Earlier this month, Representative Ilhan Omar tweeted, “It’s all about the Benjamins, baby!” in response to a report about AIPAC, a pro-Israel organization. Omar’s tweet echoed a longstanding anti-Semitic trope — in particular, the implication that Jewish political influence operates entirely (“all about”) through money.
After wide condemnation, Omar apologized. It seemed fair to read her tweet generously: Perhaps she was not familiar with the particular vein of anti-Semitism she happened to echo. Indeed, progressives often make crudely reductive statements about the influence of money in supporting policies they oppose (to wit: everything Bernie Sanders says), so it wasn’t necessarily anti-Semitic for Omar to extend that thinking to Jews. Her apparently sincere apology seemed to set to rest a minor offense.
But at an event last night, Omar went much farther, reports Laura Kelly. After an audience member shouted out, “It’s all about the Benjamins,” at which, according to Kelly’s reporting, she smiled. (Jeremy Slevin, Omar’s press secretary and strategist, denies she acknowledged that line from the audience.) Later she stated, “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is okay to push for allegiance to a foreign country.”
This is much worse. Accusing Jews of “allegiance to a foreign country” is a historically classic way of delegitimizing their participation in the political system. Whether or not the foreign policy agenda endorsed by American supporters of Israel is wise or humane, it is a legitimate expression of their political rights as American citizens. To believe in a strong American alliance with Israel (or Canada, or the United Kingdom, or any other country) is not the same thing as giving one’s allegiance to that country. Omar is directly invoking the hoary myth of dual loyalty, in which the Americanness of Jews is inherently suspect, and their political participation must be contingent upon proving their patriotism.
Of course, she is attempting to couch her position as a defense of free speech, and against a tendency to reflexively dismiss all criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic. And it’s certainly true that many Israel hawks do label criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic without a good basis to do so. There should be more space in American politics to advocate criticism of Israel and support for Palestinian rights.
But Omar is using that cause to smuggle in ugly stereotypes. And whatever presumption of good faith she deserved last time should be gone now.
This post has been updated.