Weekend Open Thread: The Crux of the Argument Over Rep. Omar’s Comment on AIPAC


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Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar: from Mogadishu to Minneapolis to Congress

As I’ve been otherwise occupied for a while, this won’t count as a “hot take” on the fracas over Minnesotan Congressional Rep. Ilhan Omar’s comment about money playing a major role in quieting Congressional criticism of Israel.  So I’ll offer a room-temperature take, following some review.

What Rep. Omar said:

The following is based largely on this account in Jewish Currents, which generally matches others:

First, on Feb. 10, Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that Californian Kevin McCarthy, Minority Leader of the House of Representatives, intended to punish Omar and a fellow Democratic female Muslim frosh member of Congress of Michigan for criticisms of Israeli policy.

Second, leftist activist journalist and attorney and Glenn Greenwald tweeted the following (links disabled):

GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy threatens punishment for IlhanMN and RashidaTlaib over their criticisms of Israel. It’s stunning how much time US political leaders spend defending a foreign nation even if it means attacking free speech rights of Americans

Third, Omar retweeted Greenwald’s post with a comment taken from vintage Puff Daddy:

“It’s all about the Benjamins baby.”

(As an aside, I thought that the pun, citing not only money but the name of truculent conservative Israeli Prime Minister Betanyahu, was pretty witty.) Now mixing in opinion, Jewish Currents continues:

The most straightforward interpretation of her tweet is that “Benjamins” refers to the vast sums of money that pro-Israel lobbyists have spent to ensure that critics of Israel like Omar and Tlaib have as little influence as possible. Omar’s point may have been incomplete or imprecise, but it’s a big leap to call it antisemitism. Unfortunately, it’s a leap many critics were eager to take, including the House Democratic leadership, which yesterday afternoon put out a statement condemning Omar and calling on her to apologize; she quickly did.

The controversy blew up after Batya Ungar-Sargon, the opinion editor of the Forward, called out Omar for using an antisemitic “trope” and questioned who the Minnesota representative thinks is paying members of Congress “to be pro-Israel.” In response, Omar tweeted “AIPAC!,” referring to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, widely seen as the most influential pro-Israel lobbying group. To this, Ungar-Sargon issued a reply that has since been retweeted over two thousand times: “Please learn how to talk about Jews in a non-anti-Semitic way. Sincerely, American Jews.”

This is a facile accusation. The Israel lobby, especially AIPAC, has long greased the wheels of American politics by bundling millions of dollars for campaign contributions and spending further millions on sending politicians and journalists on junkets to Israel, where they meet with government officials and absorb pro-Israel talking points under the thin pretense of a fact-finding mission. However earnest these groups may be about their support for Israel, they are explicitly in the business of trading influence for money. This isn’t limited to AIPAC; for instance, casino magnate and right-wing Israel supporter Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam spent $55 million in the 2018 election cycle to maintain Republican control of Congress. In recent years, the interests of these groups have dovetailed with those of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies, defense contractors, millenarian evangelical Christian Zionists, and other assorted war hawks. The Israel lobby is indeed a big tent, and it has welcomed in a wide range of right-wing interests that extend beyond the American Jewish community.

Omar’s apology specifically read:

The Broader Reaction

This portion largely follows this piece from Think Progress.  I want to start out by highlighting how that publication characterizes the controversy, because I’ll take issue with it below.

Omar, who represents Minnesota’s 5th district, has been at the center of controversy since she insinuated Sunday that American support for Israel was governed by the financial contributions of pro-Israeli groups like AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee).

(You can probably figure out which word I’m going to challenge.)

As TP notes, President Trump said that Omar “should be ashamed of herself.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi criticized as “deeply offensive” the “use of anti-Semitic tropes and prejudicial accusations about Israel’s supporters,” which elicited the above apology.

The Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas (JCRC), which serves as a voice for a variety of smaller Jewish organizations in the congresswoman’s home district, warned against her use of anti-Semitic tropes, even if unintentional.

“Claims that American Jews manipulate our government with money invoke age-old anti-Semitism,” said JCRC executive director Steve Hunegs. “When combined with her previous tweet that Israel ‘hypnotizes the world’ to carry out ‘evil,’ such rhetoric puts our community in danger [and] should have no place in our politics.”

