Ilan Omar – the wider issues

Ilan Omar, endorsed as a candidate by the Human Rights Campaign

JVL Introduction

The Ilhan Omar controversy raises many important issues and we make no apology for another post on it, containing two insightful contributions.

Peter Beinart tackles Ilhan Omar’s language and calls it out. But if any politician is called out “for any hint of association with bigotry” let’s have no double standards. The 2016 Republican platform declares: “We reject the false notion that Israel is an occupier” in the West Bank. Trump’s Presidential campaign and his behaviour since reeks of antisemitism. And Beinart says “[B]igotry against Palestinians isn’t merely tolerated. It’s rewarded. So is bigotry against Muslims…”

Barnaby Raine is clear that “Representative Ilhan Omar is not a vicious antisemite, she is one of few good things about Congress”. He criticises her for not being radical enough: focusing on the Israel lobby “suggests that American interests are fundamentally good, but that they are corrupted and distorted by some small clique”. The problem goes far deeper.

The Sick Double Standard In The Ilhan Omar Controversy

Peter Beinart, Forward
February 12, 2019

The following two things are true. First, Representative Ilhan Omar was wrong to tweet that the American government’s support of Israel is “all about the Benjamins.” Secondly, she’s being judged by a grotesque double standard. Her fiercest critics in Congress are guiltier of bigotry than she is.

Omar’s tweet was inaccurate. Yes, of course, AIPAC’s influence rests partly on the money its members donate to politicians. But it also rests on a deep cultural and religious affinity for Israel among conservative white Christians, who see the Jewish state as an outpost of pro-American, “Judeo-Christian” values in a region they consider hostile to their country and faith. (American conservatives have long admired small, pro-American countries in regions dominated by America’s adversaries: Think of the right’s affinity for “captive nations” like Lithuania, Latvia and Poland during the cold war, and its historic affinity for apartheid South Africa and Taiwan).

Omar’s tweet was also irresponsible. It was irresponsible because leaders should understand that their words carry historical baggage. Accusing a largely (though not officially) Jewish organization like AIPAC of buying politicians is different than accusing the NRA or the drug industry of buying politicians because modern history is not replete with murderous conspiracy theories about how gun owners and pharmaceutical executives secretly use their money to control governments.

That doesn’t mean it’s illegitimate to talk about AIPAC’s fundraising, any more than it’s illegitimate to talk about O.J. Simpson killing a white woman. Given the toxic stereotypes that such discussions evoke, however, they must be handled with care.

Ilhan Omar didn’t do that. Which is why she was right to apologize. And why she was right to apologize last month for a 2012 tweet in which she also evoked anti-Semitic stereotypes by accusing Israel of having “hypnotized the world” about its behavior in the Gaza Strip

But if we’re going to demand that politicians apologize for any hint of association with bigotry, let’s not stop with Ilhan Omar. Let’s hold her critics to the same standard.

Establishing two legal systems in the same territory—one for Jews and one for Palestinians, as Israel does in the West Bank—is bigotry. Guaranteeing Jews in the West Bank citizenship, due process, free movement and the right to vote for the government that controls their lives while denying those rights to their Palestinian neighbors is bigotry. It’s a far more tangible form of bigotry than Omar’s flirtation with anti-Semitic tropes. And it has lasted for more than a half-century.

Yet almost all of Omar’s Republican critics in Congress endorse this bigotry. The 2016 Republican platform declares that, “We reject the false notion that Israel is an occupier” in the West Bank. In other words, governing Jews by one set of laws and Palestinians by another is fine. Last December, Republican Congressman Lee Zeldin, who has called for stripping Omar of her committee assignments, spoke at a fundraiser for Bet El, a West Bank settlement from which Palestinians are barred from living even though it was built—according to the Israeli supreme court—on land confiscated from its Palestinian owners.

For her tweets, Omar was publicly rebuked by the entire Democratic House leadership. For his enthusiastic endorsement of land theft and state-sponsored bigotry in the West Bank, Zeldin has received no congressional criticism at all. To the contrary, he’s a Republican rising star.

