Reframing Israel in Washington politics: The Ilhan Omar controversy has never been about anti-Semitism

Jatin Dasgupta

Last month, freshman congresswoman Ilhan Omar, of Minnesota’s 5th District, ignited widespread controversy for two tweets, one in which she insinuated Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s desire to take action against herself and colleague Rashida Tlaib for their critical positions on Israel was “all about the Benjamins,” and the second in which she said that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) money was behind Republicans such as McCarthy’s hawkish support for Israel. Condemnation across the board, including a call from the President of the United States to resign, followed immediately, and the controversy is still playing itself out now, a month later. 

Critics insist that Ilhan Omar’s classification of AIPAC as a lobbying organization that uses money to influence the course of politics plays into the anti-Semitic notion that the Jewish community engages in a shadowy plot to control the world through its prodigious wealth. This is very interesting, considering a lobbying organization is precisely what AIPAC is legally classified as, and to call this fact an anti-Semitic smear is to engage in a denial of reality that raises the question of why AIPAC exists in the first place, if not to lobby. Calling Omar’s claim an anti-Semitic lie also clashes with the words of some prominent AIPAC officials and allies, such as David Ochs and Eric Gallagher, who have been recorded bragging about AIPAC’s use of lobbying money to influence congressional policy on Israel

Omar has indeed committed a grave sin in the world of Washington politics, and it is not the sin of anti-Semitism, which is hardly groundbreaking at all, with a White House that lead a prayer for massacred Jews in Pittsburgh alongside an organization dedicated to the destruction of Judaism, a prominent presidential candidate of the 2016 cycle insinuating another was unfit to be the Republican nominee because of his Jewish cultural influences, a congressman with ties to neo-Nazis, another congressman with ties to neo-Nazis, a congressman who is an open Neo-nazi, and a political establishment that insists criticism of Israel is the same thing as anti-Semitism, which many Jews find deeply offensive in and of itself.

The actual sin Omar has committed is acknowledging the racial apartheid and oppression that is a constant of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians, an untouchable topic in Washington D.C., where, in the exact words of Rep. Juan Vargas, “questioning support for the U.S.-Israel relationship is unacceptable.” The sanctity of Israel to the American foreign policy establishment, which is generated in part because of a cynical insistence that “the Middle East’s only democracy” established as an essentially Anglo-American settler colony to ensure a strategic outpost in the region, must be defended at all costs, and in part because of widespread belief in its important role in a divine apocalyptic prophecy, is one of the worst taboos to break in American politics – far worse, as we’ve seen, than actual racism – and Omar is paying the price for it. This price is all the more amplified by the sick and bigoted desire to see a Black Muslim woman put in her place for questioning the political status quo, as criticism of her has been peppered with subtle racism like using the language of “Americanness” (Ilhan is an American), to outright Islamophobic links to terrorism.

It is evidence of an outrageous double standard that such vitriol has been targeted at Omar, including a presidential call to resign, when not even half the institutional outrage has been directed at nationally profiled figures like Paul LePage, Tom Cotton, Steve Scalise, Ron DeSantis and dozens upon dozens of others in this country almost explicitly run by white supremacists. The reason is clear: Ilhan Omar is an outspoken Black Muslim woman who has unapologetically stood up for the rights of the Palestinian people. In the world of the political elite, it is unclear which is worse. 

Jatin Dasgupta ’20 is an English major from McLean, Va.