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The Smears Against Ilhan Omar Will Never Stop

Politics Features Ilhan Omar
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There are two ways in which Rep. Ilhan Omar, the Somali-born Minnesota congresswoman, is offensive to the hard-line pro-Israel set in D.C. The first is the simple fact that she’s Muslim—one of the first two Muslim women to be elected to the House, in fact, along with Rashida Tlaib. It would be possible, just, for her to fly under the radar for this original sin, provided she declared herself a moderate and bent the knee to greater political forces. The fact that she adamantly refuses to do so brings us to her second, and far greater, offense: She is a Muslim woman with the audacity to criticize Israel. That is unforgivable, and makes her an object of fear—a fear that the GOP party in West Virginia recently tried to make explicit with a poster likening Omar to the 9/11 terrorists. And beyond brazen displays of Islamophobia that make the prejudice clear, her first few months in Congress have proven that the respectable set won’t stop until they destroy her.

The first “controversy”—I put that word in quotes, because literally every controversy that has transpired (and almost certainly every controversy that will transpire) follows the same exact formula of Rep. Omar making a valid criticism of Israel or AIPAC, and pro-Israel entities quickly spreading bad faith interpretations of her comments to push a narrative of anti-Semitism—came when House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy made vague threats of punishment against Omar and Tlaib for supporting the BDS movement and allegedly making anti-Israeli statements (in Omar’s case, he was likely referencing a tweet from 2012 for which she had long ago apologized). The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald sounded off on McCarthy, who actually compared the two women to unapologetic white supremacist Steve King:

Equating @IlhanMN & @RashidaTlaib's criticism of Israel to Steve King's long defense of white supremacy is obscene (McCarthy said it's worse). In the US, we're allowed to criticize our own government: certainly foreign governments. The GOP House Leader's priorities are warped.— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) February 10, 2019
In response to Greenwald, in a since deleted tweet, Omar wrote: “It's all about the Benjamins, baby”.

Then came this tweet from Batya Ungar-Sargon, opinion editor at The Forward, a New York paper published for a Jewish audience:

Would love to know who @IlhanMN thinks is paying American politicians to be pro-Israel, though I think I can guess. Bad form, Congresswoman. That's the second anti-Semitic trope you've tweeted. https://t.co/FTCaCe7WyG— Batya Ungar-Sargon (@bungarsargon) February 11, 2019
Omar replied again, undeterred: “AIPAC!”

Now, let's pause for a moment to list a few facts:

1. AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, is an enormously powerful lobbying group that directs a whole lot of money to American politicians for a very specific cause.

2. Here's their modus operandi, from the “Our Mission” section of their own website: “The mission of AIPAC is to strengthen, protect and promote the U.S.-Israel relationship in ways that enhance the security of the United States and Israel.”

3. They literally pay politicians money so they'll support pro-Israel policies. Nothing Omar said was wrong, and nothing she said should be considered even remotely controversial.

Nevertheless, the attack narrative quickly gathered momentum: Omar, in accusing Kevin McCarthy—a Christian man, for the record—of espousing pro-Israel views in part because of the money he received from AIPAC…well, that was anti-Semitic, because of the racist trope about Jewish people and money. Amazingly, the line quickly emerged that yes, you could criticize AIPAC, but only if the criticism didn't involve money. I wish I were kidding, but read this explanation from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, which accurately summarizes the general position of the pro-Israel side in their first salvo against Omar:

I'm confused. Is calling out AIPAC anti-Semitic?

Not in theory, no. You can criticize AIPAC without being anti-Semitic.

However, when you focus on AIPAC as the example of money in politics, or link Jewish influence to deep pockets, that's when it becomes a problem. As JTA Editor-in-Chief Andrew Silow-Carroll pointed out, “Invoking 'AIPAC!' as a metonym for the influence of money in politics was a minefield, and the idea that she doesn't know that by now—coming only a week after she apologized for her 7-year-old 'hypnotized' tweet—is implausible.”

See if you follow the not-very-subtle implication: AIPAC's purpose is to use influence (i.e. “money”) to push for pro-Israel policy, and sure, you can criticize them…but only if you don't mention money.

I have to reiterate: This is not an isolated position. This is what everyone on the anti-Omar side was saying. The fact that she brought up AIPAC's financial influence made her anti-Semitic, because, the accusation went, mentioning money in the context of Israel's influence is inherently anti-Semitic. Along the way, there were a few minor bad-faith interpretations, such as the idea that Omar was saying that all of America's support for Israel stems from money (it obviously doesn't, and she never said that unless you get deceptively hyper-literal with her Puff Daddy reference), or, as we saw in JTA, that she was using AIPAC as a “metonym” (she wasn't—she was making a very specific, case-based accusation).

Regardless, it's not hard to see where this logic leads: If you can't criticize AIPAC for anything related to money, you simply can't criticize AIPAC. Do so, and you're an anti-Semite.

The power of the AIPAC set quickly became clear—Nancy Pelosi and the rest of the House Democratic leadership called for Omar to apologize for “anti-Semitic tropes and prejudicial accusations,” saying they were “deeply offensive.” Omar, before long, caved to the pressure:

Listening and learning, but standing strong pic.twitter.com/7TSroSf8h1— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) February 11, 2019
The typical reaction followed: To some, her apology wasn't good enough because she was still criticizing AIPAC for its financial influence (which, again, was all she had done in the first place), and others were upset that she had to apologize at all:

It's good that @IlhanMN is still calling attention to AIPAC, but this apology is the result of a racist, bullying campaign that exploits and cheapens anti-semitism to stifle dissent. No amount of apologizing will satisfy the smear artists who targeted her. https://t.co/ySoHnWLW09— Dan Cohen (@dancohen3000) February 11, 2019
Eventually, the story faded, but the target was on Omar's back, and her opponents had learned that they could successfully bully her. Even some of her staunchest allies, like Alexandria-Ocasion Cortez, tacitly accepted the narrative that criticism of AIPAC or pro-Israel politicians in American from a financial standpoint is inherently anti-Semitic. There was no way Omar would stay out of the spotlight's glare for very long.

