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The Attacks on Ilhan Omar Must Stop

Why criticizing AIPAC is not anti-Semitism

Ilhan Omar, the recently-elected Democratic Congressperson who represents Minnesota’s Fifth Congressional District, has come under fire for her recent comments about AIPAC, the American-Israel Political Action Committee. The Times headline puts it well: “Pelosi and Democratic Leaders Condemn Omar Statements as Anti-Semitic.”

It is important to be clear about the comments that are in question. A bipartisan group of U.S. Senators, including Chuck Schumer and Marco Rubio, have been promoting legislation that would encourage state and local governments to penalize companies and individuals who support the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction (BDS) movement. The legislation, which raises very serious civil liberties issues, has been opposed by many legislators, including Senators Dianne Feinstein and Bernie Sanders. Among the more outspoken critics have been Omar and fellow Democrat Rep. Rashida Tlaib (MI-13), both newly-elected Muslim-Americans, who have been very public critics of Israeli treatment of Palestinians.

Both have also expressed public support for BDS. On January 6, Tlaib was especially harsh in her critique of the proposed legislation, rightly pointing out that efforts to punish boycotts are perversely contrary to civil liberties. Then she tweeted this: “They forgot what country they represent. This is the U.S. where boycotting is a right & part of our historical fight for freedom & equality. Maybe a refresher on our U.S. Constitution is in order, then get back to opening up our government instead of taking our rights away.”

In response, Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (CA-23) called for sanctions against Tlaib and Omar, leading journalist Glenn Greenwald to denounce McCarthy. Greenwald defended Tlaib and Omar, declaring: “It’s stunning how much time US political leaders spend defending a foreign nation even if it means attacking the free speech rights of Americans.”

Omar responded to this Tweet by stating “It’s all about the Benjamins.” When asked for clarification, she said “AIPAC!”

That’s the whole “scandal.” Omar supports BDS. Her opponents are seeking to have her sanctioned for this, and her supporters have pointed out the absurd irony that the representatives of a democracy would place one particular perspective on the Israel-Palestinian conflict above the rights of U.S. citizens to engage in robust debate about the conflict. Omar has responded to the support by offering to explain the absurd irony: those seeking to use legislative means to quash the debate are being influenced by a powerful and well-financed political action committee, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC.

And now Omar is being widely denounced as a racist for having said this.

I find these attacks on Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib disturbing and objectionable.

I am not a supporter of BDS. But neither am I an opponent of BDS. And I can certainly understand why many people, and especially many people who are of Muslim or Arab descent, or who are Palestinian (!), might support BDS, which is a boycott, not a terrorist conspiracy. It is surely as legitimate for such people to support BDS at is for other people to be Zionists or to support AIPAC. The idea that people like Omar or Tlaib are morally or politically obligated to praise AIPAC, and think or talk about it the way that their Democratic colleague Jerry Nadler (NY-10) does, is idiotic, small-minded, and dangerous.

And it is very disappointing that so many Democratic leaders have rushed, in lockstep, to express such outrage at two Congresswomen who represent districts, and constituencies, very different than Nadler or Pelosi or Rubio or Schumer, and who represent a viewpoint that is shared by many in the country and the world, and who are entitled to their opinions. Period.

I would not have said the things that Glenn Greenwald said in the precise way that he said them. But there is nothing wrong with what he said in his tweet, and it is basically right as far as I am concerned. The legislators who are seeking to quash debate are not simply (and legitimately) articulating support for Israel and opposition to BDS: they are placing this position above the civil liberties of others who think differently.

That is pretty disturbing.

As for Omar’s understandable embrace of Greenwald’s defense of her — do Pelosi and her colleagues imagine that instead, Omar should have embraced the calls for her punishment? Again, while I would not have put it the way Omar did (which is beside the point, for I am not her!) what she said is hardly outrageous or untrue. Speaking in broad terms about “the Jews” or “the Jew Lobby” would be anti-Semitic. But criticizing AIPAC is not anti-Semitic. AIPAC does not equate to “Jews” or “the Jewish people.” AIPAC is a very savvy political action committee with a rather reactionary agenda, and it is fair game for criticism. And when Omar says “it’s about the Benjamins,” she is not making an anti-Semitic statement. She is talking about “the Benjamin Franklins,” i.e., the money.

Is there anyone who doubts that AIPAC, as a lobbying group and political action committee, uses money to influence many politicians?

For the record, I do not consider AIPAC’s efforts to be insidious, though I strongly disagree with the group. I do not believe that “AIPAC” is a sufficient explanation for U.S. policy toward Israel, nor do I believe that “just saying no to Israel” solves anything. But I do think it is a good thing for the issues being raised by Omar to be heard. And while “AIPAC” does not explain U.S. foreign policy, it might well go far to explain the more specific and well-organized effort to use federal legislation to punish BDS supporters.

Most importantly, whatever I think about Omar’s positions about BDS, or even her way of raising them, the “offending” Tweets are not anti-Semitic, and the current effort to mob her with denunciations ought to stop. Period.

The position held by Omar and Tlaib on Israel/Palestine, and on BDS, is a minority position within the U.S. Congress and within American society. There are many reasons why this is so. “AIPAC” is only one. But it is an important one, because such organizations use their influence and money to shape debate. More to the point, it makes perfect sense that Muslim-American politicians who are pro-Palestinian (and it is possible to be pro-Palestinian, even in the United States!), and who have been targeted and disparaged for this, would be especially sensitive, and defensive, and especially hostile toward AIPAC. For AIPAC, and those all too many people who support it, are hostile to them.

The harsh words expressed toward AIPAC’s influence by Omar and Tlaib do not make them anti-Semites. Might they speak with more solicitude for the concerns of Jewish people long victimized by malign stereotypes? Of course. But in the same way, our entire political establishment could, and should, speak with more solicitude towards the concerns of Palestinians and their supporters. Why is this discourse ethic being so furiously prosecuted against these two members of Congress, while it is so stunningly ignored by all the others? This is wrong.

I have no patience with anti-Semitism. I have no problem criticizing the statements of anti-Zionists when I find them offensive or simply wrong. I also have no problem criticizing the statements of Zionists when I find them offensive or simply wrong.

But I do have a problem with witch hunts against dissenters. And I have a particular problem when the dissenters are members of ethnic and/or political minority groups, and they are being shouted down for having the temerity to speak up.

Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib and their friends, allies, and supporters are entitled to their opinions.

If you want to debate them on the merits, debate them.

But do not denounce them or use the institutions of government to silence them.

Jeffrey C. Isaac

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