U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Democrat from Minnesota, ignited a national controversy last week for expressing a basic political fact: The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, yields enormous lobbying power in Congress. Instead of addressing her critiques of this prominent pro-Israel lobbying organization, Jewish-Americans and both parties of Congress, especially opportunistic Republicans, denounced Omar as an irredeemable “anti-Semite.” Don’t these members of congress have more significant issues to fuss over than Omar merely calling attention to AIPAC’s financial and political clout?
The specific tweet that landed Omar in trouble read: “It’s all about the Benjamins, baby.” Omar was responding to another tweet by Glenn Greenwald who rightly pointed out that, from day one, Republican Party leaders have been intimidating Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Democrat from Michigan, for exercising their free speech rights to criticize Israel. After being asked who she “thinks is paying American politicians to be pro-Israel,” Omar replied “AIPAC.”
The response to Omar’s tweets has been troubling, and it goes to show how toxic the debate over Israel and Palestine has become. Not only did Omar attract condemnations for her remarks, President Donald Trump called for her to resign from Congress, or at least withdraw from her position on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. This is obviously hilarious coming from Trump. His ascendance to the White House was due to his brazen bigotry.
Omar is not a vicious anti-Semite, and I think her tweets were wildly misread. Her basic points were about the immense influence of money in politics and the tight alliance between Israel and the United States. In the past, Omar has critiqued the relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. Why wasn’t she denounced by the whole nation as an Islamophobe for condemning a Muslim-majority country? Part of the vitriol against Omar and Tlaib has to do with them refusing to toe the democratic script, particularly on the Israel-Palestine conflict. In fact, they are the first members of congress to actively support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel. It’s also likely that a lot of the criticisms toward Omar and Tlaib stem from their identity as outspoken Muslim woman of color.
More to the point, critiques of Israel’s government shouldn’t translate into a bias against Jews. Is it important to be cognizant of the language one uses when critiquing Israel so it doesn’t unwittingly fall into anti-Semitic tropes? Of course. But I also find it problematic that any mention of the word “Palestine” is virtually prohibited in the American political discourse. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Bernie Sanders committed heresy by stating, “We are going to have to treat the Palestinian people with respect and dignity.” The mainstream media fretted over this statement for weeks.
Omar shouldn’t have apologized for her remarks on AIPAC. And I’m glad to see her and Tlaib become the first two American politicians refusing to toe the pro-Israel line.