By falsely accusing Congresswoman Ilhan Omar of anti-Semitism, her critics are feeding into the very racist stereotype they claim to be challenging.
The news media has been abuzz this week with reports about how Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar has come under fire for allegedly posting anti-Semitic comments on the social media platform Twitter about how Jews use money to influence world affairs. As a useful example, this allegation was repeated in a New York Times column by Michelle Goldberg headlined “Ilhan Omar’s Very Bad Tweets” and subtitled “Left-wing anti-Semitism is a gift to the right.” The reality, however, is that the charges against Omar of racial discrimination are baseless, and it’s Goldberg and Omar’s other critics who are discriminating against her and, by doing so, feeding directly into the very anti-Semitic stereotype they claim to be challenging.
One factor that we’d be remiss to overlook is the possibility that Omar’s critics view her as an easy target for the charge of anti-Semitism due to the fact that she’s a Muslim. She and Michigan Representative Rashida Tlaib are the first two Muslim women ever to be elected to Congress. It’s quite possible that Omar is being discriminated against by at least some of her critics on the basis of her religion and the bigoted stereotype of Muslims as anti-Semites. But whether or not her religion is a factor, what is plainly evident is that the accusation against Omar is spurious, which reveals a great deal about the character of her critics.
Remarkably, the most recent tweet by Omar that provoked accusations of anti-Semitism consisted of a single acronym: “AIPAC!” So why the outrage? How was tweeting that acronym supposedly an expression of hate or discrimination against Jews?
To answer that question requires a bit of context. The acronym “AIPAC” stands for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which describes itself as “America’s Pro-Israel Lobby”. Its mission statement is to “educate decision makers about the bonds that unite the United States and Israel and how it is in America’s best interest to help ensure that the Jewish state is safe, strong and secure.” The lobby boasts how it “works with Congress to ensure Israel is able to defend itself” with what is euphemistically termed “security assistance”.
In reality, US “security assistance” to Israel is used to sustain Israel’s occupation regime, violations of international law, and human rights abuses against the Palestinian people. It is this reality that Ilhan Omar was decrying when she tweeted the acronym, which we’ll come back to. But first, there is some important additional context that mainstream media outlets like the New York Times are failing to provide in their coverage of the latest manufactured controversy.
Israel Is a Fundamentally Racist Regime
To begin with, it’s important to understand that the “Jewish state” is fundamentally a racist regime. Contrary to popular myth, the state of Israel was not established through any kind of legitimate political process, but through armed violence. Specifically, the “Jewish state” was established by Zionist forces in 1948 by ethnically cleansing more than 700,000 Arabs—most of the Arab population—from their homes in the Palestine. This was a crime that was facilitated by Great Britain and other Western benefactors of the Zionist movement.
Prior to the ethnic cleansing and unilateral Zionist declaration of the existence of Israel on May 14, 1948, Jews were a minority representing about one-third of the population, and the Jewish community owned less than 7% of the land in Palestine. Arabs, a two-thirds majority, owned more land than Jews in every single district of Palestine, including Jaffa, which included the main Jewish population center of Tel Aviv. A UN “partition plan” that was never implemented called for the establishment of separate Jewish and Arab states, but even within the territory proposed for the Jewish state, Arabs owned more land and also constituted a numerical majority when the population of Bedouins was counted.
In large part as a consequence of the Western-facilitated ethnic cleansing of Palestine, today Arabs are a minority in the area known as “Israel”, constituting about one-fifth of its population. Although it is internationally recognized that refugees of war have a right to return to their homeland, Israel has always refused to permit Palestinians expelled from their homes to return, and consequently the population of refugees has since grown to about five million.
The fundamentally racist nature of the Israeli regime was laid bare in July 2018 when the Israeli legislature, the Knesset, passed the “Jewish Nation State Law”, which explicitly rejected the right to self-determination to non-Jewish inhabitants of Israel—a law transparently discriminatory to the fifth of Israelis who are Arab, as well as to the millions of refugees who have an internationally recognized right to return to their homeland.