Hunegs added that any insinuation elected officials were supporting Israel “[only] because they are paid to do so” was “insulting.”

“For decades, members of both parties have stood with America’s closest ally in the Middle East because the American people support a strong and secure Israel,” he said.

Another home-district rabbi, Marcia A. Zimmerman, was also sharply critical:

“The anti-Semitic trope used yesterday, when combined with her previous tweets, makes our community feel vulnerable. With the rise of anti-Semitism in recent years, we feel that this type of rhetoric only adds fuel to the fire.”

She added a call Omar to meet her congregation face-to-face, later telling a local paper that “The community is upset…. We can have disagreements about a lot of sensitive issues. Discourse shouldn’t descend into stereotyping.”

Minnesota-based Jewish Community Action took a less harsh tone:

“It’s not anti-Semitic to point out that money influences our politics — that’s just a fact,”  the group said in a statement. “It’s also true the myth of ‘Jewish Money’ has been used for centuries as a weapon against Jewish communities. It’s incumbent that we, as progressives, are aware of this history.”

My Comments

The assertion that “Claims that American Jews manipulate our government with money invoke age-old anti-Semitism” gets to the crux of the call for self-censorship.

Let’s presume for a moment that the statement is true.  By the same token, we could say that claims regarding how Blacks or Mexicans may be lazy, lawless, stupid, and violent — or Asians untrustworthy and disloyal, or that women less intelligent or emotionally stable, and so on — also “invoke” their own corresponding and spurious “age-old bigotries.” And yet we consistently hear insinuations, from the city and state governments up to the halls of Congress and the White House, often doing more than “invoking” such prejudices — but stating them frankly.  And even though such statements generally clear a higher bar, how often to we see such a tumultuous reaction, leading to a representatives own leader demanding and receiving an apology within a day?  Relatively rarely.

Generally, the standard for self-censorship is higher than “invoking” (which seems like less than even “implying”) some prejudice, such as baldly stating something to be true.  (Saying “they’re rapists” as part of one’s Mexican bashing, is one example.)  Here, though, the supposed allegation (we’ll get to the “supposed” below) is not that supporters of Israel are doing anything illegal or immoral, like rape and murder, but that they are … contributing money to politicians.  What sort of standard do we set when one can’t state something like that out loud?

Don’t most groups who donate money (or pointedly refuse to donate ) to candidates and campaigns “manipulate our government with money”?
Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States certainly try to “manipulate our government with money” (and again, those were not Omar’s words) — but is anyone ever going to be chastised for saying so?
The problem is not the allegation that money is used to “manipulate” — and if you don’t like that word, try “influence,” also not a word that Omar has used — the government and its officials per se.  An objectionable nature, if any, would seem to lie in exaggerating the extent, the success, the secrecy, the sneakiness, and the perfidy of such manipulation. 
Implying, as we’ll assume for now that Omar did, that politicians hesitate to take anti-Israel stances because they are concerned about the reduced amount of money coming in to support them doesn’t even SAY anything about secrecy, sneakiness, or perfidy — so the question is solely about the extent and success of such expenditures. If we’re afraid to address *those* questions, we should ask why that is — and it will likely come down to how talking about the extent and success of any group’s donations risks not just losing money, but also losing votes independent of financial considerations.
But if we’re afraid to even *ask the question* of how much monetary support is coming in from pro-Israel (not necessarily Jewish) donors and independent spenders, then something is seriously wrong. We would have become averse to facts, in a way we generally mock.
I think that it’s fair to say that pro-Israel donors like Sheldon Adelson — mentioned above — have made no bones at all about the fact that they’re using money as a bludgeon to attack what he perceives as “enemies of Israel.” so let’s not even pretend that there is no basis at all for this claim.

However: it’s probably also correct to say that, right now, even if all donations &c. made to support any position on the Israeli-Palestinian issue on the issue suddenly vanished, Democratic candidates (at a minimum) would probably still lose votes overall these days due U.S. citizens’ longstanding attitudes towards Israel (though that trend is diminishing.)  Right?  Right!

