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Is Ilhan Omar Wrong…About Anything?

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

It has been clear for some time that Ilhan Omar owes no one any apologies for her remarks on AIPAC and those who tow its line; quite to the contrary, apologies are owed her.  Developments over the past several weeks underscore how important it is to drive that point home.

Before the 2008 publication of John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policythe subject was, for all practical purposes, taboo.

Everything had to be kept hush hush, just as it did with the NSA (no such agency), the massive signals intelligence operation at Fort Meade.  Everybody who cared knew that it was there and what it did, but only “conspiracy theorists” dared speak of it.

Ten years ago, and for many years before that, there was no shortage of books and articles critical of Israel and Zionist ideology.  But accounts of anything resembling an Israel lobby were as rare as snowstorms in July. To broach the topic was to invite charges of anti-Semitism.

Then in 2006, two years before they came out with the book, Mearsheimer and Walt published an article in The London Review of Books.  The authors are distinguished political scientists and public intellectuals, but no suitable mainstream American publication would touch it.

After the book appeared, it did not take long for its arguments to win the day — to such an extent that, nowadays, the taboo that protected the Israel lobby from scrutiny is, like the one that kept the NSA out of public view, a dead letter.  Too bad that the news has yet to penetrate the bubble that surrounds our political class, or the editorial offices of servile mainstream media.

But even in those benighted quarters, the existence of a powerful Israel lobby is, by now, in general currency.  The old taboos still survive, however — enough to keep scrutiny of its activities to a minimum.  Also dissidents still risk being labeled anti-Semitic.

But Israel’s salad days are over.  For that, it has mainly its wars on Palestinians in Gaza – massacres really — its brutal, seemingly never-ending, occupation of the West Bank, the predations of its settlers there, and the overall moral decline of Israeli politics in the Netanyahu era to thank.

It is only getting worse too, especially with elections looming and with Benjamin Netanyahu facing prison for corruption, while his political party, the Likud, is now in open alliance with the bona fide fascists of Otzmot Yehudit (Jewish Power), the latest incarnation of Meir Kahane’s outlawed Kach Party.

But none of this was about to bring on the sea change in American, especially Jewish American, attitudes towards Israel that now seems to be in the works.  For that, more than anyone or anything else, we have Ilhan Omar to thank.

She didn’t mastermind it, no one could have, but, standing on the shoulders of other progressives in Congress, especially newly elected ones not yet frozen into bad old ways, she precipitated it.  She was the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back.

The straw has been accumulating for a very long time, and there is a lot of it.  There is also a general sense now in many parts of the world, including the United States and Canada, and also Donald Rumsfeld’s “old Europe,” that, for the first time in many decades, the times may be changing rapidly and for the better.

Anxiety levels are therefore running high within the Democratic Party, at both the leadership level and among large strata of the rank-and-file.

Needless to say, Zionists are panicking too.

The large and growing numbers of Christian evangelicals within the Zionist fold are not the problem – they have many times shown that they are capable of believing almost anything.  That an omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good Being, the creator of all that is, wants Jews to “return” to the Promised Land where they will either accept Jesus or when the End Time comes be cast into Hell for all eternity is, by their lights, only common sense.

Jewish Zionists are another story.  So are the Senators and House members for whom, as Omar pointed out, it’s all about “the benjamins.”

Republicans, of course, are the worst of all; they were born to be vile.

They have always had the Christian Zionists in their pocket, but, true to Blake’s dictum that “the weak in courage are strong in cunning,” they are shrewd enough to realize that they’ll never win over the Jewish vote.  No matter: there are plenty of lesser or greater Sheldon Adelsons out there, reactionary old farts clinging on to their “identities,” and they wouldn’t mind getting their benjamins away from the Democrats, into whose pockets their money used to flow, and into the ever-greedy coffers of their Grand Old Party.

More important: they have figured out that in these days of post-post-modern times, when words mean whatever those who utter them want, and when speech is reduced to what cable news pundits, following the lead of obscurantist literary “theorists,” call “memes” or “tropes,” there evidently is a percentage, for racists and anti-Semites, in going after anti-racists and anti-anti Semites, by accusing them of, what else!, racism and anti-Semitism.