The US Supports Israel’s Belligerent Occupation
Secondly, it’s important to understand the nature of US support for Israel, which in 1967 invaded and occupied the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and to this day remains a belligerent Occupying Power under international law.
Israel’s occupation continues in defiance of UN Security Council Resolution 242, which, contrary to a popular propaganda narrative, required Israel to fully and immediately withdraw its armed forces to the armistice lines drawn in 1949, which are also known as the pre-June 1967 lines or the “Green Line” for the color with which it was drawn on the map.
This ongoing Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory is sustained through the financial, military, and diplomat support of the US government.
Israel has received more foreign aid from the US since World War II than any other country, an amount totaling $134.7 billion as of April 2018. Since 1985, the US has provided about $3 billion in grants to Israel annually, mostly in the form of military aid. Over time, economic grants have been phased out so that, since 2008, the billions in grants Israel receives annually have been entirely in the form of military aid. From 2000 to 2010, total aid to Israel amounted to over $31 billion—about $3.17 billion on average annually. While under US law Israel is technically not allowed to use this money to sustain its occupation of Palestinian territory, it frees up domestic Israeli funds to be directed toward that very purpose. Hence, the US effectively finances Israel’s belligerent military occupation.
In a quid pro quo, most of the grant money to Israel is used to purchase US military hardware and thus serves as an effective subsidy to what President Dwight D. Eisenhower famously described in his farewell address to the nation as the “military industrial complex”—the insidious influence of which Eisenhower was warning the American people against.
Apart from sustaining Israel’s occupation regime, arms provided by the US to Israel have frequently been used in the commission of war crimes, such as targeted attacks on schools and hospitals in the Gaza Strip, as I document at great length in my book Obstacle to Peace: The US Role in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.
Additionally, the US effectively subsidizes the Israeli occupation regime by providing loan guarantees, allowing Israel to borrow at lower interest rates and leaving the American taxpayers on the hook in the event of an Israeli debt default. In 2003, Congress authorized $9 billion in loan guarantees, from which about $1 billion was deducted by President George W. Bush. This was a propaganda ploy to enable the Bush administration not to be seen as financing Israel’s illegal settlement construction in the occupied Palestinian territory of the West Bank, which was the explicitly stated reason for the deduction. However, Israel had requested only $8 billion in the first place. The Obama administration re-approved the loan guarantees, with no deductions for Israel’s ongoing illegal activity, to the amount of $3.8 billion.
The US supports Israel’s occupation regime not only financially and militarily, but also diplomatically—including through the use of its veto power in the UN Security Council. In 2011, for example, the Obama administration vetoed an uncontroversial Security Council resolution that merely reiterated the international consensus favoring a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and condemned Israel for its violations of international law, including its continued settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank.
(In 2016, the Obama administration broke habit by abstaining from the vote on a similar resolution, thus allowing it to be adopted by the Security Council, which was a shift effectuated in large part by the intransigence of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose behavior helped make it politically untenable for the administration to once again exercise the US veto power to protect Israel from censure.)
Likewise, as I also document in great detail in Obstacle to Peace, the US-led so-called “peace process” has long been the means by which Israel and its superpower benefactor have blocked implementation of the two-state solution.
While the US has frequently expressed support for a two-state solution, this is not the same thing as the two-state solution, which the US has explicitly rejected nearly since its inception—despite having voted in favor of UN Resolution 242, which forms a key legal foundational basis for the two-state solution.
The two-state solution is premised on the applicability of international law to the conflict. The entire framework for the “peace process”, on the other hand, consists of a fundamental rejection of the applicability of international law to the conflict, instead requiring the people living under belligerent military occupation to negotiate with the Occupying Power over how much of their own territory they may retain in which to exercise some limited measure of political sovereignty.
In sum, it has been longstanding US policy to financially, militarily, and diplomatically support Israel’s crimes against the Palestinian people.
And it has been a longstanding practice by those who try to defend those crimes to try to silence legitimate criticisms of either Israel or the US by leveling the false accusation of “anti-Semitism”.
