Ilhan Omar Just Made It Harder to Have a Nuanced Debate About Israel

The Minnesota congresswoman has given credence to caricatures of critics of Israel.

Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar (Joshua Roberts / Reuters)

In the anti-Semitic imagination, Jews run the world through a global conspiracy of cash and power. This belief is both old and resilient, and in the past seven decades, anti-Semites have relied on this framework to explain the tight alliance between the United States and Israel.

On Sunday night, a freshman representative from Minnesota, Ilhan Omar, cheerfully repeated this anti-Semitic trope, implying that AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, pays politicians to support Israel. Top Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, have called on Omar to “reject anti-Semitism in all forms,” according to The Washington Post, while Republicans have argued that her comments reveal the depth of anti-Israel sentiment in the Democratic Party. “I unequivocally apologize,” Omar said in a tweeted statement on Monday. “At the same time, I reaffirm the problematic role of lobbyists in our politics, whether it be AIPAC, the NRA, or the fossil-fuel industry. It’s gone on too long and we must be willing to address it.”

Along with perpetuating anti-Semitic stereotypes, Omar’s comments were inaccurate and incomplete: AIPAC’s influence, which does not include payments to politicians, is only a small part of why the U.S.-Israel alliance is almost universally supported in Congress. Her comments, and the backlash they provoked, show how fractured the American debate over Israel has become. Omar is the new face of anti-Israel criticism on the left, and yet her use of anti-Semitic tropes undermines her credibility. Her comments have provoked a cycle of outrage, amplifying the most extreme voices on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and limiting the chances for more nuanced debate over America’s support for Israeli policies. Instead of creating more space for critical debate about Israel, Omar has added credence to a common caricature of the anti-Israel left: that opposition to Israel is partly fueled by conspiratorial anti-Semitism.

The controversy over Omar’s statements started on Sunday night. The journalist Glenn Greenwald tweeted about House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy vowing to take “action” against Omar and her colleague Rashida Tlaib, the freshman representative from Michigan who has also been accused of using anti-Semitic tropes in her comments about Israel. “It’s stunning how much time U.S. political leaders spend defending a foreign nation even if it means attacking free speech rights of Americans,” Greenwald wrote on Twitter. “It’s all about the Benjamins baby,” Omar replied, quoting a lyric from a 1997 Puff Daddy song. (Benjamins is a slang term for $100 bills.) When an editor from The Forward, a historic Jewish magazine, asked who Omar “thinks is paying American politicians to be pro-Israel,” the congresswoman replied, “AIPAC!,” referring to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

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Omar’s words were immediately condemned—including by members of her own party. Max Rose, a freshman Democratic congressman from Staten Island, New York, tweeted that Omar’s statements were “deeply hurtful to Jews, including myself.” Dan Shapiro, the U.S. ambassador to Israel under President Barack Obama, called her comments “outrageous.” Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO and national director of the Anti-Defamation League, urged Democratic leaders to condemn Omar: “The House of Representatives must not tolerate any bigotry against any community in our nation,” he said. A number of prominent Republicans criticized her comments as well, including the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley.

Notably, these leaders were not the only ones who heard anti-Semitism in Omar’s comments. David Duke, the prominent white supremacist and former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, defended the congresswoman. “So, let us get this straight,” he tweeted. “It is ‘Anti-Semitism’ to point out that the most powerful political moneybags in American politics are Zionists who put another nation’s interest (israel’s) over that of America ??????”

The fact that anti-Semites like Duke who believe, conspiratorially, that Jewish money is the sole driver of U.S. support for Israel, approved of Omar’s comments did not deter her defenders. Yet some on the left, including a number of journalists, still stepped up to defend Omar’s comments. “Accurately describing how the Israel lobby works is not anti-Semitism,” tweeted Ashley Feinberg, a writer at The Huffington Post. Omar shared this and other comments made in her defense. Later, in her apology, Omar backed off. “Anti-Semitism is real and I am grateful for my Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of anti-Semitic tropes,” she said. “My intention is never to offend my constituents or Jewish Americans as a whole.”

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Perhaps even more than Omar’s original comments, this exchange illuminates how extreme the debate on Israel and Palestine has become. Prominent journalists and activists on the left, including Greenwald, claim that any criticism of Israel is shut down as anti-Semitic, and that American politicians overwhelmingly support Israel because of the powerful influence of political donors. Their criticisms are not entirely baseless. The U.S. Senate recently passed a bill that would encourage states not to partner with supporters of BDS, or boycotts, divestment, and sanctions, the movement that promotes total financial separation from Israel. Some, including Democratic candidates for president such as Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, and Kamala Harris, see this legislation as a threat to free speech. And there are prominent activists and donors in both parties, including favorite targets of liberals like Sheldon Adelson, who are motivated by their support for Israel.

The problem with Omar’s comment is it leaves the impression that she sees Jewish money, and Jewish money alone, as the explanation for why politicians support Israel. U.S. political leaders, along with many Americans, back Israel for an enormous range of cultural, religious, historic, and security-related reasons. Many American Jews support Israel, but their views are complicated and diverse. And they are joined in this by many non-Jews, including, notably, politically powerful evangelical voters.

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It is not accurate to state that AIPAC pays politicians for their pro-Israel votes, for the basic reason that AIPAC is not a political action committee that donates to individual politicians. But even her apology, which grouped AIPAC with other “problematic … lobbyists” like “the NRA, or the fossil-fuel industry,” offers a reductive way of understanding politics. What gives groups like the NRA or AIPAC clout on Capitol Hill are the supporters who stand behind them, and their passion for the issues these groups champion.

That Omar has become the face of anti-Israel sentiment on the American left in a short space of time is most frustrating of all for activists and advocacy groups who wish for more nuanced conversations and policies on Israel and Palestine. Especially on the left, there is a hunger for this kind of conversation: According to a 2018 Pew Research Center survey, less than a third of self-identified Democrats say they’re more sympathetic to Israel than to Palestine, and yet the vast majority of Democratic politicians in Washington are staunchly pro-Israel.

Groups like J Street, which lobbies in Congress for a two-state solution, have defended Omar and Tlaib in the past, and their cause is set back in the wake of comments like these. “J Street is dismayed and frustrated by the ongoing war of words” over this issue, the organization said in a statement on Monday. “This pattern of overheated, ill-considered, and reductive attacks … has failed to address these issues with the nuance, sensitivity, and seriousness that they deserve.” Young Jewish activists, including groups like If Not Now, have called on Jewish institutions to push back against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. In this highly fractured and fraught debate, however, extreme voices and provocative comments tend to find the most airtime, and outrage wins the day.