Ilhan Omar and the Perils of Criticizing Israel

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Accusations of anti-Semitism continue to plague Rep. Ilhan Omar despite their obvious lack of credibility. While she has had some private support inside the Democratic Party, the attacks levied against her show that the party is struggling to remain both relevant to young voters and connected to Israeli lobbyists in its determination to support imperialism.

Photo: Reuters / Leah Millis / File
Photo: Reuters / Leah Millis / File

On March 7 a resolution condemning both anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim prejudice was passed by the House of Representatives, 407-23.

The vote was taken after several weeks of tense negotiations within the Democratic Party and arguing among left Democratic Party voters. The resolution was a thinly veiled rebuke of Somalian-American Rep. Ilhan Omar, of Minnesota’s 5th District, whose tweets about Israel touched off a frenzy of condemnations among both Republicans and Democrats.

The statement that kicked off the controversy was a 2012 tweet in which Omar said, “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.” This February, Omar referred to GOP support for Israel: “It’s all about the Benjamins baby 🎶” Soon after, she got more specific, pointing out that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) funds political support for Israel.

The next day, Democratic Party leaders rebuked Omar for making what they called anti-Semitic statements. She replied that the accusations were meant to silence an important discussion of U.S. support for Israel. “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country,” she said. “I want to ask why is it OK for me to talk about the influence of the NRA, of fossil fuel industries or Big Pharma and not talk about a powerful lobbying group that is influencing policies?”

The outcry against Omar reflects the long-used and false conflation of the Jewish people with the oppressive state of Israel. This device was used as recently as 2017, when the Senate passed a bill allowing for the prosecution of people involved in the Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) movement, which is meant to raise awareness of and take action against Israel’s brutal repression of the Palestinian people.

Those who voted against the March 7 resolution were all members of the GOP, many of whom said things to the effect that the resolution should not have diluted the statement against anti-Semitism with language equally condemning of Islamophobia. Unsurprisingly, at a Republican gathering in West Virginia the week before the house vote, one of the members put up a blatantly Islamophobic poster associating Omar with the attacks of September 11, including text reading, “I am proof you have forgotten.” (Afterward, the state party chairperson made the laughable claim that the poster was not affiliated with the Republican Party.)

The hypocrisy of House GOP members, in their insistence that their party stands strong against anti-Semitism, is palpable. It is, after all, their own party leader who is responsible for, and actively promoting, the very real rise of white supremacy and anti-Semitism with his rhetoric. President Trump has, for example, referred to Ku Klux Klan members as “very fine people,” while his supporters have carried out violent attacks on the Jewish community.

Meanwhile, Omar was subjected to overtly violent threats. Al Jazeera reported that “Omar has also been subjected to death threats on a daily basis … Recently, the words ‘Assassinate Ilhan Omar’ were written across a toilet in Minnesota petrol station. The incident is under investigation by the FBI.” Despite the attention from law enforcement, both Democrats and Republicans remained silent on the death threats and hateful graffiti.

This is a hypocritical and unconscionable response to the threat of violence. Omar’s remarks about the Israeli lobbyists and lobbying organizations are painted as malicious anti-Semitism, with the implication that they are therefore dangerous. The direct and specific death threats against this Muslim woman, however, have been met with silence.

According to Phyllis Bennis of In These Times, this isn’t a big surprise. “Spokespeople of color continue to pay the highest price for their activism on [the] issue [of Israel], including through the false accusation of anti-Semitism. But attacks are escalating right now precisely because the movement for Palestinian rights is winning the fight for public opinion.”

Conflation of Israel with the Jewish People

There is a very real, bigoted idea of a conspiracy on the part of Jewish people who supposedly control the World Bank and all other financial institutions. This is what has allowed both parties to insist that criticism of funding for Israel is equivalent to anti-Semitism. But, as Bennis points out, contemporary anti-Semitism is rooted in white supremacy and the neo-Nazi movement.

