Rep. Ilhan Omar’s recent tweet suggesting that political support for Israel is driven by Jewish money was one more unwelcome sign that old anti-Semitic tropes are getting new life in today’s bitter political climate. We welcome the strong and swift condemnation of her remarks by a group of top Democratic House members, led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, but also acknowledge that the party needs to do more to maintain vigilance against those members who go far beyond legitimate criticism of Israeli policy and into the realm of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.
Omar’s tweet came after a call by Republican House leader Kevin McCarthy for congressional action against her for a 2012 tweet she wrote that was widely seen as anti-Semitic, asserting that Israel had “hypnotized” the world. She later apologized.
Responding to McCarthy the other day, the freshman legislator from Minnesota, one of two Muslim women in the new Congress, tweeted that “It’s all about the Benjamins,” referring to hundred-dollar bills, and later clarifying that she was talking about AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby.
McÇarthy himself generated controversy last year with a tweet attacking three Jewish billionaires, including George Soros, a favorite target of conspiracy theorists, for trying to “buy” the midterm elections. That tweet was quickly deleted after it was reported.
On Monday, Omar offered an apology, while not backing down from her criticism of the role played by AIPAC, which, as a registered lobby, does not give any money to candidates, although its views on politicians inevitably influence campaign giving.
“I reaffirm the problematic role of lobbyists in our politics, whether it be AIPAC, the NRA or the fossil fuel industry,” Omar said in her statement.
It would be naive to argue that campaign finance has nothing to do with the overwhelming bipartisan support for Israel in American politics today. For better or worse, that’s the way the political game is played, and backers of almost every cause seek to maximize their leverage in Washington with campaign dollars.
That said, what is not legitimate — indeed, what is deeply offensive to a Jewish community that has experienced the destructive power of such ideas — is framing that criticism in terms of age-old conspiracy theories suggesting a malignant Jewish dominance over national affairs.
Rep. Omar’s tweets — and there is something truly disturbing about our political leaders, from the president on down, conducting political dialogue through the instant, filter-less medium of Twitter — also play into the hands of those seeking to make Israel a partisan wedge issue by portraying the Democratic Party and its resurgent progressive wing as universally hostile to the Jewish state.
Yes, there is growing criticism of Israeli policy on the Democratic left, and yes, some of that criticism, like Omar’s and statements by Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, echo traditional anti-Semitism. New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, in an important essay last Sunday headlined “The Progressive Assault On Israel,” points out that “the far-left’s hostility is now being mainstreamed by the not-so-far-left” and that anti-Zionism, which calls for the end of the Jewish state, “is becoming a respectable position among people who would never support the elimination of any other country in any other circumstance.”
It’s worth noting that Kevin McCarthy, faced with the recent racist comments within his own caucus from Iowa Rep. Steve King, who has a long history of such remarks, stripped King of his committee assignments. Omar, a rookie legislator stumbling out of the block, sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee (alongside its chairman, Bronx Rep. Eliot Engel). When Israel issues come before the committee, we trust that she will heed the words of her apology that “she is grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of anti-Semitic tropes” and act on that new knowledge.
Despite Omar’s new tweet, overall, support for Israel’s security remains a fundamental value of the Democratic Party, as the quick response by the Democratic leadership demonstrates. Arguing otherwise can only undermine the remarkable bipartisanship that AIPAC and so many others have worked so hard to build over the decades. And that can only hurt Israel.