ilhan omar

The Christian Right, Not AIPAC, Drives the GOP’s Pro-Israel Stance

Mike Pence speaking at an AIPAC conference. He wasn’t there for “the Benjamins.” Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In the latest incident pursuant to a House Republican campaign to paint Muslim-American Democratic members of Congress as being as objectionable as their own Steve King, Representative Ilhan Omar seems to have walked right into their trap. CNN explains:

Omar responded to a tweet by journalist Glenn Greenwald that reads, “GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy threatens punishment for @IlhanMN and @RashidaTlaib over their criticisms of Israel. It’s stunning how much time US political leaders spend defending a foreign nation even if it means attacking free speech rights of Americans.”

Omar replied, “It’s all about the Benjamins baby…”

This allusion to money led to this exchange with a writer for Forward:

The resulting firestorm has mostly been composed of critics from both parties accusing Omar of consciously promulgating the ancient smear of wealthy Jews buying influence, and some defenders suggesting she’s accurately describing AIPAC’s vast power.

I very recently defended Omar and her fellow Muslim representative, Rashida Tlaib, against McCarthy’s attacks, but I cannot countenance her attribution of pro-Israeli attitudes, within and beyond the Republican Party, to the “Jewish lobby,” however it’s defined. And while her remarks about AIPAC don’t necessarily show she’s anti-Semitic — some of AIPAC’s best friends have good reason to exaggerate its importance as well — she is playing into stereotypes that aid Republican efforts to suggest that any criticism of Bibi Netanyahu’s policies exist on a slippery slope that leads to passing around copies of Protocols of the Elders of Zion. She should not have gone there, because in fact there are much greater and simpler explanations for general and very specific pro-Israel attitudes in this country that bely the claim that it’s “all about the Benjamins.”

Generally speaking, Americans tend to be pro-Israel thanks to acute and widespread awareness of the Holocaust and of Jewish statelessness as one of the principal reasons the Holocaust occurred (you could contrast this, by the way, with the average Americans very limited awareness of Palestinian history). Beyond that, there is a very specific set of religious perspectives that make America more pro-Israel than similar but more secular countries; many Christians from various traditions have a bad conscience over many centuries of Christian anti-Semitism.

A particularly large and politically active group of conservative American Evangelical Christians, moreover, not only identify themselves with Jews thanks to a common scriptural legacy, but also place the State of Israel at the very center of their vision of global salvation. Indeed, many conservative Evangelicals believe that in consolidating their hold over a Greater Israel, the Jewish State is unwittingly setting the stage for the end of the world and the second coming of Jesus Christ. These conservative Evangelicals, who also don’t tend to be fond of Muslims, have become the single most important constituency in the Republican Party’s base, and that fact has more to do with the relatively recent GOP solidarity with a particularly aggressive strain of Zionism than all the AIPACs and all the Sheldon Adelsons you can name. And it would exist even if Jews were the poorest people on the planet.

This phenomenon is so well known that it has alarmed many strong supporters of Israel, as this 2018 piece from Forward noted:

Vice President Mike Pence’s on again, off again visit to Israel is apparently on again for next week, but the actual timing was never the real thing. Pence and other deeply conservative white Christian evangelicals now driving American policy toward Israel and the Palestinians are playing a very long game that extends far beyond one news cycle.

They are turning public support for Israel — which largely had been bipartisan and religiously pluralistic — into an effort propelled by members of one political party and one religious worldview.

Their belief that Jews, and only Jews, must rule over Jerusalem to herald the return of Jesus Christ influenced President Trump’s decision last December to reverse nearly seven decades of American foreign policy and recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Their absolute fealty toward Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and their antipathy toward the Palestinians are reflected in the itinerary for next week’s trip: Pence is not scheduled to meet with any Palestinian leader, the first time in decades for a top American official.

The idea that it’s “Jewish money” or “the Jewish lobby” or AIPAC that’s the main reason Republicans have moved in this direction is an absolutely ideal distraction from the real reasons, and one that furthers the argument that you have to choose between Netanyahu, settlements, and Greater Israel on the one hand, or anti-Semitism on the other. To the very limited degree that AIPAC really matters, it does not do so by deliberately alienating Democrats or insisting that any criticism of the current government of Israel or of the United States is rooted in anti-Semitism. This Republican party line, which I’d argue is as perilous for Israel as it is for Palestinians, comes from other sources. If Ilhan Omar understands that, she should make it clear before she inadvertently becomes a casualty in the war of anti-Muslim extremists against anyone seeking peace and justice in the Middle East.

Christian Right, Not AIPAC, Drives the GOP on Israel Policy