No matter what you’ve been hearing in the news this week, newly elected Minnesota U.S. House Rep. Ilhan Omar said nothing anti-Semitic.
But American Jewish Semites and pro-Israel Republicans sure want you to think so.
Rep. Omar, a Somali-American Muslim and a longtime critic of Israel and its punitive policies against Muslims and Palestinians, has recently found herself in the crosshairs of the GOP for her purportedly anti-Jew criticisms of Israel and pro-Israeli lobbyists in the U.S.
The political feces hit the fan on Sunday after Rep. Omar tweeted, “It’s the Benjamins baby.” — as in the portrait of Benjamin Franklin on $100 bills — referring to her contention that pro-Israel money is overly influencing politicians and the U.S. political process.
Her opponents claim that linking financial influence and Jews is always anti-Semitic because it resurrects longstanding “prejudicial” use of “anti-Semitic tropes” in denigrating American Jews and their supporters of Israel.
But it’s the same argument pro-Israeli lobbyists, politicians (usually Republican) and supporters (including American Jews) use to deflect all criticism every time anyone seems to denigrate Israel.
Why can’t Israel be criticized?
People can’t criticize Israel at all, apparently, or they’re automatically anti-Semite. How convenient for Israeli spin-meisters in confronting any denunciation of the country’s policies — or even its moot right to exist.
Even Democratic leaders got into the act trashing Rep. Omar, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, within hours of Omar’s tweet, calling her statement “anti-Semitic,” prejudicial and offensive, according to a Washington Post article Monday.
Apparently the Israeli lobby, monied or otherwise, is influential in Congress, or else it wouldn’t have had top congressional leaders hopping about so quickly and so publicly.
New Muslim congresswomen
Part of the problem with this silly dust-up is that Rep. Omar is a unique commodity in Congress — a Muslim woman, of which there are suddenly two newly elected, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.). Previously, the august legislative body was, in effect, a majority-Christian club full of mostly male, knee-jerk defenders of Israel.
This, despite the reality that Israel is an apartheid Jewish state that officially and by policy discriminates against Muslims and identifies Palestinians as enemies of the state. Israel is not a nation like, say, Turkey, which has a long continuous history of Muslim cultural identity into modern times. Jews for most of history were a diaspora people, banished from their biblical homeland in what are now contested areas adjacent to several Arab states. But starting late in the 19th century, Jewish Zionists contrived to create a Jewish state in Palestine, although it was largely Arab by that time, and succeeded when Israel was proclaimed an independent, sovereign state in 1948.
The violent displacement of countless thousands of Palestinians in the forced process of Israel’s statehood is the root cause of all the political problems that have wracked the Mideast since.Therefore, it is entirely appropriate to oppose the fundamental claim of Israeli national sovereignty, as well as criticizing anything that proceeds from that, including lobbyists in the U.S. who do the Jewish state’s bidding in America.
‘It’s the Benjamins, baby’
Rep. Omar’s “It’s the Benjamins, Baby” tweet contends that money from pro-Israeli interests (in the form of paid lobbying, campaign contributions, etc.) is unduly influencing political decisions and behavior among elected federal lawmakers.
Certainly, some people may just be anti-Semites and believe, prejudicially, that Jews are corrupting American politics along with everything else. But that’s not what this is. Rep. Omar is raising a valid concern about the destructive nature of money in politics. That she is a Muslim simply gives her an opposite perspective from the American Christianity-infused establishment.
In an apology on Twitter not long after her previous tweet went viral, Rep. Omar stressed that she was not trying to denigrate Jews:
“Anti-Semitism is real and I am grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of anti-Semitic tropes. “We have to always be willing to step back and think through criticism, just as I expect people to hear me when others attack me for my identity. This is why I unequivocally apologize.”
But she also justifiably declined to rescind the core theme of her earlier tweet:
“I reaffirm the problematic role of lobbyists in our politics, whether it be AIPAC [American Israel Public Affairs Committee], the NRA [National Rifle Association] or the fossil fuel industry. It’s gone on too long and we must be willing to address it.”
The holier-than-thou blowback against Rep. Omar was rich, particularly from President Trump and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who both publicly castigated the new lawmaker for anti-Semitism. The president said her apology was “lame,” and McCarthy threatened to punish her.
Keep in mind that McCarthy himself was criticized last year after tweeting that Jewish billionaires, like George Soros, a prominent Jew, were trying to “buy” the midterm elections. The president once said he liked to have only Jews handling his money, and, famously, he said there were “very fine people” among neo-Nazis who shouted “Jews will not replace us” last year during racist protests in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Now that’s what real anti-Semitism looks like, in case you’re having a hard time identifying it.
In my view, Rep. Omar had nothing to apologize for. Her criticisms of Israel and its proponents were entirely appropriate and didn’t cross the line from political commentary to anti-Semitism. That she apologized for offending anyone and stressed that people needed to listen to others who are is a good thing.
Let’s not be distracted by this firestorm of unjustified outrage and continue focusing on how the existence of Israel, considered an occupying power by Palestinians, is a continuing existential problem for the Middle East as well as for the world at large, and how best to solve it.