Is Ilhan Omar an anti-Semite?

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The anti-semitism controversy around Ilhan Omar’s tweet in America exposes liberal pretensions 

Ilhan Omar, one of the first two Muslim women lawmakers in the U.S. Congress, faced a firestorm of criticism on Sunday over a tweet on Israel. When Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who broke the Snowden story for The Guardian, posted a tweet slamming Republican leader Kevin McCarthy for his threats to punish Omar, a Somnali immigrant, and her fellow Democratic Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian American, for their criticism of Israel, Omar retweeted it with a comment, “It’s all about the Benjamin baby”.

Benjamin is a reference to the $100 bills, and “It’s all about Benjamins” is a song by American rapper Puff Daddy. When Batya Ungar-Sargon, the opinion editor for the Jewish magazine Forward asked her who she was referring to, Omar said AIPAC—American Israel Public Affairs Committee, an influential lobby group in Washington.

This has immediately triggered widespread attacks on Omar. Her critics said her suggestion that America’s bipartisan support for Israel is fuelled by money from a Jewish lobby group has anti-Semitic tropes in it. Jews were accused by anti-Semites of buying influence in different countries using money.

In the pre-war Europe, Jews were involved in money-lending businesses which the Nazis used against them. Even Shylock, the money-lender antagonist in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice was a Jew, which critics say represented common perception about Jews that goes back in centuries. Omar’s criticism of AIPC triggered strong responses from both the Democratic and Republican parties as well as from President Donald Trump. The Democratic leadership, including House speaker Nancy Pelosi, publicly rebutted Omar and asked for an apology. President Trump even asked her to quit either the House or the Foreign Affairs Committee. Omar immediately gave up.

She issued a statement saying, “Anti-Semitism is real and I am grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of anti-Semitic tropes.” “Listening and learning but standing strong,” she tweeted with her apology.

The context of the apology can be understood. When the entire Democratic leadership has turned against her, it was difficult for Omar to stick to her tweet. But the question still remains. Was her criticism against AIPAC was anti-Semitic? Even before the tweet, the pro-Israeli sections of U.S. political leadership had started targeting Omar and Tlaib for their consistent criticism of the policies of the state of Israel, a topic which is unpopular among the Washington establishment.

When the base of the Democratic party is slowly moving away from the right to the centre and more and more leftwing leaders are emerging from the party, the pro-Israel lobby is understandably worried about the outcome. So they usually paint the critics of Israel with the brush of anti-Semitism. For that group, Omar’s tweet was a weapon and unfortunately the entire Democratic leadership walked into the trap.

It’s an established fact that AIPAC is an influential lobbying group. In the U.S., lobbying is legal. Some critics of Omar had pointed out that AIPC spent only 3.5 million for lobbying in 2018, which is, compared to the Washington lobbying groups, is nothing. But as Jewish Telegraph Agency’s Andrew Silow Carrol argued, AIPAC is operating as a “force multiplier” in US politics. Once AIPAC endorses a candidate, it’s easy for him or her to raise funds and ensure support among American Jews. And AIPAC holds enormous influence among the American lawmakers. So much influence that Steven Rosen, then a top official of the group, told journalist Jeffrey Goldberg in 2005 holding out a napkin, “You see this napkin? In 24 hours, [AIPAC] could have the signatures of seventy senators on this napkin.”

Wrong metrics

And over the years several writers, journalists and activists have raised this issue. Thomas Friedman once wrote in his NYT column that the standing ovation Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu got in US Congress “was bought and paid for by the Israel lobby”. Nobody called him an anti-Semite then. Reports about other countries buying influence in Washington with money, especially references to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, are galore in American media. Such references hardly trigger debates about Islamophobia.

Anti-Semitism is real. As was on display in Charlottesville, where neo-Nazis took out a procession in 2017, they are largely Trump supporters and have started coming out into American political mainstream. Attacks on Jewish synagogues have also been on the rise in the U.S. since Trump got elected.

But unfortunately, the pro-Israel lobby is focussed not on this problem, but on the critics of the state of Israel. That’s is not anti-Semitism. Israel is a country that continues occupation of the Palestinian territories in violation of international law. It’s a country that was accused of committing war crimes against the Palestinians by UN-appointed commissions. It’s a country that has imposed an illegal blockade on the Gaza strip for over a decade denying food and medicine supplies to the millions of people living in the strip.

And AIPAC lobbies for this country holds enormous influence in Washington. Criticising Israel and pro-Israel lobby groups is not an attack on Judaism and the Jewish people. Ilhan Omar criticised the former, which is derived out of her constant pro-rights, anti-occupation position, not out of anti-Semitism, irrespective of what the Democratic Party leadership thinks of it.

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