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Don’t Let the Ilhan Omar Fight Hide Two Essential Truths

Criticism of Israel—and AIPAC—isn't anti-semitic

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) rallies with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the U.S. Capitol March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The other night, I was watching an NBC News report on the thousands of endangered red-crowned cranes whose migration route takes them through the DMZ between North and South Korea. Amidst land mines and other dangers, they somehow manage to survive.

Right now, I feel a little bit like one of those cranes, walking perilously into the minefields, because the subjects at hand are Israel, the recent comments of freshman House member Ilhan Omar and the power of AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Kaboom.

You all know what happened – Rep. Omar, a Muslim-American citizen and Somali refugee, got into boiling water for remarks she tweeted about AIPAC and money. She also said that some pro-Israel activists in the United States “push for allegiance to a foreign country.”

Out of impolitic impetuosity and the too-easy glibness endemic to social media, and although she apologized and said she did not intend to, in the minds of many Omar managed to echo a couple of malignant tropes that have triggered hatred toward Jews for years and years: the notions of Jews dominating the world via cash and that Jewish-Americans somehow have a “dual loyalty” to the US and Israel.

Despite her apologies, a feeding frenzy ensued. A House resolution was proposed denouncing anti-Semitism without specifically naming Omar, yet the intent was there. But after sometimes heated but productive debate and negotiating, a broader Democratic resolution was introduced and overwhelmingly passed that not only condemned anti-Semitism but also Islamophobia (Rep. Omar herself is facing constant death threats and verbal attacks), racism and other assaults on religious freedom and gender.

Nonetheless and despite the fact that the slim 23 votes cast against the resolution were all from Republicans, Donald Trump had the disingenuous gall to announce the day after, "The Democrats have become an anti-Israel party. They've become an anti-Jewish party."

This from the bitter clown who said there were good people on both sides when Charlottesville’s neo-Nazi demonstrators were shouting, “Jews will not replace us;” who told Jewish contributors, “You’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money. You want to control your politicians, that’s fine;” who depicted Hillary Clinton with a six-point Star of David and who ran a final 2016 campaign ad with grainy pictures of Jewish financiers – including George Soros, of course – representing alleged “global special interests.”

Trump, big surprise, panders to and deliberately stirs his own worst instincts and the hatreds of his base, without any semblance of or apparent need for consistency. Friday’s remarks were just another demonstration that whatever nonsense he thinks will create the most trouble for his perceived enemies is what will come flying forth from his bedeviled brain and mouth.

But. But. But. All of this is a distraction from a couple of realities lurking behind this whole contretemps.

First, no matter what it may deny, AIPAC is an enormously powerful lobby with undue influence on Congress and American foreign policy when it comes to the Middle East, the same kind of disproportionate and unfair sway on government we see coming from the NRA, Big Pharma and the insurance, banking, extraction and chemical industries – among others. “With that power,” Sheryl Gay Stolberg asked last week in The New York Times, “has AIPAC warped the policy debate over Israel so drastically that dissenting voices are not even allowed to be heard?”

Certainly, in almost every instance, AIPAC has backed whoever has been in power in Israel, including the right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu, although it recently joined with the American Jewish Committee to condemn Netanyahu’s alliance with an extremist, racist political party aligned with the late ultranationalist Rabbi Meir Kahane.

A lot of AIPAC’s influence comes from the simple fact that while it declares itself bipartisan and does not make any political endorsements or contributions on its own—the law forbids doing so—many of its members make big political contributions and decide where to land their donations based on information provided by AIPAC.

“That is why,” former congressional staffer and AIPAC employee MJ Rosenberg recently wrote in The Nation, “AIPAC has a large national political operation. If it were not in the money-distribution business, it would simply rely on its legislative department to lobby for and draft legislation for members of Congress. Nor would its political director make a half-million dollars a year. In short, AIPAC’s political operation is used precisely as Representative Omar suggested.”

And hence, members of Congress scrambling and falling all over themselves these last few days to make sure their AIPAC gravy train isn’t derailed.

Second, not only is it okay to be critical of AIPAC, but more important, to question the actions of Israel, especially in the realm of human rights. All too often, anyone who dares speak outespecially those in favor of BDS, the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions Movement to pressure Israel economicallyautomatically is attacked as an anti-Semite.

Yes, the horrors of the Holocaust and the murderous assaults against Jews that continue in the Middle East and throughout the world, from Pittsburgh to Paris, are proof of the need for a Jewish state, and the ties between Israel and the United States are strong and historic. Nor can the reality of Palestinian violence be denied. I’ve been to the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps, I have twice visited Yad Vashem, Jerusalem’s powerful memorial to the millions of Holocaust dead. A few years ago, in Beit Sahour, just outside Bethlehem, I met with three Palestinians, one of whom – a Christian, by the way – sat across from me and with a straight face insisted that Jews were responsible for the 9/11 attacks.

But I would challenge American and Israeli politicians and officials to spend time in Palestinian villages, to see the conditions under which they struggle to survive and witness firsthand how cruelly and inhumanely the people are treated by Israeli soldiers and others.

Just last week, The Washington Post reported a “spate of attacks” against Palestinians, “blamed on Israeli settlers that officials on both sides of the conflict say are spiking. Israel’s security agency, Shin Bet, documented 295 of what it calls ‘Jewish terror’ incidents last year, a 40 percent increase.”

As MJ Rosenberg notes, “believing that Israel has every right to exist in peace is not the same as saying that it should continue to occupy or blockade Palestinian lands or deny full democratic rights to the people who live there. It does not mean that we should enact laws that penalize people who choose to boycott Israel because they oppose its policies toward the Palestinians. It does not mean that we should continue to support members of Congress who refuse to put conditions on our aid to Israel, just as we impose conditions on other congressional appropriations, including those that go to our own states and local governments.

“It certainly does not mean that we have to embrace AIPAC’s number-one priority of recent years: preventing and then destroying President Obama’s nuclear pact with Iran simply because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prefers to deter an Iranian nuclear bomb through war (preferably an American attack) rather than diplomacy.”

AIPAC’s annual conference begins in Washington on March 24. Some 18,000 are expected to be there, Netanyahu among them, as well as an estimated two-thirds of the members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans, eager to show their support and gratitude.

Voices doubtless will be raised, accusations hurled, and threats made, as many choose to use recent events not to promote a reasonable public debate but instead to harvest rancor and hate to political advantage. Yet increasingly, as younger activists and progressive Democrats especially break away from AIPAC and its like, and as the voice of Palestinians and human rights advocates are increasingly heard, we continue to live in hope.

We just have to be able to talk about such things without fear of condemnation and ad hominem attack every time we open our mouths or put fingers to keyboard. Kaboom.

Michael Winship

Michael Winship

Michael Winship is the Schumann Senior Writing Fellow for Common Dreams. Previously, he was the Emmy Award-winning senior writer for Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, a past senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos, and former president of the Writers Guild of America East. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWinship

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