NOTE: This is a substantially expanded version of a piece published yesterday by Al Jazeera. It’s the first op-ed I’ve published there in ten years, so it’s an auspicious development. My KPFA Flashpoints interview discussing the subject can be heard here.
For those who don’t remember their medieval history, during the Spanish Inquisition the newly triumphant Catholic monarchs adopted torture techniques to root out false converts to Christianity from the surviving remnants of the old regime. That included both Jews and Muslims who were tortured on the rack, also known as the auto-da-fe, when suspected of observing Jewish and Muslim rituals or traditions in the secret of their homes. In this modern age, it would be nice (but naïve) to think that we’d passed the stage when mental and physical torture would be used to elicit confessions of sin from victims. Apparently, the Inquisition and its machinery are still in use in the U.S. Congress.
The 2018 Congressional election marked a watershed, sweeping a new progressive class into office. Most prominent among them were Reps. Rashid Tlaib, Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, women who challenged the system, incumbents, and the Democratic machine to win sweeping victories on truly progressive platforms. Their Middle East agenda was particularly forthright, and therefore shocking: they opposed U.S. aid to Israel, supported BDS and a one state solution (AOC has not expressed herself as explicitly on these issues, but presumably shares many of her colleagues’ views).
Anyone who knows the Israel Lobby knew that the other shoe was bound to drop. They just didn’t know when. And it didn’t take long. Both Tlaib and especially Omar have been outspoken on Israel-Palestine since their elections. And their markedly pro-Palestine views have rapidly become grist for the anti-Semitism mill churned by the Lobby and its water-carriers in Congress.
First, of course there was the famous “Benjamins” tweet in which Omar noted that members of Congress were obedient to the Lobby because of the hundreds of millions it raises and distributes to loyal pro-Israel candidates. But somehow, noting that the Lobby derived its power from money morphed into outright anti-Semitism. The way this happened was instructive: there is, of course, an ancient anti-Semitic trope that Jews are rich and use their wealth to control the finance, banking, entertainment, and the media sectors, etc. That of course, has nothing to do with the true statement that the Lobby raises and distributes massive lucre to its favored candidates. A reasonable person can see the difference between these two concepts.
But the Lobby plays a game of smoke and mirrors. It sees a clear statement attacking it and manages through a bit of hocus-pocus to transform it into a classic anti-Semitic charge, when in actuality there is absolutely no connection.
Now, the Lobby has done it again after Omar gave a talk at a Washington DC bookstore in which she criticized those in Congress and the Lobby who had a foreign allegiance: “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is O.K. for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country.”
By this, of course she meant that groups like Aipac and their Congressional sponsors who take their marching orders either from Israel directly, or who conceive their agenda totally with Israel and its interests in mind. They may believe that the interests of the U.S. and Israel are the same; and that therefore they are not betraying U.S. interests. But anyone who believes that the interests of one of the greatest powers on earth is the same as that of a small Middle Eastern theocratic state is either terribly naïve or worse.
After Omar’s statement, the Lobby went into Defcon mode. The attack was launched by Eliot Engel, a veteran of the New York Democratic machine, who attacked the Somali-American Congresswoman:
“[It is] unacceptable and deeply offensive to call into question the loyalty of fellow American citizens because of their political views, including support for the US-Israel relationship.
“Her comments were outrageous and deeply hurtful, and I ask that she retract them, apologize, and commit to making her case on policy issues without resorting to attacks that have no place in the Foreign Affairs Committee or the House of Representatives,” he said.
Pro-Israel Jews like Engel are particularly exercised by the implication of dual loyalty. That is, that pro-Israel Jews are more loyal to Israel than America. An especially apt historical phrase connoting dual loyalty is the term “Israel Firster.” It was not invented by an anti-Semite or white supremacist. But rather by the dean of American Jewish historians, Abe Sachar, the first president of Brandeis University. And he used the term to deride precisely the figures Omar is now attacking: a powerful Lobby and its apologists who put Israel before all else. This is a passage from the 1961 American Jewish Yearbook:
American Jews continued to object to Israel’s claim that a genuine Jewish life was possible only in Israel. Abram L. Sachar, president of Brandeis University, at the biennial convention of JWB [Jewish Welfare Board], declared on April 2, 1960 that among Jews there is no room “for Israel Firsters whose chauvinism and arrogance find nothing relevant or viable in any area outside of Israel.”
