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

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.

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