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Ilhan Omar Owes No Apologies, Apologies Are Owed Her

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

Rebutting the claim that anti-Zionism is a form of anti-Semitism is a tedious and frustrating endeavor – in part because those who think otherwise are willfully obtuse and determined never to change their minds. Engaging with them, even briefly, has given me a newfound respect for those who centuries ago took up the cause of convincing Europeans that, no matter how far they might go, they would not fall off the edge of the earth. It has also made me envious of Sisyphus. He had a similarly impossible task to perform, but at least he got good exercise and worked outdoors.

What would it take to get members of the American political class to concede this painfully obvious, easy to understand, and news to nobody point, and to get corporate media and public radio to stop promoting the contrary view? That would be no small feat. The Israel lobby, AIPAC and the others, conflate anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism persistently and obstinately. Our politicians are too beholden to them and too cowardly to challenge what they say, no matter how preposterous it may be.

Republicans have made unqualified support for Israel a wedge issue with which they think they can harm the rival duopoly party. Notwithstanding their own inclinations and their party’s history, they have morphed into hard and fast friends of the Israeli state. Well, not exactly; on TV yes, but in the real world, the one with Donald Trump in it, all friends are fair weather.

As a general rule, what Republicans say is not worth taking seriously even for a second, except insofar as they wield power. And then, it is the power they wield, not the power of their ideas, that makes taking them seriously worthwhile.

It is the same with Trump. On their merits alone, there is hardly anyone on earth whose words are more worthless.

Democrats are a tad better. But their party’s history with the Zionist movement and the natural inclinations of many of their members, both gentile and Jew, make their connections to Zionism, current or lapsed, principled or opportunistic, more interesting.

Even so, the views of most of them, or at least the views they are willing to express in public on Zionism and anti-Semitism are nearly as distressing as those of their Republican counterparts.

They are probably not quite as frozen in, however. Inasmuch as the ground is changing under their feet, they had better not be, even if only for their own good.

We can therefore take heart from the example of the deluded folk who, in the Hans Christian Andersen story “The Emperor’s New Clothes,’ were awakened from their cognitive and moral slumber by the innocent observation of a child too young to have succumbed to an illusion their elders shared about their emperor’s attire. Thanks to that child, they were able to see what was staring them in the face: that their Emperor was parading about buck naked, not in splendiferous finery.

Could Ilhan Omar, the newly elected Representative from Minnesota’s Fifth Congressional District — and perhaps too, in time, other members of the One Hundred Sixteenth Congress’ “freshman class” — similarly cause their Democratic Party colleagues to wake up and see the world aright on the Israel-Palestine conflict, or on the connections between any of a range of views on the Zionist project and anti-Semitism?

This is not impossible; indeed, it is more likely than it would have seemed just a year or two ago that a refugee from Somalia, a young Muslim woman living in a Midwestern state, would be elected to Congress.

Representatives represent and, on Israel and Palestine, public opinion is no longer what it used to be. Outside Congress, the White House, and major media circles, Israel no longer gets the permanent get-out-of-jail free card that was formerly its “birthright.”

This is making a lot of people crazy – the kinds of people who promote the idea that while criticisms of Israel are not necessarily anti-Semitic, in fact they almost always are.

When pressed on this, they defend themselves with sophistical arguments, claiming, for example, that anyone who faults Israel without tempering their criticism by declaring that there are states that are even worse is surely an anti-Semite. So is anyone who thinks that Israel is the cause of all the world’s problems, as if there actually is anybody who thinks that.

The irony is that there are claims they could make that would serve Israel’s purpose tolerably well that, whatever their merits, are at least not absurd on their face.

It could be argued, for example, that opposition to Zionism, or to Israeli war crimes, or to its crimes against the peace, or to its repeated violations of international law are like gateway drugs that lead to anti-Semitism in the way that it was once almost an article of faith, for the ignorant and learned alike, that marijuana leads to heroin.

Or they could make the same claim for those who call for justice for all the peoples now living in what was once Mandate Palestine, or who express solidarity with the victims of the Israeli occupation.

Let them try to make a case for these or similar positions and see how far they get.

