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Why It Didn’t Take Long For Democrats To Reinforce Right-Wing Attacks Against Ilhan Omar

Democratic Party leaders in Congress made an example out of Muslim Representative Ilhan Omar, a Democrat from Minnesota, and forced her to apologize for tweets she sent against the influence of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) over elected United States officials.

The messages about the pro-Israel lobby were disingenuously deemed by Democrats to be “anti-Semitic,” a conclusion that played right into the narrative of Republicans, who have spent the last few weeks smearing Omar because she is outspoken on Israel.

With a bill against the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement set to move through the House of Representatives after passing in the Senate, establishment Democrats effectively tarnished the credibility of a freshman representative who would be an intense opponent of the legislation.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Majority Whip James Clyburn, Assistant Speaker Ben Ray Lujan, Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries, and Caucus Vice Chair Katherine Clark all signed on to a joint statement that condemned the “anti-Semitic comments.”

“Anti-Semitism must be called out, confronted and condemned whenever it is encountered, without exception,” the Democrats declared. “We are and will always be strong supporters of Israel in Congress because we understand that our support is based on shared values and strategic interests.”

“Legitimate criticism of Israel’s policies is protected by the values of free speech and democratic debate that the United States and Israel share. But Congresswoman Omar’s use of anti-Semitic tropes and prejudicial accusations about Israel’s supporters is deeply offensive. We condemn these remarks and we call upon Congresswoman Omar to immediately apologize for these hurtful comments,” they added.

Omar immediately apologized, “Anti-Semitism is real, and I am grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues, who are educating me on the painful history of anti-Semitic tropes. My intention is never to offend my constituents or Jewish Americans as a whole. We have to always be willing to step back and think through criticism, just as I expect people to hear me when others attack me for my identity. This is why I unequivocally apologize.”

“At the same time, I reaffirm the problematic role of lobbyists in our politics, whether it be AIPAC, the NRA, or the fossil fuel industry. It’s gone on too long, and we must be willing to address it.”

After Omar groveled before Democrats, Hoyer appeared on MSNBC’s “MTP Daily” and declared, “I hope this is a lesson to her to be much more careful and much more sensitive, as she would want people as she pointed out to be sensitive to her.” He added, “The language she used clearly was anti-Semitic in nature and its implications.”

“Apologies are nice, but actions are better,” Hoyer concluded. He was not specific about what actions he wanted Omar to take.

“Bad Form, Congresswoman”

On February 10, journalist Glenn Greenwald tweeted, “GOP leader Kevin McCarthy threatens punishment for @IlhanMN and @RashidaTlaib over their criticisms of Israel. It’s stunning how much time U.S. political leaders spend defending a foreign nation, even if it means attacking [the] free speech rights of Americans.” Greenwald linked to a story from the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz.

Omar retweeted this with the comment, “It’s all about the Benjamins baby,” and a musical note emoticon. Batya Ungar-Sargon, the opinion editor for The Forward, which reports on news from a Jewish perspective, replied, “Would love to know who @IlhanMN thinks is paying American politicians to be pro-Israel, though I think I can guess.”

Ungar-Sargon continued, “Bad form, Congresswoman. That’s the second anti-Semitic trope you’ve tweeted.”

Seeing this tweet, Omar retweeted and commented, “AIPAC!” That response only intensified the backlash.

Democratic Representatives Josh Gottheimer and Elaine Luria wrote a letter to Democratic congressional leaders.

“As Jewish members of Congress, we are deeply alarmed by recent rhetoric from certain members within our caucus, including just last night, that has disparaged us and called into question our loyalty to our nation. We urge you to join us in calling on each member of our caucus to unite against anti-Semitism and hateful tropes and stereotypes,” they declared.

Their hyperbole lumped Omar’s tweets in with historical examples of anti-Semitism, like when Representative Louis McFadden read into the congressional record excerpts of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” and recent examples, like neo-Nazis chanting “Jews will not replace us,” while marching in Charlottesville. It mentioned the Tree of Life synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh.

Then Gottheimer and Luria made it clear this was not really about anti-Semitism at all. Rather, it was about sending a message to Omar and any other Democrat, who may lead Israeli government officials to doubt whether Democrats are united in supporting them as opposition grows to apartheid against Palestinians.

