Why False Accusations of Anti-Semitism Against Ilhan Omar Are So Harmful

Bad-faith smears of Omar and many others are being used to crush Palestinian rights, undermine social movements and divert attention from real anti-Semitism.

Phyllis Bennis March 4, 2019

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), attends a news conference to introduce H.R. 4, Voting Rights Advancement Act, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019. (Photo by Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Peo­ple are right to be afraid of ris­ing anti-Semi­tism in the Unit­ed States. But too many of them are wrong about what it is and where it’s com­ing from.

False accusations aren't made equally against all critics of Israel and supporters of Palestinian rights.

In the last two or three years, encour­aged and legit­imized by can­di­date and then Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, anti-Semi­tism has been on the rise along­side vir­u­lent racism, extreme misog­y­ny, xeno­pho­bia, Islam­o­pho­bia and homo­pho­bia. Trump praised the fine peo­ple” among the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and Nazi sym­pa­thiz­ers who marched in Char­lottesville, Vir­ginia in August 2017, chant­i­ng, Jews will not replace us,” White lives mat­ter,” and One peo­ple, one nation, end immi­gra­tion.” One of those fine peo­ple” used his car as a weapon to kill Heather Hey­er and injure dozens more anti-racist pro­test­ers, and Trump thus gave the impri­matur of the White House to the most vio­lent racist and anti-Semit­ic forces in the Unit­ed States.

Just over a year lat­er, anoth­er white, racist killer, angered, he said, by the con­gre­ga­tion’s sup­port for the refugees and immi­grants Trump has false­ly tar­get­ed as rapists and mur­der­ers, attacked the Tree of Life Syn­a­gogue in Pitts­burgh, Penn­syl­va­nia, mur­der­ing 11 Jew­ish wor­shipers and injur­ing at least six more.

Anti-Semi­tism and white supremacy

It is not sur­pris­ing that the Char­lottesville chants and the Pitts­burgh shooter’s stat­ed moti­va­tions all linked anti-Semi­tism with racism and white suprema­cy. That’s because mod­ern anti-Semi­tism is root­ed in white suprema­cy, despite the fact that in the Unit­ed States, a major­i­ty of Jews are rec­og­nized as white. As cul­tur­al anthro­pol­o­gist C. Richard King described the Pitts­burgh shooter’s ratio­nale, It’s not just that Jews are con­spir­ing to destroy the world by manip­u­lat­ing the econ­­omy, although you did hear that nar­ra­tive dur­ing the Great Reces­sion. A new­er type of con­spir­a­to­r­i­al think­ing has grown in which Jews are using oth­er racial groups to erode or destroy white Amer­i­ca. That nar­ra­tive is now hap­pen­ing around immigration.”

The KKK’s ori­gins in the slave states of the Unit­ed States in the 1800s did not reflect much con­cern about Jews: Enslaved Africans and freed Black res­i­dents were the pri­ma­ry vic­tims of their mur­der­ous vio­lence. But when the more-or-less defunct KKK re-emerged around 1915, Jews became a major tar­get — and remained so for decades. While Jew­ish eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal priv­i­lege and influ­ence grew rapid­ly in the post-World War II era, anti-Semi­tism nev­er entire­ly dis­ap­peared: Instead, it became a trans­ac­tion­al prej­u­dice, emerg­ing more sharply at moments of social con­flict when Jews were scape­goat­ed for com­plex social challenges.

In the Unit­ed States, anti-Semi­tism nev­er reached the same uni­ver­sal­i­ty, reg­u­lar­i­ty or social destruc­tion of slav­ery, anti-Black racism, geno­cide against Native peo­ples, or the intern­ment of Japan­ese Amer­i­cans. But it nev­er entire­ly dis­ap­peared, either. Thus, the Char­lottesville march of fas­cists, the Pitts­burgh mur­ders in the syn­a­gogue and oth­er acts of vio­lence can indis­putably trace their lin­eage to long his­to­ries of anti-Jew­ish big­otry across the coun­try. Anti-Semi­tism in the Unit­ed States, includ­ing in its most vio­lent forms, emerged direct­ly from the broad­er cat­e­go­ry of white supremacy.