As expected, it was less than a month before she found herself under attack yet again. This latest incident began with a quote from Omar at a recent D.C. town hall last Wednesday, emphasis mine:

“What I'm fearful of is that, because Rashida and I are Muslim, that a lot of our Jewish colleagues, a lot of our constituents, a lot of our allies, go to thinking that everything we say about Israel to be anti-Semitic because we are Muslim.”

Omar, who was flanked by Tlaib as she spoke, said the accusation of anti-Semitism was “designed to end the debate” about “what is happening with Palestine.”

Then she added as the enthusiastic applause abated, “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is okay for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country.”

Here, the word “allegiance” triggered the frenzy—that term, the story went, signaled an accusation of “dual loyalty,” which is another apparent anti-Semitic trope. There's a sinister stereotype that all Jewish people are secretly loyal to Israel, and Omar was invoking it here much the way the Know-Nothing party of old would insinuate that all American Catholics were, deep in their hearts, avowed papists.

This was another obvious bad-fath interpretation—Omar was specifically talking about “political influence,” not painting with any kind of broad brush that implicated all the Jewish people of America (who are not, despite what her critics would have you believe, a homogeneous ideological group). Moreover, she clearly meant the word “allegiance” as the metaphorical political allegiance that specific politicians influenced by AIPAC and other pro-Israel interests demonstrate to that country. Again, nothing she said was wrong, and nowhere did she imply anything about “dual loyalty.” Nor did she suggest what lies at the heart of the “dual loyalty” trope, which is that these politicians bear greater loyalty to Israel than America.

But the truth couldn't get in the way of the spin machine, which began in earnest when Rep. Eliot Engel, a Jewish Democratic congressman from New York, demanded an apology for her “vile anti-Semitic slur.” A day later, Omar's fellow Democratic congresswoman Nita Lowey equated her words to the ugly 9/11 poster in West Virginia:

Gross islamophobic stereotypes – like those about @IlhanMN recently featured on posters in WVA – are offensive and have no place in political discourse. Anti-Semitic tropes that accuse Jews of dual loyalty are equally painful and must also be roundly condemned.— Nita Lowey (@NitaLowey) March 2, 2019
Lawmakers must be able to debate w/o prejudice or bigotry. I am saddened that Rep. Omar continues to mischaracterize support for Israel. I urge her to retract this statement and engage in further dialogue with the Jewish community on why these comments are so hurtful.— Nita Lowey (@NitaLowey) March 2, 2019

It wasn't long before the worst person in Democratic politics chimed in with what sounded like a threat:

Sadly, misunderstandings over anti-Semitic, hurtful comments continue, as does hateful Islamaphobic rhetoric. Dialogue leads to understanding. @IlhanMN, repeated misunderstandings would seem to require dialogue to avoid repetitive harm.— Debbie Wasserman Schultz (@DWStweets) March 4, 2019
Communication is the key to understanding. I hope you agree and will engage so tensions do not worsen.— Debbie Wasserman Schultz (@DWStweets) March 4, 2019
Could it be any clearer that Wasserman Schultz is using “dialogue” and the specter of worsening tensions to compel Omar to bend the knee?

As many pointed out, these tweets also come in the midst of Omar receiving multiple death threats, and certainly do nothing to abate that potential violence:

you're painting a target on a colleague's back. not for the first time I wonder how you sleep at night— Sean T. Collins (@theseantcollins) March 4, 2019
This time, Omar did the right thing and stood up for herself, seeming to realize that surrendering any ideological ground to bad faith arguments from political enemies only heightens their perceived sense of strength and encourages further attacks:

Our democracy is built on debate, Congresswoman! I should not be expected to have allegiance/pledge support to a foreign country in order to serve my country in Congress or serve on committee. The people of the 5th elected me to serve their interest. I am sure we agree on that! https://t.co/gglAS4FVJW— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) March 3, 2019
I have not mischaracterized our relationship with Israel, I have questioned it and that has been clear from my end.— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) March 3, 2019
I am told everyday that I am anti-American if I am not pro-Israel. I find that to be problematic and I am not alone. I just happen to be willing to speak up on it and open myself to attacks.— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) March 3, 2019
My Americanness is questioned by the President and the @GOP on a daily basis, yet my colleagues remain silent. I know what it means to be American and no one will ever tell me otherwise.— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) March 3, 2019
Being opposed to Netanyahu and the occupation is not the same as being anti-Semitic. I am grateful to the many Jewish allies who have spoken out and said the same.— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) March 3, 2019
We must be willing to combat hate of all kinds while also calling out oppression of all kinds. I will do my best to live up to that. I hope my colleagues will join me in doing the same.— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) March 3, 2019
In the meantime, Omar is receiving precious little support from any of her colleagues—Ocasio-Cortez has been active in tweeting about the outrage of the West Virginia poster in recent days, in what can be seen as an expression of solidarity that extends beyond that outrage but which stops short of mentioning the Israel controversies. For the most part, Omar stands alone. All of her potential defenders are either spoken for by pro-Israel lobbies like AIPAC or have borne witness to the power of that group and are afraid of stepping into the line of fire. Her opponents in Congress have broadcast a clear, effective message: Criticize Israel, validly or otherwise, and we’ll bury you with charges of anti-Semitism.

Omar never had a chance. The idea that her detractors want to broadcast, to anyone who feels tempted to follow her path, is simple: You don’t either.

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