It should go without saying that these two things can simultaneously be true: that criticism of the Israeli government and AIPAC’s lobbying for U.S. support of it is not anti-Semitism, and that Representative Ilhan Omar’srecent tweet about “the Benjamins” was a mark of poor judgement, for which she has commendably apologized.
It’s all about the Benjamins baby 🎶 https://t.co/KatcXJnZLV— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) February 10, 2019
AIPAC does indeed exert massive sway over American politics and works to prop up a brutal, unjust status quo of perpetual occupation in Israel-Palestine, but there are ways to critique this responsibly, without resorting to words and phrases that evoke unsavory tropes.
It is especially important to be able to so in the current moment, when politicians on the left are under much greater scrutiny when it comes to accusations of anti-Semitism, particularly black and Muslim politicians.
This scrutiny is unfair, and in Omar’s case, a symptom of Islamophobia, racism and misogyny. But it is also not surprising. Faced with a resurgent left for the first time in a generation, the contemporary American right has undertaken a concerted campaign to use Jews — and accusations of anti-Semitism — as a cudgel against the left.
It has not been subtle about this. Even before the most recent controversy, Republican politicians relentlessly vilified Representatives Omar and Tlaib, the first Muslim-American congresswomen, conflating their support for BDS with anti-Semitism. Norm Coleman, a paid lobbyist for Saudi Arabia and chairman of the Republican Jewish coalition, admitted to the New York Times that the purpose of the anti-BDS bill recently passed in the Senate, which the ACLU warns may very well be unconstitutional, was to divide the Democrats and send the message that Jews will be “much more comfortable in the Republican Party.”
Over this same period of time, several prominent black civil rights advocates have found themselves viciously targeted by the right for speaking out in support of the Palestinians.
These attacks on progressive leaders and Democrats are intended to discredit the rising left and distract from a simple fact: that while the Republican Party may support the Israeli government, it has actively jeopardized the safety and well-being of Jews in the United States.
The past several months have made this painfully clear. During the 2018 midterms, numerous Republican politicians ran explicitly anti-Semitic campaign ads, portraying their Democratic opponents as hook-nosed Jews clutching piles of cash. Kevin McCarthy, the erstwhile Republican House Majority leader (who criticized Omar’s recent tweet), tweeted an anti-Semitic ad of the sort one would expect to find in Viktor Orban’s Hungary, warning that three Jewish billionaires – George Soros, Tom Steyer, and Michael Bloomberg – were planning to steal the election.
I am glad @IlhanMN has taken responsibility for her words.
I am still waiting for @kevinomccarthy to do the same.
And I am still waiting for my country to hold women of color and white men to the same standards. pic.twitter.com/uqkJvfElN7— Rabbi Mike Rothbaum (@Rav_Mike) February 11, 2019
Anti-Semitic incitement is routine from the Republicans and President Trump. Think of the claim that George Soros was funding a caravan of illegal immigrants to break U.S. borders. It’s so intense that it led first to near-lethal violence (the bombs sent to Soros’s home and others’) and then the deadliest anti-Jewish hate crime in U.S. history – the massacre in Pittsburgh just months ago.
The real outrage is not Omar’s poorly worded tweets but that President Trump and the current Republican leadership have Jewish blood on their hands — a fact that no amount of support for the Israeli government can erase.
Moreover, the American right more broadly has become a gurgling cauldron of white nationalism and anti-Semitism. Hardly a week goes by without some Trump supporter or surrogate making anti-Semitic statements.
Just last week, it was revealed that the White House correspondent for the pro-Trump, right-wing Daily Caller had made numerous anti-Semitic statements, including jokes about Jews in ashtrays. One day later, video surfaced of Candace Owens, the prominent pro-Trump pundit, astoundingly saying, “If Hitler just wanted to make Germany great and have things run well, okay fine.”
And lest we forget, just a year and a half ago, far-right Trump supporters and neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, chanting “Jews will not replace us,” and murdered Heather Heyer, a left-wing counterprotester. To which all President Trump could reply was that there were “very fine people on both sides.”
Regrettably, despite all this, American Jewish establishment organizations — like AIPAC, the ADL, and the AJC — have found common cause with the right around support for the Israeli government and anti-BDS laws. Not only is this cynical; it is dangerous, for in so doing these organizations have given cover to a political party that is openly tolerant of anti-Semitism and whose leaders have incited anti-Semitic violence against American Jews.
And the Republicans are all too willing use their pro-Israel bonafides to obscure the festering anti-Semitism and white nationalism within their ranks. Hence the outrageous hypocrisy of Kevin McCarthy attacking Ilhan Omar for calling out AIPAC’s intensive lobbying efforts.
It is incumbent on the left not to make the right’s work easier. President Trump and the Republicans are in the midst of a systematic attack on the rights of immigrants, women, African Americans, and LGBTQ people. And as Trump’s State of the Union demonstrated, they are more than willing to instrumentalize Jewish tragedy and support for Israel to clothe their bigotry and racism.
The left must be able to criticize this manipulation of Jewish fear while standing firm against anti-Semitism within and without its ranks. The success of the emerging progressive movement depends on it.
And so does the safety of Jews in the United States. Jews have historically been safest in societies that treat all people justly and most endangered in societies that are unequal, bigoted, and corrupt. The right’s political vision — of blood and soil nationalism, xenophobia, unfettered capitalism, racism, and misogyny — maintains the conditions that most directly threaten Jewish flourishing outside of Israel. When other minorities are under attack, it is only a matter of time before Jews are, too.
The progressive movement, represented by the new cohort of Democratic lawmakers that includes Rep. Omar, remains the best vehicle for ensuring long-term Jewish safety in the United States. These lawmakers, however, must do everything they can to avoid allowing the right to claim otherwise.
Joshua Leifer is an associate editor at Dissent Magazine. His pieces have been published in Haaretz, The Nation, n+1, Jacobin, and Jewish Currents.
This story "Omar’s Tweet Was Tone-Deaf But She’s Not Anti-Semitic" was written by Joshua Leifer.