So now let’s return to Ilhan Omar’s tweet. To understand what the controversy is supposed to be all about, we really need to go back to 2012. At the time, Israel was engaged in a military assault on the virtually defenseless Gaza Strip known as “Operation Pillar of Defense”.
Israel launched this assault on Gaza in violation of a ceasefire agreement with Hamas, the governing authority in Gaza. Israel used the ceasefire to draw out from hiding Hamas commander Ahmed al-Jabari, whom Israel assassinated on the first day of its operation during its initial wave of airstrikes.
Like “Operation Cast Lead” before it (which lasted from December 27, 2008, to January 18, 2008), “Operation Pillar of Defense” (November 14 – 21, 2012) was characterized by indiscriminate attacks resulting in destruction of civilian infrastructure and killing of civilians. As the violence played out on television, and as the US government expressed its support for Israel’s predominant share of that violence, Ilhan Omar tweeted: “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel”.
She was immediately attacked by apologists for Israel’s war crimes as an anti-Semite. However, on its face, there was nothing about Omar’s tweet that was discriminatory against Jews. After all, she did not say “Jews have hypnotized”, but that “Israel has hypnotized” the world, which was fair enough in light of how the US and other Western governments were parroting the Israeli propaganda narrative that Israel’s actions were defensive and in accordance with international humanitarian law.
And far from it being Ilhan Omar who equated “Israel” with “Jews”, it is Israel’s apologists who insist on characterizing that political entity as “the Jewish state”.
Returning to more recent events, the Republican leader in the US House of Representatives, Kevin McCarthy, was presumably referring to that prior episode when he recently threatened to take some unspecified action against the two Muslim members of Congress—both of whom are Democrats and critical of Israel—for making allegedly racist statements.
McCarthy’s threat was reported by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. In a Twitter post, lawyer and journalist Glenn Greenwald shared a link to the article and remarked, “It’s stunning how much time US political leaders spend defending a foreign nation even if it means attacking free speech rights of Americans”. In the discussion thread that followed, Greenwald incisively described the attacks on Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib as an effort “to turn the first Muslim women to serve in the US Congress into overnight Jew-haters because of their criticisms of Israel. What’s actually anti-Semitic is conflating the Government of Israel with Jews, so those of you doing that should stop.”
Given the evident inability of those leveling the accusation to identify anything that either Omar or Tlaib has said that was actually racist, Greenwald’s interpretation was inarguably the correct one. But the hypocritical attacks on the Muslim women did not stop there.
What happened next was that Omar retweeted Greenwald’s post about the Haaretz article with the comment “It’s all about the Benjamins baby”, adding an icon depicting musical notes, which indicated that she was alluding to a rap song by artist and producer Puff Daddy. “Benjamins”, of course, refers to $100 bills, on which Benjamin Franklin is depicted.
It was obviously a simple tongue-in-cheek reference to the influence of money in US politics, but that didn’t stop Omar’s critics from proving Greenwald’s point by doubling down on their substanceless accusations of anti-Semitism.
New York Representative Jerry Nadler, a Democrat who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, accused Omar of trafficking in “old anti-Semitic tropes about Jews and money.” California Representative and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi likewise accused Omar of using “anti-Semitic tropes and prejudicial accusations about Israel’s supporters” that were “deeply offensive.”
Batya Ungar-Sarson, an editor from The Foreword—a periodical targeting a Jewish American audience—tweeted a reply to Omar’s rap song allusion, describing it as Omar’s “second anti-Semitic trope” on the grounds that she, Ms. Ungar-Sarson, “can guess” whom Omar “thinks is paying American politicians to be pro-Israel”.
In other words, the Foreword editor was employing the fallacy of strawman argumentation to support an ad hominem attack on Omar, attributing to Omar a view that Omar did not express and attacking her for that view rather than for anything she actually said.
Highlighting Ungar-Sarson’s double fallacy, in reply to the question of who Omar thought was “paying Americans to be pro-Israel”, Omar did not tweet “Jews!” Instead, Omar replied once again in a tongue-in-cheek manner by tweeting “AIPAC!”