Or let them try to argue that anti-Zionism is just a cosmetic cover for old-fashioned anti-Semitic vileness. If that is a line they want to pursue, they will have to deal with the problem that most bona fide anti-Semites in the world today, snakes who slid out from under the rocks Trump and his counterparts in Eastern Europe overturned, love Israel to pieces. They don’t especially care for its democratic institutions, but at least it is a Herrenvolk democracy, a democracy of, by, and for a master race.

They will have problems too squaring their views with the pro-Saudi, anti-Iranian war mongering that the government of Israel has been promoting ever since their good buddy the Shah bequeathed them a serviceable “existential threat.”

But regardless of whatever success they may have addressing these largely self-created problems, and regardless of the merits or shortcomings of the Zionist project, the fact remains: anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are not the same.

***

In quarters where that truism is denied, Muslims and other persons of color who do not kowtow to Zionist positions are routinely deemed “anti-Semitic,” notwithstanding the fact that, unlike in Europe, historically Muslim parts of the world have had little or no connection either to theologically or racially grounded hatred of Jews qua Jews until quite recently.

On the other hand, persons of European descent whose views reek of historical connections with the genuine article get a pass insofar as they are outspoken friends of the Israeli state.

Just a few years ago, it seemed that true anti-Semitism, as distinct from the anti-Zionism Zionists confound with it, was becoming extinct. Then Trump and others like him around the world, especially in Eastern Europe, breathed new life into the old rotting carcass.

It is impossible to tell, at this point, whether this is only a temporary setback to “the long ark of justice” that Martin Luther King spoke of, or the beginning of a more durable retrogression. In either case, as long as true anti-Semites’ views of Israel don’t change, Zionists will continue to give them a pass.

Meanwhile, the opprobrium true anti-Semites deserve will continue to settle on Muslim victims of the Zionist project, notwithstanding the fact that their antipathies towards Israel – and, because such feelings tend to become confounded, towards Jews – are no deeper or more culturally fixed than, say, Americans’ antipathies towards Germany and the Germans during the two World Wars or towards Japan and the Japanese after Pearl Harbor.

For an entirely different reason, people like me – “self-hating Jews” in the Zionist lexicon – are also getting something of a pass, or are at least avoiding a lot of the rancor we used to encounter when Zionist blowhards would get worked up. We are getting off more easily than in the past because there are so many more of us now.

For the kinds of people who see anti-Semitism everywhere and who conflate it with attitudes common in areas that have been under Israeli occupation for more than half a century, the real intra-tribal danger comes not so much from principled Jewish opposition to all or part of the Zionist agenda – from, say, Jewish supporters of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement in Jewish Voices for Peace and similar organizations – as from Jews who are indifferent to or embarrassed by Zionist ethnocrats who presume to include them in their “nation state.”

Calling Jewish critics of Israel “self-hating Jews” was never on point, but using that epithet to describe Jewish non- or anti-Zionists today doesn’t even begin to make sense.

Long ago, Richard Nixon famously – and prematurely — declared: “we are all liberals now.” Putting the point facetiously and with all due disrespect to Tricky Dicky, we might almost be on solid ground were we to say “we are all “self-hating Jews now.”

That would be an exaggeration, of course. But it would be fair to say that something very much like that lies ahead, and that not all of Sheldon Adelson’s money can stop it.

Adelson looks and acts like a character right out of central casting for a documentary on “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” but please note that I am not apologizing for this none too subtle “trope,” the way Nancy Pelosi urged Ilhan Omar to apologize when she tweeted about “benjamins” accounting for Congress’ attitudes towards Israel.

That anyone would find that anti-Semitic doesn’t even make sense unless the idea is that Benjamin, a Biblical name, somehow connotes Jews. That would come as a surprise to many a Benjamin, including Benjamin Franklin, the one whose face is on the hundred dollar bills Omar had in mind.

It seems, though, that it did come to Chelsea Clinton’s mind. The reporting on that claims that Old Guard Democrats are thinking hard about putting Chelsea up for Congress as an antidote to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Or is it as a rival for her Congressional seat? I suppose not because it is hard to believe that she would give up her ten million dollar plus apartment in Manhattan to move to the Bronx to relaunch the Clinton Restoration that her mother botched in 2016? Is she that much of a team player? I hope we don’t get to find out. Therefore, with apologies to Oliver Wendell Holmes’ notorious ruling in Buck v. Bell, I’ll just say that one generation of Clintons is enough.

