It was only a matter of time before President Trump, passionately opposed as he is to any stereotyping or insults based on race or religion, would attack Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) over an ill-considered tweet. Earlier this week, Trump said he thinks Omar should resign from Congress.
But what this whole episode has mostly revealed is how insanely narrow the debate over the subject of Israel is in Washington.
In fact, you can’t call it a “debate” at all, which is precisely the problem Omar was trying to highlight when she tweeted that members of Congress support Israel because of contributions from the America Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC. In one way, it’s a mundane observation of the kind that is common: We regularly describe members of Congress as being bought by the National Rifle Association, or the tobacco companies, or the oil companies. On the other hand, as Omar found out, one has to be careful about making claims that play into stereotypes, and the stereotype about Jews using money to control the world is one of the most pernicious there is.
But it is awfully rich to hear criticism of Omar coming from Trump, a man who, as a presidential candidate, went before a group of Republican Jews and dropped a load of anti-Semitic stereotypes on them (“You’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money. . . . Is there anyone in this room who doesn’t negotiate deals? Probably more than any room I’ve ever spoken.”); a man who retweeted a picture of Hillary Clinton over a pile of money with a Star of David on top of it; a man who calls neo-Nazis “very fine people” and seems to have the enthusiastic support of pretty much all of the United States’ white supremacists.
None of that is news. We all know Trump is a bigot who is never constrained by shame from such displays of hypocrisy. Omar apologized for the tweets, as she should have, but what’s most important about this episode is the fury that came down on her head so quickly — from both Republicans and Democrats.
It should be noted that Omar wasn’t really accurate in describing support in Congress for current Israeli policy as being a result of money from AIPAC. First, AIPAC doesn’t directly give donations, though it has long used its ability to direct donations to help its friends and punish its enemies. But as Ed Kilgore noted for New York magazine, these days, it is the Christian right much more than Jews that is driving U.S. policy on Israel; I once described it with only slight hyperbole as a “world of post-Jewish Zionism, where Israel’s most vehement advocates are people who see it mostly as a tool to use in a holy war between Christianity and Islam.”
So it is fundamentalist Christians — represented most visibly by people such as former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who leads tours to Israel, or Sarah Palin, who displayed an Israeli flag in her office while she was governor of Alaska — who are Israel’s strongest advocates. The majority of American Jews are liberals who support a two-state solution, something both the Netanyahu and Trump governments have abandoned. And yet, even Democrats in Congress feel that when a freshman member of their party criticizes the United States’ relationship with Israel, they have to come down on her like a ton of bricks.
But I think what made members of Congress come down on Omar so hard wasn’t just that she was criticizing the relationship between the United States and Israel, or even the unfortunate way she did it. It’s also that she was criticizing Congress itself, and how it treats Israel.
And the reaction proved the point. In Congress, there has been more discussion about Omar’s tweets over the last 48 hours than there has been genuine debate about the United States’ policy vis-a-vis Israel over the last 10 years.
There are things we might ask if we actually had such a debate, about whether the Israeli government should be punished for its aggressive settlement policy, whether it actually needs the billions of dollars in military aid we send them each year, or even what the United States gets out of this alliance in a post-Cold War world. There are a variety of answers one might offer to those questions, but they don’t get asked, at least not in Congress.
And make no mistake, that’s precisely the goal of AIPAC and its allies. The group is not “the Israel lobby” as it is often characterized; it’s the Likud lobby, representing the interests of the Israeli right wing in general, and the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in particular. Just as any lobby, it achieves its greatest success when it moves questions related to its interests outside the realm of debate, to a point in which any questioning of the status quo is considered so radical that it need not even be considered.
This isn’t unique to AIPAC; lots of lobbies do it. For years, the NRA’s great success was not in defeating gun control legislation but in making sure no such legislation was even considered, so great was the group’s power assumed to be. Less influential lobbies wish members of Congress feared them the way they do AIPAC and the NRA.
One of the consequences of the arrival of a new generation of representatives is that some of them don’t accept the idea that they aren’t allowed to criticize the Israeli government, or the influence it wields among their colleagues. Ilhan Omar learned that she has to be more careful about how she presents that criticism. But she shouldn’t stop raising the issue, and others shouldn’t be scared away from joining her by the way she was smacked down this time around.