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Ilhan Omar Has Nothing to Apologize For
Ilhan Omar threatens the congressional heterodoxy on Israel, which represents the interests of the Zionist lobby, not the Jewish people.
By Jordan Valerie
On Monday, the political establishment helped the Zionist lobby wage a smear campaign against freshman Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (D-MN) for accurately describing how lobbying works. Though Democrats have been quick to share a viral clip of fellow freshman Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) denouncing the influence of corporate money in politics, this was different. Rep. Omar dared to name the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a bipartisan lobbying group that aims “to strengthen, protect, and promote the U.S.-Israel relationship in ways that enhance the security of the United States and Israel.”
It is no secret that both political parties in the U.S. are staunchly Zionist, supporting the settler-colonial state of Israel at the direct expense of the Palestinian people, who are not only disenfranchised by the Israeli state, but also brutalized and massacred on a regular basis. Despite asserting that it is a Jewish state, Israel does not represent the Jewish people. Rather, it is a white supremacist state that discriminates against non-white Jewish people and silences dissenting Jewish voices. The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) published a report in March 2017 stating that “Israel has established an apartheid regime that dominates the Palestinian people as a whole.” (Notably, the U.S. is the only member of the U.N. to consistently reject the global consensus that Israel is an apartheid state, leading then-U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley to announce in June 2018 that the U.S. was leaving the U.N. Human Rights Council.)
Israel’s racism and anti-Blackness was particularly visible last year as top Israeli political and religious leaders used anti-Black rhetoric to justify the expulsion of almost 40,000 African refugees. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, offering these migrants the choice between imprisonment or leaving Israel with only $3,500, used the same scaremongering techniques as the U.S. GOP by referring to African migrants as potential terrorists and “infiltrators.” Even the estimated 145,000 Ethiopian Jews currently living in Israel are considered second-class citizens, with Ethiopian Jews having to fight for their right to make Aliyah since the 1970’s. Also last year, Israel passed a “nation-state” law that defined Israel as a Jewish state with a “united Jerusalem” as its capital, an attempt to further disenfranchise non-Jewish Arabs, who compose about 20% of the Israeli population and entrench their second-class citizenship status. The law was condemned by human rights groups, the Arab-Israeli U.N. delegation, the European Union, and even the Israel Democracy Institute, which “works to bolster the values and institutions of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.” It did, however, earn support of white supremacists such as Richard Spencer.
As a white supremacist settler-colonial state itself, the U.S. is prone to supporting states of the same nature, particularly ones that help the U.S. maintain an imperial presence in the Middle East.
Rather than take seriously activism such as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which doesn’t even protest the existence of the settler-colonial state of Israel, but rather “works to end international support for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and pressure Israel to comply with international law.” Israel rejects dissent by banning even American Jews from entering Israel for supporting the BDS movement. In January 2018, the Israeli government banned activists associated with 20 BDS-supportive organizations from entering the country, even if they are Jewish and, supposedly, have the right of return as established by the 1950 Law of Return.
So why does the U.S. support a state which, on a regular basis, kills Palestinians under the guise of serving as a Jewish state, when almost every other nation on the planet denounces the Israeli genocide of Palestinians? As a white supremacist settler-colonial state itself, the U.S. is prone to supporting states of the same nature, particularly ones that help the U.S. maintain an imperial presence in the Middle East. As with other U.S. alliances, a military-industrial apparatus exists to uphold this relationship even as support for Israel wanes among the public and support for Palestinian rights increases. The Center for Responsive Politics reports that Zionist organizations spent $14.8 million in the 2018 midterms, with the majority of recipients being Democrats. Though AIPAC, like many other lobbying entities, does not contribute directly to candidates, it is, in the words of Congressman Brad Sherman (D-CA), “the single most important organization in promoting the U.S.-Israel alliance.”
