As a virtual lynch mob moves to chastise Rep. Ilhan Omar over her recent remarks around Israel, the new congresswoman basically has three options before her: (1) Fold; (2) Continue the back and forth of the last several weeks or (3) Get more specific and expand the public critique.
Fold: Like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rep. Omar herself can go largely silent on Israel. She can perhaps even offer a bigger apology than she did before or she can find some other way to draw closer to the establishment. This is a convenient path.
Continue the Current Pattern: Thus far, Rep. Omar has made statements about the Israel lobby and support for Israel that at one level are obviously true:
* “It’s all about the benjamins”: The pro-Israel lobby uses money to further its interests in Congress, just as virtually any other well-funded lobby does;
* “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is ok for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country. And I want to ask, why is it ok for me to talk about the influence of the NRA, of fossil fuel industries, or Big Pharma, and not talk about a powerful lobby.” There are some in the U.S. establishment that have loyalty to Israel rivaling if not exceeding what they have for the United States.
The issue with these statement is that in addition to being true, is that they are being read by some to play to ugly anti-Jewish refrains if limited to Jews: They use money to control, they love Israel, not the U.S. The problem with the second readings of them is that they require — at best — a remarkably a high level of sensitivity regarding Rep. Omar’s actual words. This may well be the reason the draft text of the resolution effectively targeting Rep. Omar reportedly doesn’t actually mention her — because they’re not actually referencing her words. As Abba Solomon noted to me: “AIPAC allies should stop hiding behind Jews, and Democratic politicians should stop feigning such sensitivity to Jewish feelings when Zionist lobbying is the subject.” Indeed, some of the readings are akin to being offended by someone saying the word “gypped” — it really is an offensive word to Roma, but it is widely used with hardly anyone blinking an eye.
The sensitivity regarding “dual loyalty” is somewhat ironic considering rather high levels of xenophobia in U.S. discourse, especially regarding things Muslim or now sometimes even Russian. Some of the former has been displayed in how Rep. Omar’s herself has been treated, but it’s far broder. While the draft resolution targeting — but, again, not actually mentioning her — reported mentions “conditions” Muslims have faced after 9/11, it confines it to that. It ignores for example, the incredible scapegoating of Muslims that occurred from the highest public officials and biggest media outlets in the U.S. after the Orlando shooting in 2016 that should have caused a tremendous amount of public scrutiny of politicos, the FBI, the media and how they all work together but which has gone largely down the memory hole.
Still, the current back and forth may be alluring for Rep. Omar. It keeps her the center of much attention, but I fear it will likely presage little positive change in U.S. policy or increase the prospects for a just peace in the Mideast. It feels to me rather like how Yasser Arafat acted on occasion, a sort of longterm game of crit and retreat that might make for a thrilling, star-studded career, but ends up amounting to surprisingly little.
Get Specific, Expand the Critique: It pays to recall this is hardly the first go around with someone trying to stand up to AIPAC. The Israel lobby has targeted numerous representatives before, most obviously Reps. Pete McCloskey, Cynthia McKinney and Earl Hilliard. Also, as even the New York Times recently recalled in a piece about AIPAC now targeting Rep. Omar and other freshmen, it went after Republican Sen. Charles Percy and Rep. Paul FIndley, who literally wrote the book They Dare to Speak Out: People and Institutions Confront Israel’s Lobby.
Former Senator James Abourezk, possibly the most radical senator of the post-World War II era wrote in 2011: “Years ago, when Wolf Blitzer was an AIPAC employee and we appeared together on a panel discussion, he literally shouted at me that, as Americans, AIPAC members had the right to lobby Congress. My response then was the same as it is now: when lobbying is being done for a foreign government, as AIPAC does, it’s wrong.” Grant Smith, author of BIg Israel, has tracked the history of how AIPAC avoided the law. He writes that In 1962, AIPAC, which actually began as a project of the American Zionist Council, “was ordered to register as an Israeli foreign agent. The Justice Department kept this fact secret until 2010. It has never tried to enforce the order.” Imagine how much more quickly the U.S. Jewish community could have found its own voice rather than be pigeonholed regarding Israel if the law was enforced.
