Who Will Stand Up for Ilhan Omar?

False charges of anti-Semitism are being used to silence critics of Israel.

Nora Barrows-Friedman

Representative Ilhan Omar, Democrat of Minnesota, speaks during a press conference outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. on February 7, 2019. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

Over the weekend, Democratic Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar exposed a long-held open secret when she inferred that the financial influence of AIPAC, a top pro-Israel lobby group, is a significant player in lawmakers’ key policy decisions that support Israel’s interests.

The pressure on U.S. lawmakers by Israel lobby groups is precisely designed to silence Israel's critics, using the threat of being labeled with anti-Semitism as a cudgel to break any defection from the status quo on Israel.

Responding to journalist Glenn Greenwald’s about Republican leader Kevin McCarthy’s campaign to punish Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) for their criticisms of Israel, Omar wrote a couple of tweets underscoring the financial influence of AIPAC. It’s all about the Benjamins, baby!” she wrote, referencing $100 bills and the title of a late-1990s hip-hop track by Puff Daddy.

Ilhan Omar was right to call out the massive influence of Israel lobby groups, which do not hide their close working relationships to U.S. lawmakers. Yet, she was immediately denounced, criticized and smeared as an anti-Semite, and not just by the usual coterie of right-wing, Israel-aligned politicians who already despise her anti-war positions and her bold support of the Palestinian cause. She was blasted by self-identified liberals as well — including Chelsea Clinton, the offspring of famous politicians who have been loyal supporters of AIPAC and Israel’s genocidal policies for decades.

The avalanche of condemnation peaked on Monday with chastising statements by top Democratic leaders Rep. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Sen. Chuck Schumer (N.Y.), both staunch advocates of Israel’s policies. As the criticisms reached crescendo on Tuesday, President Donald Trump called for Omar to resign.

Republicans and Democrats alike are happy to throw Omar — a Black, Muslim refugee woman who has garnered significant popularity for her unapologetic progressive politics — under the bus.

However, by slamming the freshman representative, Pelosi, Schumer and the entire Democratic party revealed precisely what Omar pointed out: AIPAC, like other enormous lobby groups, wields its power by pushing politicians to protect their interests and silencing those who refuse to cower.

The politicians also allowed an actual anti-Semitic trope to proliferate: the conflation of legitimate criticism of Israel with anti-Jewish bigotry.

Israel advocacy organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League rushed to thank the Democrats for attacking Omar, once again smearing the congresswoman as an anti-Semite.

Tellingly, mainstream media outlets — including The New York Times and Politico—falsely reported that Omar referred to Jewish money” in her criticism of AIPAC, when all she had done was point out the lobby group’s direct influence over U.S. politicians — influence about which AIPAC itself openly boasts.

A spokesperson for Israel’s foreign ministry joined the pile-on against Omar, accusing her of being part of a rise” in Left-wing anti-Semitism,” while McCarthy— who has peddled actual anti-Semitic conspiracy theories against George Soros and other prominent Jews — railed against Omar for anti-Semitic tropes.”

McCarthy, like his colleagues on both sides of the aisle, pledging to protect the Jewish people,” slid into a casual conflation between Jews and Israel, which is itself an act of anti-Semitism.

A powerful right-wing lobby

All lobbies on Capitol Hill work the same: They use millions of dollars and heavy political influence to sway and pressure U.S. lawmakers to draft legislation that push their political agendas.

AIPAC is explicitly an Israel lobby group, working on behalf of Israel’s interests to shore up support for its occupation and apartheid policies — policies that are becoming increasingly unpopular amidst the Democratic base and, significantly, amongst mainstream Jewish communal organizations.

AIPAC itself boasts of its influence on lawmakers to push Israel’s agenda. The United States Congress has provided Israel with the strongest support of any institution in the world. Maintaining bipartisan congressional support for Israel is crucial,” the lobby group states.

AIPAC is not a Jewish advocacy organization. It is a far-right-wing Zionist organization which exists to promote Israel’s political interests and wield significant political influence inside the halls of power.

One of the most pernicious mechanisms of those who wish to defend Israel’s Zionist project has been to try to actively conflate Israel’s ideologies with Jewish identity in order to build a fortress around Israel’s practices of segregation, occupation, expulsion and discrimination against Palestinians and non-Jews in Israel and the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, and millions of Palestinian refugees in forced exile.