That’s real anti-Semi­tism — and it’s on the rise. The good news is that a wide range of com­mu­ni­ties have come togeth­er to defend and sup­port the vic­tims of this ris­ing tide, under­stand­ing how anti-Semi­tism is linked to the par­al­lel rise in white suprema­cy and all the evils that come from it. Among them are anti-racist and Black free­dom move­ments, a pletho­ra of Mus­lim and oth­er faith-based orga­ni­za­tions, immi­grant and refugee rights mobi­liza­tions, Jew­ish peace and Pales­tin­ian rights-focused orga­ni­za­tions and civ­il rights groups.

Real and fake anti-Semitism

The bad news is that false accu­sa­tions of anti-Semi­tism — usu­al­ly linked to crit­i­cism of Israel or Israel’s sup­port­ers in the Unit­ed States — are on the rise as well. And we need to be clear: It is not anti-Semit­ic to sup­port Pales­tin­ian rights, demand a change in U.S. pol­i­cy towards Israel, expose the kind of pres­sure that the pro-Israel lob­by brings to bear on elect­ed offi­cials, or call out Israel’s vio­la­tions of human rights and inter­na­tion­al law.­­ False accu­sa­tions of anti-Semi­tism are used to under­mine Pales­tin­ian rights, vio­late the First Amend­ment and demo­nize social move­ments. They also serve as a pow­er­ful diver­sion from the urgent task of com­bat­ing the real thing.

False accu­sa­tions aren’t made equal­ly against all crit­ics of Israel and sup­port­ers of Pales­tin­ian rights. They are far more like­ly to be deployed against peo­ple of col­or, espe­cial­ly Black and Arab intel­lec­tu­als, as we’ve recent­ly seen with Marc Lam­ont Hill, who was fired by CNN fol­low­ing com­plaints about his Pales­tin­ian rights speech at the Unit­ed Nations. Angela Davis was award­ed the Birm­ing­ham Civ­il Rights Insti­tute’s pres­ti­gious Fred L. Shut­tlesworth Human Rights Award in her home­town, only to have the award revoked because of her sup­port for Pales­tin­ian rights (In response to mas­sive pub­lic pres­sure, the Insti­tute offered to renew the offer, but Davis instead chose to par­tic­i­pate in a pub­lic event that includ­ed sol­i­dar­i­ty with Pales­tine). Michelle Alexan­der, whose extra­or­di­nary New York Times col­umn root­ed sup­port for Pales­tin­ian rights square­ly in the lega­cy of Dr. Mar­tin Luther King, Jr., faced charges of sneaky anti-Semi­tism.”

Most of all, at this moment, we see the tar­get­ing of some of the new cohort of amaz­ing brave young women of col­or now in Con­gress for the first time. When Rep. Ilhan Omar (D.-Minn.) called out AIPAC and the Israel lob­by ear­li­er this month for using mon­ey to win sup­port in Con­gress — as every lob­by worth its donors does — she was not con­demned and threat­ened just because of what she said, but because of who she is when she said it. She is a Soma­li-born for­mer refugee, a Black Mus­lim woman who wears her hijab in the halls of Con­gress. And for some in Con­gress, in the White House and in the media and in too much of the coun­try, such a per­son does not belong in Congress.

If Omar had writ­ten a for­mal state­ment instead of a tweet, if she had issued a seri­ous analy­sis of how every lob­by, includ­ing the pro-Israel lob­by led by AIPAC, directs funds to ensure sup­port from mem­bers of con­gress, rather than casu­al­ly quot­ing the Puff Dad­dy line that it’s all about the ben­jamins, baby,” the response would have been the same. Because it’s far more about who she is than what she said.

Rough­ly three weeks lat­er, the con­gress­woman was again accused of anti-Semi­tism, this time for a phrase tak­en out of con­text from a town hall dis­cus­sion in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. What she actu­al­ly said was, I want to talk about the polit­i­cal influ­ence in this coun­try that says it is okay for peo­ple to push for alle­giance to a for­eign coun­try. And 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 lob­by … that is influ­enc­ing policy?”

