Ilhan Omar Tweeted Something Anti-Semitic. Again.
On Sunday night, freshman Congresswoman Ilhan Omar tweeted something anti-Semitic. Again.
This one came just weeks after she finally apologized for her first. In 2012, Omar tweeted that “Israel has hypnotized the world,” a message that played on the anti-Semitic trope of Jews having supernatural power which they use to control the world.
Last night, she moved from accusing Jews of hypnotism to accusing them of straight up bribery, invoking another anti-Semitic trope.
It’s all about the Benjamins baby ? https://t.co/KatcXJnZLV
— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) February 10, 2019
Omar was responding to a tweet by Glenn Greenwald, who was criticizing some politicians’ efforts to defend Israel by quashing boycotts against it: “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 response, Omar tweeted, “It’s all about the Benjamins baby.” And when I pressed her to identify who exactly she thinks is paying American politicians to be pro-Israel, she answered with one word: AIPAC.
— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) February 11, 2019
AIPAC, or the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, is a pro-Israel lobbying group that focuses on Israel education, trips to Israel for U.S. politicians, its big yearly Policy Conference, and bills that push for pro-Israel measures. In 2018, AIPAC spent $3,518,028; but none of that was to individual candidates. AIPAC does not endorse candidates, nor does it make campaign contributions, though its members and employees do.
This is not to say that AIPAC is not powerful. There are other ways to wield influence than direct contributions, ways AIPAC has made use of over the years — to greater and lesser success. AIPAC famously opposed the Iran deal, lobbying furiously to convince U.S. politicians to vote against it — to no avail. The deal prevailed, and the winner was not AIPAC but J Street, the dovish pro-Israel lobbying group that opposes Israel’s occupation of the Palestinians.
“AIPAC doesn’t use money to wield influence,” was how one veteran Hill staffer put it to me. “Crossing AIPAC carries with it the implicit threat of being considered anti-Israel, or that you’re not a friend to the Jews — an increasingly empty threat now that there’s another pro-Israel lobby that doesn’t cozy up to Trump.”
Indeed, Omar’s tweet accusing AIPAC of bribing people into defending Israel comes at a time when AIPAC’s influence is on the wane. On the right, President Trump has obviated AIPAC by going straight to the source, cultivating a closeness with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and garnering praise as the most pro-Israel American president in history. Who needs AIPAC when they can say “I’m with him”?
Conversely, Trump’s affiliation with Netanyahu has emboldened Netanyahu’s worst ethno-nationalist traits, making Netanyahu — and by extension, AIPAC — radioactive for the Democrats. All of the Democratic presidential candidates for 2020 save one voted against S1, a bill that AIPAC backed that allows states to boycott boycotters of Israel.
It’s certainly fair to criticize AIPAC, as many Jews did over their handling of the Iran deal. But what Omar did wasn’t to criticize AIPAC; it was to characterize it in terms hewing to a deeply anti-Semitic trope, just as her earlier tweet wasn’t offensive for criticizing Israel but for characterizing it along the lines of another well-established anti-Semitic trope. Her tweet cast AIPAC as a nefarious organization controlling the levers of power, buying politicians with “Benjamins” and bribing them to betray American values. It belongs in a Der Stürmer cartoon, not on the Twitterfeed of a U.S. Congresswoman.
Both tweets were offensive because in both, she got the story wrong in a way that fit neatly into the grammar of anti-Semitic stereotypes that have caused Jewish suffering, slaughter, and even genocide for centuries.
The fact is, whatever influence AIPAC has comes not from the money it gives to politicians who share its values, but rather, from that fact that politicians wish to be viewed as pro-Israel because their constituents are pro-Israel. It’s like the National Rifle Association. The reason U.S. representatives want a good rating from the NRA is not because the NRA will then throw cash at their campaign; it’s because their voters are pro-gun, and want to know their candidate is in good standing with the gun lobby.
This is how lobbying works, and why, unlike a bribe, it’s legal. And in the case of the pro-Israel lobby, those constituents aren’t even Jews. 80% of Jews voted for Democrats in the last election, showing once again that their focus at the ballot box is domestic policy, rather than Israel. It’s the 80 million evangelicals who politicians are courting when they speak vocally in Israel’s favor, who vastly outweigh the couple million Jewish Republican voters.
We can certainly have a conversation about whether there’s too much lobbying in U.S. politics. But spinning yarns about Jewish money, Jewish bribes, and Jewish influence is not the way to have that conversation. It’s a way to make Jews feel the ripples of epigenetic trauma course through our veins.
Needless to say, the Palestinians, who desperately need courageous U.S. representatives to speak up for the civil rights abuses against them, do not benefit when anti-Semitic tropes sneak into the discourse around Israel.
The turn in the Democratic Party away from AIPAC is the surest sign that AIPAC’s influence comes from voters, not Jewish money. For as American voters on the left have started to become willing to criticize Israel, so have their representatives. And they are even requesting notes for how to push back against AIPAC talking points.
Of course, not everyone is up on the latest in Jewish news, and not everyone has to be. But if you’re targeting a people with a history of being mass murdered thanks to the kind of images you’re evoking, you’d better be damn sure you’re up to date.
Update: Omar has since apologized for her tweet after wide censure from her Democratic colleagues.
Listening and learning, but standing strong ?? pic.twitter.com/7TSroSf8h1
— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) February 11, 2019
Batya Ungar-Sargon is the opinion editor of the Forward.