Ilhan Omar's Fight Isn't Over

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The immediate furor about Rep. Ilhan Omar’s tweet appears to be over, for now. The House Democratic leadership denounced the tweet, and she apologized for it.

There was genuine criticism of Omar even from some of her allies on the left. Unfortunately, any good dialogue that could have come from that was drowned out by the litany of bad-faith attacks from the likes of Republican House whip Steve Scalise—a man who reportedly once called himself “David Duke without the baggage” and admitted to having attended an event organized by white supremacists as a state representative—and GOP House leader Kevin McCarthy, a guy who just three months ago accused three Jewish billionaires of helping the Democrats “buy” the midterm elections. Joining the pile-on was Chelsea Clinton, with her own very questionably worded tweet.


What’s gotten obscured since Omar’s tweet, which she later clarified was a reference to the influence of the pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC, is what she was responding to in the first place. On Sunday, Haaretz reported that McCarthy was promising to take “action” not just against Omar, but Rep. Rashida Tlaib as well. These are, you will remember, the only two Muslim women ever elected to Congress. Why did McCarthy want to do this? Because of their criticism of Israel, apparently. Emphasis mine:

“If [Democratic leaders] do not take action I think you’ll see action from myself,” Kevin McCarthy of California, the minority leader, said according to Capitol Hill reporters writing for a number of newspapers. “This cannot sustain itself. It’s unacceptable in this country.”

McCarthy noted that he had recently taken action to isolate Republican Representative Steve King of Iowa, who has long associated with white supremacists. The precipitating event for McCarthy was when King wondered in an interview why terms like “white supremacy” were stigmatized.

Statements by freshmen Democrats Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota were equal to King’s and “more so”, McCarthy said. He did not say what action he might initiate against them.

It’s not clear what statements McCarthy particularly found offensive, but both lawmakers embrace the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting Israel, and both have been accused of tweets that cross the line to anti-Semitism: Tlaib in January when she appeared to accuse senators of dual loyalty for advancing a bill that would protect states penalizing commercial Israel boycotts; and Omar in 2012 when she said Israel was “hypnotizing” the world. Omar has in recent days apologized multiple times for that tweet.


With Omar’s response to this, and the Democratic leadership’s response to her response, McCarthy was able to kill two birds with one stone. First, he was able to shift the conversation away from the strain of white supremacy running through the very heart of the Republican Party, as evidenced by a GOP congressman who openly cavorts with European fascists and whom McCarthy was perfectly willing to let pop off for years despite the fact that he has been deeply stupid and deeply racist for quite a long time.

Second, McCarthy was able to reinforce the conflation of anti-Semitism with the BDS movement, and with criticism of Israel and its overbearing influence on American politics (a status it shares with, for instance, Saudi Arabia). This is a central goal of the D.C. foreign policy establishment: To so muddy the waters that it becomes impossible to tell real anti-Semitism from genuine opposition to Israel’s human rights record, its occupation of Palestinian land, and the lobbyist groups and big donors working to keep the American-Israeli relationship as smooth as possible.

America’s relationship with Israel—just like its relationship with any of its closest allies—cannot be reduced to money alone, but it’s plainly obvious to anyone paying attention that the pro-Israel lobby in the U.S. is one of the most powerful in the country. That’s not just because of individuals like Sheldon Adelson, who spent more money than anyone in the 2018 midterms—all on Republicans—after the Trump administration sabotaged the Iran deal and moved the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, two of Adelson’s key priorities.

It’s also because of AIPAC, which, through its lobbying efforts, has built and maintained a bipartisan coalition of support. As the Intercept reminded us last night, Electronic Intifada obtained and published a four-part undercover documentary on AIPAC produced and later killed by Al Jazeera in which an AIPAC ally described how the group works. Per the Intercept:

Without spending money, Ochs argues, the pro-Israel lobby isn’t able to enact its agenda. “Congressmen and senators don’t do anything unless you pressure them. They kick the can down the road, unless you pressure them, and the only way to do that is with money,” he explains.


In other words, AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups like J Street function the same as any other interest group in America: they identify likeminded lawmakers already inclined to support their goals, and provide incentives for those lawmakers to prioritize pro-Israel policy.

This is why Omar is so dangerous to anyone—in both parties—who wants things with Israel to stay the way they are. She presents an opportunity that’s rarely existed before in American politics, which is a chance at shifting the debate on the Israeli government, the apartheid it’s subjecting Palestinians to, and its influence on American politics. Because of that, and because of her faith (and her race, and her gender), Omar, along with Tlaib, is going to face unprecedented attacks. (Already, Omar has been harangued by a Republican colleague to denounce random assholes who leave him anti-Semitic voicemails.)


There is an understandable wariness some Jewish people have with implications about money and control—inadvertent or otherwise—and the absolute worst bad-faith actors will capitalize on any opportunity to throw the Minnesota congresswoman under the bus and smear her as an anti-Semite. But it is not anti-Semitic to criticize AIPAC, or the politicians it supports, or Israel’s continued apartheid policies, or Israel’s role in American politics. It’s not anti-Semitic to support BDS. The interests of Israel, or the right-wing, Trump-allied government running it right now, aren’t the same as the interests of every Jewish American, and to pretend otherwise suggests something that’s at least as nefarious as the most critical reading of Omar’s tweet.

To make an obvious prediction, this is not going to be the last time Omar is accused of anti-Semitism. Unfortunately, that means the onus is on her to spell out what she means every time so that nothing is left up to interpretation. To do so is asking an amount of discipline required of Omar—and Tlaib—that’s asked of exactly zero other politicians, not least of all the President of the United States. But even under this microscope, Congress’ only two Muslim women have the potential to be revolutionary figures in deconstructing American imperialism—and that’s the last thing Kevin McCarthy or any other right-wing politician in America wants.