The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Ilhan Omar controversy is a self-inflicted wound

The Fix’s Eugene Scott analyzes the thin line between criticizing Israel and being labeled anti-Semitic, after Rep. Ilhan Omar’s (D-Minn.) comments about AIPAC. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

The Post reports:

House Democrats argued acrimoniously Wednesday over whether to rebuke Rep. Ilhan Omar for alleged anti-Semitic remarks, forcing party leaders to confront a growing rift over race and religion that threatened to hamstring the newfound majority.
Omar (D-Minn.) suggested last week that Israel’s supporters have an “allegiance to a foreign country,” remarks that angered some Democrats who saw them as hateful tropes and pushed to condemn the freshman lawmaker. Her defenders argued that leadership was applying a double standard in singling out one of the two Muslim women in Congress.
In a closed-door Democratic caucus meeting Wednesday morning, lawmakers debated whether to vote on an anti-hate measure in response to Omar.

Let’s be clear. Omar did accuse Jews of dual loyalty, a common anti-Semitic trope, and also said the Israel lobby was too powerful. As to the second remark, it is not clear who is too powerful in Omar’s eyes. If she thinks the “Israel lobby” constitutes American Jews who act out of loyalty to a foreign country, she is simply doubling down on the anti-Semitism. If, however, she is saying that Israel, not American Jews, is too influential or powerful in American foreign policy, she’s wrong but within the bounds of civil discourse (more on that below).

This is her second strike (the first was her anti-Semitic association of Jews with money), and she has earned a rebuke for using the dual loyalty canard. Democrats who say “But President Trump..." need to avoid the whataboutism that eroded Republicans’ credibility and moral authority. Running to Omar’s defense simply because she is a progressive is reflective of the tribalism that has destroyed the GOP. (Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, predictably, was one of the first to do so.)

Criticism of Israel — or any country — is certainly legitimate. It’s perfectly acceptable to ask whether the Trump administration’s policies toward Israel — or again, any country — are appropriate. Questioning whether the pro-Israel lobby is “too powerful” can be, but isn’t necessarily, indicative of another anti-Semitic myth about all-powerful Jews. But mostly, it’s hugely wrong. Factually.

Follow Jennifer Rubin's opinionsFollow

The most important issue for Israel in decades was defeat of the Iran deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). But Israel did not succeed in blocking the deal. Moreover, the notion that critics opposed the deal because Israel told them to or only because it was bad for Israel is wrong and again infers dual loyalty. Opponents (including me) argued that the deal was bad for the United States. (Once it passed, I’ve made the case that it was bad for the United States to leave it because that would isolate us from our allies — which did happen — and didn’t address Iran’s non-nuclear conduct, for which we need not have exited the JCPOA. As I predicted, we still have no coherent Iran policy, Iran still runs amok, and we are weaker after breaking with our allies.) It’s also worth noting that compared with the Saudi lobby (which has the president and his family on a string), the Israel lobby is a weak sister.

We should be clear on the following: 1) Trump is bending over backward for Israel in order to satisfy his evangelical base, not Jews; 2) Evangelicals have religious, moral and geopolitical reasons for supporting Israel but don’t put loyalty to a foreign country over the United States; 3) The power of the Israel lobby is grossly exaggerated, as was seen in its total inability to counter the Obama administration’s frosty relationship with the Israeli government or block the JCPOA; 4) If you think the U.S.-Israel relationship is critical to the United States (as are the U.S.-British and the U.S.-South Korea relationships), you’d better worry if support for the relationship resides only in one party; 5) Republicans gleefully trying to accuse all Democrats of being anti-Israel are wrong, and, worse, risk hurting the U.S.-Israel relationship for the sake of scoring political points; and 6) By his conduct in joining forces with a racist right-wing party and in getting tangled up in a corruption investigation, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes it harder for Americans of all political views to support the democratic government of Israel. In courting Trump so assiduously and seeking American help to preserve his government, Netanyahu risks alienating the American left even further.

As for Omar, her comment about dual loyalty (at the very least the first part of her statement described above) deserves rebuke, as does the grotesque Islamophobia recently directed her way. Condemn both, Democrats, if you are smart, and disband the circular firing squad. There is zero upside for anyone other than Trump in dragging this out.

Read more:

Paul Waldman: The dishonest smearing of Ilhan Omar

Dana Milbank: Ilhan Omar is using President Trump’s playbook

Henry Olsen: Ilhan Omar is the Steve King of the left

Max Boot: Why Ilhan Omar’s botched interrogation of Elliott Abrams got just about everything wrong

Jackson Diehl: The Democrats have an Israel problem — and it’s not Ilhan Omar

Dana Milbank: Ilhan Omar’s tweets were appalling. What happened next was inspiring.