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Why False Accusations of Anti-Semitism Against Ilhan Omar Are So Harmful
Bad-faith smears of Omar and many others are being used to crush Palestinian rights, undermine social movements and divert attention from real anti-Semitism.
False accusations aren't made equally against all critics of Israel and supporters of Palestinian rights.
People are right to be afraid of rising anti-Semitism in the United States. But too many of them are wrong about what it is and where it's coming from.
In the last two or three years, encouraged and legitimized by candidate and then President Donald Trump, anti-Semitism has been on the rise alongside virulent racism, extreme misogyny, xenophobia, Islamophobia and homophobia. Trump praised the “fine people” among the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and Nazi sympathizers who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017, chanting, “Jews will not replace us,” “White lives matter,” and “One people, one nation, end immigration.” One of those “fine people” used his car as a weapon to kill Heather Heyer and injure dozens more anti-racist protesters, and Trump thus gave the imprimatur of the White House to the most violent racist and anti-Semitic forces in the United States.
Just over a year later, another white, racist killer, angered, he said, by the congregation's support for the refugees and immigrants Trump has falsely targeted as rapists and murderers, attacked the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, murdering 11 Jewish worshipers and injuring at least six more.
Anti-Semitism and white supremacy
It is not surprising that the Charlottesville chants and the Pittsburgh shooter's stated motivations all linked anti-Semitism with racism and white supremacy. That's because modern anti-Semitism is rooted in white supremacy, despite the fact that in the United States, a majority of Jews are recognized as white. As cultural anthropologist C. Richard King described the Pittsburgh shooter's rationale, “It's not just that Jews are conspiring to destroy the world by manipulating the economy, although you did hear that narrative during the Great Recession. A newer type of conspiratorial thinking has grown in which Jews are using other racial groups to erode or destroy white America. That narrative is now happening around immigration.”
The KKK’s origins in the slave states of the United States in the 1800s did not reflect much concern about Jews: Enslaved Africans and freed Black residents were the primary victims of their murderous violence. But when the more-or-less defunct KKK re-emerged around 1915, Jews became a major target—and remained so for decades. While Jewish economic and political privilege and influence grew rapidly in the post-World War II era, anti-Semitism never entirely disappeared: Instead, it became a transactional prejudice, emerging more sharply at moments of social conflict when Jews were scapegoated for complex social challenges.
In the United States, anti-Semitism never reached the same universality, regularity or social destruction of slavery, anti-Black racism, genocide against Native peoples, or the internment of Japanese Americans. But it never entirely disappeared, either. Thus, the Charlottesville march of fascists, the Pittsburgh murders in the synagogue and other acts of violence can indisputably trace their lineage to long histories of anti-Jewish bigotry across the country. Anti-Semitism in the United States, including in its most violent forms, emerged directly from the broader category of white supremacy.
That's real anti-Semitism—and it's on the rise. The good news is that a wide range of communities have come together to defend and support the victims of this rising tide, understanding how anti-Semitism is linked to the parallel rise in white supremacy and all the evils that come from it. Among them are anti-racist and Black freedom movements, a plethora of Muslim and other faith-based organizations, immigrant and refugee rights mobilizations, Jewish peace and Palestinian rights-focused organizations and civil rights groups.
Real and fake anti-Semitism
The bad news is that false accusations of anti-Semitism—usually linked to criticism of Israel or Israel's supporters in the United States—are on the rise as well. And we need to be clear: It is not anti-Semitic to support Palestinian rights, demand a change in U.S. policy towards Israel, expose the kind of pressure that the pro-Israel lobby brings to bear on elected officials, or call out Israel's violations of human rights and international law. False accusations of anti-Semitism are used to undermine Palestinian rights, violate the First Amendment and demonize social movements. They also serve as a powerful diversion from the urgent task of combating the real thing.