Much of Rep. Omar’s comments to date have been about herself, about her relationship to Jews and Jewish constituents. What they have been insufficiently about is actual Israeli and U.S. government policy towards the Palestinians and others.
For example talking about U.S. policy being literally “all about the benjamins” is highly dubious. Money is certainly a needed ingredient, but the U.S. government’s backing of Israel more than anything has to do with geopolitics, most obviously Israel effectively crushing Arab nationalism in 1967, preventing the development of the region along lines remotely responsive to the people of the region.
Rep. Omar can highlight such critical aspects. Some are timely: The recent UN report on Israeli atrocities against Palestinians.
Some are long crying out for public discussion: The U.S. government refuses to acknowledge — as a matter of policy — that Israel has nuclear weapons. I know, I’ve asked numerous politicos about this. In 2011, when Mike Pence was on the House Foreign Affairs Committee — the same committee Rep. Omar is on now (and what AIPAC is quite clearly aiming to get her off of) — his response was nearly comical. If you haven’t, see for yourself: video. But of course Pence wasn’t laughed out of Washington, D.C. or widely derided — he attained the vice presidency.
With Rep. Omar being the center of much attention just now, her highlighting Israeli criminality and nuclear threats to humanity itself could have an immeasurable positive effect. Recall that when George Galloway was at the center of enormous attacks over the alleged “oil for food” scandal in 2005, he turned the tables and derided Sen. Norm Coleman and the entire political class over the Iraq invasion being based on a “pack of lies” to great effect; Coleman would go on to lose his senate seat. See video.
Some, including Rep. Omar, ask why people can freely talk about the influence of the NRA and not AIPAC — and it’s a good question, but also ironic: Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, author of Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment, has argued focusing just on the roll of the NRA distracts from the settler colonial origins of the Second Amendment.
Indeed, perhaps the most potentially profound of Omar’s recent tweets are ones like this: “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.”
This all depends on how you define the U.S. and how you define Israel. I increasingly don’t see countries. I see forces. And what many mean when they talk about a “special relationship” between the U.S. and Israel — whether they acknowledged it or not — is the settler colonial pattern they have both followed.
This origins of this connection is examined by Rev. Michael Prior, in an essay titled “The Right to Expel: The Bible and Ethnic Cleansing” for the book Palestinian Refugees: The Right of Return: “The term ‘ethnic cleansing’ itself, I suggest, is related to a conflation of the biblical notions of ‘unclean’/profane’ with the command to ‘drive out’ the inhabitants of Canaan (Exodus 23-24; Numbers 33; Deuteronomy 33 and Joshua), because, according to the biblical legend, they had defiled themselves by their evil practices (Leviticus 18:24). Uniquely in ancient literature, the biblical legend projects the extermination of the defiled indigenes as a divine mandate. With the authority of its religious provenance that value system has been incorporated into European imperialist ideologies, ‘legitimizing’ the destruction or displacement of indigenous peoples.”
That is, the most gruesome part of the Old Testament was used as justification for settlers in what would become the U.S., killing and robbing the native inhabitants. And the same mentality is now used once again in the land of Canaan. At a very high standard, Rep. Omar cannot claim that she is free from anti-Israel bias if she singles out Israel’s settler colonialism but engages in mythology regarding the U.S.’s settle colonialism and continued imperial politics. This includes a worldwide system of bases, divide-and-rule practices in the Mideast and elsewhere, a renewed explicit commitment to the Monroe Doctrine now targeting Venezuela to mention a few.
She did confront some of this when recently questioning U.S. envoy to Venezuela Elliott Abrams, a criminal abettor of genocide. She questioned Abrams far more strongly than any of the other congressional representatives, but when he claimed the U.S. government wanted democracy, she extraordinarily agreed.
The criminal rot of imperial polices that is highlighted by the U.S.-Israeli “special relationship” rests on lies and ridiculous absurdities and is therefore vulnerable, but it runs deep and it will take a very determined critique to dislodge. Many are now saying #StandWithIlhan, but a huge question is how firmly she will stand.