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No, Ilhan Omar Is Not Anti-Semitic For Calling Out AIPAC

Who knew that he whose name must not be spoken was Benjamin? Apparently not Representative Ilhan Omar, the brave Muslim congresswoman from Minnesota who stated an inconvenient truth when she wrote, “It’s all about the Benjamins baby” over reports she was to be “punished” for her criticisms of Israel that include support of BDS.

According to a Haaretz story, House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy threatened to “take action” against Omar and Michigan Representative Rashida Tlaib for unspecified statements against Israel, comparing them to Republican House member Steve King who the GOP minority recently stripped of committee assignments over his support for white supremacism.

After Batya Ungar-Sargon (this story’s editor – small world!) and Chelsea Clinton amplified Omar’s tweet, the congresswoman was swept into controversy and again accused of anti-Semitism, as she had been for posting during military action against Gaza in 2012 that Israel had “hypnotized” the world.

Like “hypnotized,” Omar’s comment on “Benjamins” was said to employ the anti-Semitic trope of secret Jewish control. Much has been written about this awful demonization of Jews, about how it has been repeatedly used to falsely depict one of history’s most marginalized and oppressed peoples as all-powerful.

The problem is, all lobbies, by definition, are designed to exert secret control over policy, using money. That’s what they do. For example, we’re just now learning about a Russian plot to launder money through the NRA and help Republicans. Good times.

And so, unless you want to deny that there even is an Israel lobby, it can’t be off limits to point out that it works in secret and uses money to bring about policy outcomes.

Now, it’s quite true that not all pro-Israel lobbying is Jewish these days. Much of it now comes from evangelical groups and other entities that tend to favor US intervention abroad, and who see strategic importance in Israel.

But it’s also true, almost a cliche in political analysis, that American voters pay little or no attention to foreign policy. So, even as polls continue to show general support for Israel (though now polarized by party, and crumbling among Democrats and younger voters), few voters would be very upset or even notice if the US stopped doing the practical things we do for Israel: $38 billion (a lot of “benjamins”) in military aid, protection at the UN from international accountability and, under Trump, official support for territorial annexation.

For crucial decades before the rise of Christian Zionism, the lobby that produced wall-to-wall congressional support for Israel was AIPAC. Like Omar, academicians Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer were slandered as anti-Semites for merely writing about “the Israel lobby,” though this is no longer tenable and the critics have mostly backed off.

But if you were in the right audience, AIPAC was very up front about its influence. In 1988, at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco — yes, representing the Dukakis campaign at an AIPAC luncheon is a thing I have done in this life — I heard an AIPAC speaker boast unabashedly about AIPAC’s vast influence. In recent cycles, he said, AIPAC had punished enemies of Israel in Congress, like Senator Charles Percy of Illinois, who had lost his 1984 reelection after criticizing Israel’s settlements and Lebanon invasion.

But now it was time to reward Israel’s friends, he told the crowd. Lobbies, he joked in what became a widely repeated saying, are like mushrooms: they grow best in the dark; you will not hear about all our successes.

No one called him anti-Semitic.

And it cannot be anti-Semitic to say that a lobby that spends large sums of money and boasts (at least to its own supporters) of its influence, is influential through money. (If you think members of Congress don’t care about “benjamins,” you haven’t watched any of them dance for a $5000 PAC check like it’s “Goodfellas” and Joe Pesci is shooting at their feet.) Israel also exerts influence in the donations of wealthy individuals like Sheldon Adelson who has given the GOP a reported $100 million and was rewarded by Trump with the Jerusalem embassy move.

It’s AIPAC, not the evangelicals, who made the Israel Anti-Boycott Act a legislative priority and got 292 House and 69 Senate cosponsors from both parties to place protecting Israel from criticism above their own constituents’ constitutional rights to free speech.

Not all these Congress members hate the First Amendment — many just thought it would be no biggie to sign on to a bill AIPAC cares about. And it was AIPAC who helped force a different anti-BDS bill, S.1, to the Senate floor three times this winter in the midst of a government shutdown.

New members like Omar and Tlaib are shaking up Congress like it has has never been shaken. This includes criticisms of Israel that have been almost entirely suppressed in our political conversation.

There are plenty of Jews, like me, whose beliefs are voiced by Omar, not AIPAC. And this time, we will not let our leaders be taken down by accusations that they are anti-Semitic for supporting Palestinian rights, including BDS, or for calling attention to the influence wielded behind the scenes by lobbies like AIPAC.

Peter Feld is political director of The Insurrection, a digital strategy firm in New York, and a writer. His writing has appeared in the New York Observer, Gawker, Radar, Ad Age, and the New York Post.

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