Peter Beinart of The Guardian cites a 2018 Pew Research Center study on Americans’ attitudes about Israel in combination with a 2016 report by the Anti-Defamation League. Americans over the age of 65 were found to be both the most anti-Semitic and the most sympathetic toward Israel. On the other hand, Americans under 30 were the least anti-Semitic but were least sympathetic to Israel. Clearly, criticism of Israel is actually unconnected to anti-Semitism, and the attempt to paint it as such is a cynical move on the part of the Democrats to send a clear message that these kinds of statements will not be tolerated.

Beinart has provided a serious analysis of the ways in which this conflation between taking a stand against the Israeli state (including U.S. support for it) and anti-Semitism hurts both the international Jewish community and the nation of Palestine. “Anti-Zionism is not inherently antisemitic—and claiming it is uses Jewish suffering to erase the Palestinian experience. Yes, antisemitism is growing. Yes, world leaders must fight it fiercely. But in the words of a great Zionist thinker, ‘This is not the way.’” He continues, “[Israel’s] ethnic nationalism excludes many of the people under its control. … Israel also contains close to 5 million non-citizens: Palestinians who live under Israeli control in the West Bank and Gaza (yes, Israel still controls Gaza) without basic rights in the state that dominates their lives.”

Explaining how this connects to U.S. interests, Bennis points this out, citing a Fortune report on Israeli lobbying groups. “It’s hardly news, let alone shocking, that AIPAC and the broader pro-Israel lobby it coordinates are among the most influential of Washington influence-peddlers.” She makes connections “between the Pentagon and the IDF, the CIA and the Mossad, Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump with their shared antagonism to Iran and eagerness to partner with Saudi Arabia—are all far more important in maintaining the Washington-Tel Aviv alliance than any embrace of Israel by the U.S. public.”

Therefore, in a discussion of Israeli oppression of Palestine and its connection to the United States, it would be virtually impossible to discuss the issue without referring to money, considering that it is the driving force behind imperialism and capitalism, which in turn motivate U.S. determination to fund Israeli terror and support Saudi Arabia—whose regime Omar has also criticized and which controls the region’s oil supplies. This doesn’t make her comments anti-Semitic.

Attacks on Omar

The text of the March 7 House resolution mischaracterizes Omar’s criticism of Israel, including statements that are correct but unrelated to the recent controversy around her. They include the following: “Anti-Semitism includes blaming Jews as Jews when things go wrong; calling for, aiding, or justifying the killing or harming of Jews in the name of a radical ideology or extremist view of religion; or making mendacious, dehumanizing, demonizing, or stereotyped allegations about Jews.”

But Omar never said, or even implied, any of these things.

In fact, Omar never referred to Jewish members of Congress or American Jews in general—some of whom are among Israel’s most vehement critics. The BDS movement has strong support from Jewish Voice for Peace, over 40 other international Jewish organizations, and large portions of the progressive community in general that have long both questioned and openly criticized Israel.

Yet Omar’s critics continued to insist that criticism of U.S. funding for Israel is an “anti-Semitic trope.”

Most revealing, however, is that “progressive” members of the Democratic Party had to insist on including language addressing anti-Muslim bias. Before their intervention, the Democratic Party leadership wanted the resolution to condemn only anti-Semitism. In fact, all the opposition to the final version of the resolution was on the part of Republicans who explained that anti-Semitism should not have been combined with anti-Muslim bias since, in the words of Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert, “Anti-Semitism is a very special kind of hatred that should never be watered down. There has never been a persecution of a people like the Jewish people.” The implication, of course, is that the persecution of Muslims from right-wing death threats doesn’t rate high enough to justify addressing.

The new resolution also includes language regarding the very real anti-Semitism at work on the right, including the identification of hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan, the America First Committee and modern neo-Nazis, as well as the 2018 murder of 11 people at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. The inclusion of these statements in a resolution clearly directed at Omar implies that, in some way, Omar’s comments are on a par with the right-wing hatred at work in the attack on Tree of Life—which was perpetrated by a Trump supporter. The level of maliciousness in this implication shows the lengths to which both parties will go to silence any discussion of imperialist support for the Israeli regime.