That’s because, in Washington today, bigotry against Palestinians isn’t merely tolerated. It’s rewarded.

So is bigotry against Muslims. When Donald Trump in December 2015 proposed banning Muslims from entering the United States, his support among Republicans increased.

In 2006, Roy Moore wrote that Muslims wishing to swear their oath of office on a Koran should be barred from Congress. His campaign spokesman reaffirmed that this was Moore’s view in 2017.

The Republican National Committee backed Moore’s Senate campaign nonetheless. In 2013, then Congressman Mike Pompeo falsely accused “Islamic leaders across America” of failing to condemn the Boston marathon bombings and then claimed that this (fictitious) “silence…casts doubt upon the commitment to peace among adherents of the Muslim faith.”

In 2016, Pompeo accepted an award from ACT for America, which scours textbooks to eliminate any positive references to Islam and agitates against the sale of halal food. Two years later, every Republican Senator (except John McCain, who wasn’t present) voted to make Pompeo Secretary of State.

None of this justifies Omar’s tweet. What it justifies is suspicion about the motives of her fiercest congressional critics. Were the Republicans denouncing Omar sincerely opposed to bigotry, they would not reward bigotry against American Muslims and celebrate bigotry against Palestinians in the West Bank.

Were the Republicans denouncing Omar even sincerely opposed to anti-Semitism, they would not support Donald Trump. Trump, after all, in 2013 tweeted that “I’m much smarter than Jonathan Leibowitz—I mean Jon Stewart.”

He ran for president on a slogan laden with anti-Semitic associations from the 1930s: “America First.” In 2015 he told a Jewish audience that “You’re not gonna support me because I don’t want your money… you don’t want to give me money, but that’s ok, you want to control your own politicians that’s fine.”

In 2016 he retweeted an image of Hillary Clinton surrounded by money and a Jewish star. He closed his presidential campaign with an ad that showed three Jews—Janet Yellen, Lloyd Blankfein and George Soros—alongside language about “global special interests” that “control the levers of power in Washington.”

In 2017, he said there were “very fine people” among the neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville. And in 2018, his racist fear mongering about a caravan of Central American migrants provoked a Pittsburgh man to commit the worst anti-Semitic atrocity in American history. Unlike Omar, he has not apologized for any of this.

If you denounce Ilhan Omar but support Donald Trump, you don’t really oppose bigotry. You don’t even really oppose anti-Semitism. What you oppose is criticism of Israel. That’s the real reason Republicans are so much more outraged by Omar’s tweets than by Trump’s. They’re not trying to police bigotry or even anti-Semitism. They’re using anti-Semitism to police the American debate about Israel.

Ilhan Omar foolishly played into their hands. She needs to understand that, thanks to this unfair double standard, when it comes to anti-Semitism, critics of Israel must be beyond reproach.

The rest of us must work toward the day when anti-Semitism among Israel’s supporters is as unacceptable as Anti-Semitism among Israel’s critics, and when bigotry against Muslims and Palestinians is as unacceptable as bigotry against Jews.

I’m happy that Ilhan Omar apologized. I’ll be even happier when Lee Zeldin apologizes too.

Ilhan Omar should be more radical about Israel, not less

By focusing on lobbyists, Omar suggests that America’s interests are corrupted by a small clique. The truth is far worse

Barnaby Raine, The Guardian
12 September 2019

Representative Ilhan Omar is not a vicious antisemite, she is one of few good things about Congress. But she was wrong to suggest this week that America only supports Israel because a powerful lobby buys off US politicians. Far from being too radical, the problem with that view is that it lets America off the hook. The American state needs no conspiracy or blackmail to encourage it to do damage around the world. It is because her worldview can entertain this very possibility – so rarely contemplated in Washington – that Omar represents an enormously hopeful step in national politics. That critical instinct can enable opposition to the American-Israeli alliance and to antisemitism too.

