Don’t Accept Omar’s Phony Alibis for Hate

Rep. Ilhan Omar participates in a news conference in Washington, D.C., February 7, 2019. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Her attack on AIPAC is linked to BDS, not to her learning curve about the history of anti-Semitism

Give credit to Representative Ilhan Omar (D., Minn.). She seems to understand that when you are caught saying something hateful and outrageous, the best way out of the mess is to give an apology that sounds as if you understand that you’ve done something wrong and are genuinely sorry.

But despite an excellent apology, Omar doesn’t deserve the forgiveness many members of her party are willing to give her. By also doubling down on her attacks on AIPAC in the same statement as her apology, Omar reminded us that the core of this dispute wasn’t merely a slip of the tongue or a moment of anger while at the keyboard. Far from being sincere in her desire to avoid future hurtful exchanges with Jews, Omar reiterates the policy positions that are driving such disputes. It is her deliberate attack on the right of supporters of Israel to speak up in this country and the right of Israel to exist that is the problem, not her learning curve about the history of anti-Semitism.

As she did when called out for a tweet in which she said Israel was “hypnotizing the world,” Omar issued a contrite-sounding apology for her assertion that members of Congress are bribed by AIPAC into supporting Israel. As in the previous instance, she said she had no idea that her words were classic anti-Semitic tropes that have been used to demonize Jews.

In an era in which President Donald Trump has turned a brazen unwillingness to apologize for falsehoods, slurs, or inappropriate remarks into a political art form, Omar was able to come across as sensitive and genuine. That allowed even some of her sternest critics within a Democratic party that had reluctantly been forced to condemn her latest jibe at supporters of Israel an easy way out of the controversy.

Omar’s apology came only after House speaker Nancy Pelosi and the rest of the Democratic leadership had demanded that she give one. But her contrite retreat enabled Democrats to turn the issue around and accuse Republicans of hypocrisy, since Trump (they alleged) has also said insensitive things about Jews without apology. They also claimed that one of Omar’s antagonists — House minority leader Kevin McCarthy — had been guilty of issuing an anti-Semitic tweet of his own without being held accountable.

This counterattack was intended to fend off criticisms of the Democrats for having rewarded Omar with a coveted appointment to the House Foreign Affairs Committee only days after the Republicans had belatedly ostracized their own problem member — Representative Steve King (R., Iowa) — by stripping him of his committee assignments for his connections to white nationalism.

Yet this exercise in whataboutism tells us nothing about the controversy or the truth about who has really engaged in anti-Semitism.

As for the countercharges against Trump and McCarthy, it’s true that while campaigning, the president made a statement referencing Jews as businesspeople who would renegotiate deals and talked about the pro-Israel community’s campaign contributions in ways that were cringe-inducing. But the context was clearly not anti-Semitic.

Trump has also been accused of anti-Semitism for campaign ads in which Jewish megadonors to liberal causes were singled out. This is also the substance of the charge against McCarthy, who tweeted criticism of George Soros, Michael Bloomberg, and Tom Steyer. All three are Jewish or have Jewish origins, but they are also the Democrats’ three most prominent billionaire backers. To claim that criticism of Soros or the others is synonymous with anti-Semitism is absurd. The trio has taken heat for pouring millions into left-wing campaigns but not for being Jewish or supporting Jewish causes. Their role in our political systems is just as much fair game for critiques as those voiced by the Left about the Koch brothers or other Republican donors.

Trump was also guilty of conflating opposition to the removal of Confederate statues with support for a neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville. But as unfortunate as that mistake was, it cannot be confused with a deliberate attack on Jews. It also must be placed in a context in which his administration has been arguably more supportive of Israel than any of his predecessors as well as his warm relationship with Jewish family members and friends.

It is that context that makes the attempts to extricate from this kerfuffle Omar and fellow congressional newcomer Representative Rashida Tlaib (D., Mich.), who was guilty of her own anti-Semitic tweet last month, in which she accused supporters of Israel of engaging in dual loyalty, so disingenuous.

Regardless of how abject Omar’s apologies were, both she and Tlaib employed unvarnished anti-Semitism whose direct intent was to delegitimize Jews and supporters of Israel, not mere dog whistling. That was unsurprising, since both are supporters of the BDS movement, whose purpose is not just criticism of Israel’s policies but Israel’s elimination. And that is why Omar and Tlaib have continued to traffic in anti-Semitism since taking office in January.

In her apology statement, Omar also said that she continued to be concerned about “the problematic role of lobbyists in our politics, whether it be AIPAC, the NRA or the fossil fuel industry.”

If lobbying per se were the issue, Omar wouldn’t have confined her examples to lobbies whose views she opposes but might also have mentioned Planned Parenthood or the Council on American–Islamic Affairs, a group linked to supporters of Hamas terrorists, which also contributed to her congressional campaign. And, tellingly, not long after she issued her apology, she retweeted with praise a Twitter thread by a supporter who engaged in a vitriolic attack on supporters of the “Israel lobby” that repeated the same themes about Jews using money to seek power.

Omar’s focus on “the Benjamins” and the supposedly malign influence of lobbies also ignores the truth about AIPAC.

For all its mythic status, AIPAC’s power in terms of the money connected to its supporters and their influence is actually dwarfed by that of Planned Parenthood or a commercial lobby such as those that support the pharmaceutical industry. The broad bipartisan pro-Israel consensus in Congress is not the result of campaign contributions or clever lobbying tactics. It is a result of Israel’s popularity, which is reflected in opinion polls and stretches far beyond the influence of the Jewish community or political donors.

Americans support Israel for a variety of reasons, including shared values embraced by the two democracies as well as its biblical roots. Most also think there is something deeply wrong with those, such as Omar and Tlaib, who want to destroy the one Jewish state on the planet, as opposed to those who merely criticize its democratically elected government or support the creation of a Palestinian state alongside it as part of a two-state solution that both members actually oppose. Sympathy for the idea of Zionism is deep in the political DNA of this country. It goes back to the early years of the republic and long predates Israel’s establishment as well as the subsequent formation of the AIPAC lobby.

The whole point of singling out AIPAC, of all Washington lobbies, is to delegitimize the right of the Jews to a state. Along with other supporters of intersectional theory, which falsely claims a link between the struggle for civil rights in the United States and the Palestinian war on Israel, Omar sees Israel’s existence as the problem, not its policies or the activities of its American supporters.

By being so brazen in her use of anti-Semitic tropes and forcing Pelosi and other Democrats to demand an apology, Omar demonstrated that there are clear limits to how far Israel’s foes can go in seeking to undermine the Jewish state’s supporters. But so long as Omar and Tlaib continue to support BDS and Israel’s elimination, their talk of not wanting to hurt the feelings of Jews is utterly disingenuous.

Trump may be in no position to critique anyone’s style of apology, as he did with Omar. But his flaws notwithstanding, neither he nor Omar’s Republican critics are guilty of anti-Semitism. Those who grant Omar and Tlaib absolution for a well-worded apology while ignoring their continued support for an anti-Semitic policy are giving credibility to a cause that deserves none.

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