In any case, no apologies to the hyper-sensitive on Adelson’s account, but I do apologize to everyone reading this for “trope,” a word dear to post-post-modern literary “theorists” and now apparently also to Zionists afraid that the days when the United States and other Western countries give them carte blanche to do pretty much as they like to Palestinians may be coming to an end.

It is telling that, to the best of my knowledge, nobody calls Bernie Sanders a “self-hating Jew” – not anyway in 2016 or in 2019 so far — though of all the candidates vying or likely to vie for the Democratic nomination for president in 2020, he so far seems to be the one who has shown the most sympathy for the plight of the Palestinian people.

Tulsi Gabbard may have it in her to do better than Sanders has so far done at least in that one respect, but she commands few resources and the powers that be in the Democratic Party are already doing everything in their power to marginalize her candidacy. She can be forgiven if she is careful choosing her battles.

Zionists in the UK have been more successful lately at giving Jeremy Corbyn, the Leader of the Labor Party, a hard time.

Inasmuch as Corbyn really is a socialist and also an anti-imperialist – and anti-anti-Semite – with an outstanding record going back many years, the opposition to him from the UK bourgeoisie is extreme.

The role UK Zionists have been playing in their smear campaign has been nearly as appalling as the role played by the Tory journalists NPR enlists to keep Americans misinformed and on program about the “institutional anti-Semitism” (whatever that is) in Corbyn’s party.

Not being Jewish, he could hardly be labeled a self-hating Jew; even ace conman Trump couldn’t pull that off. And because his record is so clear, he could hardly be labeled an anti-Semite either.

His opponents therefore had to settle with the claim that he is soft on anti-Semitism, a charge they support first by confounding anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, and then by pursuing a strategy of guilt by association.

To hear them tell it or intimate it, everyone to their left, by which they mean not only everyone whose domestic policies would, if enacted, cause the British bourgeoisie to go ballistic, but also everyone who thinks and acts in solidarity with oppressed peoples, suffers from the same problem. This puts them at odds with the Zionist project and in league with genuine internationalists everywhere.

Is this the kind of invective that Sanders or anyone else who, however mildly, sticks up for justice for Palestinians can expect to encounter?

I don’t think so – especially in Sanders’ case because, by now, the rhetorical force of the “self-hating Jew” charge is pretty well spent. Even were its leadership to fall to someone besides Sanders, as it probably will, the Democratic Party no longer has what it would take to revive that nonsense even if it wanted to which, at this point anyway, it surely does not. There are just too many of us.

It is hard to believe, inasmuch as it started from a higher plateau, but in this respect the post-Blair Labor Party is even worse than the post-Clinton Democratic mainstream.

***

Before the day before the brouhaha over Omar’s “benjamins” tweet erupted, I had never heard “benjamins” used to refer to hundred dollar bills. I attribute this to my being long in the tooth and hostile towards social media, in part out of nostalgia for the good old days when privacy was still esteemed. Or maybe it’s just that I’m out of touch with the current lingo. Whatever the reason, encountering the word twice in two days made an impression. It is tempting to read a lot, no doubt too much, into the coincidence.

The day before, The Washington Post ran a review of the sushi restaurant in the Emoluments R-Us (some call it the “Trump International”) Hotel. Its gist was that diners who put aside their qualms about the restaurant’s location, will find the food exquisite, even revelatory, but that they should expect to be set back a whole bunch of benjamins.

In a slightly better possible world, restaurant critics would also mention qualms about spending benjamins for a meal in a world in which there is so much abject poverty, in a country in which inequality is so extreme and savage in its effects, and in a city in which there is significant poverty just a few blocks away.

Before that happens, however, the Zeitgeist will have to evolve extensively and for the better. However, it would not be too much, even now, to expect a critic to do more than just note that some might find living it up or even just eating a meal in a Trump property unseemly.