In much the way that, in the late seventies, the Brits led the way, with Mrs. Thatcher showing the hapless actor, Ronald Reagan, how to promote and implement free market theology – in the process, undoing decades of social progress and enriching the rich from whose troughs all blessings purportedly flow – followers of the despicable Tony Blair and others of their ilk in the British Labor Party have been showing Democrats how to go about keeping progress at bay.

With a true socialist and internationalist in line to become Prime Minister, should there soon be a general election that Labor would win, rightwing and centrist Laborites are now using all the means at their disposal to besmear Jeremy Corbyn and his allies.

Ilhan Omar should feel honored to be similarly targeted, and proud to be leading a resistance every bit as robust as the one that the Labor Party’s left wing has been able to mount.

And then in France there is Emmanuel Macron, a twit for all seasons, identifying anti-Zionism, and criticism of Israel generally, with anti-Semitism and then proposing to criminalize the former — this in the motherland of free speech.  This is not the first time that en route from Voltaire to the French political class, the message has become distorted, neutered, and nearly lost.

Craziness happens when times change.  The Omar Affair is a chapter in a larger crisis of ruling class confidence, a general freak-out the clearest sign of which is the way that corporate media are hell bent on disgracing themselves by going after Alexandria Osacio-Cortez, as if their aim is to expose their own imbecility.  Fox is the worst, of course, but they all do it to some extent.

Liberals and anti-Trump publicans do it mainly by evincing attitudes so condescending that, if they could be bottled and sold, would fast become the nation’s best selling emetic.

But the joke is on them. AOC has proven herself more than capable of countering every one of their provocations, leaving them and their desperation exposed.  Without breaking a sweat, she mows them down with consummate nonchalance.

***

On the spurious question of Omar’s anti-Semitism, I hesitate to belabor the obvious, especially inasmuch as the territory has, by now, been examined so thoroughly, so often, by so many, but there are a few points worth making over and over again nevertheless – until the mindless know-it-all Democrats and the Republican defectors at MSNBC and CNN finally get it.

Even in their world, even at NPR, even at The Washington Post and The New York Times, it would not be news to point out that not all criticisms of Israel warrant charges of anti-Semitism.

Not all criticisms are anti-Zionist either; quite to the contrary, most are not.

Opposition to the idea of a Jewish state in all or part of Palestine, as distinct from a state of the people who live in it, Jewish or otherwise, is a lot rarer than criticism of the Israeli government or its Apartheid policies or the ethnic cleansing it promotes.

The important point, though, is the one that Ilhan Omar has forced into public awareness: that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are not the same.

“Zionism” denotes an ethno-nationalist political movement that did not exist before the late nineteenth century.  Its aim, at first, was to establish a Jewish state, not necessarily in Palestine, that would provide a safe haven for victims of anti-Semitic violence and discrimination in Europe and elsewhere too, if need be.

It soon became a movement wedded to Palestine and dedicated, above all, to cultural revival – and to forging a Hebrew-speaking culture.

This exacerbated tensions within the Jewish community.  Jews were anti-Zionists before anyone else was.

Nowadays, “anti-Semitism” has many meanings.  In the term’s broadest sense, it signifies hatred of and opposition to Jews as such. It is largely a creature of late nineteenth century nationalist and racialist ideologies.

It draws on, but also differs from, anti-Judaism, which targets the Jewish religion – and Jewish people only insofar as they are practitioners of it.  Anti-Judaism goes back at least to the days of the Roman Empire; by the time Judaism and Christianity parted ways, it had grown into a full-fledged, theologically driven ideology.

Christian anti-Judaism had little in common with traditional Muslim views of Jews and Judaism.  Relations between Muslims and Jews have varied over the centuries; they were sometimes more hostile than friendly, but nearly always more benign than those that existed between Jews and Christians.

Outside the minds of the miscreants who crawled out from under the rocks that Trump overturned, most anti-Semitism these days has little connection, historically or conceptually, with the anti-Semitism that emerged and flourished in Europe in the years between the end of the Napoleonic Wars and Hitler’s defeat in World War II.