“As early as 1944, the Democratic Party platform included language supporting ‘a free and democratic Jewish commonwealth’ in the region, four years before President Harry S. Truman recognized the establishment of the modern state of Israel. Since then, Democratic presidents and members of Congress have been instrumental in supporting peace in the region and Israel’s security.”

“However, the ‘Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions’ (BDS) movement inherently denies the Jewish people’s 3,000-year-old connection to the land of Israel and seeks to delegitimize Israel and deny its right to exist as a Jewish state. Such positions are, at their core, anti-Semitic,” they added.

Although she has questioned whether the BDS movement can help bring about a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians, Omar previously stated, “I believe and support the BDS movement and have fought to make sure people’s right to support it isn’t criminalized.”

When she was in the Minnesota state legislature, she opposed a bill that prohibited the “state from doing business with vendors” that participate in the BDS movement. It was signed into law by Democratic Governor Mark Dayton, making Minnesota one of several Democratic states to have laws that can be used to criminalize opposition to the Israeli government.

“We Don’t Understand Your Hostility To AIPAC”

The backlash was similar to what happened to Democratic Representative Jim Moran in 2007, when he attempted to tie AIPAC to support for the Iraq War. He said AIPAC “pushed this war from the beginning.” Democrats also referred to a comment from 2003, when he said, “If the Jewish community had organized against [the Iraq war], we wouldn’t be in this war.”

“The idea that the war in Iraq began because of the influence of Jewish Americans is factually incorrect and unfortunately fits the anti-Semitic stereotypes some have used historically against Jews,” a letter from sixteen House Democrats contended.

They added, “As Jewish colleagues, we don’t understand your hostility to AIPAC or your determination to embarrass yourself with this series of inaccurate, illogical, and inflammatory comments. But we find them deeply offensive and call on you to retract your statements. They have no place in the House Democratic Caucus.”

The truth is AIPAC worked quietly to whip up support for the invasion of Iraq. It lobbied for the ramping up of sanctions over “weapons of mass destruction” and supported the war.

As John Judis reported for the New Yorker:

AIPAC’s lobbying wasn’t widely reported because AIPAC didn’t want Arab states, whose support the Bush administration was soliciting, to be able to tie Bush’s plans to Israel, but it lobbied nonetheless. In September 2002, before Congress had begun considering the administration’s proposal authorizing force with Iraq, Rebecca Needler, a spokeswoman for AIPAC, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, “If the president asks Congress to support action in Iraq, AIPAC would lobby members of Congress to support him.” Then at an AIPAC meeting in New York in January 2003, before the war began, but after Congress had voted to authorize Bush to go to war, Howard Kohr, AIPAC’s executive director, boasted of AIPAC’s success in lobbying for the war. Reported the New York Sun, “According to Mr. Kohr, AIPAC’s successes over the past year also include guaranteeing Israel’s annual aid package and ‘quietly’ lobbying Congress to approve the use of force in Iraq.”

There were several suggestions that Omar not only spread “anti-Semitic tropes” but also did not understand AIPAC. Yet, these tweets were never meant to be sophisticated articulations of policy. They reflected an attitude of resentment toward AIPAC for using money and resources to ensure U.S. politicians vote a certain way on matters involving Israel.

AIPAC spent $3.5 million on lobbying in 2018. The first bill to come to the Senate floor for a vote in the first session of the 116th Congress was a bill containing provisions to supposedly allow states and city governments to enact their own anti-BDS laws. It initially failed, but the “Combating BDS Act of 2019” later passed on February 4.

Democratic Senators Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren, who are running for president in 2020, and Senator Bernie Sanders, who is likely to announce a campaign, voted against the bill. This reflected the division among Democrats between the party establishment and the base of the Democratic Party, which Republicans intend to exploit.

Rep. Ilhan Omar. Photo by Fibonacci Blue on Flickr.

Rep. Ilhan Omar. Photo by Fibonacci Blue on Flickr.

Victory Following Right-Wing Efforts To Invoke ‘Anti-Semitism’ And Silence Omar

For weeks, Republicans used the right-wing media echo chamber to smear Omar as “anti-Semitic.”