False accusations aren't made equally against all critics of Israel and supporters of Palestinian rights. They are far more likely to be deployed against people of color, especially Black and Arab intellectuals, as we've recently seen with Marc Lamont Hill, who was fired by CNN following complaints about his Palestinian rights speech at the United Nations. Angela Davis was awarded the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute's prestigious Fred L. Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award in her hometown, only to have the award revoked because of her support for Palestinian rights (In response to massive public pressure, the Institute offered to renew the offer, but Davis instead chose to participate in a public event that included solidarity with Palestine). Michelle Alexander, whose extraordinary New York Times column rooted support for Palestinian rights squarely in the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., faced charges of “sneaky anti-Semitism.”
Most of all, at this moment, we see the targeting of some of the new cohort of amazing brave young women of color now in Congress for the first time. When Rep. Ilhan Omar (D.-Minn.) called out AIPAC and the Israel lobby earlier this month for using money to win support in Congress—as every lobby worth its donors does—she was not condemned and threatened just because of what she said, but because of who she is when she said it. She is a Somali-born former refugee, a Black Muslim woman who wears her hijab in the halls of Congress. And for some in Congress, in the White House and in the media and in too much of the country, such a person does not belong in Congress.
If Omar had written a formal statement instead of a tweet, if she had issued a serious analysis of how every lobby, including the pro-Israel lobby led by AIPAC, directs funds to ensure support from members of congress, rather than casually quoting the Puff Daddy line that it's “all about the benjamins, baby,” the response would have been the same. Because it's far more about who she is than what she said.
Roughly three weeks later, the congresswoman was again accused of anti-Semitism, this time for a phrase taken out of context from a town hall discussion in Washington, D.C. What she actually said was, “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is okay for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country. And I want to ask, Why is it ok for me to talk about the influence of the NRA, of fossil fuel industries, or Big Pharma, and not talk about a powerful lobby … that is influencing policy?”
She also faced accusations for tweets published on March 3 saying, “I am told everyday that I am anti-American if I am not pro-Israel. I find that to be problematic and I am not alone. I just happen to be willing to speak up on it and open myself to attacks … I should not be expected to have allegiance/pledge support to a foreign country in order to serve my country in Congress or serve on committee. The people of the 5th elected me to serve their interest.”
The worst aspect was that powerful members of her own party, rather than coming to her defense, led the attacks. Democratic Rep. Juan Vargas (D-Calif.) actually claimed Monday on Twitter that “questioning support for the U.S.-Israel relationship is unacceptable.”
The pro-Israel lobby
It's hardly news, let alone shocking, that AIPAC and the broader pro-Israel lobby it coordinates are among the most influential of Washington influence-peddlers. This is not only because of the millions of dollars in campaign contributions the lobby—which includes organizations like Christians United for Israel—spends every year. But also because, historically, the lobby's power has been braided into, and been strengthened by, its link to the decades-old strategic ties between U.S. and Israeli military, security, geo-political and nuclear goals. Those ties—between the Pentagon and the IDF, the CIA and the Mossad, Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump with their shared antagonism to Iran and eagerness to partner with Saudi Arabia—are all far more important in maintaining the Washington-Tel Aviv alliance than any embrace of Israel by the U.S. public.
The intersection of the lobby and militarized strategic interests have strengthened both over the years, even as one or the other rose to be more important. Starting in 1967 when the so-called “special relationship” between Washington and Tel Aviv took shape after the Pentagon decided that Israel's victory in the Six-Day War portended the beginning of a beautiful friendship, the strategic ties were most important. The lobby had been there since decades before the state of Israel was created in 1948, but it had never been all that influential on its own. At the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union was winning rising influence across the Arab world, and the United States was desperate to expand its competitiveness in the region. That meant access to oil, political and economic influence, arms sales, military presence and power projection.
Israel fit the bill, not least because the perception in official U.S. circles was that Israelis were white and western—and therefore assumed to be inherently more trustworthy than even the most subservient Arab allies. So the embrace began. The lobby suddenly appeared far stronger, since it was now pushing for a policy trajectory that matched the powerful forces in the Pentagon and military corporation boardrooms, also urging stronger ties, military aid, and massive arms sales to Israel.
