“It’s All About the Benjamins, Baby”

Wait. Let me get this straight.

First GOP leader Kevin McCarthy threatened two recently elected Muslim women members of Congress with punishment for holding views critical of Israel. On Feb. 11 he stated: “If they [the Democrats] do not take action I think you’ll see action from myself. This [criticism of Israel] cannot sustain itself. It’s unacceptable in this country.”

The California Congressman has decided criticizing Israel as an apartheid state oppressing Palestinians in occupied territory is “unacceptable” in the U.S. of A. He and a lot of his colleagues and everyone trying to choke the righteous BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) movement criminalizing support for concrete actions to end Israeli apartheid want to silence discussion about the most burning issue in the Middle East and perhaps whole world today: Palestinians and their future.

Journalist Glen Greenwald noted this statement in a tweet from Brazil, stating matter-of-factly: “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 no doubt referred to McCarthy’s threat, and the ongoing attacks by U.S. political leaders on people’s rights to boycott or advocate boycotts on a particular country’s products, or products from illegally occupied areas. Such leaders might as well demand that all Americans or legal residents swear to affirm not only Israel’s legitimacy as a state but its right to colonize the West Bank and Golan Heights despite the recognition by all governments in the world that its occupations are illegal.

Congresswoman Ilhan Omar tweeted in a curt response to Greenwald: “It’s all about the Benjamins baby.” (Benjamins means one-hundred dollar bills, nicknamed because since 1914 Benjamin Franklin’s face has appeared on them. See Miriam-Webster’s Dictionary. “It’s All About the Benjamins” is the name of a Puff Daddy gagsta rap song released in 1997.)

The entire Democratic Party leadership and every media talking head expresses immediate outrage at the antisemitic “trope” (suddenly postmodernist jargon is part of the cable news teleprompter talking points) that they find here. (Benjamin is a Hebrew name; recall the story of Joseph in the Bible, sold into Egyptian slavery by his brothers, except for his youngest brother Benjamin. So it’s been hinted that “Benjamins” refers specifically to Jewish money but I find no such usage online.) Nancy Pelosi ordered Omar to apologize, and she did “unequivocally,” having now been educated to these tropes to avoid.

The lesson: if you are an elected politician in this country, never associate the votes of your colleagues with money—or at least, never link votes in support of the Israeli government with lobbyists’ dollars. Don’t ever suggest that the opinions of legislators who vote almost 100% in favor of Israel every time around are influenced by campaign donations. (These are of course donations exchanged in the normal traditional way, as argued empirically by John Mearsheimer and Stephan Walt among others.) The AIPAC lobby is formidable and everybody knows it. What does that mean? It means it is effective in winning friends in Congress, a huge number of whom religiously attend its annual events. It need not fund them so much as to merely endorse the reliably pro-Israel candidates–to signal millions of evangelical Christians to support them. I can say this. But you cannot say this, and be in Congress in what postures to the world as a democracy with freedom guaranteed by the U.S. bombing of Syria .

The president denouncing Omar demands she resign from Congress or at least be removed from the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Meanwhile, some Democrats come to her defense, not arguing that she said anything wrong, but merely arguing that she’s new and hasn’t learned to how to control her natural inclination to speak freely.

So you can be a Muslim woman, even one in a veil, elected to the U.S. Congress showing how diverse this country is. But you can’t criticize Israel, or suggest that the suppression of such criticism has anything to do with money. That goes beyond the pale! You will be slapped in the face by your own leadership, ordered to kowtow.

She should never, ever have said: “It’s all about the Benjamins baby.” Now she’s been smacked down, humbled, forced to apologize for speaking the truth. Capitalism, imperialism, slavery, global warming: it’s all about the billion of Benjamins that make it all happen. Kevin McCarthy is a tool of his main donors (Goldman-Sachs, MetLife, CitiGroup) and the Israel Lobby, there being considerable overlap. He uses his clout to intimidate, like Joseph McCarthy of old, and beat down free speech. He won this round.

But may there be many more such confrontations, gradually awakening people in this country to the fact that there is a population of some five million Palestinian chafing under Israeli occupation and oppression, needing liberation if there’s to be a solution to the “Israel-Palestine problem.” My Omar be allowed free speech to address their suffering and expose the U.S. role in inflicting it.

Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu