It probably isn’t going to surprise our regular readers that Joel and I disagree on Ilhan Omar and whether her words were anti-Semitic. As he lays out in “Sixteen Thoughts about Ilhan Omar and Anti-Semitism,” it’s wrong to hold people you agree or like politically to different standards. On that, we agree. But I don’t agree that the “plain meaning” of her words are anti-Semitic.
At the center of the controversy are two comments she made about Israel and American politics. In the first, a tweet, she responded to calls by GOP Kevin McCarthy, who has a history of for accusing rich Jews for “buying” elections (THAT one is a clearly anti-Semitic trope), the she be reprimanded for her criticisms of Israel, including support of BDS. The journalist Glenn Greenwald (himself Jewish, just as a reminder of the diversity of opinion on this issue) then tweeted, “It’s stunning how much time US political leaders spend defending a foreign nation even if it means attacking free speech rights of Americans.”
The reference here is to McCarthy and his allies (“US political leaders”) who were using time and energy trying to silence (“attacking free speech rights”) Omar because they prioritized support for Israel over the right to criticize Israel. More broadly, AIPAC is a leader in the anti-BDS movement, which is seen by many as an assault on free speech rights–fundamental to American democracy–by many. The US Senate just narrowly voted down an anti-BDS effort led by Marco Rubio. But twenty-six states have passed anti-boycott laws, and even some counties are getting in the act. Supporters of the bill say it doesn’t infringe upon free speech rights (of which the right to boycott is a part) but only allows the US government to refuse to do business with businesses that engage in boycotts. But many find that when “freedom of speech” is met with government denial of the opportunity to work, then speech is not free. (This is different from, say, a private individual refusing to hire an employee they think is anti-Semitic.) Perhaps the greatest irony in this whole mess is that anti-BDS legislation argues that such boycotts are “foreign-led”–in other words, that Americans should not engage in tactics that seek to “implement foreign policies of other nations which run counter to U.S. policy.” But mandatory participation on the policies of other nations that run counter to US interests is exactly why many people support ending our support of Israeli militarism.
Whether Greenwald was talking narrowly about Omar and McCarthy’s efforts to censure her or the anti-BDS movement’s support among American political leaders, the point is similar: many US politicians are giving a lot of energy to protecting Israeli businesses and organizations that support the violation of Palestinian rights (which is the point of BDS–not to eradicate Israel but to pressure the Israeli government into the pursuit of justice for Palestinians that supporters believe is the best hope for peace for all of Israel and its neighbors).
Ilhan Omar’s official Congressional photo.
In response, Omar tweeted “It’s all about the benjamins,” along with music note emojis to indicate that she was referencing song lyrics. In response to her making a connection between Israel and money, many people declared that her comments were anti-Semitic.
Though we always have to be careful and thoughtful when speaking about Jewish people and money, merely making a connection between Israel and money is not anti-Semitic; otherwise, the entire Office of Antiboycott Compliance would be anti-Semitic. While it is not true that the BDS movement is ONLY about money (it is also about free speech and about political pressure and coalition building, and opposition to the BDS movement is also about political pressure), the BDS movement is about money in large part. That is what a boycott is about–using financial pressure to bring about change.
If we take Greenwald’s tweet as to be about more than BDS but about the larger relationship between Israel and the US, then, again, it’s not only about money–it’s also about geopolitics (which is often about money), counterterrorism, evangelical Christian theology, and our own national denial of our history as a settler colony (which is also, in part, about money, as the US government fends off claims to reparations). But it is ALSO about money, just as every relationship we have with another nation is.
And sometimes it is about more than one of these. For example, when Donald Trump moved the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, this aligned with the vision of one of his biggest donors (and the biggest donor of of the 2018 midterm elections), Sheldon Adelson, a fierce advocate of right-wing Israeli politics and a major player in the Israeli-American Council (IAC), which includes a lobbying arm. But it was also the vision of evangelical Christians like Mike Pence. This is why anti-Semitic evangelical pastors John Hagee and Robert Jeffress participated in the ceremonial opening of the new embassy, even though, for these men, Jews are basically a prop in their End Times vision of violence. How much of the movement of the embassy was about religion and how much was about donor money (Adelson’s as well as the millions that American evangelicals donate to the Republican party because they believe it will keep supporting Israel)? It’s hard to say.
