In the Blue Wave November 2018 election, women were among the most prominent Democratic victors in House elections. In particular, there were three young women who fired the imagination of the American electorate in much the same way that Barack Obama did in his first 2008 presidential campaign. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, who unseated a New York City machine politician who’d served for two decades in Congress; Rashida Tlaib, the first Palestinian-American elected to Congress; and Ilhan Omar, the first Somali-American and the second Muslim-American woman elected to Congress.
Tlaib and Omar, in particular, brought an entirely revolutionary approach to the issue of Israel-Palestine. They both reject a two-state solution. They reject U.S military aid to Israel. The support BDS. And they reject the power of the Israel Lobby. Never before have members of Congress taken as many, or as bold positions directly contradicting the Lobby.
Those of us who observe the Lobby and how it exercises power knew the other shoe had to drop. The only question was when and how. That happened when House GOP leader, Kevin McCarthy made the empty threat to punish both Tlaib and Omar for their alleged anti-Semitism. He equated their views on Israel with the abhorrent statements of GOP Rep. Steven King, who’d just been stripped of all his committee assignments for espousing white supremacist views.
In response to a tweet from Glenn Greenwald expressing wonderment at the level of fealty American politicians like McCarthy show to Israel, Omar quote the lyrics of a P. Diddy rap song: “It’s all about the benjamins, baby.” An editor at the Jewish Daily Forward, a liberal pro-Israel media outlet, then asked her who she “thought was paying American politicians to be pro-Israel.” Omar replied: “AIPAC!”
Before delving into the uproar that followed, it’s important to parse the social media exchange thus far. When a Republican leader attempted to minimize the racism in his own ranks by labeling Muslim-American supporters of Palestinian House members as themselves racist, what happened? The world, including Jews (who are overwhelmingly vote Democratic) and the Democratic Party took the bait, with a vengeance.
Now, let’s examine the actual exchange among Omar, Greenwald and the Forward. In responding to Greenwald’s observation about the power of Israel and the Lobby in Congress, the Congresswoman made a self-evident statement that money is the root of its power. This is self-evident going all the way back to California’s legendary Democratic leader, Jesse Unruh, who memorably said that “money was the mother’s milk of politics.”
By latching on to the specific reference to “benjamins” and equating this to anti-Semitism, her critics have completely misunderstood this classic anti-Semitic meme. The claim that Jews own the banks, the media, etc. And that they seek to control them in a world-wide conspiracy for the benefit of Jews is anti-Semitic. But that’s not at all what Omar said or meant.
If you examine the lyrics of the original song, P. Diddy boasts about his obsession with luxury, with fast cars, loose women, diamonds, etc. The reference to “benjamins” has nothing to do with Jews. Benjamins are a means to an end. They fuel his gangsta lifestyle.
In fact, there is a blatantly anti-Semitic lyric in the song: “You should do what we do, stack chips like Hebrews.” If she was an anti-Semite, she would’ve chosen to highlight that lyric. But she didn’t.
There is yet another fundamental error involved in these attacks on Omar. The Israel Lobby along with Israel’s leaders deliberately conflate Israel with Jews. In doing so, they can conveniently smear critics of Israel by saying they’re anti-Semitic. This is a tactic used repeatedly, but with minimal success by the UK Israel Lobby against Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn.
Jews are not the same as Israel. In fact, there are over 1-million non-Jewish citizens of Israel. Further, there are many non-Jews such as Christian evangelicals and many of Europe’s far right leaders, who are among the most fervent defenders of Israel. So claiming that criticism of Israel is the same as criticism of Jews is flat-out wrong.
There is absolutely no truth to the claim that “benjamins” is an anti-Semitic phrase. In fact, everything Omar wrote was directly solely at Israel and its domestic lobby. Critics of the latter have every right to note the corrupting influence of the billions spent by the Lobby’s pro-Israel donors electing candidates they favor to office.