As the accusations of anti-Semitism mounted, Omar the next day tweeted an apology for having ostensibly offended people, while reiterating her concern about “the problematic role of lobbyists in our politics, whether it be AIPAC, the NRA or the fossil fuel industry. It’s gone on too long and we must be willing to address it.”
Evidently, Omar’s accusers do not wish for the real issues to be addressed, which explains why they instead choose to attack the messenger.
A Manufactured Controversy
The observation that AIPAC money is used to influence Americans, including members of Congress, toward “pro-Israel” positions is hardly controversial. The lobby itself boasts how effective it is at doing so.
Among the accomplishments AIPAC has boasted was President Donald Trump’s relocation of the State Department’s Israel embassy from Tel Aviv to Jersualem—which actually violates a UN Security Council resolution forbidding member states from doing so since East Jerusalem is unequivocally “occupied Palestinian territory” under international law.
Data from the website OpenSecrets.org, a project of the Center for Responsive Politics, put the total amount of lobbying spending by pro-Israel organizations in 2018 at over $5 million, more than $3.5 million of which was spent by AIPAC. In terms of campaign contributions, the 2018 midterm elections saw an amount from all pro-Israel groups totaling more than $14.8 million. The average total in contributions to individual Republican members of Congress was over $12,000, and to individual Democrats nearly $16,000. Thirteen members of the House and eighteen members of the Senate each received over $100,000 from pro-Israel political action committees (PACs); individual members, employers, or owners of these PACs; and those individuals’ immediate families. (See the note on methodology here.)
AIPAC, as a 501(c)(4) organization under the tax code, is actually forbidden under US law from making direct campaign contributions, but as Haaretz explains, it nevertheless “mobilizes an army of supporters who are inclined to support pro-Israel candidates with their votes, time and money.”
David Ochs, founder of HaLev, an organization that helps send young people to AIPAC’s annual conference, has lauded its work by saying, “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.”
This was revealed in an Al Jazeera documentary about the influence of the pro-Israel lobby that was censored by the government of Qatar—where the state-funded news organization is based—under pressure from the pro-Israel lobby, but which was obtained and made publicly available by The Electronic Intifada in November. As observed by The Intercept, a news organization co-founded by Glenn Greenwald, in the documentary, “leaders of the pro-Israel lobby speak openly about how they use money to influence the political process, in ways so blunt that if the comments were made by critics, they’d be charged with anti-Semitism.”
AIPAC has since used the manufactured controversy over Ilhan Omar’s tweets to raise more money by urging donors in an email to answer Omar by giving more Benjamins, so to speak, to the lobby.
This brings us to Michelle Goldberg’s column in the New York Times accusing Ilhan Omar of “anti-Semitism” for tweeting “AIPAC!” in reply to the question of who she thinks is “paying Americans to be pro-Israel”.
That AIPAC indeed spends large sums of money to influence US policymakers toward positions it considers “pro-Israel” is completely uncontroversial. Yet this didn’t stop Goldberg from deliberately mischaracterizing Omar’s tweets as having “invoked a poisonous anti-Semitic narrative about Jews using their money to manipulate global affairs” that “smacks of anti-Jewish bigotry”.
At the same time, Goldberg notes that “Omar herself has been subject to vicious Islamophobic smears, and has also come under attack for supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.” She acknowledges that “it’s hardly radical to point out that lobbyist money has pernicious political effects” and that AIPAC “does rally donors” to contribute to political candidates. She even states, “I certainly have no problem with denunciations of Aipac (sic), which plays a malign role in pushing American policy in the Middle East to the right.”
Goldberg has even written a previous column about the personal attacks on the two Muslim Congresswomen titled “Anti-Zionism Isn’t the Same as Anti-Semitism”, in which she wrote that Omar and Tlaib’s critical stance toward Israel “is not” anti-Semitic!
So if Goldberg acknowledges that it is perfectly legitimate to criticize how AIPAC uses its money and lobbying efforts to influence US policymakers toward “pro-Israel” positions, how can Goldberg at the same time maintain that it is “anti-Semitic” for Omar to have done precisely that?