I’d prefer that members of Congress not quote Puff Daddy in their tweets, and I don’t think that song lyrics make for nuanced policy statements, but I don’t think it’s anti-Semitic to say that money plays a role in why US political leaders (not American Jews, who are not alluded to at all in Greenwald’s tweet) are trying to silence Omar or why they (again, American politicians, not American Jews) support anti-BDS legislation. It is a bad choice to use the phrase “all about” in that this suggests money is the only factor, but given that she was clearly citing a song lyric, I think we can safely assume that she wasn’t providing a statistical breakdown of how much money has to do with it compared to religion, geopolitics, or counterterrorism.
Moreover, given that so much support–including financial–for reactionary policies on Israel come from American evangelicals, not the 2-3% of Americans who are Jewish (and who certainly are not united in support of reactionary policies), it seems more conspiracy-minded to think that Omar’s comments were referencing Jewish donors than to read into them the idea that she was talking about the political leaders Greenwald introduced and the American evangelicals who are more supportive of right-wing Israeli policies than are American Jews.
If you want an example of the anti-Semitic trope that Jews use their money to control American politics, here’s one:
“You’re not going to support me even though I’m the best thing that could ever happen to Israel. It’s because I don’t want your money.”
That’s candidate Trump, in 2015, in a stereotype-laden speech to the Republican Jewish Coalition. Lying about how he was self-funding his campaign, Trump told his audience of potential donors that he couldn’t be bought, which is what he assumes to be the goal of Jewish donors. Notably, he didn’t make similar declarations to other audiences. Note that he also identifies Israel as their main concern–a hint of his assumptions that American Jews have a divided loyalty.
What is being held up as Omar’s second example of anti-Semitism came from a talk she gave at a Washington DC-area progressive bookstore. [Transcript here.] Her broader words are worth reading, as they establish context that shows compassion for American Jews and thoughtfulness about her word choice. She begins with the reminder that she represents a number of Jewish constituents. (She doesn’t mention it, but in 2014, Minnesota’s 5th district, which she represents, had 13,500 Jewish residents (20.4% of the population–a greater percent than Muslim residents).) She says that when she speaks to them, they share the experience of having a connection to a place where they have no literal human connections. Her children, she says, feel a connection to Somalia, her birthplace, even though they have no relatives there. Likewise, the Jewish people she represents often have a connection to Israel, even if they don’t know a single person who lives there. She understands the power of the idea of place. But she is concerned that, in their concerns about Israeli Jews, American Jews fail to mention the suffering of Palestinians in the region. This bothers her, she says, because she sees that they care about human suffering, but they don’t seem to extend that care to Palestinians. But instead of judging them to be Islamophobic, she returns to the process of working for her constituents.
She is fearful that the two members of Congress who are Muslim are not being given that same grace by their Jewish colleagues. She is afraid that everything she says about Israel or Palestine will be understood to be anti-Semitic because she is Muslim. She is concerned that such accusations end the discussion rather than expanding it, so no critiques about US foreign policy toward Israel are ever heard.
Then, she delivers the line that has brought charges of anti-Semitism:
So for me, 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 is specifically talking about political influence, which, again, primarily comes from American evangelicals, not about American Jews. And she is specifically calling attention to exactly what Greenwald noted in his tweet–that our political leaders are silencing critics of rightwing policy in Israel, including by advancing anti-BDS legislation that many people understand to limit their right to free speech in order to protect Israeli businesses and, more broadly, to protect Israel’s presence in contested territories.
Her assessment is not wrong in that many people prioritize support of Israel over American interests. By a margin of more than 2-to-1, Republicans say that the US should support Israel even when doing so diverges from American interests. By the same ratio, Democrats say that the US should not support Israel if doing so is contrary to American interests, but that still means a portion of Democrats say that the US should support Israel even when it’s bad for American to do so. We don’t see that kind of support for another nation’s priorities over the US’s among the “America First” (an anti-Semitic slogan, please note) crowd except in support of Israel.