She also faced accu­sa­tions for tweets pub­lished on March 3 say­ing, I am told every­day that I am anti-Amer­i­can if I am not pro-Israel. I find that to be prob­lem­at­ic and I am not alone. I just hap­pen to be will­ing to speak up on it and open myself to attacks … I should not be expect­ed to have allegiance/​pledge sup­port to a for­eign coun­try in order to serve my coun­try in Con­gress or serve on com­mit­tee. The peo­ple of the 5th elect­ed me to serve their interest.”

The worst aspect was that pow­er­ful mem­bers of her own par­ty, rather than com­ing to her defense, led the attacks. Demo­c­ra­t­ic Rep. Juan Var­gas (D‑Calif.) actu­al­ly claimed Mon­day on Twit­ter that ques­tion­ing sup­port for the U.S.-Israel rela­tion­ship is unacceptable.”

The pro-Israel lobby

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. This is not only because of the mil­lions of dol­lars in cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions the lob­by — which includes orga­ni­za­tions like Chris­tians Unit­ed for Israel — spends every year. But also because, his­tor­i­cal­ly, the lob­by’s pow­er has been braid­ed into, and been strength­ened by, its link to the decades-old strate­gic ties between U.S. and Israeli mil­i­tary, secu­ri­ty, geo-polit­i­cal and nuclear goals. Those ties — 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.

The inter­sec­tion of the lob­by and mil­i­ta­rized strate­gic inter­ests have strength­ened both over the years, even as one or the oth­er rose to be more impor­tant. Start­ing in 1967 when the so-called spe­cial rela­tion­ship” between Wash­ing­ton and Tel Aviv took shape after the Pen­ta­gon decid­ed that Israel’s vic­to­ry in the Six-Day War por­tend­ed the begin­ning of a beau­ti­ful friend­ship, the strate­gic ties were most impor­tant. The lob­by had been there since decades before the state of Israel was cre­at­ed in 1948, but it had nev­er been all that influ­en­tial on its own. At the height of the Cold War, the Sovi­et Union was win­ning ris­ing influ­ence across the Arab world, and the Unit­ed States was des­per­ate to expand its com­pet­i­tive­ness in the region. That meant access to oil, polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic influ­ence, arms sales, mil­i­tary pres­ence and pow­er projection.

Israel fit the bill, not least because the per­cep­tion in offi­cial U.S. cir­cles was that Israelis were white and west­ern — and there­fore assumed to be inher­ent­ly more trust­wor­thy than even the most sub­servient Arab allies. So the embrace began. The lob­by sud­den­ly appeared far stronger, since it was now push­ing for a pol­i­cy tra­jec­to­ry that matched the pow­er­ful forces in the Pen­ta­gon and mil­i­tary cor­po­ra­tion board­rooms, also urg­ing stronger ties, mil­i­tary aid, and mas­sive arms sales to Israel.

Flip-flop­ping

With the end of the Cold War, sud­den­ly Israel start­ed to look like a strate­gic lia­bil­i­ty. George H.W. Bush’s deci­sion to go to war against Iraq had far less to do with con­cern over the inter­na­tion­al law vio­la­tions inher­ent in the Iraqi inva­sion of Kuwait: It was pri­mar­i­ly intend­ed to reassert Wash­ing­ton’s glob­al hege­mo­ny after the col­lapse of its long­time super­pow­er spar­ring part­ner. Part of that meant cre­at­ing a vis­i­ble Arab coali­tion to sup­port the U.S. war against Bagh­dad — and, in that con­text, the close U.S.-Israeli mil­i­tary alliance was a polit­i­cal prob­lem. So Bush ordered the Israeli mil­i­tary back to their bar­racks, and for the next decade or so it was the lob­by’s influ­ence in Con­gress that made up for the some­what decreased pres­sure from the Pen­ta­gon that insured con­ti­nu­ity of U.S. mil­i­tary aid and sales to Tel Aviv.

With the Sep­tem­ber 11, 2001 and the imme­di­ate U.S. response of declar­ing a glob­al war, the rela­tion­ship flipped again. Netanyahu rec­og­nized it imme­di­ate­ly. On the night of the attacks, when the New York Times asked him about the destruc­tion of the Twin Tow­ers, he imme­di­ate­ly respond­ed, It’s very good.” Then, per­haps real­iz­ing how that would sound, the Times described how he edit­ed him­self: Well, not very good, but it will gen­er­ate imme­di­ate sym­pa­thy.” In the ide­o­log­i­cal­ly-dri­ven Glob­al War on Ter­ror, Israel was once again a key mil­i­tary and polit­i­cal part­ner, and the push for stronger ties resumed from Wash­ing­ton’s mil­i­tary and arms indus­try boardrooms.