The Jewish Forward played a shameful role inciting this mess. After the editor read about “benjamins” and “Aipac” she decided she had an anti-Semitic scoop on her hands. She wrote an op ed denouncing the “new anti-Semitism” on the left (does anyone know how old the “new” anti-Semitism is?). Then, once the entire episode went viral and the Forward heard that Aipac was fundraising off it, the Forward followed suit. Unfortunately, the managing editor’s letter confused Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, saying the former was from Michigan. She then released a “corrected” version. But how can you correct the hate and ignorance that was at the base of this appeal?
The Forward was once a powerful Jewish media outlet read by hundreds of thousands of Jews every day. It boasted its own building towering over the lower East Side. On the facade were bas reliefs of four great heroes of world socialism, among them Karl Marx and Frederich Engels. More recently, the media outlet has fallen on hard times. It was forced to sell the inconic building which was turned into luxury condos. Marx and Engels are no more, alas. But wherever they are, they’re shedding tears over the demise of a once great progressive Jewish newspaper.
The only error Omar introduced into the discussion was blaming Aipac directly for the overwhelming impact of money in electing pro-Israel candidates. Actually, Aipac is not a PAC. It does not directly raise funds to support candidates, though it does spend millions on legislative lobbying for pro-Israel bills. In fact, it very cleverly parcels this out to scores, if not hundreds of pro-Israel PACs and 527s, which raise the funds and distribute them to the candidates or their affiliates. In this way, it insulates itself from the sort of claim that Omar made. But to claim that Aipac plays no role in this money-game is flat-out false. In fact, hundreds of millions of dollars are offered in every presidential election cycle by pro-Israel donors on behalf of pro-Israel candidates.
To claim, as some of its supporters have, that Aipac is merely a non-profit, non-partisan, educational organization as some are now claiming is disingenuous in the extreme.
I also disagreed with Omar’s decision to issue an apology for her statements:
Listening and learning, but standing strong 💪🏽 pic.twitter.com/7TSroSf8h1
— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) February 11, 2019
Though the language of her apology may be reasonable, it will not secure the result she seeks. She will never quiet the Lobby. She will never satisfy Israel or its domestic defenders. They will be waiting for the next time she says anything that can remotely be construed as hostile to Israel or Jews. Progressive politicians (like Bernie Sanders) make a mistake when they try to equivocate regarding Israel. You can’t satisfy the Lobby with half-measures. They demand full allegiance to their agenda. If you refuse, you are the enemy.
There is another cultural-racial element to this episode which is disturbing and little remarked upon. White Americans (excluding young people) do not listen to or understand Black culture or music. They view rap as a hostile, transgressive cultural expression. Any African-American who attempts to bring this experience into mainstream discourse is treated with hostility.
I have news for the Democratic Party: you want American young people (Black and white) to vote for your presidential candidate in 2020? You want to defeat Donald Trump? If so, you better bring immense enthusiasm and new ideas to the campaign. Thus, young people are a critical demographic both as voters and candidates. Democrats must learn to appreciate everything they bring to the table. That includes their ideas, their life-style, their expression, their music. Do not expect those who voted Tlaib, Ocasio-Cortez and Omar into office to stand back while you attack them for being true to their roots.
Decide as a Party whether the white, male, billionaires of the Israel Lobby are more important than the young ethnic demographic which swept the Party back into control of the House. If you want their allegiance then you better stop dissing them and what they believe.
Finally, this entire incident is a self-inflicted wound on the Democratic Party. Instead of falling into this trap set by Rep. McCarthy, they should have supported Omar. They should have said that the Party has a diverse set of voices on Israel ranging from strongly pro-Israel to those who view the conflict through the prism of human rights. Criticism of Israel is entirely legitimate within the Party. If it is not, then you better figure out where you’re going to get the votes to replace those who brought Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib and Omar into Congress. Because they won’t remain with you if you cut the legs out from under their political idols.