Politics

Ilhan Omar’s Anti-Semitic Tweet and the American Left

[Read: Are Jews white?]

Perhaps even more than Omar’s original comments, this exchange illuminates how extreme the debate on Israel and Palestine has become. Prominent journalists and activists on the left, including Greenwald, claim that any criticism of Israel is shut down as anti-Semitic, and that American politicians overwhelmingly support Israel because of the powerful influence of political donors. Their criticisms are not entirely baseless. The U.S. Senate recently passed a bill that would encourage states not to partner with supporters of BDS, or boycotts, divestment, and sanctions, the movement that promotes total financial separation from Israel. Some, including Democratic candidates for president such as Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, and Kamala Harris, see this legislation as a threat to free speech. And there are prominent activists and donors in both parties, including favorite targets of liberals like Sheldon Adelson, who are motivated by their support for Israel.

The problem with Omar’s comment is that it leaves the impression she sees Jewish money, and Jewish money alone, as the explanation for why politicians support Israel. U.S. political leaders, along with many Americans, back Israel for an enormous range of cultural, religious, historic, and security-related reasons. Many American Jews support Israel, but their views are complicated and diverse. And they are joined in this by many non-Jews, including, notably, politically powerful evangelical voters.

[Read: Why do black activists care about Palestine?]

It is not accurate to state that AIPAC pays politicians for their pro-Israel votes, for the basic reason that AIPAC is not a Political Action Committee that donates to individual politicians. But even her apology, which grouped AIPAC with other “problematic…lobbyists” like “the NRA, or the fossil-fuel industry,” offers a reductive way of understanding politics. What gives groups like the NRA or AIPAC clout on Capitol Hill are the supporters who stand behind them, and their passion for the issues these groups champion.

That Omar has become the face of anti-Israel sentiment on the American left in a short space of time is most frustrating of all for activists and advocacy groups who wish for more nuanced conversations and policies on Israel and Palestine. Especially on the left, there is a hunger for this kind of conversation: According to a 2018 Pew Research Center survey, less than a third of self-identified Democrats say they’re more sympathetic to Israel than to Palestinians, and yet the vast majority of Democratic politicians in Washington are staunchly pro-Israel.

Groups like J Street, which lobbies in Congress for a two-state solution, have defended Omar and Tlaib in the past, and their cause is set back in the wake of comments like these. “J Street is dismayed and frustrated by the ongoing war of words” over this issue, the organization said in a statement on Monday. “This pattern of overheated, ill-considered, and reductive attacks … has failed to address these issues with the nuance, sensitivity, and seriousness that they deserve.” Young Jewish activists, including groups like If Not Now, have called on Jewish institutions to push back against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. In this highly fractured and fraught debate, however, extreme voices and provocative comments tend to find the most airtime, and outrage wins the day.

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