Such conflation of Jewish people with Israel’s interests is inherently anti-Semitic because it levels the Jewish people as a monolith — a flattened group in strict lock-step with an apartheid system built on violent theft of Palestinian land and decades of oppression.

Inadvertently, politicians’ smears against Omar, and those in corporate media headlines, became an ironic self-admission of this bigoted conflation: Their claims that Omar’s criticisms of AIPAC were somehow an attack on Jewish money” is a blatant act of anti-Semitism at its worst.

The assumption that AIPAC’s interests are inherently Jewish interests is not only anti-Semitic in the fusion of Israeli policy with all Jewish people, but belies the fact that AIPAC is also supported, and defended, by both liberal and right-wing evangelical Christian policymakers pushing the U.S. government’s imperialist, pro-war agendas around the world.

We know how this charade works. If Israel’s policies are criticized, questioned or condemned by elected leaders, politicians line up to shield Israel and condemn the detractor as a bigot. If students, professors, activists and journalists speak out about Israel’s human rights violations, lawmakers fall all over themselves to write bills that punish such speech and those who say it.

These practices have not evolved in a vacuum: They are deliberate measures drafted by Israel lobby organizations, including AIPAC, and pushed by politicians eager to win re-elections at all costs. It is common knowledge on Capitol Hill that in order to win in Congress, lawmakers have to accept pressure from influential groups like AIPAC.

As activist Ady Barkan, a former Democratic congressional staffer, wrote in a Twitter thread on Monday, money from groups like AIPAC is the lubricant that makes the whole machine run.”

AIPAC is a central pillar of the occupation. Without Congressional support, the Likud/anti-Palestine/pro-occupation project would be radically undermined. AIPAC is the anchor of that support, and its money and [billionaire Republican donor] Sheldon Adelson’s money are indispensable to the work,” Barkan added.

AIPAC itself boasts of its ability to pressure lawmakers to conform to its political agenda, as has been documented in hidden camera footage acquired by Al Jazeera in its censored documentary, The Israel Lobby - USA.”

Silencing critics

This is why politicians on both sides of the aisle have either condemned Omar’s remarks or failed to come to her defense: The pressure on U.S. lawmakers by Israel lobby groups is precisely designed to silence Israel’s critics, using the threat of being labeled with anti-Semitism as a cudgel to break any defection from the status quo on Israel.

But support for Israel on Capitol Hill should not be distilled down only to financial or otherwise thuggish interactions between lobby group A and lawmaker B. Rather, this relationship aligns with the U.S. government’s standard policy of maintaining Israel as a highly-weaponized, authoritarian rampart for Western imperialist interests in the Middle East. 

It’s no coincidence that some of Israel’s boldest supporters in Congress are also some of the most pro-war actors to hold office today, including Pelosi and Schumer, who never met an overseas aggression they didn’t like.

Of course, Ilhan Omar is no anti-Semite, nor were her comments on AIPAC anti-Semitic. And of course, the U.S. lawmakers and pundits know it.

But accusing her of anti-Semitism is meant as a way to restrain her criticisms of Israeli policies and, more importantly, to make it clear to other leftist members of Congress to not bother opening their mouths about Israel, let alone the other projects of occupations, wars and interventions that benefit Israel and the United States.

It is also telling that, so far, not one other elected representative has robustly supported Omar’s right to critique AIPAC, including woke progressive darling Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Clearly, AIPAC’s pressure, and the bullying by top Democratic leadership in service to AIPAC and other Israel lobby groups, is, as it itself claims, a major force in Washington. Otherwise, Omar’s criticisms of it would not have elicited such spectacular fury.

And she wouldn’t have been made to apologize, which she did on Monday evening.

The attacks on Omar won’t stop, however, no matter how many times she is forced to make concessions. Israel’s lobby groups — and their political beneficiaries — will continue to use her honesty about the mechanisms of political influence in service to war and authoritarianism as a weapon if she is left to fend for herself.

Omar’s colleagues in Congress know that the winds are shifting away from unchecked support for Israel and its violent systems of apartheid and expulsion of Palestinians. They should come to her defense and join her in calling out Israel’s political influence loud and clear.

Nora Barrows-Friedman is Associate Editor of The Electronic Intifada, author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine.”
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