This is actually the question that prompted Goldberg’s latest column, as she explains therein. On Twitter, she had joined in the discussion by posting that “it’s possible to believe both that AIPAC has a pernicious effect on American politics and that Ilhan Omar’s tweet invoked clear anti-Semitic stereotypes about how Jews buy influence.” Then, as she explains in her column, “an anti-racist activist sent me a message expressing genuine confusion about why I found the congresswoman’s words offensive.”
But nothing in her column clears up the confusion. Rather, Goldberg simply reiterates her same confusing message, and in a way that is wholly self-contradictory.
As a point of fact, Omar did not invoke any anti-Semitic stereotypes about Jews. Rather, it is her critics themselves who have invoked an anti-Semitic stereotype in order to falsely attribute it to Omar. As a point of fact, Omar said nothing about Jews at all, but rather was criticizing AIPAC’s “pernicious effect on American politics”, to borrow Goldberg’s words, which is something Goldberg herself acknowledges is legitimate.
Goldberg’s column is a striking illustration of cognitive dissonance, a term used to describe the psychological phenomenon of an individual holding two self-contradictory views, which is achieved by convincing oneself that both beliefs are true despite this being a logical impossibility.
So her reader’s question remains. Is Goldberg suggesting that it is legitimate for her—a Jew—to criticize AIPAC’s pernicious influence, but not for Omar—a Muslim—to do the same thing? Goldberg’s previous column distinguishing between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism is strong evidence against this interpretation, but it wouldn’t be an unreasonable conclusion for her readers to draw, given the absence of any other obvious distinguishing criteria.
Whatever the explanation for Goldberg’s cognitive dissonance, by accusing Ilhan Omar of having made discriminatory statements against Jews, it is actually Goldberg and the rest of Omar’s critics who are feeding directly into anti-Semitic stereotypes.
Anti-Semites, after all, are witnessing this episode unfold the same as anyone else. They can see how “the Jewish state” is enabled by the US government to violate international law and Palestinians’ human rights with impunity. They can see how Zionists equate any criticism of Israel with “anti-Semitism” in order to intimidate critics into silence. And they can see that this practice, despite being the height of moral and intellectual cowardice, is effective, such as how Ilhan Omar was pressured in the face of such false accusations into issuing an apology for simply tweeting critically about the Israel lobby’s influence in US politics.
What Goldberg and Omar’s other critics are essentially doing, in other words, is lending credence to the stereotype of Jews using their wealth and political influence to manipulate world affairs—including by intimidating critics of “the Jewish state” into silence.
This is not to say that there is no reason to criticize Omar’s suggestion that the reason the US supports Israel’s criminal policies is due to the influence of the pro-Israel lobby—an umbrella term that frequently refers not to a single organization like AIPAC, but all self-described “pro-Israel” groups. Indeed, the focus on the pro-Israel lobby in many ways is exaggerated and serves to distract from the even greater influence on US foreign policy of Christian Zionism.
Interestingly, Goldberg responded to criticisms on Twitter for falsely accusing Omar of anti-Semitism by tweeting, “Do you really think AIPAC is why Kevin McCarthy supports Israel? America’s lopsided fealty to Israel has more to do with ideas about national security and with evangelical Christianity than with Jewish money.”
And that is a legitimate point. After all, it doesn’t require AIPAC money to explain why members of Congress hold pro-Israel views when they are themselves ideologically Zionists.
But it isn’t anti-Semitic to recognize the fact that money from the pro-Israel lobby is an important factor. And while perhaps misguided, it isn’t anti-Semitic for someone to believe that this is the principle explanation for why the US as a matter of policy supports Israel’s violations of international law.
So if Michelle Goldberg and the rest of Ilhan Omar’s accusers truly wish to counter anti-Semitic stereotypes, they should start by ceasing the dishonest and cowardly practice of trivializing it by falsely labeling Israel’s critics as “anti-Semites” simply for speaking out either against Israel’s criminal policies or the US government’s support for Israel’s crimes against the Palestinians.