There is therefore an argument to be made for reserving the term for the anti-Semitism of that historical period.  It is the genuine article, the paradigm case. In addition differences between then and now are considerable enough that it might be useful if different words described them.

Today’s versions, in Eastern Europe especially, do echo some of the motifs of pre-Second World War anti-Semitism, but with important modifications.  For one, today’s anti-Semites are not, for the most part, viscerally opposed to all things Jewish; they love Netanyahu, for example, and they love Israel, Netanyahu’s “nation state of the Jewish people.”

Thus the original Zionists had a point: should there be a full-fledged fascist revival in the heartlands of modern anti-Semitism, Israel probably would save some Jews from the ravages of anti-Semitic persecution – by becoming like what it was concocted to oppose, and by redirecting animosities away from Jews – towards Muslims.

The most common forms of anti-Semitism, in the broadest sense, nowadays bear much less resemblance to the genuine article than to phenomena that are unfortunately all too common all over the world, and that involve Jews no more than other peoples.

Moreover, today’s anti-Semitic acting out has little or no ideological basis: it is like the racially tinged hatred that Americans felt, and for the most part no longer feel, towards the Japanese after Pearl Harbor.  The contempt that drove the Nazis and their allies on had deeper roots, and an ideology behind it — an idiotic and evil one, but an ideology nonetheless.

Can the phenomena that fear mongers today deride slide over into something more authentically anti-Semitic? Of course, it can. It sometimes does too, esp. in subaltern Muslim communities in Europe and the Middle East.

The amazing thing, though, is that there isn’t more of that going on than there is  – not just because moral and economic desperation in the communities where it exists is acute, but also because the Israeli propaganda machine has been working overtime to bring out the anti-Semitism in the communities they seek to repress.

Zionism came into being thanks to anti-Semitism and its well-being continues to depend upon it; with Israel having become so widely and justifiably despised around the world, the last thing Zionists need is to lose their reason for being.

***

In much the way that only people with “dirty minds” find problems with remarks that most people would find inoffensive, the remarks for which Omar has received so much grief would seem problematic only to troubled anti-anti-Semites.

On the other hand, people who only know what corporate media tell them would take it for gospel truth that Omar is an anti-Semite of the worst kind.  She can deny it all she wants, but they will not be moved.

Surely, there is some reason for all the consternation she elicited in some – by no means all – Jewish circles.  Omar must surely be wrong about something.

I would say that a better way to think about is that to get to where she wanted to go, she had to walk on eggshells, and, being somewhat new to the game, she didn’t do it quite delicately enough.

I hate to put it that way because it would seem to put me on the side of her high-minded, nauseatingly condescending – and generally obtuse – liberal critics.  But the facts are what they are; and the fact is that ours is a time when identity politics, though widely and justifiably criticized, is still riding high, and therefore when hypersensitivities abound.

To negotiate a way around and through them requires experience, the right kind with the right people and situations.  Novices beware.

On the other hand, there was and continues to be something ennobling in Omar’s honesty and fervor, and even, if that is what it is, in her naiveté.

But then who am I or anyone else, for that matter, to say?  Perhaps she did know what she was doing.  More likely, though, she did not.

In either case, it would not have hurt had Omar taken more care negotiating her way through the minefields.

But however that may be, three cheers to her for kicking down the doors; that was long overdue.  That she could have been more cognizant of the sensitivities and hypersensitivities involved doesn’t change that.

I say this not because I think that in general such feelings deserve deference, or that Jewish sensitivities merit more deference than those of other peoples.

I say it because I suspect that, all things considered, her remarks were impolitic, and therefore functioned as a distraction in much the way that her critics claim.

However, I am far from sure that I am right about this; perhaps she needed to do it the way she did.

She must have done something right, after all, because she did what no one else had been able to do — she got a national conversation going about what Israel, aided and abetted at every turn by the United States, has been doing to Palestinians for more than half a century in plain violation of simple justice, international law, and fundamental principles of political morality.

This probably wasn’t beginner’s luck either; there is every reason to expect that the role she will play in whatever comes next will be a constructive one, like the role she has played so far.

More articles by:

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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