Updates have been added to the end of this article.
Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar is under fierce attack from Chelsea Clinton and other Republican and Democratic establishment figures for voicing a fundamental truth: much of Congress is muzzled when it comes to Israel by the powerful lobby group AIPAC.
On Sunday, journalist Glenn Greenwald highlighted a news story about how Republican House leader Kevin McCarthy wants to punish Omar, and fellow Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, for their criticisms of Israel.
In a perverse move, McCarthy tried to equate the two women’s support for Palestinian rights with notorious Republican Congressman Steve King’s white supremacism.
“It’s stunning how much time US political leaders spend defending a foreign nation even if it means attacking free speech rights of Americans,” Greenwald tweeted.
Omar then retweeted Greenwald, adding the comment, “It’s all about the Benjamins baby,” the title of a rap song by Puff Daddy.
“Benjamins” is a slang term for $100 bills, a reference to the portrait of Benjamin Franklin that is on the banknotes.Then, Batya Ungar-Sargon, the opinion editor of the The Forward, chimed in, challenging Omar to explain who she “thinks is paying American politicians to be pro-Israel.”
Ungar-Sargon also accused Omar of tweeting an “anti-Semitic trope.”
Omar’s answer to Ungar-Sargon’s question was succinct: “AIPAC!”That’s when the floodgates opened.
Chelsea Clinton “co-signed” Batya-Sargon’s attack on Omar. “We should expect all elected officials, regardless of party, and all public figures to not traffic in anti-Semitism,” the former first daughter asserted.Other Israel lobby stalwarts, like President Barack Obama’s ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, amplified the attacks on Omar: As did the Israeli government itself, through foreign ministry spokesperson Emmanuel Nahshon: Establishment publication Politico quickly came out with a story accusing Omar of touching “upon a long-running, and particularly ugly, thread of the anti-Semitic movement – that Jewish money fuels backing for Israel in the United States and elsewhere.”
Of course Omar never mentioned “Jewish money.” She referred to AIPAC – the American Israel Public Affairs Committee – a lobby group which exists specifically to defend Israel’s interests.
The story quoted her fellow Democrat, New York Congressman Max Rose, describing Omar’s comments as “deeply hurtful to Jews, including myself.”
The story quickly went national, with NBC running the headline, “Freshman Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar accused of sending ‘anti-Semitic’ tweets.”
Target of smears
It is no surprise that Omar is the target of the kind of anti-Semitism smears that have been deployed against UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, given that she was the first member of Congress to openly support BDS – the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement for Palestinian rights.Twitter users responded to Clinton with facts about the power and influence of AIPAC: Others pointed out the sheer hypocrisy of Kevin McCarthy, a Republican leader who has trafficked in anti-Semitism but now pretends to care about Jews only when it comes to defending Israel: Jeffrey Goldberg, the pundit and former Israeli prison guard, recounted in a 2005 article for The New Yorker a dinner he once had with Steve Rosen, the director of foreign policy issues at AIPAC.
“You see this napkin?” Rosen told Goldberg. “In twenty-four hours, we could have the signatures of 70 senators on this napkin.”
The power of pro-Israel money
Any observer of Washington politics knows that this is no exaggeration when it comes to the power of pro-Israel money.
It’s scarcely a secret that Donald Trump’s insistence on recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the US embassy there was in fulfillment of a promise to Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire pro-Israel mogul who is the biggest donor to the president and the Republican Party.
The influence of Adelson’s cash on US foreign policy has been enormous, even if media refuse to talk about it.
Despite the fierceness of the attack on her, Omar does not appear to be backing down. She continues to retweet tweets, like this one, pointing out the massive influence of the Israel lobby:She also tweeted to Chelsea Clinton that she’d be “happy to talk.”
Of course AIPAC is only one, albeit important, element of the Israel lobby.
It includes a number of groups, such as The Israel Project, Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Israel on Campus Coalition, actively interfering in American political and civic life in direct and covert collusion with the Israeli government.
Many of these activities were exposed in Al Jazeera’s explosive undercover documentary The Lobby–USA – which ironically the self-same lobby used its enormous influence to pressure Qatar, Al Jazeera’s patron, into censoring.
But the film leaked, and was released in full by The Electronic Intifada and two other publications last November.
All other things being equal, had this documentary uncovered supposed Russian, Chinese or Canadian interference in US politics, it would have been a media sensation and a national scandal.
Instead it has been virtually ignored.
Lobby influence waning?
Yet the fierce backlash against Ilhan Omar for stating the obvious can be seen as a sign that the Israel lobby, though still powerful, is losing some of its oomph.
While the Combating BDS Act passed by a huge margin in the Senate, prominent Democrats, including those running for president, voted against it.
And there are doubts that it will ever be brought to a vote in the House, for fear of splitting the Democratic caucus over Israel.
As long as the lobby held near-total sway, it was dangerous to criticize it.
The defiance of Democratic senators and the open criticism from Omar are signs that the fear the lobby instilled is waning as the base of the Democratic Party becomes more supportive of Palestinian rights.
At the end of The Lobby–USA, Eric Gallagher, a former AIPAC staffer then working at The Israel Project, is heard on hidden camera describing how the bipartisan consensus in support of Israel has seriously fractured in recent years.
Gallagher admits that AIPAC’s strength is ebbing.
“The foundation that AIPAC sat on is rotting,” he laments.
“There used to be actual widespread public support for Israel in the United States. So I don’t think that AIPAC is going to remain as influential as it is.”
He adds: “I don’t think that AIPAC is the tip of the spear anymore, which is worrisome, because who is?”
Update: Ilhan Omar “standing strong”
Throughout Monday, the pressure continued to mount on Ilhan Omar, including from top Democrat, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the rest of the party’s congressional leadership.
Echoing other attackers, the party leadership accused Omar of using “anti-Semitic tropes.”The New York Times also amplified the smear campaign by implying that Omar had called out the role of “Jewish money” – a term the congresswoman never used. In face of all the pressure, Omar tweeted that she is “listening and learning, but standing strong.”
She offered an “unequivocal” apology, but added: “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.”It remains to be seen whether her statement will appease the Israel lobby groups that are attacking her in bad faith, using well-worn tactics intended to silence critics of Israel.
Long experience suggests that any attempt at appeasing such lobby groups only invites more pressure.
Update: Railroaded by her own party
On Tuesday I spoke about the smear campaign against Omar on the radio show Fault Lines:
- Ilhan Omar
- Democratic Party
- Chelsea Clinton
- Glenn Greenwald
- Kevin McCarthy
- Republican Party
- Batya Ungar-Sargon
- The Lobby--USA
- Max Rose
- Combating BDS Act
- Jeffrey Goldberg
- Sheldon Adelson
- Foundation for Defense of Democracies
- Israel on Campus Coalition
- The Israel Project
- Eric Gallagher
- Rashida Tlaib