When Democrats dissent on foreign policy, they usually insist that America is a gorgeous dream poorly applied by foolish leaders. Barack Obama sang this tune in complaining that the invasion of Iraq was a “dumb” war, pleading instead for the intelligent practice of American power. Bernie Sanders labels imperial adventures like the Iraq escapade “counterproductive”, echoing the assumption that America’s intentions are basically benign. Hillary Clinton’s response to “Make America Great Again” in 2016 went noticeably further: “America never stopped being great!”

Since her election last year, Omar has opened the door to a different, taboo argument. Her interventions over Venezuela and the southern border broke from the Democratic script and caused controversy by hinting that the aims and not only the means pursued by the American state frustrate the achievement of human freedom. The likes of James Baldwin and Malcolm X knew this all too well, and it has long been intuitive to many millions beyond America’s shores too. By endorsing the global Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, Omar moved well beyond those Americans who criticize Benjamin Netanyahu’s excesses confident that Israel, their old ally, remains a noble endeavor now in need of wise and moderating counsel from Washington. She flew a different flag, supporting Palestinians as a people dispossessed by the facts of might and conquest familiar to victims of colonization everywhere.

This is why Omar’s recent tweet was disappointing, blaming American support for Israel on lobbyists’ cash. The ultimately conservative, reassuring effect of concentrating on the Israel lobby is this: it suggests that American interests are fundamentally good, but that they are corrupted and distorted by some small clique. Antisemites take their cue from this supposition.

The deeper, tougher truth is that America supports Israel because at some level America is Israel; these are two settler colonies born in violence, condemned by their original sins and by their later crimes to paranoias about the revenge of the wronged. America needs no monied lobby to see its common cause with Israel. Omar should be better placed than most Democrats to see this, given that she seems less enamored of American greatness than they are. The distressing thing about her tweet was its inconsistency, it failure to live up to the promise she has tentatively begun to sketch.

There is an important Israel lobby in America, and it does a great deal of harm, though treating the problem as indigenous to a culture of puritanism and genocide helps even here: America’s biggest pro-Israel lobby group is not the largely Jewish American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) but the evangelical organization Christians United for Israel (CUFI), which was much more important than Aipac in pushing Trump to move the US embassy to Jerusalem. The lobby makes a just peace harder, and we should not fear condemning it; Democrats lining up to suggest even mentioning it is intrinsically antisemitic show just how cynically, how dangerously Israel’s supporters sometimes see antisemitism as cheap political football. But America does not need a lobby to back Israel.

Rightly Omar has shown some contrition over this and a previous, similar tweet. That should surprise nobody. Nor should we be surprised that the Republican House majority leader, Kevin McCarthy, has never acknowledged the antisemitic connotations of his tweet claiming that George Soros and two other Jews were seeking to “buy” America’s elections. The tweet was posted days after a bomb was sent to Soros’s home last October. Neither Omar’s quick retreat nor McCarthy’s avoidance are surprising because the deeply defensive antisemitic instinct – that America has a fundamentally healthy body politic whose problems all stem from an alien infestation – really belongs on the right and not the left, even though it can appear in both places. Now McCarthy leads the charge against Omar, accusing her of bigotry.

The Palestinian people do not inspire the world simply because they suffer. What we see through the cracks in Palestine is what many once saw in Nicaragua, in South Africa, in Vietnam: against the violence produced by fear, against anxious states killing in the defense of privilege, the best traditions of the oppressed offer a universal message. They prize dignity. Israel fills the land with walls and checkpoints, and Palestinians seek a future beyond that architecture of human misery. They know that it damages the jailor almost as much as it injures the jailed. This is a valuable lesson for Americans, too, caught in their own forever war. Palestinians call not just for peace, but for a world in which free people can flourish, where words like “occupation”, “Apartheid” and “settler-colonialism” exist only in museums. Almost alone in Congress, this is the spirit that Ilhan Omar might be willing to champion. It is not a threat to Jews. In the end, it is the only thing that might offer hope to any of us.

Barnaby Raine is a PhD student in history at Columbia University