Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Test Tube Politics: llhan Omar, Anti-Semitism and AIPAC

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a political statement triggering evidence (mixed) about its own truth as dramatically as Ilhan Omar’s quip that pro-Israeli bias in congress is “about the Benjamins, baby”.  It’s as if you wrote a letter criticizing the Post Office and had it returned to you with a USPS message stamped on it.

But let’s dig down one level.  The criticism, partly fair, of Omar is that she bought into (so to speak) the anti-semitic slur that Jewish money constitutes a secret conspiracy against “the people”.  This is the old socialism-of-fools stuff, endlessly recycled by bigots right up until this morning; see the demonization of George Soros, for instance.  Because it exists, people who want to combat bigotry—and this includes progressive politicians—should build a giant moat around it and not go there.  By suggesting that hidden Jewish money had bribed Congress into blind support for Israel, Omar crossed a line.  It’s the same line that George Bush senior crossed with the Willie Horton ad, and that Trump crosses a dozen times every Twitter-soaked evening.  Invoking a bigoted stereotype is a bad thing to do, especially for politicians with giant megaphones.

Yet the very response to Omar’s tweet demonstrated the truth she was stumbling for.  A chorus of political and media honchos of every denomination, religious and political, rose up to denounce her.  They didn’t make fine distinctions and they didn’t welcome a correction; their goal was to punish and silence.  Sweeping accusations were made against Omar’s character, leaving the impression that any criticism of AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israel lobby, was proof of antisemitism.  And this attempt to isolate and politically crush Omar was itself the embodiment of her protest.  This is the power of AIPAC in action, the lobby that can’t be named, the doctrine—the transcendental importance of Israel and the rightness of its religious self-definition—that can’t be questioned.

So the truth content of the original Omar tweet depends on how we explain this onslaught.  If it’s really just about the Benjamins (the hundred dollar bills with Ben Franklin looking back at us), that means she was being trashed, directly or indirectly, for pay.  Politicians joined the mob either to protect their campaign revenue or shield themselves from other politicians defending their own campaign revenue.  How likely is that?  The answer depends on two prior questions: how important is campaign finance in setting the basic contours of US policy, and what proportion of this finance is controlled or strongly influenced by AIPAC?

These are questions for specialists in these areas, not me.  I will go out on a limb, however, and say that the truth lies between the endpoints: some but not all of the bias in the US political system is attributable to the influence of big donors, and AIPAC has a substantial but far less than a complete lock on the flow of political money.  You could compare it to other lobbies, like the NRA (National Rifle Association) and AARP (American Association of Retired Persons), both of which are feared for their ability to alter the balance of funding in competitive political contests.  But neither of these two outfits is immune from attack, while AIPAC is.  Gun control advocates go after the NRA all the time, and, while AARP is not exactly a political lightening rod, the complaint that greedy seniors are stealing money from our children is a popular meme on the Right.  So AIPAC is different.  This difference does not seem to be about money, at least not solely, as important as money is to the system and the groups that try to dominate it.  AIPAC appears to possess a complementary form of power, perhaps rooted in the infrastructure of synagogues and other religious organizations as well as the allegiance of many socially prominent Jews active in secular organizations.  When it marshals this network, you get the sort of response we saw to Omar.

This was a ferocious rebuke of a politician, clearly intended to be career-ending.  It will be interesting to see if she can recover without abandoning her advocacy of Palestinians; I certainly hope so.  The attack on Omar, however, is itself the embodiment of the fear all of her colleagues have to feel, that if they step out of line on Israel they will be crushed.  Catering, intentionally or otherwise, to antisemitic tropes is completely unnecessary: the proof of the pudding is in the attack on it.


Anonymous said...

"By suggesting that hidden Jewish money had bribed Congress into blind support for Israel, Omar crossed a line..."

There was of course no such suggestion. This is a terrible line to have written. AIPAC is a lobbying group and no doubt has money from all sorts of sources who want AIPAC to reflect their ideas on policy. I would think AIPAC has all sorts of corporate support, for instance. There could well be support from sources in other countries than America or Israel.

The point was to go after Omar, as an object lesson. Do not mess with AIPAC interests, never ever. I already knew that, and know AIPAC should not be messed with.

Anonymous said...

