throne of Republican and far-right power. They see their embrace of the Jewish state as a sign of acknowledging the “chosen people.”
Netanyahu himself has become one of the lightning rods of anti-Semitism around the world, especially for his explicit promise never to cede an inch to the Palestinians. He is now under indictment on charges of fraud, bribery, and breach of trust, but he apparently sees no contradiction with being the prime minister of the only Jewish state, which owes its existence to the Holocaust, and palling around politically on the world stage with reactionary and/or explicitly anti-Semitic leaders in Ukraine, Russia, Hungary, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, and the U.S. He has embraced the ultra-nationalist Otzma Yehudit party—that’s “Jewish Power”—in his current electoral campaign and has attacked the civil liberties community with a barrage of anti-democratic legislation. Another way he has alienated American Jewry is his constant ginning up of war hysteria against Iran. Of course, he supported Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal.
He has placed himself at odds with traditional allies in the Western European democracies and thrown his fate in with the neoliberal (read: neofascist) trend in countries with authoritarian leaders or strong movements. Those movements have in turn taken lessons from Israel in security measures, building walls, excluding unwelcome immigrants and migrants, creating second-class citizenship for at least 20 percent of its inhabitants (actually, 50 percent including all the land Israel controls between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River), and leaving refugees stateless for five generations. With the Nation State Bill that passed the Israeli Knesset in July 2018, Israel wrote the denial of equality under the law into its Basic Law, subjecting its Palestinian population to further direct discrimination.
Jewish groups that are critical of Israel’s policies range widely in their vision of the future—whether a Zionist state that inherently favors its Jewish citizens should remain in place, a federation or a binational state, or two states or one state. There are some in the BDS movement who limit their demand to boycott only products from the occupied territories, while others would boycott Israel completely. Where the State of Israel sees these criticisms as “delegitimizing” the nation, the mainstream of the objections has to do not with the existential survival of Israel but with the specific policies that Israel enacts. Similarly, no one claims Japan should not exist as a nation just because there continues to be a Japanese whaling industry, or that India should not exist because it maintains the caste system.
The oft-repeated accusation that being anti-Israel or even anti-Zionist is necessarily anti-Semitic is demonstrably false. The several thousand-year-old Jewish religion and sense of peoplehood have never been defined essentially or exclusively by its relationship to the modern-day State of Israel. Most of the world Jewish population was either non- or outspokenly anti-Zionist until well into the 20th century. There are even sects of Orthodox Judaism which theologically reject the State of Israel because God, not human beings, determines the fate of his “chosen people”: When the Messiah comes the Jews will have no use for a temporal earthly entity such as a political state.
The original call for BDS includes the right of return for Palestinians expelled in 1947-48 during Israel’s War of Independence and later, as well as their descendants, who now number in the millions. Israel sees this as an “existential” threat to Jewish demographic dominance, but in practice, most people of Palestinian descent would more likely choose to live in Arab-speaking lands, or in their own state, with appropriate compensation. A modest number, which could be controlled by mutual agreement, might enter Israel annually for reasons of family reunification.
The real anti-Semites
Meanwhile, who are the real anti-Semites in America? Those, like Ilhan Omar, who shed a ray of light on the concerted campaign to keep Palestinian issues out of the news and out of Congress?
The Donald Trump campaign in 2016 was extravagant in its use of anti-Semitic tropes and innuendoes, oftentimes ripping memes and language right off neo-Nazi websites. There was one infamous attack ad depicting Hillary Clinton focusing on her “global special interests” that “control the levers of power in Washington” (an unmistakable anti-Semitic dogwhistle), showing piles of money, and hovering over her an unmistakable six-pointed “Jewish” star in blood red. How the Jews in and around Trump’s campaign could have countenanced such open anti-Semitism is a question perhaps best answered only by their psychoanalysts. No wonder Trump attracted support from the Ku Klux Klan.
In the Charlottesville Nazi rally, the young white agitators chanted, among other slogans, “Jews will not replace us!” Yet in the aftermath, which resulted in one death and a number of injuries, Trump went on television and had the gall to say, “There were very nice people on both sides.”
The October 27 attack on Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue by a professed anti-immigrant anti-Semite was directly inspired by Trump’s obsession with the caravan “invaders” across the southern border that was in full cry just before the midterm election a week later (which brought both Omar and Tlaib to the House). Trump’s self-aggrandizing visit to Pittsburgh was widely unappreciated.
The fact that Trump, like Netanyahu, favors “populist” autocrats in Eastern Europe who have never been friends to the Jews, is worrisome indeed. Anti-Semitic incidents have risen dramatically in the last two years, as Trump’s “nationalist” followers have become emboldened to act.
Ilhan Omar, as a black, immigrant, African, Muslim woman, has been under attack her whole life. She has always been told to “watch her step,” as everyone in despised groups has been. Perhaps her off-the-cuff comments weren’t parsed out in advance for maximum clarity and heightened attention to Jewish sensibilities. But they contained a world of truth—and it’s the truth, not the specific verbiage—that put all politicians in hock to AIPAC in a tizzy.
The turning tide
The tide is turning, however: Important voices within the Democratic Party rose to Omar’s defense, such as Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren. Sanders believes the House was targeting her “as a way of stifling that [Israel-Palestine] debate. That’s wrong.” Harris said, “You can both support Israel and be loyal to our country” and that “there is a difference between criticism of policy or political leaders and anti-Semitism.” Warren added that “Branding criticism of Israel as automatically anti-Semitic has a chilling effect on our public discourse,” and cited the unacceptable threats of violence—hardly surprising in today’s climate—that Omar has received.
Consider, too, that when the Senate passed its “Combating BDS” bill, 22 Democrats did not vote for it, as M.J. Rosenberg points out in This Is How AIPAC Really Works:
“That is a decent number, but the real sign that AIPAC’s power is on the wane is that every Democratic senator who is a candidate for president (except Amy Klobuchar) voted No. They voted No because they are seeking to win support from the Democratic grassroots, which, naturally enough, skews younger and younger, more and more progressive, and less and less white, leading naturally enough to more sympathy for Palestinians and less for Netanyahu’s Israel. That wouldn’t have happened before 2016 when Bernie Sanders embraced Palestinians and their cause as part of his coalition and not only did not lose support because of it but gained it. By 2020, it will be close to impossible for any Democrat to claim the progressive mantle while aligning with AIPAC.”
Readers are also referred to the assessment by scholar Peter Beinart in the Forward. He details extensively how Congressional support for Israel and the West Bank settlements has been rooted in anti-Muslim bigotry. “Were the Republicans denouncing Omar even sincerely opposed to anti-Semitism, they would not support Donald Trump. Trump, after all, in 2013 tweeted that “I’m much smarter than Jonathan Leibowitz—I mean Jon Stewart.”
Eric A. Gordon