By a margin of more than 2-to-1, Republicans say that the US should support Israel even when doing so is at odds with what they think is best for America. This is largely because of their superstitious belief in Genesis 12:3, which declares, “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on Earth will be blessed through you.”
From there, she places AIPAC, IAC, and other rightwing supporters of Israel (we assume–she doesn’t name them by name) in the context of other lobbying groups that the Democrats criticize: the NRA, the fossil fuel industry, and Big Pharma. This is EXACTLY what defenders of Israel ask American critics to do: place their criticism into a larger context so that Israel isn’t being singled out. Critics of Israel are asked why they aren’t criticizing Egypt or Saudi Arabia and instead are focusing on Israel’s human rights violation when so many other nations violate human rights (especially of Palestinians). (One answer is that the US’s special relationship to Israel gives us more sway over that nation than over, say, Syria or North Korea, so we are more hopeful about Israel being influenced to do what we think is right.) Here, Omar does a version of that by saying, Just like we ask hard questions of other lobbying groups, we need to ask hard questions about AIPAC.
In fact, she turns the question back on long-time members of Congress.
Some of them have been there before we were born. So I know many of them were fighting for people to be free, for people to live in dignity in South Africa. I know many of them fight for people around the world to have dignity to have self-determination. So I know, I know that they care about these things.
The question becomes: Have we allowed our special relationship to Israel to make it exempt from our expectations of other nations?
I think the question is fair, reasonable, and carefully articulated. It doesn’t imply dual loyalty of American Jews but inconsistent priorities of American legislators and Republican voters.
“[Evangelical Christian and Vice-President Mike Pence is] atremendous supporter — a tremendous supporter of yours. And Karen. And they go there and they love your country. They love your country. And they love this country. That’s a good combination, right?”
That was President Donald Trump, speaking to Jewish members of the White House staff at the 2018–that’s just three months ago–Hanukah party. He told American citizens who work in the White House that America is not their country but that Israel is. And, apparently, as US president, he’s okay with that.
Above, Donald Trump inexplicably hugs a US flag while onstage at a campaign rally. I don’t think you need to be a Freudian to see some overcompensation in this scene. Perhaps it is easy for Trump to imagine that American Jews (even those working in the White House!) are actually loyal to Israel because, like many white supremacists, he (fairly or not) views Israel as a model ethnostate, the kind of America he would be loyal to.
For the record, I don’t think Ilhan Omar is free of anti-Semitism; it is part of white supremacy, and we swim in a culture of it, so we always have to be on guard against absorbing it. Her words in 2012, during a war in Gaza, that Israel had “hypnotized” the world are absolutely anti-Semitic. But she did more than apologize for them–she recognized that they were anti-Semitic and, without excuse, went about learning more about anti-Semitism. That she used anti-Semitic language in 2012 worries me; it means, if nothing else, that she was listening to people who espoused anti-Semitic ideas, and she wasn’t able to discern that they were anti-Semitic. That’s a reason for to keep learning and listening to feedback, especially from those most knowledgeable about anti-Semitism. I think her words at Busboys and Poets, especially when she situates AIPAC, etc. in the context of other lobbying groups and the movement for Palestinian rights in the context of other liberation movements, shows that she’s doing just that.
PS. Here’s one more: at CPAC last week, American conservatives, including Donald Trump, welcomed to the stage Candace Owens, a young African American woman who is a leader in
Trump Youth Turning Point USA. In an attempt to defend nationalism last month, she told an audience, “If Hitler just wanted to make Germany great and have things run well, OK, fine. The problem is that he wanted, he had dreams outside of Germany.” BTW, Turning Points USA is an organization that brings racist speakers to campuses, and Trump told CPAC that he would sign legislation denying funding to campuses that refused to let them peddle their white nationalism at the expense of universities. But Democrats aim their circular firing squad at Omar rather than calling out the many, many Republican politicians who shared a program with Owens.