Deconstructing the Ilhan Omar controversy

As has been noted by several commentators, the Democratic Party is rupturing. But their refusal to directly condemn Ilhan Omar may be an indication that the Joe Biden and Chuck Schumer-type of corporate Democrats are on their way out. Their three-decade plus finding common ground with moderate Republicans has left America bereft of social mobility, exacerbated inequality, sent jobs oversees or to AI and stagnated wages. Equally troubling, it has pushed the country towards a far right xenophobic zeitgeist, in no small part due to worker precarity and economic blight, leading to the election of Donald Trump. 

Not only are the Green New Deal, Medicare for All and the erasure of student debt fracturing the Democratic Party, but now Israel, too. A case in point is the Anti-Hate Resolution in response to Ilhan Omar’s latest remarks critical of Israel:

I want to talk about the political influence in this country, that says it is ok for people to push for an allegiance to a foreign country. 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 lobbying group that is influencing policy.

When the Democratic Party refused to directly call out Omar in the Anti-Hate Resolution, President Donald Trump responded by alleging they had become an anti-Jewish party. Interestingly, following white nationalists’ 2017 march through University of Virginia in Charlottesville, declaring “Jews will not replace us,” Trump asserted that they there were very fine people among them. To recent Israel-related controversies Omar has found herself in, the West Virginia GOP has gone even further, associating Omar with the 9/11 attacks because she is Muslim. 

Many Democrats have also condemned Omar for alleged anti-Semitism. California Representative Juan Vargas claimed Omar was playing into anti-Semitic tropes. Democratic leader Chuck Schumer tweeted that Ilhan Omar’s anti-Semitic stereotypes have no place in American society. Florida Democrat Ted Deutch criticized the House’s Anti-Hate Resolution for not condemning anti-Semitism on its own, adding, “Jews control the world? Jews care only about money? Jews have dual loyalty and can’t be patriotic members of the country which they live? Words matter.”

On NPR’s On Point, long-time commentator Jack Beatty recollected the Dreyfuss case in late 19th century France as a context for understanding the putative anti-Semitism voiced by Omar. He added that it’s a “dangerous moment when the Democratic party can’t stand up and on its own…condemn this-this vile hatred.” On the same show, Mara Liasson, contributor to FoxNews and NPR, shot down a caller who complimented Omar’s courage in voicing strong criticism of Israel. Liasson maintained: 

That’s not what she [Omar] did. Yeah, I think it’s really-I think that there have been so many people, many, many Democrats in Congress who have done all the things that listener just listed: criticize the Israeli government, criticize their policies to the Palestinians, been vocal about this for years and years. That’s not what she did. She said supporters of Israel, individual people, I’m assuming she meant American Jews, have an allegiance to a foreign country.

Luckily for Liasson, she did not have to provide evidence of many, many Democrats’ strong criticism of Israel. 

On MSNBC, J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami and British journalist Mehdi Hassan offered a more sobering analysis. After discussing his mother’s fleeing the Nazis in 1938, Ben-Ami indicated that a discussion on hate should start with the U.S. president and the GOP. He followed by saying, “Let’s stop using the discussion of anti-Semitism as a way of avoiding a real discussion about policy towards Israel and Palestine and the issues that are actually on the table about occupation and treatment of the Palestinians.” 

Deconstructing Omar’s latest controversial comments, Hasan pointed out, “Let’s be clear: she [Omar] hasn’t said anything about Jews…she talked about supporters of Israel insisting that politicians in the U.S. show allegiance to Israel. And that’s kind of undeniable.” Switching over to Republicans’ condemnation of Omar, Hasan wittily added, “The idea that the Republican Party are going to give anyone lectures on anti-Semitism is like taking lectures on climate change from the Republican Party.”

As Mehdi Hassan accurately noted, Ilhan Omar’s condemnation of American politicians’ dual loyalty to Israel was not directed at Jews. So, who was she referring to? 

Being pro-Israel is a civil religion in the United States, particularly within Congress and the White House. Criticizing AIPAC, which gets its agenda from the Israeli government, is considered anti-Semitic. This has long-trickled down into the American public, where patriotism is often associated with being pro-Israel. While this civic religion has diminished by 5%, Americans remain partial towards Israel over Palestinians, at 59-21%; albeit, liberal Democrats are now only slightly more supportive of Israelis than Palestinians, at 41-38%. U.S. politicians remain far more supportive of Israel than the population, as illustrated in the U.S. Israel’s protection at the U.N., $3.8 billion a year in military assistance and failure to offer any impactful criticism of the occupation or treatment of Palestinians. 

AIPAC is a key ingredient to sustaining this civic religion and inconvertibly pro-Israel policy. As Jews comprise only 2% of the U.S. population and 6% of Congress, it is clear that the question of loyalty is not directed at Jews. Evangelicals, most ordinary Americans (98% of which is non-Jewish) and AIPAC offer blind support to support towards Israel. This blind support, in the face a vast human rights abuses, U.S. national interest and a half-century of occupation, inevitably raises questions of Americans’ loyalties. 

Omar’s comments have thrown a monkey wrench into the meaning of American nationalism, in which patriotism is equated with being pro-Israel. 

U.S. legislators’ loyalty to Israel not only affects U.S. policy towards Israel-Palestine, but Iran policy. In 2015, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu was invited into Congress to give a speech warning the U.S. against entering the Iran Nuclear Deal. It is hard to imagine any other world leader dictating to Congress how the U.S. should act towards another country. 

As usual, it paid off. 

After Trump withdrew from the Iran Nuclear Agreement, Netanyahu boasted that he had done the convincing. Certainly AIPAC, which had created the new group Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran to thwart the deal, had a hand Trump’s withdrawal. For, as former AIPAC employee M.J. Rosenberg asserts, AIPAC’s power over U.S. government is “literally awesome” – which is the same supposedly anti-Semitic assertion by Ilhan Omar. 

There is a tight censorship against strongly speaking out against the U.S.’s pro-Israel policy, which is invariably denounced as anti-Semitic. The anti-Semitic rationale for the anti-BDS laws in 27 U.S. states are just the icing on the cake. 

But there are many new progressive Democrats in Congress who are no longer willing to bow to the pro-Israel lobby. There is a fracture within the party, which Pelosi is desperately trying to hold together. In the coming days, especially when primary debates begin, the U.S.’s Israel policy will play a key role in determining whether the party veers towards the Joe Biden-corporate democrat wing or the progressive wing. 

Pelosi’s decision not to follow some Democratic Party stalwarts in condemning Omar may indeed be a boon for the progressives. 

It may also prove that Omar’s remarks are the start of a much-needed discussion on the U.S.’s blind support for Israel. 

Leave a comment