A prime example was Republican Representative Lee Zeldin, who protested Omar’s appointment to the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. “Crazy to watch what House [Democrats] are empowering/elevating.” Zeldin was appointed ranking chairman of this subcommittee.

Omar did not hesitate to respond. “Don’t mind him. He is just waking up to the reality of having Muslim women as colleagues who know how to stand up to bullies! It’s going to be fun watching him lose his marbles.”

“Your anti-Semitic & anti-Israel hate is strong & wrong,” Zeldin replied on Twitter.

Zeldin’s slander went to the next level as he noted an unidentified crank caller left him a voicemail, “I wish Hitler would have done his fucking job.” He tweeted at Omar like she was somehow responsible for this hateful message.

“This is just another day in my world as an American Jew in Congress. Would love to know what part of this hate-filled, anti-Semitic rant you disagree with? I disagree with all of it. Do you?”

The National Republican Congressional Committee sent at least eight emails in January that accused Omar of being an anti-Semite and a bigot because she is critical of the Israeli government, will not condemn the BDS movement, and generally supports dignity and human rights for Palestinians.

As Joshua Leifer, a writer for the Forward, outlined after commending Omar for her apology, “Faced with a resurgent left for the first time in a generation, the contemporary American right has undertaken a concerted campaign to use Jews—and accusations of anti-Semitism—as a cudgel against the left.”

“Norm Coleman, a paid lobbyist for Saudi Arabia and chairman of the Republican Jewish coalition, admitted to the New York Times that the purpose of the anti-BDS bill recently passed in the Senate, which the ACLU warns may very well be unconstitutional, was to divide the Democrats and send the message that Jews will be ‘much more comfortable in the Republican Party.’”

President Donald Trump may have a record of anti-Semitism, but that has not stopped him from promoting the interests of the Israeli government aggressively. He even announced the U.S. government would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and relocate the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

To further advance this strategy of sowing division among Democrats, Trump included a section on anti-Semitism in his “State of the Union” speech on February 5.

“We must never ignore the vile poison of anti-Semitism or those who spread its venomous creed. With one voice, we must confront this hatred anywhere and everywhere it occurs,” Trump proclaimed.

While there has been a rise in anti-Semitic hate incidents in the past two years, Trump and Republicans are not interested in stopping hate. They are largely interested in how the issue of anti-Semitism can be weaponized against Arab or Muslim voices, like Omar and Representative Rashida Tlaib, who criticize the Israeli government.

The Democratic Party establishment is all too willing to reinforce such counter-subversive attacks from Republicans. It gives them cover to resist changing their politics.

In 2016, during the Democratic National Committee’s platform committee meetings, delegates voted against a platform amendment with language acknowledging Israeli engages in an occupation. They also opposed removing language which suggested the BDS movement and anti-Israel resolutions at the United Nations “delegitimize” Israel.

Wendy Sherman, a former State Department diplomat who was a delegate for Hillary Clinton, said, “When these actions delegitimize Israel, or in fact, whether wittingly or unwittingly, create anti-Semitism, then we must say that is not a good thing.”

Delegate for Bernie Sanders, James Zogby, who introduced the amendment, attempted to convince Democrats that the platform should show more empathy for the plight of Palestinians, particularly in Gaza, where the blockade has prevented the development of water and sanitation infrastructure to prevent the spread of diseases. He mentioned the Democrats did not recognize the importance of a free and democratic Palestinian state in their platform until President George W. Bush said in 2004 that it was crucial to work toward such a goal.

The forced apology will make Omar think twice about speaking out on the influence of the Israeli government over U.S. politics, especially on Twitter. It will coerce her into diminishing her opposition to efforts to criminalize those exercising their free speech rights to challenge Israeli apartheid, such as the anti-BDS bill that will advance through the House soon.

This is the exact goal of both Democrats and Republicans, who disingenuously cried “anti-Semitism.” Indeed, their condemnation of Omar’s tweets wielded the establishment news media to great effect. It reinforced the bipartisan policy consensus in Washington that thou shalt not speak ill of the Israeli government.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."