AIPAC’s power over Washington, D.C. is an open secret on Capitol Hill, with Al Jazeera uncovering recordings of Israeli lobbyists bragging about their influence. HaLev founder David Ochs stated, “Congressmen and senators don’t do anything unless you pressure them. They kick the can down the road, unless you pressure them, and the only way to do that is with money.” In describing a fundraiser for a Maryland congressional Democratic candidate, Ochs said, “So we want the Jewish community to go face to face in this small environment, 50, 30, 40 people, and say, ‘This is what’s important to us. We want to make sure that if we give you money, that you’re going to enforce the Iran deal.’ That way, when they need something from him or her, like the Iran deal, they can quickly mobilize and say look, we’ll give you 30 grand.”
What Ochs describes is no different from what any other corporate lobbying interests do. But while Democrats are happy to criticize the GOP for taking NRA money that clearly influences how they vote, Rep. Omar describing the same exact dynamic in regards to Israel was a step too far, because Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, have deep ties to the Zionist lobby.
Though Democrats have not been so bold as to simply become the proud party of neo-Nazism in the United States, never before under Trump’s presidency have we seen such swift, widespread, and harsh action in regards to alleged anti-Semitism.
During his 2016 re-election campaign, Leader Schumer took $375,818 from pro-Israel lobbyists, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Both Speaker Pelosi and Leader Schumer regularly speak at Zionist conferences. In March 2017, Leader Schumer told AIPAC, “The fact of the matter is that too many Palestinians and too many Arabs do not want any Jewish state in the Middle East. Of course, we say it’s our land, the Torah says it, but they don’t believe in the Torah. So that’s the reason there is not peace. They invent other reasons, but they do not believe in a Jewish state and that is why we, in America, must stand strong with Israel through thick and thin.”
The charge leveraged at Rep. Omar was anti-Semitism. While it is indeed true that Jewish people controlling the world through wealth is an anti-Semitic trope, the assertion that Rep. Omar was anti-Semitic for describing pro-Israel lobbying is based on the false premise that criticizing Israel is anti-Semitic because Israel is the self-proclaimed Jewish state and thus representative of the Jewish people. This is categorically untrue, with support for Israel decreasing dramatically among American Jews, particularly among young Jews, many of whom are demonstrating their opposition to the occupation by protesting Birthright. Even the pro-Israel American Jewish Committee (AJC) reported in June 2018 that there are “sharp differences of opinion between the world’s two largest Jewish communities on President Trump, U.S.-Israel relations, and Israel’s security and peace process policies.”
Nonetheless, establishment figures all across the political spectrum, from Chelsea Clinton to Nancy Pelosi to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy to Donald Trump, denounced Rep. Omar and demanded that she apologize for her alleged anti-Semitism. This occurred over the course of just hours. It was a truly incredible spectacle to see the political establishment, which essentially never stands together on anything, join a collective smear campaign against a young Black Muslim woman – the first Black Muslim Congresswoman and one of the first first Muslim Congresswoman in U.S. history, alongside with Rashida Tlaib. The spectacle was made even more incredible by the fact that the GOP has been increasingly comfortable publicly touting allyship with anti-Semites and literal neo-Nazis, from Donald Trump’s referral to the white supremacists at Charlottesville as “very fine people” to Congressman Steve King meeting with a literal Nazi-aligned party in Europe to Republicans using anti-Semitic campaign material, literally using the anti-Semitic tropes they are accusing Rep. Omar of using. Leader Kevin McCarthy himself promoted the widespread right-wing anti-Semitic conspiracy theory about Holocaust survivor George Soros, only deleting his promotion of such anti-Semitism after the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. Leader McCarthy faced no consequences.
Though Democrats have not been so bold as to simply become the proud party of neo-Nazism in the United States, never before under Trump’s presidency have we seen such swift, widespread, and harsh action in regards to alleged anti-Semitism. Less than a month ago, Democratic leadership actually crushed efforts to ensure neo-Nazi Republican Rep. Steve King over his explicit embrace of the terms “white supremacy” and “white nationalism.” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Whip James Clyburn denied censure attempts by Democratic Rep. Bobby Rush. Rep. Clyburn said, “We should be very, very careful about doing anything that constrains, or seems to constrain, speech.” (Speaking of speech, the majority of Senate Democrats also voted to criminalize criticism of Israel through an anti-BDS bill condemned by civil rights groups including the American Civil Liberties Union.)