By the way, I surely would not publicly criticize Israeli governmental policy or AIPAC for vehemently supporting such policy. I would be afraid. I notice too that Mr. Dorman offers no such criticism and I understand. I however would not criticize Omar; if cornered I would pretend ignorance. Though I was not alive then, my sense is these are like the times of McCarthy. Scary times.

Anonymous said...

What the "game" is about:

Max Boot‏ @MaxBoot

Disgraceful ad hominem attacks by @IlhanMN on my @CFR_org colleague Elliott Abrams. She doesn't seem to realize he is a leading advocate of human rights and democracy--not a promoter of genocide! More evidence of the loony left I caution Democrats about:

12:58 PM - 13 Feb 2019

Anonymous said...


Ben Norton @BenjaminNorton

So amazing. @Ilhan to Elliott Abrams: "Would you support an armed faction within Venezuela that engages in war crimes, crimes against humanity, or genocide if you believe they were serving US interests, as you did in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua?"

1:26 PM - 13 Feb 2019

Anonymous said...

"Catering, intentionally or otherwise, to anti-Semitic tropes is completely unnecessary: the proof of the pudding is in the attack on it."

What does this concluding sentence mean? I do not understand.

Also, the attacks on Omar will continue and such attacks will be used in the coming election campaigning. Just as the attacks against British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn have continued ceaselessly and will continue; the intent being to ruin Labour and Corbyn no matter how ethnically sensitive Corbyn is and has been.

Anonymous said...

Aaron Maté @aaronjmate

I can't think of a more perfect commentary on the courage & integrity level of the Democratic Party's leadership & media partisans than the fact that the party member setting an example for them to follow, @IlhanMN, is the one they've thrown under the bus.

3:04 PM - 13 Feb 2019

[ The child of a Holocaust survivor, Gabor Maté, a renowned physician. ]

john c. halasz said...

Cynthia McKinnon. She now teaches IR at a university in Bengladesh.

Anonymous said...

"Cynthia McKinnon..."

I assume this is just a really stupid comment, meant to be a joke rather than a threat.

john c. halasz said...


I misremembered her name; it's McKinney. But why is the comment "stupid" or "threatening"? It's a relevant comment about what can happen to somebody who crosses AIPAC.

OTOH, the OP itself was rather obtuse at best. It seems to condone the utter corruption of American politics by money and lobbyists and simplistically conflates AIPAC with NRA and even sillier AARP, as if it were a matter of ordinary interest group politics. (What role did the NRA or AARP play in fomenting the Iraq War, among other, er, foreign misadventures?) And it assumes naively at best that they is something special about anti-semitism compared to other similar irrational bigotries, which defers to PC/identity politics ideology. while being blind to the way the Zionism, especially the reactionary authoritarian religious ethno-nationalist variety of the current Israeli government, dubiously claiming to speak got all Jews, uses accusations of anti-semitism to smear and and silence anyone who would criticize reasonably their own conduct and policy. Traditional anti-semitism was a repulsive paranoid ideology. But the effort to search out and detect the faintest suspicion of anti-semitic motives to deflect any criticism is equally paranoid. The secret unseen motives of others are conspiring against one, so one must withdraw into the fortress of the self against the split-off projected evils of the world, disclaiming any accountability or responsibility for one's own actual conduct in the world. said...


There is something especially evil about anti-Semitism, or to be more precisely accurate, anti-Jewishness since Arabs are also Semites so accusing them of "anti-Semitism" is a mess. That something is the Holocaust.

That said, clearly AOPAC, along with Netanyahu and his government in Israel and their assorted allies in the US, have played an unacceptable game of claiming that any criticism of Israeli government policies is anti-Semitic (or anti-Jewish). Keeping these distinctions clear is clearly very important.

Anonymous said...

'I misremembered her name; it's McKinney. But why is the comment "stupid" or "threatening"? It's a relevant comment about what can happen to somebody who crosses AIPAC.'

Oh, I did not understand and thought you were suggesting so dealing with Omar. My fault entirely. I am at fault for not reading with sympathy. I am sorry.

Anonymous said...

Barkley Rosser expressed the situation clearly for me.

Anonymous said...

I am pleased that Peter Dorman write this short essay, but this whole incident is unnerving in showing me just how "dangerous" it is to be critical of the Israeli government. Again, I would not be brave enough to be publicly critical.