For the second time in as many months, freshmen Congresswoman Ilhan Omar found herself walking back a tweet that amplified some easily recognizable anti-Semitic tropes. From the moment she tweeted that for members of Congress defending Israel is “ all about the Benjamins” and then fingered AIPAC as the organization allegedly buying elected officials, it was clear to many that Omar was spreading classically anti-Semitic theories straight out of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion about moneyed Jews using their influence to subvert popular will in service of their own narrow interests. Clear to many but apparently not to Omar, who, following twenty four hours of increasing furor and rebukes from the Democratic House leadership and her rank and file colleagues, apologized and pled guilty to having been unaware that she was trafficking in some dark metonymy.
Omar is not the only one for whom some clarity would have been useful before she chose to take to Twitter without the requisite historical depth and sensitivity. The entire episode demonstrates that some clarity around issues of anti-Semitism, Israel, public discourse, and why public policy looks like it does is sorely lacking across the board. Between the defense of anti-Semitic comments as simply questioning Israel, the insistence that Omar must be intentionally dog whistling, the allegations that the big bad Israel lobby is shutting down discourse, and the arguments over who gets to define anti-Semitism and what constitutes an acceptable form of Judaism, the only thing that seems clear is that many people aren’t clear on how to talk about these issues.
First, it is important to establish up front that Omar was not criticizing Israel, no matter her intention. There are plenty of ways to criticize Israel, and I myself practice almost all of them. I have no problem with anyone who points out that Israel occupies the West Bank, that Israelis generally do not treat Palestinian nationalism with the requisite legitimacy that they demand others employ when encountering Zionism, that the Israeli government is adopting a set of nationalist and populist policies that call into question its commitment to classical liberal values, that Israeli officials too frequently use security arguments to wiggle out of uncomfortable questions that do not actually hinge on security, and that Israeli policies in the West Bank are predicated on a double standard that raise serious ethical problems. When Omar tweeted that money – and nothing else – is what drives officials to defend Israel, that is not criticizing Israel. It is criticizing Jews. It is criticizing American Jews for using their money in the service of a dual loyalty agenda and subverting the natural order of things, since it ignores the very obvious and myriad other factors that might lead someone to take a pro-Israel stance. I take Omar at face value when she says that she genuinely did not understand the implications of her tweets, but those were indeed the implications, just as the implications of Kevin McCarthy’s tweet warning that three billionaire Democrats – all of whom just happened to be Jewish – were buying elections was not merely the expression of concern over alleged Democratic malfeasance.
Second, a big part of the problem here is that people on the right and on the left have intentionally blurred the lines on Jewish issues and Israel issues. While this in no way absolves Omar for what is now a pattern of ugly and conspiratorial insinuations about supernatural and extraordinary Jewish power, I’m not surprised that anyone outside the Jewish community or the Israel policy sphere would fail to understand the nuances and codewords that are part of the standard vocabulary. People on both sides of the divide muddy the waters on what constitutes criticism of Jews versus what constitutes criticism of Israel since it is an effective tactic to describe all criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic and an equally effective tactic to describe anti-Semitic rhetoric as legitimate criticism of Israel. The Jewish community should not engage in or allow either, since irrespective of which one goes on, Jews end up on the losing end.
What follows from this is that there also needs to be greater clarity on the issue of Jewish influence and power, and the role of Jewish community organizations in amplifying those things and amplifying its support for Israel. Of course AIPAC is influential and powerful; not only is it nonsense to claim otherwise, but being influential and powerful is precisely the point. If AIPAC did not have the sway that it does, then it would not be properly doing its job, and there is no reason for anyone to apologize for or downplay that fundamental truth. And AIPAC is not alone in this regard; I have no qualms about pointing out that the American Jewish community is almost certainly the most influential minority community in the history of the U.S., and possibly in the history of the world. American Jews have worked hard to make it so, and have built a network of outward-facing institutions that protect this privileged position. There is nothing dark and nefarious about this, despite the most fervent fever dreams of anti-Semites that Jews are hidden puppet masters, and were I an American Muslim leader, I would be studying the history of American Jewry in an effort to replicate the same success and build similarly powerful institutions.
But it is also important to point out that American Jewish success and the power of groups that work to strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship rest heavily on the fact that Jews are a minority that are viewed by overwhelming majorities of Americans as being squarely within a (largely imaginary) shared Judeo-Christian tradition, and that Israel is enormously popular with Americans. The conspiracy theories about AIPAC and other Jewish or pro-Israel groups buying off politicians fall down at first glance because politicians don’t need to be bought off in order to support Israel. Most politicians and most Americans naturally view Israel as an ally and as worthy of support, so while the ability of the pro-Israel community to fund candidates is indeed powerful, this is nothing that even approaches an uphill battle. The fact that the pro-Israel community has this privileged position, built as a result of its own hard work but also resting on some abundant ideological resources that were already there, also means that not every threat needs to be viewed as an existential one and that bludgeoning people into accepting your position by force – by, for instance, passing laws that put someone’s job at risk for not signing a pledge of support for Israel – is the fastest way to put the natural advantage that the pro-Israel position enjoys at risk.
Finally, a few words on setting the terms of the debate and the right of self-definition. If the Omar tweet has clarified anything, it is that there is a growing group of progressives who not only want to separate Judaism from Zionism but who want to establish that non-Zionist Judaism is the best form of Judaism. I am proudly Jewish and proudly Zionist, and I see those two things as being intertwined in ways both good and bad. I recognize and respect the fact that not all Jews see things this way, and while I view Israel to be a critical part of my own Jewish identity, I have no problem with Jews who do not. What I do have a problem with is people loudly opining on why and how Zionism is antithetical to Judaism, why authentic Judaism is non-Zionist, and why the best sorts of Jews are non-Zionist Jews. There is a non-intentional type of anti-Semitism that is unfamiliar with dogwhistling tropes and the vernacular of Israel and Zionism, and then there is an intentional type of anti-Semitism that literally wants to make lists of good Jews and bad Jews based on how they relate to Israel. Criticize Israel all you like, but separate that criticism from a treatise on what type of Judaism is best or whether Israel has any role in Jewish identity, practice, and belief. The more that outside observers try and dictate how Jews should feel and think about the Jewish state if they want to be accepted into political or ideological communities, the more that minefields about anti-Semitism are going to become deeper and more widespread.