Yet the depth of the hegemony of, and unwillingness to question, U.S. policy in the Middle East is revealed by the failure of the Democrats most widely regarded as progressive to genuinely defend Omar. New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib focused exclusively on Omar’s ability to accept criticism and the double standard used against her, ignoring and even removing the focus from her valid critique of Israeli state policy.

AOC tweeted on March 5: “In this administration + all others, we should actively check antisemitism, anti-blackness, homophobia, racism, and all other forms of bigotry. And the most productive end goal when we see it is to educate and heal. It’s the difference btwn ‘calling in’ before ‘calling out.’ ‘Calling out’ is one of the measures of last resort, not 1st or 2nd resort…Ilhan, in her statement a few weeks ago, has demonstrated a willingness to listen+work w/impacted communities.” With this, AOC displayed an unwillingness to challenge the Israeli lobbyists. This is unfortunate but consistent with her shift in rhetoric about Palestine after facing criticism of her characterization of the country as “an occupation” and the murders of Palestinian citizens as a “massacre.”

Even Tlaib, a Palestinian-American representative from Detroit, engaged in a politically vague defense of Omar, making her statements more personal than political. “I am so honored to serve with @IlhanMN, an incredible courageous woman,” Tlaib tweeted. “Every time I worry about her and the ugly attacks, I remember what she said to me two months ago: ‘I survived war, I can survive this.’”

Surprisingly, Omar’s most direct defenders were Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, both of whom condemned the tendency to equate anti-Semitism with “legitimate criticism” of Israel. Unfortunately, this support rings hollow, considering that both are members of the Democratic Party establishment—Sanders having just signed a loyalty oath to the party.

Lukewarm defense from Tlaib and AOC notwithstanding, the fact that Omar’s criticism of the Israeli lobby caused such conflict indicates the divisions in the Democratic Party—divisions that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi went out of her way to deny. Claiming the media “loves to foment unease,” she showed clear anxiety on the part of the Democrats around the lack of unity within the party against Omar.

Photo: Michele Alves

Photo: Michele Alves

The fractures among the Democrats around the controversy are likely also the product of generational changes in attitudes about Israel. Al Jazeera has cited a 2018 poll, stating: “Israel’s reputation is deteriorating among demographics such as Democrats, younger voters, African Americans and Hispanic Americans.” And Bennis says, “U.S. Jews, particularly young Jews and—most especially—young Democratic Jews, are turning away from Israel in higher numbers than ever seen before.”

It’s probable that the more progressive members of Congress recognize the moderately leftward shifts in the politics of Democratic Party supporters and have become instrumental in advocating for changes in party policy in order to appeal to these different perspectives in the Democratic Party voter base. But the inability of the party leadership to allow the critique, debate and discussion to take place is revealed by the subsequent rush to pass the statement on the House floor.

Misplaced Excitement

There was undeniably an outcry from many Democratic Party voters against the House Democrats’ treatment of Omar, and she had support from other Democratic leaders. This was reflected in the small shifts in the leadership’s plan—including both the addition of a pledge to fight anti-Muslim bias and the one-day postponement of the vote. This defense of a Muslim woman against claims of anti-Semitism does signal a lessening of Islamophobia among liberal voters, since it would likely have not happened 10 years ago—but then, neither would Omar have been elected.

These details do not, however, support arguments among sections of the U.S. left that the Democratic Party can be “reclaimed” and changed into a party that represents working-class interests.

The internal conflict among the Democrats is far more indicative of the disagreement over the level of change required for the party in order to stay relevant to young people, whether or not this is what really motivates the more progressive representatives. The Democrats’ devotion to capitalism and to maintaining the defense of ruling-class interests required both the party’s left and right wings to back U.S. support for Israel, and this same devotion will prevent any socialist takeover of the party.

The ongoing attacks on Omar, more than anything else, reveal the nature of the Democratic Party; it is the party of war for oil and support for Israel, but no support for the oppressed here or abroad.

About author

Francesca Gomes

Francesca Gomes

Francesca is a teacher from Brooklyn.