With the end of the Cold War, suddenly Israel started to look like a strategic liability. George H.W. Bush's decision to go to war against Iraq had far less to do with concern over the international law violations inherent in the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait: It was primarily intended to reassert Washington's global hegemony after the collapse of its longtime superpower sparring partner. Part of that meant creating a visible Arab coalition to support the U.S. war against Baghdad—and, in that context, the close U.S.-Israeli military alliance was a political problem. So Bush ordered the Israeli military back to their barracks, and for the next decade or so it was the lobby's influence in Congress that made up for the somewhat decreased pressure from the Pentagon that insured continuity of U.S. military aid and sales to Tel Aviv.
With the September 11, 2001 and the immediate U.S. response of declaring a global war, the relationship flipped again. Netanyahu recognized it immediately. On the night of the attacks, when the New York Times asked him about the destruction of the Twin Towers, he immediately responded, ''It's very good.'' Then, perhaps realizing how that would sound, the Times described how he edited himself: ''Well, not very good, but it will generate immediate sympathy.” In the ideologically-driven Global War on Terror, Israel was once again a key military and political partner, and the push for stronger ties resumed from Washington's military and arms industry boardrooms.
That strategic relationship remains intact today, several presidents later, with the Obama-initiated, Trump-endorsed U.S. agreement to send $38 billion in military aid to Israel over ten years. That's $3.8 billion of U.S. tax money every year, directly to the Israeli military. And until 2016, Israel, unlike all other recipients of U.S. military aid which are required to spend all the funds purchasing U.S. military hardware, was allowed to spend a large chunk of its grant on its own military industry, helping to build it into one of the most advanced in the world.
Israel in U.S. politics
We should note that popular support for Israel, once considered unbreakable, non-partisan and eternal, has now emerged as none of those things. U.S. Jews, particularly young Jews and—most especially—young Democratic Jews, are turning away from Israel in higher numbers than ever seen before. Jewish Voice for Peace, which supports Palestinian rights and the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, is one of the fastest-growing Jewish organizations in the country, along with smaller groups of young Jews such as If Not Now, Bend the Arc, Open Hillel and more. And as Jewish communities' views are transformed, public opinion and public and media discourse are changing as well. Criticizing Israel is no longer political suicide, even if those inside the Washington DC bubble haven't yet realized that.
Perhaps a new flip is coming. This time, we may be seeing the beginnings of a diminishing influence of both the Israel lobby and the purported strategic value of the US-Israel ties in Congress. It won't happen overnight. But the work of the Palestinian rights movement in educating people in the United States about Washington's complicity in Israel's violations of human rights and international law, the increasing—albeit still limited—media coverage of those violations in mainstream U.S. outlets, the willingness of public figures to call for Palestinian rights and endorse the BDS movement, are all on the rise. There are moves in Congress, such as the decision of nearly 60 members of Congress to publicly skip Netanyahu's 2015 anti-Obama speech, and Rep. Betty McCollum's pending resolution to ensure that U.S. military aid does not enable Israel's juvenile military detention system.
And as the influence of the once-unchallengeable Israel lobby wanes, as Israel's supporters recognize how they're losing support among Jewish youth, there is certainly a desperate lashing out. Supporters of Palestinian rights, especially young student activists, are often at risk. Spokespeople of color continue to pay the highest price for their activism on this issue, including through the false accusation of anti-Semitism. But attacks are escalating right now precisely because the movement for Palestinian rights is winning the fight for public opinion. And, increasingly, that movement is linked to broader movements against racism, Islamophobia, xenophobia and anti-Semitism—and for women's, LGBTQ and environmental rights. Before too long, we'll be able to see the transition from discourse shift to real policy transformation on all these issues—and that will be the real victory.
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Phyllis Bennis is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. Her most recent book is the 2018 edition of Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.
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