That strate­gic rela­tion­ship remains intact today, sev­er­al pres­i­dents lat­er, with the Oba­ma-ini­ti­at­ed, Trump-endorsed U.S. agree­ment to send $38 bil­lion in mil­i­tary aid to Israel over ten years. That’s $3.8 bil­lion of U.S. tax mon­ey every year, direct­ly to the Israeli mil­i­tary. And until 2016, Israel, unlike all oth­er recip­i­ents of U.S. mil­i­tary aid which are required to spend all the funds pur­chas­ing U.S. mil­i­tary hard­ware, was allowed to spend a large chunk of its grant on its own mil­i­tary indus­try, help­ing to build it into one of the most advanced in the world.

Israel in U.S. politics

We should note that pop­u­lar sup­port for Israel, once con­sid­ered unbreak­able, non-par­ti­san and eter­nal, has now emerged as none of those things. U.S. Jews, par­tic­u­lar­ly young Jews and — most espe­cial­ly — young Demo­c­ra­t­ic Jews, are turn­ing away from Israel in high­er num­bers than ever seen before. Jew­ish Voice for Peace, which sup­ports Pales­tin­ian rights and the Boy­cott, Divest­ment, Sanc­tions (BDS) move­ment, is one of the fastest-grow­ing Jew­ish orga­ni­za­tions in the coun­try, along with small­er groups of young Jews such as If Not Now, Bend the Arc, Open Hil­lel and more. And as Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties’ views are trans­formed, pub­lic opin­ion and pub­lic and media dis­course are chang­ing as well. Crit­i­ciz­ing Israel is no longer polit­i­cal sui­cide, even if those inside the Wash­ing­ton DC bub­ble haven’t yet real­ized that.

Per­haps a new flip is com­ing. This time, we may be see­ing the begin­nings of a dimin­ish­ing influ­ence of both the Israel lob­by and the pur­port­ed strate­gic val­ue of the US-Israel ties in Con­gress. It won’t hap­pen overnight. But the work of the Pales­tin­ian rights move­ment in edu­cat­ing peo­ple in the Unit­ed States about Wash­ing­ton’s com­plic­i­ty in Israel’s vio­la­tions of human rights and inter­na­tion­al law, the increas­ing — albeit still lim­it­ed — media cov­er­age of those vio­la­tions in main­stream U.S. out­lets, the will­ing­ness of pub­lic fig­ures to call for Pales­tin­ian rights and endorse the BDS move­ment, are all on the rise. There are moves in Con­gress, such as the deci­sion of near­ly 60 mem­bers of Con­gress to pub­licly skip Netanyahu’s 2015 anti-Oba­ma speech, and Rep. Bet­ty McCol­lum’s pend­ing res­o­lu­tion to ensure that U.S. mil­i­tary aid does not enable Israel’s juve­nile mil­i­tary deten­tion system.

And as the influ­ence of the once-unchal­lenge­able Israel lob­by wanes, as Israel’s sup­port­ers rec­og­nize how they’re los­ing sup­port among Jew­ish youth, there is cer­tain­ly a des­per­ate lash­ing out. Sup­port­ers of Pales­tin­ian rights, espe­cial­ly young stu­dent activists, are often at risk. Spokes­peo­ple of col­or con­tin­ue to pay the high­est price for their activism on this issue, 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. And, increas­ing­ly, that move­ment is linked to broad­er move­ments against racism, Islam­o­pho­bia, xeno­pho­bia and anti-Semi­tism — and for wom­en’s, LGBTQ and envi­ron­men­tal rights. Before too long, we’ll be able to see the tran­si­tion from dis­course shift to real pol­i­cy trans­for­ma­tion on all these issues — and that will be the real victory.

Phyl­lis Ben­nis is a fel­low of the Insti­tute for Pol­i­cy Stud­ies. Her most recent book is the 2018 edi­tion of Under­stand­ing the Pales­tin­ian-Israeli Con­flict: A Primer.
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