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What the mugging of Ilhan Omar teaches us


You know something’s rotten when the same statement can be treated either as the most ballyhooed anti-Semitic insult of the year, or as a comment too banal to be even worth mentioning — depending on who says it.

Yet that’s exactly the size of the so-called controversy over Ilhan Omar and her “AIPAC” tweets.

Let’s rehearse a bit of recent history. Last November, Electronic Intifada published a four-part documentary produced by Al Jazeera (but then suppressed by the network under American pressure) detailing the influence of the Israel lobby in the United States.

In one of the film’s typical segments, a lobby operative named David Ochs is seen bragging to an undercover reporter that the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) “makes a difference; it really, really does. It’s the best bang for your buck, and the networking is phenomenal.” Ochs then stresses how AIPAC keeps U.S. legislators in line by funneling cash to them: “Congressmen and senators don’t do anything unless you pressure them,” Ochs says. “And the only way to do that is with money.”

What was the public reaction to this linking of AIPAC-controlled cash with Congressional support for Israel?

Zero.

Less than three months later, Republican Congressional leader Kevin McCarthy threatened to take “action” against newly-installed Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib because the two upstarts had dared to criticize Israel, whose forces — in Gaza alone — had killed more than 200 unarmed protesters, dozens of them children, during the preceding year. (McCarthy was one of a group of Congressional bigwigs who openly endorsed Israel’s slaughter of hundreds of Palestinian civilians during Operation Protective Edge in 2014.) In response, Omar cheerfully tweeted the same thing Ochs had said earlier: Congress listens to money, and AIPAC delivers it. Or, as she put it: “It’s all about the Benjamins baby.”

The public reaction this time?

Outrage. Furor. Cries of anti-Semitism from across the mainstream political spectrum.

I hope you notice something wrong with that picture. And I don’t just mean the hypocrisy of the Right Thinkers who denounce Omar for saying something so well known — especially to members of Congress — that a lobbyist for Israel could boast about the same thing without raising a peep.

I want to emphasize a larger point. There really is a double standard about Israel in popular media — but it’s the precise opposite of the one the Right Thinkers claim to detect. If Omar had written that the largesse of Russian oligarchs may have influenced the Trump administration, or that Iranian funding matters to Hezbollah, or that Saudi petrodollars contribute to Mohammed bin Salman’s popularity in Washington, the media minders would have smiled indulgently on her. Only when someone writes something honest about Israel — or, as in Omar’s case, about the carrot-and-stick machinations of the Israel lobby — is she mugged by every American faux progressive with a Twitter platform.

That’s the main point to notice here. When it comes to Israel, all the ordinary rules of political discourse go by the board. When it comes to Israel, atrocities get a pass; and so do the propagandists and high-rolling donors who make sure they do. We can talk — according to the Right Thinkers, we must talk — about anti-Semitism, about Israel’s critics, about “the Left,” about when (if ever) the words “money” and “Israel” may appear in the same paragraph. But we must not talk about Israel’s crimes — nor about the powerful Americans who enable them. If we did, we might end up treating Israel like any other rogue state with an abominable human rights record.

Hence the instantaneous bullying of Rep. Omar for failing to single out Israel for special treatment. Hence the bullies’ iterations of pious intent as they solemnly lied in defense of atrocities. Nancy Pelosi, fresh from groveling cap in hand before Haim Saban — the billionaire Israel-booster who defended the IDF’s murder of journalists and civilian protesters by claiming they were really “terrorist[s]” in disguise — claimed to be offended by Omar’s “anti-Semitic tropes,” though Omar hadn’t written a syllable about Jews. Batya Ungar-Sargon — who, as opinion editor at Forward, might have had a comment about Israel’s systematic killing of Gaza protesters — instead chided Omar for “bad form.” The self-righteousness of the smear campaign was so infectious that one report, falsely claiming that Omar had complained of “rich Jews” in politics, approvingly described Omar’s media mugging as an “education.”

I don’t doubt that Omar is receiving an education. But what she’s learning isn’t what the Right Thinkers boast of teaching her. She’s learning that if you tell the simple truth about the Israel lobby, the righteous wrath of every powerful hypocrite in Washington (and elsewhere) will immediately descend on you. She’s learning that the word “anti-Semitic” doesn’t mean bigotry any more — it means whatever pro-Israel power brokers want it to mean. She’s learning that the Democratic Party can never do enough to defend the oppressors of Palestine, while it won’t lift a finger to end the vicious siege of Gaza, the mass murder of unarmed protesters, or the other continuing crimes of Israel’s occupation.

And she’s learning that so-called Jewish leaders and media elites, who obviously couldn’t care less about human rights, don’t even worry about the consequences of publicly linking the Jewish community with Israeli atrocities. That’s the widely-overlooked significance of Ungar-Sargon’s insistence that she scolded Omar — on a clearly specious charge of “anti-Semitism” — on behalf of all “American Jews.” What she and her cohorts are saying is that any criticism of a state engaged in apartheid, ethnic cleansing and massive violations of international law necessarily offends all American Jews. But that can only mean that all American Jews are apologists for crime. Surely that claim is anti-Semitic. Yet there’s so much posturing about fake “anti-Semitism” that nobody seems to notice that the bullies are trading in the genuine article.

And just look who’s helping them teach the solemn lesson that politicians are never, ever influenced by money! (At least, not if the money has anything to do with Israel.) There’s Chelsea Clinton, whose only claim to public stature is being the daughter of two pro-Israel apartheid enablers whose political whoring was notorious even by Washington standards. And, oh my goodness, there’s Donald Trump himself! — Trump, Sheldon Adelson’s bag man; Trump, who boasted that he had moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem despite receiving “so many phone calls from foreign leaders” warning of the bloodshed it would cause! Isn’t the Congresswoman lucky to have such educators so early in her career?

But while Ilhan Omar learns about the hypocrisy and bigotry of American public figures, we need to learn a lesson as well. We need to understand that the bullying of someone like Omar is intended to distract all of us from the two things that really matter: what Israel is doing, and what we can do to restrain it.

If we allow the apologists to obscure Israel’s crimes with a sideshow of phony outrage and hypocritical posturing, we’ll only encourage the mugging of the next person who dares to tell the truth about the real State of Israel.

2 Comments

  1. avatar
    Michael Lesher February 24, 2019 2:21 am 

    Thank you! I’m touched by your comment; I do hope this column is widely read.

    There’s a lot of excellent material on ZNet on a wide variety of issues. Hope you stay here.

  2. belakane February 21, 2019 3:06 pm 

    Best truth-telling article about Israel/AIPAC I’ve read (thanks to a friend who recommended it.) I am so glad to have subscribed immediately this AM and now I must be sure that “What the Mugging of Ilhan Omar Teaches Us” gets read far and wide.

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