The NY Times headline about the speech said Sachar derided the “dogma of Israel.” If American Jews can quarrel over the meaning and primacy of Israel in Jewish life, why would we deny Arab American the same right, considering that their Palestinian sisters and brothers are under the boot heel of Israeli Occupation?
It would not be so bad if Israel was a democratic, secular nation like the U.S. and most western democracies. Then at least there would be a confluence of interests and values. But Israel is no longer a democracy. Instead it has become a theocracy, run by fundamentalist extremists bent on holy war with the Muslim world. Israel’s interests are diverging from those of the democratic west more than ever. And this fissure can only continue to widen as Israel sinks ever deeper into mass murder, Occupation and oppression. Israel’s interests and America’s are no longer the same. Not even close. That little sliver of daylight which presidents used to boast about not existing when it came to Israel and U.S. interests: it’s now a wide-open expanse of sky.
Apparently, Congress has not yet read the memo. It is sunk in old ways and habits. The smell of greenbacks remains too enticing to resist. But the old ways are dying. The election victories I referenced above testify to that more strongly than a $100-million Sheldon Adelson donation.
That’s why the anti-Semitism fire-drill convened by the Democratic Congressional leadership was initially so infuriating. It decided to take Omar to the woodshed and whip her by passing a resolution denouncing anti-Semitism by its members. This represented the Democratic Party eating its young. Nancy Pelosi, at the goading of Engel, Nita Lowey and other pro-Israel members, tabled a pointless resolution. It would have forced members to swear allegiance on pain of getting a public spanking like Omar. The final wording never ended up referring directly to Omar. But the message was clear: shut up on the subject or the Party caucus will exact a toll.
To her credit, Omar has bent but not broken. After her first imbroglio she did apologize and deleted the “offending” tweet. But she has stood tall in the face of Engel’s new onslaught. She has given as good as she’s gotten. And has neither asked for nor given quarter. That is a fighter.
Democratic progressives not to take these attacks lying down. At a Democratic caucus meeting two days ago members of the Congressional Black and Progressive caucuses raised their voices in anger at the railroading of one of their own. They told the Speaker in no uncertain terms that they could not stand by and see her singled out for opprobrium. Pelosi, according to news reports, was drawn up short. She was used to the old ways in which the Lobby set the agenda for Israel-related matters and members fell into line. When the restive younger generation shook off these shackles, Pelosi didn’t quite know what to do.
So a pro-Israel House member sat down with a member of the Black caucus and they drafted what’s come to be called a “kitchen sink” resolution which denounces everything from white supremacy to the Dreyfus Affair to the Japanese internment. The text is heavily tilted toward appeasing pro-Israel Jewish House members and offers a detailed, and skewed, version of Jewish history and suffering.
Despite the content of the resolution, what’s clear is that Ilhan Omar and her supporters in the House and the rest of the country won a major victory. As Splinter reported:
It’s easy to imagine a time ten years ago, or even five years ago, when the recent controversy surrounding Rep. Ilhan Omar’s comments on AIPAC and Israel’s unrivaled influence in American politics would have been the death knell for her career. And indeed, when senior lawmakers from her own party openly attacked her to the point where the House Democratic leadership planned a resolution condemning anti-Semitism that was indirectly aimed at her, it looked like the same story was going to play out again.
But then something entirely different happened. Many on the left came out in strong support of Omar’s statement, which, despite being aimed at all lawmakers, has been characterized as anti-Semitic not just by pro-Israel Democrats but by the GOP…
It’s not hysterical to say that this whole controversy seems to have turned American politics upside down.
It’s not clear what the fallout will be from this episode. Will her caucus come to accept and understand Omar’s views on this subject? Will they continue gunning for her and singling her out for persecution? Will the Lobby mount an all-out offensive against her and the progressives who supported her in 2020? If they do, I suggest the best response would be to primary the hell out of Engel, Lowey and others. Aipac leaders have already threatened to primary Omar. So let’s give them a taste of their own medicine. As Splinter noted above: in the past, those who challenged the Lobby lost ensuing elections because the Lobby unleashed its power against them. But now things are different. There is a countervailing force that stands in the way. It is the force of progressive Democrats, Jews and non-Jews, who no longer take marching orders from the white, male, plutocrats of the Lobby.