Unfortunately, Rep. Omar caved to the bipartisan corporate pressure and issued an apology. Not a single so-called “progressive” colleague stood up for her, with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez praising Rep. Omar for “learn[ing] from her mistake” rather than asserting that Rep. Omar never had anything to apologize for in the first place.
The existence of a Black Muslim woman in Congress willing to criticize the influence of corporate money on U.S. foreign policy is a threat, and they have always viewed her that way.
The foolishness of falling into the Zionist trap of accepting the narrative that Rep. Omar was being anti-Semitic manifested immediately. Donald Trump and Republicans are calling for Rep. Omar not only to be stripped of committee assignments but to outright resign. That’s because they did not want her to grow. They always wanted her to leave. The existence of a Black Muslim woman in Congress willing to criticize the influence of corporate money on U.S. foreign policy is a threat, and they have always viewed her that way.
If this were about anti-Semitism, Rep. Steve King would have been censured. If this were about anti-Semitism, Congress would have demanded that Donald Trump resign when he sided with neo-Nazis in Charlottesville. If this were about anti-Semitism, Republicans would call for hordes of their own to resign for their anti-Semitic campaigning on George Soros and associating with known anti-Semites. But neither Democrats nor Republicans genuinely care about Jewish people in the U.S. or anywhere else. They care about power. Rep. Omar threatens the congressional heterodoxy on Israel, which represents the interests of the Zionist lobby, not the Jewish people. The Right saw an opportunity to slander a vocal Black Muslim woman whose very presence in Congress scares them, while Democrats were frightened by the prospect of retribution from major donors. Ironically, there was no greater proof of Rep. Omar’s point than the bipartisan condemnation of her description of lobbying and the fact that AIPAC is using the smear campaign as fundraising material.
It is undeniably discouraging to see how a unified political class responded to Rep. Omar’s accurate explanation of what motivates U.S. foreign policy. Many (though far from all) progressives have invested significant energy into bolstering supposed progressive politicians like Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Sanders, who both declined to stand in solidarity with Rep. Omar. Ultimately, this should not come as a surprise: U.S. politicians have rarely if ever demonstrated any concern whatsoever for the lives and rights of Palestinians. We will see if any of these so-called progressive politicians can be held accountable, particularly by those who proclaim that progressives should invest in electoral politics.
But encouragingly, the manufactured controversy proved that even if the Zionist lobby controls Congress, it does not have unilateral sway over American Jews. The solidarity expressed by progressive American Jews, while not entirely unified, was demonstrative of the fact that we are moving sharply away from the settler-colonial state of Israel, with major Jewish organizations including Jewish Voices for Peace, IfNotNow, and Bend the Arc Jewish Action vocally condemning the political elite for smearing Rep. Omar for telling the truth and calling for increased solidarity with Palestinians living in the apartheid state of Israel.
We are witnessing a pivotal moment in U.S. politics. There is a clear divide between the political elite and actual Jewish Americans. Right now, American Jews and particularly my fellow non-Black Jews have the opportunity and responsibility to fully upend the conventional wisdom on Israel by unequivocally defending a Black Muslim Congresswoman who spoke truth to power only to be forced to apologize due to bad faith accusations of anti-Semitism, largely by actual anti-Semites.
I am a Jew living in the United States. Rep. Ilhan Omar is right. She has nothing to apologize for. And in her criticism of AIPAC, I felt more represented as a Jew than I ever have or will be by AIPAC and the Zionist lobby. I stand with Ilhan.
Jordan Valerie is a cinephile, filmmaker, journalist, political activist, and proud Jewish queer woman of color currently serving as Politics Editor at Millennial Politics and Chief Policy Director at Brand New Congress. You can find her angrily tweeting about politics and culture @jordanvalallen.