Boycotting the place, no matter how good the food and no matter how little harm that would do to the still unindicted Trumps, is a way, non-violent and cheap, of making a political statement that, properly projected and publicized, could do a great deal of good.

It is the same with BDS. The reason to avoid the Trump brand like the plague is essentially the same as the reason to steer clear of Soda Stream carbonation machines and Sabra hummus. It is the reason we sign petitions, write letters to the editor, and demonstrate.

Now it is, or used to be, axiomatic that American politicians cannot say or suggest or intimate anything that would cast aspersions on the ethnocratic settler state, and that while it may not be necessary for them to get their talking-points directly from Israeli propagandists, they had better watch their tropes at all times – lest the thought police object and diehard Zionists throw hissy fits.

Why? Could it be that the guardians of the old order are morally and intellectually deficient? That they are guilt-tripping over events from eight decades ago? That they are so invested in seeing Jews as victims that they are always on the lookout for possible slights?

No doubt, it is all of the above to some extent. However, as everybody knows but won’t say, the main thing is that they are bought and paid for; it’s those damn benjamins, just like Ilhan Omar said.

A decade ago, when John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt came out with The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, it was effectively forbidden even to say that an Israel lobby exists. Fortunately, we are beyond that now; it was never much of a secret, but now the secret is out.

Mearsheimer and Walt argued then that the lobby, comprised of AIPAC, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and several other organizations, some of which, like the Anti-Defamation League, also do other things – just does what big and powerful lobbies ordinarily do.

For legal and tax reasons, it therefore doesn’t directly stuff benjamins into candidates’ pockets; its approach is more indirect. Lobbying for the government of Israel without registering as an agent of a foreign government is trickier, but the lobby has its ways and means. It also helps that it has so many friends in the legislative and judicial branches of government.

If there were an ARPAC, an American Russia Public Affairs Committee and it did a tiny fraction of what AIPAC does, there would be hell to pay. But AIPAC doesn’t just get a pass; our bipartisan political class pays it servile obeisance.

For this, I am glad to say that, of all the groups directly involved, even the most non-self-hating Jews are far from the worst. Christian Zionists, evangelicals awaiting the end time, are much more noxious. The death merchants who sell Israel arms aren’t a whole lot better.

To execute its mission, the Israel lobby lays out both carrots and sticks — seeing to it that money is provided as needed, and that lawmakers who stray from the reservation get their comeuppance. On that, ask former Illinois Senator Charles Percy, or former Congresswoman from Georgia, Cynthia McKinney.

Making an example every now and then is an efficient way to keep everything in line. At the risk of being accused of troping, or whatever the jargon of choice now may be, I’d say that they do it to save money. They need to save their benjamins so that they can give free trips to the Promised Land to every lawmaker willing to be snookered.

It comes down to that or being frightened into submission. The long and the short of it is that Omar’s tweet was on to only half of it. Yes, it is the benjamins, but it is also that the lobby is feared.

In view of how much public opinion on Israel and Palestine is changing, and especially on changes within the Jewish community in the United States, I, for one, wonder how justified that fear is. I have long suspected that the vaunted lobby is a Paper Tiger and that all it would take is some functional equivalent of the little child in the Andersen story to get lawmakers to see that, to see that the emperor has no clothes.

Calling the shots out of sight was, and still is, the lobby’s way. Three cheers to Ilhan Omar and her benjamins tweet for changing the “conversation” in ways that will make that harder to do.

So what is she supposed to apologize for?

I say absolutely nothing. Condescending Mama Hen Pelosi seems to think a lot, as do the Zionists, Jewish and otherwise, in the Democratic caucuses of the House and Senate. So do their media flacks on the cable networks.

Their counterparts in the GOP are, of course, even worse; and the retrogrades on Fox News who provide the Donald’s mind, such as it is, with its window on the world are the worst of all.

In a more just universe, they, not Ilhan Omar, would be among the very first to apologize – to Omar and to the country at large.

Not far behind would be our homegrown version of anti-Corbyn Laborites, good liberals who promiscuously bandy about charges of anti-Semitism, while benefiting from the Israel lobby’s largesse and indulging their own fantasies, prejudices, and incoherencies in the process.

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ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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