Anti-Semitism: What It is and Isn’t
For those who need a primer in anti-Semitism, let’s talk about what it is and isn’t. It is the hatred of Jews for being Jews. It should not be confused with Israel. There is nothing wrong with criticizing Israel. Nothing wrong with advocating an Israel that is a democracy offering equal rights to all citizens, Jewish and non-Jewish. There isn’t even anything wrong with advocating a one-state solution since that will not destroy Israel, but rather transform it. There may be some who conflate Israel and Jews and who express anti-Semitism by attacking Israel as a substitute for Jews. But such confusion is often fueled by a deliberate Zionist conflation between the two.
Ilhan Omar does not hate Jews nor hate Israel. She has never said or written any such thing. Attacking one of the most powerful domestic U.S. lobbies is not anti-Semitic. Further, supporting BDS is not anti-Semitic either. This non-violent movement advocating justice for Palestinians harbors no animus toward Jews. And its three demands for Right of Return, full democratic rights for Palestinians in Israel, and an end to Occupation have nothing to do with Jews per se. And BDS’ implied criticism of the Israeli status quo does not constitute anti-Semitism. Anyone who claims otherwise knows nothing about the role of real anti-Semitism in Jewish history; and is singing from a prayer-book written for them by the Lobby. If you follow public comments by Jewish historians, either Israeli or American, almost none agree with these false interpretations of Jewish history conveyed by the Lobby.
Though the Lobby stegosauruses like Aipac and the ADL, have launched full frontal attacks, many Jews are standing by Omar. There is a Jews with Ilhan website hosting a petition signed by 2,400 Jews. Groups like Jewish Voice for Peace and If Not Now have raised their voices in support.
Progressive members of the House Democratic caucus have also pushed back, protesting the overhasty rush to judgment against Omar:
A meeting of House Democrats turned contentious Wednesday as some new members who helped deliver the House majority confronted leaders over a resolution implicitly rebuking Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota over her comments on Israel.
In the party’s weekly closed meeting, Democrats protested the way Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other leaders tried to rush out a resolution this week responding to Omar’s latest remark about Israel…
Some Democrats hugged Omar during the meeting, according to other officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity…
There was clear dissention among the Democrats on whether a resolution condemning anti-Semitism was even necessary, given that the House voted on a similar measure already.
“I’m not sure we need to continue to do this every single time,” said Rep. Primayla Jayapal, the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
Alexandria Ocasio Cortez has offered her support. The New York Times, in a sympathetic report, noted the generational split between a younger generation of insurgents like Omar and older, veteran colleagues who came up politically in an earlier generation when Aipac held absolute control over these issues.
Media commentators like Mehdi Hassan, Jeremy Scahill and Ben Ehrenreich have complained that Omar is being “gaslighted” and “thrown under the bus. A new hashtag #istandwithilhan has swept Twitter feeds.
It is a shameful stain on the Democratic Party, that in the face of death threats and smears like the one mounted by the West Virginia GOP, in which Omar’s image was imposed on a picture of the World Trade Center 9/11 attack, few have come to her defense. Not Jewish members, not Pelosi, and certainly not Republicans. Perhaps when a Jared Loughner comes along and empties a Glock pistol into her brain for being a Muslim terrorist, then they’ll come to their senses? By then it will be too late.
Over the past few days I mercilessly tweeted the equivalent of “Where’s Bernie” to him and his foreign policy advisor, Matt Duss. The leading progressive and presidential candidate, who has spoken out about Islamophobia in the past–when one of his political supporters was eviscerated in the halls of Congress–was AWOL. Duss, who was just undeservedly lionized in a Nation cover story—was also nowhere to be found. But then, the day before today’s vote, Bernie roused himself from slumber and finally spoke up in Omar’s defense. He was late to the party, but at least he got there.
This issue is not confined to the U.S. The Israel Lobby in the UK has adopted the same nasty habits in attacking Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn for imagined anti-Semitism. Nine MPs have split from the Party, many claiming it was anti-Semitic, to form an “Independent Group.” As in the U.S. Congress, there is no epidemic of anti-Semitism. There is a Lobby desperate to preserve its power and searching for enemies with which to rally the troops.
Unfortunately, the Lobby in both countries has thrown in its lot with the right-wing, GOP and Tories respectively. That means enemies must be found on the political left. Labour and the Democrats better wise-up. The Lobby wants to eviscerate both these parties to ensure pro-Israel rivals (GOP and Tories) gain or retain power. They will not stop at toppling a single Omar or a Corbyn. They want to destroy your party. Unless of course they can eviscerate it and turn it into a pro-Israel clone of its rival. Is that what Speaker Pelosi wants?
For the latest developments in the Labour Party anti-Semitism witch hunt, read this piece by Neve Gordon.