Criticizing Israel while Black (and Muslim)

February 14, 2019

The left should defend Rep. Ilhan Omar from those who are once again trying to use charges of antisemitism to silence a critic of Israel, explains Jonah ben Avraham.

THE MOMENT a Black, hijabi, Muslim woman was elected to the U.S. Congress, it was safe to assume that a fierce racist backlash would follow.

Then that congresswoman declared her support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement to challenge Israeli apartheid.

The attacks on Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota have been nonstop in nearly every corner of social media and traditional media. Among the less mainstream critiques have been blatantly Islamophobic accusations that Omar supports sharia law and marrying her own brother.

As is sure to follow when a Black or Brown activist refuses to jump through hoops to earn their pro-Israel, anti-Farrakhan credentials, accusations of antisemitism quickly followed — and caught on like wildfire.

The most recent controversy surrounds an off-the-cuff criticism by Omar of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the largest pro-Israel advocacy organization in the U.S.

Rep. Ilhan Omar on Capitol Hill
Rep. Ilhan Omar on Capitol Hill

It began with a tweet by the Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald criticizing U.S. politicians for pursuing the standing of a foreign nation state more fiercely than the right to free speech of people in the U.S. critical of that state. In response, Omar quoted a song by hip-hop artist Puff Daddy, saying, “It’s all about the Benjamins baby.”

By the response, you would think that she had been photographed for a yearbook posing in blackface.

For pointing out the simple fact that AIPAC, as its own staff boasts, exists to use money to exert control over politicians — you know, like a lobbying organization — she has been condemned by every major Jewish press outlet, dozens of members of Congress from both parties, and, in a quixotic Twitter episode, Chelsea Clinton.

Donald Trump has called for her resignation. House Minority Leader Mike McCarthy has threatened to “take action” against her, comparing her to white nationalist Republican Rep. Steve King. And Nancy Pelosi succeeded in forcing an apology out Omar.

All of this is sadly to be expected — it’s what happens when Black and Brown activists talk about Palestine.

What is perhaps more surprising — and disappointing — is the failure of some on the left to recognize this attack on Omar for what it is: a cynical, racist weaponization of antisemitism to discredit a progressive politician.

After Omar’s apology, the Jewish anti-occupation group If Not Now “[welcomed] Omar’s apology for her unfortunate word choice.” Democratic socialist Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez celebrated her “capacity to acknowledge pain & apologize,” and thanking “Jewish leadership who brought her in, [rather than pushing] her out, to heal.”

Perhaps even more worse, Bernie Sanders hasn’t said a word about the entire controversy, even though his strong defense of Omar could have a big impact.

EXAMPLES ABOUND around progressive media: “Two things can be true,” they suggest. “Omar’s statement can be anti-Semitic, and she can still be a champion of social justice that we should defend. After all, she apologized.”

There’s only one problem with this line of reasoning: the tweet simply wasn’t anti-Semitic, and the resounding concession that Omar did something wrong — and had something to apologize for — has done substantial harm to the credibility of anti-racist, anti-imperialist politics on the nation’s highest political stage.

Writing in the Forward, Peter Feld put it this way:

The problem is, all lobbies, by definition, are designed to exert secret control over policy, using money. That’s what they do...And so, unless you want to deny that there even is an Israel lobby, it can’t be off limits to point out that it works in secret and uses money to bring about policy outcomes.

AIPAC spends somewhere in the neighborhood of $3.5 million per year on official lobbying expenses. It has an annual budget in the tens of millions, an endowment in the hundreds of millions, and a network of supporters that contributes hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars per election cycle to both political parties.

AIPAC lobbyists aren’t uniquely powerful, and they do not control the government, but they do have substantial influence, and the suggestion that this simple fact cannot be named without warranting criticism is laughable.

“It’s all about the Benjamins” — there is no poor word choice at play, no “flirtation with anti-Semitic tropes.” Omar’s words are simply ammunition for the next weapon in the white supremacist arsenal, aimed and fired at Omar by the people actually perpetuating the historic rise in antisemitism in the United States and abroad.

AS THE left has responded to this latest case of right-wing gaslighting, important conversations have resurfaced about the underlying causes of U.S. support for the Israeli state. After all, even the National Rifle Association, with its tremendous war chest and membership base, can only buy the votes of a little more than half of federal legislators.

It’s true, as many Jewish activists have been quick to point out, that antisemitic, Christian Evangelical Zionism is a much more powerful ideological force than right wingers’ concern for the wellbeing of Jews.

It’s also true that white supremacy, imperialism and the usefulness of an apartheid ethno-state loyal to the U.S. contribute more to politicians’ near-unanimous support for Zionism than whatever campaign contributions may be linked to support for Israel.

There are certainly people on the left who perpetuate harmful, idealist conceptions of the relationship between wealthy, powerful Jews and the pro-Israel policy stances of politicians, and those ideas must be challenged: the belief that the Jewish lobby is chiefly responsible for the U.S.’s continuing aid to Israel persists and should be challenged.

For this reason, left-wing activists have been right to raise the fact that it’s not just about the Benjamins. It’s about imperialism, Christian hegemony and politicians’ own honest-to-goodness racism, too.

But those conversations cannot happen responsibly unless and until we have actually cemented our solidarity with a Black and Muslim public figure being attacked for no reason other than the challenge she poses to white supremacy.

Antisemitism poses a real threat to Jews today, and when we “welcome” an apology that amounts to a concession to white supremacists and anti-Palestinian bigots, we foreclose on the possibility of an actual refinement of our movement’s analysis that might combat it.

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