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American Jews shouldn’t let the right smear Ilhan Omar over a bad tweet

On Monday, the leadership of both the Democratic and Republican parties issued rebukes of Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), one of the first Muslim women elected to Congress, for a tweet she posted Sunday night in which she attempted to argue that the GOP’s support for Israel is “all about the Benjamins.”

Later, she issued a thoughtful apology, thanking her “Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of anti-Semitic tropes.” On Tuesday, President Donald Trump weighed in, criticizing Omar’s apology and calling on her to resign.

Reasonable people can disagree over whether Omar’s tweet was anti-Semitic. Personally, I thought it was too close to classic tropes about secret Jewish power for comfort. I know many Jews (though not all!) who felt the same. If we’re going to build authentic multiracial, interfaith solidarity, we need to be honest about instances of anti-Semitism on the left, even when they’re unintentional.

But the substance of her remarks was absolutely accurate. Omar’s comment was in response to a tweet by Glenn Greenwald, who mused, “It’s stunning how much time US political leaders spend defending a foreign nation even if it means attacking free speech rights of Americans.” When Forward editor Batya Ungar-Sargon asked Omar who she believes pays U.S. lawmakers to be pro-Israel, she responded, “AIPAC!”

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Indeed, pro-Israel lobbying groups like AIPAC have influenced politics for decades. AIPAC’s lobbying spending has only increased over the years, reaching upwards of $4 million in recent years, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. It’s harder to estimate AIPAC contributions outside formal channels, however. According to its website, AIPAC members receive perks by committing to donate to certain members of Congress. To earn membership in AIPAC’s “Congressional Club,” for instance, donors must give at least $5,000 per election cycle. The funds go towards putting the interests of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s defenders above those of the United States. And, in this way, AIPAC’s influence is similar to that of the Saudi government, fossil fuel CEOs, and big banks. 

For too long, Democrats and Republicans have supported Israel’s deepening occupation in the West Bank and Gaza and the deterioration of rights and equality in Israel proper. Israel cannot claim to be a democracy while it controls the lives of 4 million people who have no rights, or when non-Jewish citizens of Israel are legally considered second class. American politicians of both parties have been afraid to criticize apartheid in Israel and occupation in Palestine for fear of angering pro-Israel lobbying groups and right-wing Evangelical supporters of Israel.

While doing little to temper the anti-Semitism within their own party, GOP leaders came out hard against Omar. As a working class, black Muslim woman and as the first refugee in Congress who threatens the 1 percent and the status quo, Omar served as the perfect distraction from the GOP’s own harmful policies. And if the Democratic leadership wanted to prove AIPAC has disproportionate influence in Congress, they couldn’t have done a better job than by issuing a joint statement about a single bad tweet.

Omar is the kind of leader America — and the American Jewish community — needs in this historical moment, as we combat the rise of fascism. She’s fighting back against Islamophobia, racism, misogyny, and the power of the right-wing Jewish lobby. Progressive Jews need to stand with her against those attacks.

The real threat to American Jews doesn’t come from poorly worded tweets from women of color who criticize Netanyahu and his American allies. The threat to American Jews comes from the growing white nationalist movement that reared its ugly head in Pittsburgh and Charlottesville and put a Nazi sympathizer in the White House.

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Trump is a self-identified nationalist who rode a wave of racist backlash all the way to White House. But instead of pushing back against Trump’s ethno-nationalist impulses, Republicans in Congress have largely moved in his direction.

Just as the president and his allies on the right have used blatant anti-black, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment to rally his base, they have also used anti-Semitism to motivate their voters and attempt to discredit progressives.

In the lead up to the midterm elections, they repeated the lie that billionaire philanthropist George Soros was behind the migrant caravan making its way through Central America — the same conspiracy theory that later inspired the Pittsburgh shooter to target a synagogue last October. The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) sent out a series of mailers attacking Jewish Democratic candidates as being money-grubbing. And Iowa Rep. Steve King has been allowed to serve as a Republican member in Congress for years — even after meeting with Nazi affiliated parties in Europe — without any problems.

Anti-Semitism seeks to blame the failures of capitalism and the political establishment on Jews, instead of the financial elite and the ruling class. It is cyclical and often latent; it tends to lie dormant and then reappear in times of crisis when the governing powers have become unpopular. Jews are often given a degree of wealth and status, which then gets used against them in moments of unrest. We’re currently living in one of those moments — global anti-Semitism is on the rise, just as it was in the 1930s, when capitalism produced inequality on a massive scale. This is why Jews need to stand with leaders fighting to address the underlying crises, not the status quo.

The right will always use Israel and anti-Semitism as a tool to destroy left-wing movements, especially when they’re led by people of color. This is not to say there is no anti-Semitism on the left: there is, and where it exists, we must confront it and take it seriously. I hope my friends on the left will keep their hearts and minds open to Jewish comrades who share good faith criticisms and concerns. But it’s also not a coincidence that accusations of anti-Semitism, though often valid, have been wielded against black- and immigrant-led activist groups like Dream Defenders, Black Lives Matter, and the Women’s March, and now, against both Muslim women in Congress, Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI). These accusations often serve as a diversion from the more real threats from the right. 

American Jews can’t allow ourselves to be used as a wedge by fascists against the rising power of working people and women of color. The Democratic Party is shifting from being a party that’s led by white men affiliated with Wall Street toward a party that’s led by working class women of color who are taking on the 1 percent. Part of that transition means moving from mindless support for right-wing Israeli governments toward fighting for Palestinian liberation. Fighting fascism doesn’t just mean fighting Trump, but requires us to support leaders who will structurally transform our politics and our economy.

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We need to stand with leaders like Omar who are at the forefront of that transformation. It’s their leadership that will make America belong to all of us, not just the billionaires and their white nationalist allies. Omar shares our values: she is committed to fighting for freedom and equality for all. American Jews can’t throw her under the bus for criticizing AIPAC, or for making a bad tweet.

Max Berger is a political organizer and consultant in Brooklyn, New York. He is a co-founder of IfNotNow, an American Jewish movement to end support for the occupation.

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