Last week, Ilhan Omar said something insensitive about the Israel lobby. While explaining her frustration with the way allegations of anti-Semitism can be used to suppress “the broader debate of what is happening with Palestine,” the Democratic congresswoman said, “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.”
Many American Jews took exception to this remark. And not without reason. Omar’s intentions were ambiguous; it is not clear exactly whom she meant by “people,” or what she meant by “allegiance.” But one premise of anti-Semitic ideology in the U.S. is that American Jews’ primary loyalty is to Israel, not America (and that, since Jews illicitly control the political system, the federal government has adopted the same treasonous allegiance). By suggesting that it is not “okay” for American Zionists to “push for allegiance to a foreign country,” Omar evinced insensitivity about this trope.
Some progressives have defended Omar’s comments by insisting that she was not talking about Jews, but only about pro-Israel lobbyists — a group that includes no small number of Christian Zionists. And this is almost certainly true. I’ve seen no compelling evidence that Omar is an anti-Semite, rather than a critic of Israel who is (understandably) frustrated with the extraordinary power that Likud wields in D.C. But even if we interpret her remark with maximum generosity, it would still be a lousy sentiment.
It should be “okay” for Americans who want their country to have a close alliance with a foreign power to form political organizations that advance their views. The problem with AIPAC is not that it pushes American lawmakers to show deference to the interests of another country. The problem is that it pushes them to show deference to a country that practices de facto apartheid rule in much of the territory it controls. If there were a lobby pushing Congress to put the humanitarian needs of Bangladesh over the immediate economic interests of Americans — by imposing a steep carbon tax and drastically increasing foreign aid to that low-lying nation — would the left decry the idea that such lobbying was “okay?” Of course not. Because progressives aren’t hypernationalists. And I don’t think Omar is either. So she shouldn’t frame her opposition to the Israel lobby in nationalist terms. The problem isn’t Congress’s “allegiance to a foreign country,” but its complicity in Jewish supremacy in the West Bank, an inhuman blockade in Gaza, and discrimination against Arab-Israelis in Israel proper.
So, Omar said a needlessly tone-deaf sentence, and she should strive to avoid saying stuff like that in the future.
With that stipulated, let’s put this gaffe in its proper context. Speaking extemporaneously — in her second language — Omar (by all appearances, unintentionally) said some words that could be interpreted in an anti-Semitic fashion. Meanwhile, virtually all of her colleagues routinely say — in prepared remarks, as a matter of principle — that America should continue to abet the race-based oppression of Palestinians in Israel.
For over half a century now, Palestinians in the West Bank have been living under an illegal military occupation — one that provides their Jewish neighbors with the franchise and basic civil rights, while providing them with neither. In recent years, this de facto apartheid rule has been shading into the de jure variety. In 2017, the Israeli Knesset (i.e., parliament) enacted a law that instructs its army to confiscate privately owned Palestinian land, and transfer it to Israeli settlers. As Michael Sfard observed in the New York Review of Books, “This law is not only a naked sanction of land theft; it is also an unprecedented imposition of Knesset legislation on Palestinians who have no parliamentary representation.”
For over a decade, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have been living under an Israeli blockade that restricts their access to basic goods, their ability to fish for sardines (their fishing industry’s “most important catch”), and their capacity to export agricultural products. Israel justifies this blockade in the name of security, as Gaza is currently ruled by the terrorist group Hamas. In reality, many of the blockade’s most damaging provisions merely serve Israel’s parochial economic interests.
Speaking at AIPAC’s conference last year, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer suggested that Israel did not need to end any of these practices — because the Arabs wouldn’t make peace with the Jewish State, even if it did:
Now, some say there are some who argue the settlements are the reason there’s not peace … some say it’s the borders … Now, let me tell you why — my view, why we don’t have peace. Because the fact of the matter is that too many Palestinians and too many Arabs do not want any Jewish state in the Middle East. The view of Palestinians is simple, the Europeans treated the Jews badly culminating in the Holocaust and they gave them our land as compensation.
Of course, we say it’s our land, the Torah says it, but they don’t believe in the Torah. So that’s the reason there is not peace. They invent other reasons, but they do not believe in a Jewish state and that is why we, in America, must stand strong with Israel through thick and thin.
When Schumer says that America “must stand strong with Israel,” he means that it must block any and all efforts to liberate Palestinians from race-based oppression. When the Obama administration declined to veto a unanimous U.N. resolution condemning Israel’s illegal settlements in 2016, Schumer decried the move as “frustrating, disappointing and confounding.”
Schumer explicitly defended the indefinite subjugation of Palestinians in the West Bank, on the grounds that such Arabs will never accept the truth of the Torah. These remarks inspired no significant intraparty criticism, and he was easily reelected Senate Minority Leader last fall. Omar said a phrase similar to phrases that anti-Semites have used to rationalize ill-treatment of Jews in some historic contexts. Her remarks inspired bipartisan condemnation.
This disparity is enough to establish that Omar’s true offense — in the eyes of her party — was not evincing a bigoted attitude toward a vulnerable minority group. The Democratic leadership clearly has no problem with such bigotry, so long as it is directed at a minority like the Palestinians (i.e., one that lacks political power in the U.S.). As stated above, Omar remarks were, in my view, insensitive. But in the Washington Establishment’s view, her true sin is that her views on the Israel-Palestine conflict are not bigoted enough. Unlike the vast majority of her colleagues, Omar has the temerity to insist that Palestinians are full-fledged human beings, entitled to political freedom and equality before the law. This makes many Democratic donors (and voters) uncomfortable. And so, when she says something that could be plausibly interpreted in an anti-Semitic light, the Democratic leadership treats her momentary insensitivity as a terrible scandal. Resolutions get written. Solemn statements get released. Unintentionally telling tweets get posted.
As my colleagues Jonathan Chait observes, the substantive content of the Democratic Party’s resolution condemning Omar’s language about foreign allegiances is unobjectionable. But that does not mean that criticism of the resolution is unjustifiable. There are costs to selectively policing bigoted (or insensitive) speech. The Democratic Party’s decision to spotlight Omar’s moment of rhetorical insensitivity toward Zionists — while ignoring, or actively championing the oppression of Palestinians — distorts public understanding of the Israel-Palestine conflict. The party’s actions have the effect of casting Omar as the face of “extremism” on the Israel-Palestine issue, even though her official position — that any peace agreement must “affirm the safety and rights of both Palestinians and Israelis” — is more consistent with America’s purported values than almost any other lawmaker’s. Never mind that Chuck Schumer proudly defends Israel’s right to permanently disenfranchise Palestinians, as a means of protecting its ethnostate from the “demographic threat” posed by other people’s babies. Since Omar’s remarks attract bipartisan condemnation — while Schumer’s do not — it is Ilhan Omar who gets branded as “the Steve King of the left.”
Omar’s remarks about Zionists were insensitive and counterproductive. But her colleagues’ enthusiastic support for the subjugation of Palestinians is something much worse. And when we criticize the former — without acknowledging the latter — we do precisely what Omar feared; we suppress “the broader debate of what is happening with Palestine.”