Congress Must Listen to Ilhan Omar, and She Must Listen As Well

Congress Must Listen to Ilhan Omar, and She Must Listen As Well

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) is getting a lesson in speaking precisely when discussing the issue of Israel and Palestine.

Sunday night, the freshman congresswoman and one of two elected Muslims in the House, retweeted a Glenn Greenwald rant at House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) over the latter’s demand that Democrats discipline Omar and fellow representative Rashida Tlaib for what McCarthy perceived as anti-Israel comments. Omar added some of her own commentary:

For those who don’t know, “all about the Benjamins” is a reference to money (“Benjamins” is slang for $100 bills) from a Puff Daddy song released in 1997. While some read Omar’s tweet as an accurate criticism of lobbying in general, others read it as a slam at specifically Jewish donors spending money to lobby Congress into taking pro-Israel positions. She did little to change this perception a few minutes later, when she specifically said that AIPAC, the main pro-Israel lobby in America, was behind this money:

People can debate which reading of the first tweet is correct. But the fact that it is so open to interpretation is a problem. The view of Jews as using vast amounts of money to control governments is an anti-Semitic stereotype that has chased them out of one country after another for centuries. So when people complain that they – we – are too sensitive about perceived insults such as Omar’s, the response is that we have damn good reason to be.

Another issue here is with suggesting that Jewish money from AIPAC is exclusively behind the American government’s support for Israel. There are cultural and religious reasons why many Jews support the country, which is why many are often careful to separate their feelings about Israel and its right to exist from their feelings about the hard-right, nationalist aspirations of its government under current prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Plenty of Israel’s support in America also comes from evangelical Christians, who have their own, eschaton-related reasons for backing the nation. There are way more evangelicals in America than Jews, and they have enormous influence in Congress, particularly in the Republican Party. There are also hard-right Republicans who still cling to an ancient justification that Israel deserves unconditional support because it is the only Middle Eastern democracy.

The GOP’s positions are why no one — not Glenn Greenwald, Ilhan Omar, or anyone else — should take Kevin McCarthy’s criticisms seriously. He is in no position as the Minority Leader to do anything to Omar and Tlaib except make noise. He himself has deployed anti-Semitic stereotypes when he accused the billionaire George Soros, another Jew, of trying to buy American elections. His party is awash in such anti-Semitism that it has allowed it to fester.

Shoot, the Republican president spreads such tropes all the time, and has voiced support for neo-Nazis forcefully enough to cause jaws to drop everywhere outside of 4chan message boards.

Simply put, McCarthy is engaging in bad faith here. Democrats need to not take the bait. That the party’s congressional delegation and its leadership is doing so in this case is an enormous mistake.

None of this is to discount the influence that AIPAC does wield. They are a powerful lobby, much like the NRA or the pharmaceutical industry, just to name two other groups whose main causes result in widespread immiseration and death.

It also in no way should be used to discount the plight of the Palestinian people for whom Omar advocates. No doubt that this is an enormous issue in Muslim-American communities, and it should be a bigger issue within the Jewish diaspora as well. Those of us who would like to see Israel continue to exist know that the only way it does so while maintaining our support is by reaching an accommodation with the Palestinians. The other way, the direction it has pursued in recent decades with its policies of settler colonialism and confining Palestinians to ever-shrinking slices of heavily-policed land, is one that is too horrible to be allowed as part of the conversation.

Omar is in a position to have some influence here. It is great for Congress to have members who bring a point of view to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that challenges the long-held and entrenched notions that have kept the situation in a sort of stasis. Those who are counting on her need her to do better than, to use the argot of Twitter, being a shitposting edgelord vying for the approval of the likes of Glenn Greenwald. There is too much at stake.

It is not beyond the bounds of reasonableness to demand that she and the rest of the Democratic Party do better.

Gary Legum

Gary Legum

Gary Legum has written about politics and culture for Independent Journal Review, Salon, The Daily Beast, Wonkette, AlterNet and McSweeney's, among others. He currently lives in his native state of Virginia.