If so, then if Rep. Omar were to say “it’s all about catering to voters,” than “the Bemjamins,” we should agree that that’s OK, right?  OK, some readers might not be nodding their heads, but it’s right. 

Now what if,, as an expression of her own opinion, she were to say that “it’s all about catering to voters’ prejudices,” or “catering to voters attitudes formed by media coverage of the Middle East”?
I’d say that that is absolutely in-bounds. Many might say that it isn’t. Ideally, we would then get to the root of that disagreement: ARE voters’ attitudes about the Middle East predicated on prejudice and misinformation?

THAT is the crux over the argument over the propriety of Rep. Omar’s statements.  If you’re not willing to have *that* discussion, I find that suspect.

But there’s another point, too.  Note that I highlighted the notion, stated by a pro-Israel party, that Rep. Omar said that people were being “paid” to support Israel and its (frankly, often anti-Democratic Party) policies.  But that’s not what she said.

It’s true that saying “the Benjamins” would generally refer to the money one has coming in.  But really, it’s talking about wealth in general.  And what she said is that politicians are concerned about was “AIPAC.”  That’s really telling.

Some people have noted that AIPAC doesn’t give contributions to politicians, suggesting that Omar’s criticism was misplaced.  Other’s have defended her by noting that AIPAC does pay for politicians to go on free junkets to Israel where they’ll be steeped in the pro-Israel worldview — but let’s get real, that’s not why politicians care about AIPAC.

Politicians care about AIPAC not because they want its support, but because they don’t want its opposition.  Essentially, as with the NRA, politicians are scared that AIPAC will seek them out and spend inordinate amounts of money to destroy them — not solely by funding opponents and formal independent expenditure campaigns, but also with poison-pen PR campaigns reaching out to friends within government, media, think-tanks, corporate leadership, and other opinion-movers.  They worry about targeted messages to their donors — indeed, implicit or explicit threats to their donors.

AIPAC has access to a great deal of money — which in politics translates to “influence” — and is willing to use it.  For now, that has been able to keep most critics of Israeli policy in both major parties at bay.  (Look at how responsive they were this past week!)  But in fact, public opinion is shifting on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, just as it is on gun control.

The votes may not always be where the money within our political system is.  (Outside of our system, the Saudis are indeed wealthy, but they seem to care more about fighting Shi’ite Iran, with U.S. help, than fighting Israel.)  The argument against Rep. Omar is that she’s wrong to talk about money affecting how politicians think about the Middle East because those politicians are actually just catering to the voters.  But as attitudes on Israel continue to shift, this argument will hold less and less water.  It will become clear that what politicians fear, in continued lockstep support of Israeli policy, is not the improvement Palestinian rights, but retaliation against their own political fortunes.

Are Democrats allowed to talk about this — or not?  I say, with Rep. Omar, that we can and we must.


About Greg Diamond

Somewhat verbose worker's rights and government accountability attorney, residing in northwest Brea. General Counsel of CATER, the Coalition of Anaheim Taxpayers for Economic Responsibility, a non-partisan group of people sick of local corruption. Deposed as Northern Vice Chair of DPOC in April 2014 when his anti-corruption and pro-consumer work in Anaheim infuriated the Building Trades and Teamsters in spring 2014, who then worked with the lawless and power-mad DPOC Chair to eliminate his internal oversight. Occasionally runs for office to challenge some nasty incumbent who would otherwise run unopposed. (Someday he might pick a fight with the intent to win rather than just dent someone. You'll know it when you see it.) He got 45% of the vote against Bob Huff for State Senate in 2012 and in 2014 became the first attorney to challenge OCDA Tony Rackauckas since 2002. None of his pre-putsch writings ever spoke for the Democratic Party at the local, county, state, national, or galactic level, nor do they now. A family member co-owns a business offering campaign treasurer services to Democratic candidates and the odd independent. He is very proud of her. He doesn't directly profit from her work and it doesn't affect his coverage. (He does not always favor her clients, though she might hesitate to take one that he truly hated.) He does advise some local campaigns informally and (so far) without compensation. (If that last bit changes, he will declare the interest.)