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The Democratic Party Has Failed Ilhan Omar

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. (J. Scott Applewhite / AP)

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is reportedly still considering a symbolic “show vote” in Congress on an anti-Semitism and “hate” resolution—which would offer all the authenticity and honesty of a Soviet show trial. If she proceeds, it will prove Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar’s point about the inordinate influence wielded over Congress by the “Israel-right or-wrong”/AIPAC lobby and its power to stifle criticism of Israel.

The resolution was originated by two New York Democrats who are among Congress’s most longstanding pro-Israel diehards: Eliot Engel and Nita Lowey. Both endorsed  George W. Bush’s Iraq invasion. Both opposed Barack Obama’s Iran nuclear deal. Both supported Donald Trump’s move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.

I’m a proud Jew who was raised in a liberal family that supported civil rights and human rights. My experience growing up during the 1950s and 1960s was typical of many Jewish Americans. Like many Jews with this background, I’ve grown increasingly ashamed of Israel.

For 40 years, Israel has been ruled mostly by a series of right-wing governments—more and more openly racist and abusive of Palestinian rights. It’s not the land of tree-planting, kibbutzim and “a country treating its Arab minority nicely” that we were sold as youngsters.

That’s why a large number of proud Jewish Americans—raised to believe in civil liberties and open discussion—are appalled by the campaign to muzzle Omar, as well as Pelosi’s role in it. We’re also appalled that human rights-abusing Israel is virtually off-limits to debate.

Most Jews—the likes of Trump adviser Stephen Miller and Jared Kushner excepted—empathize with the refugee experience. Only a rare few cannot be impressed by the life story of Omar, who fled civil war-torn Somalia and came to the U.S. as a refugee at age 12, knowing only two English phrases: “hello” and “shut up.” Now a Muslim congresswoman, she’s recently faced hateful bias and threats.

Omar has made a simple and undeniable point—that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the funding it influences exert extraordinary power over Congress. Disputing that point is flat-earther terrain. The Capitol Hill farce of an “anti-hate” resolution would provide still more evidence on behalf of her argument.

Unfortunately, all the vague media references to Omar’s “anti-Semitic remarks” obscure how truthful and nonhateful those comments were. You can see a series of her recent tweets here.

Progressive Jews are rushing to her defense because of tweets like this one that speak for us in a way few members of Congress ever have:  “Being opposed to Netanyahu and the occupation is not the same as being anti-Semitic. I am grateful to the many Jewish allies who have spoken out and said the same.”

In his Washington Post column titled, “The dishonest smearing of Ilhan Omar,” Paul Waldman devastatingly countered the recent attack on Omar over her comment at a town hall: “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is okay for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country.”

The initial media frenzy in February over two of Omar’s tweets was so huge that it obscured the fact that the uproar was sparked by a total of seven words—and six of those words are the refrain of a famous Puff Daddy song.

It began when Omar retweeted journalist Glenn Greenwald’s comment about GOP congressional leader Kevin McCarthy’s “attacking the free speech rights” of Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaib for criticizing Israel—to which Omar, a known critic of money in politics, simply added the Puff Daddy refrain:  “It’s all about the Benjamins, baby.” (Benjamins refer to $100 bills.) When a tweeter asked her who Omar thinks is funding politicians to defend Israel, she responded with a one-word tweet: “AIPAC!”

The feeding frenzy over these two flippant but truthful tweets forced Omar to apologize (something Trump has not been forced to do over hundreds of dishonest, racist and/or threatening tweets).

Yet, if you spend a day on Capitol Hill and talk (off-the-record) with a member of Congress about this topic, you’ll hear plenty about AIPAC’s awesome clout and its ability to unleash “Benjamins”  to bully Congress.  Books and articles have documented this truism.

According to The New York Times, AIPAC allies now want to oust Omar from Congress and hope to “punish Ms. Omar … with a primary challenge in 2020.”

When the well-funded Israel-right-or-wrong lobby comes after her, we’ll likely see a massive countermovement of progressive Jews and non-Jews “Standing with Omar”—and, through the internet, matching the other side Benjamin for Benjamin.

Jeff Cohen
Jeff Cohen is director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College. He co-founded the online activism group RootsAction.org in 2011 and founded the media watch group FAIR in 1986. He…
Jeff Cohen

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