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How U.S. politicians use charges of anti-Semitism as a weapon

The lawmakers attacking Rep. Ilhan Omar care about scoring points, not protecting Jews.

Some of the loudest voices condemning Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) have espoused anti-Semitic imagery and stereotypes in the past themselves. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)
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Less than 24 hours after Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) sent out tweets implying that AIPAC pays off American politicians to defend Israel, she had already apologized, in response to a swift rebuke from House Democratic leaders. Just like that.

Her initial remark that Republican attacks on her for criticizing Israel were “all about the Benjamins baby” did not strike me as anti-Semitic (unlike her 2012 tweet on how Israel “hypnotized” the world, which did). It read that way to others, though, which Omar stressed on Monday wasn’t her intention; she thanked “Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of anti-Semitic tropes,” such as the notion of powerful Jews using money to get their way that some people thought her tweet played on. Omar did not actually call out Jews, only AIPAC — which does not define itself as a Jewish lobby — but her critics immediately translated it into “Jewish money.” AIPAC even went so far as to send an email Tuesday using Omar to raise money: The message said Omar suggested that the “U.S. government supports Israel only because of Jewish money,” and then proceeded to ask for money.

But the wider frenzy betrayed the cynical ways that charges of anti-Semitism and claims to be standing up for Israel are so often wielded by U.S. politicians — especially, but not exclusively, by Republicans. Israel, and by extension Israelis and American Jews, gets used as a wedge by pretty much anyone who chooses to pick up the cause in service of their own political agendas. The ironic result, for a fight about anti-Semitism, is that Jews are treated simply as a monolithic object, as a group that’s somehow different from other American ethnic or religious minorities.

Some of the loudest voices condemning Omar on Monday have espoused anti-Semitic imagery and stereotypes in the past themselves. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) called for the chamber to penalize Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) for supporting the movement to boycott Israel over its treatment of Palestinians. But last October, he tweeted a nefarious-looking image of Jewish liberal billionaire George Soros, saying “we cannot allow” Soros and two other rich Jewish Democrats, Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg, to “BUY this election!” He deleted the tweet, but never apologized. President Trump, who said Tuesday that Omar should resign from Congress, ran his own ad in 2016 featuring a menacing Soros, along with Goldman Sachs chief executive Lloyd Blankfein and then-Federal Reserve chair Janet L. Yellen, also both Jewish. He told a gathering of Jewish Republicans in 2015 that “I don’t want your money, so therefore, you’re probably not going to support me,” and “you want to control your own politician.” As president, he told a room full of American Jews at the White House in December that Israel is “your country.” He has yet to apologize for any of that.

The false comfort of Trump's condemnation of anti-Semitism

To Trump and his allies, though, challenging Israel’s right-wing government is the real anti-Semitism. A slew of organizations, not all of them even run by Jews, push the idea that supporting the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement is anti-Semitic — including AIPAC. Other parts of the pro-Israel lobby push the issue more aggressively, such as Stand With Us, which endorses the argument that BDS is linked to terrorism; Canary Mission, an anonymous blacklist site dedicated to smearing; the American Jewish Committee, which has criticized Tlaib for being Palestinian; and Christians United for Israel, which is a Zionist group founded on an inherently anti-Semitic theology.

That is the underbelly of legislation that Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) recently championed that would help states ban contracts with people or organizations who advocate boycotting Israel. Rubio claimed opponents of the bill were “anti-Israel” and that boycotts are “discriminatory” against it. Republicans weren’t the only supporters of the measure, either; Democrats voted for it in large numbers, too. And their leaders — such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), who pushed Omar to apologize, or Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) — have adopted the Israeli talking point that BDS is anti-Semitic.

This is exactly the problem.

Politicians claim to be speaking on behalf of Israelis because they get support from the Israeli right, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and its proxies in the United States. Netanyahu helped turn Israel into a wedge issue during the Obama administration, when he all but endorsed Mitt Romney for president and addressed Congress in direct opposition to Obama’s Iran deal. AIPAC, whose ostensible mission is to “strengthen, protect and promote the U.S.-Israel relationship in ways that enhance the security” of both nations, by definition makes Israel exceptional. Its lobbying has ensured that Israel receives more foreign aid than any other country and that it remains the strongest military power in the Middle East. But it does so by bolstering the lawmakers that toe that line and ruining the careers of those that don’t.

And by now, many in Washington have come to embrace a consensus that being a good American means supporting Israel — regardless of its human rights violations or democratic record.

Pretending that Israel is the major concern for all Jews — and that anyone who criticizes its policies is engaging in anti-Semitism — is itself a form of scapegoating, a classic anti-Semitic trope. By toeing the nationalist policies set by the Israeli right, American politicians indicate that your position on Israel defines who you are and, especially, what you think of Jews.

How to tell when criticism of Israel is — and isn't — actually anti-Semitism

That logic is now pitting support for Israel directly against free speech and the right to boycott in the United States. That is a very dangerous position for Israelis, and for American Jews.

I am an Israeli Jew. Yet I oppose all anti-BDS legislation, and I support nonviolent boycotts, pressure to divest and sanctions to push Israel to cease its regime of state violence and inequality against the Palestinian people. That does not make me anti-Israel, nor an anti-Semite. In fact, I believe that equality and human rights for Palestinians would safeguard the interests of actual real Israelis on the ground much better than current U.S. policy toward Israel’s occupation does. American lawmakers who try to punish other Americans for supporting a Palestinian-led resistance to Israeli oppression manage to scapegoat both Jews and Palestinians, who should not be told how to resist their own oppression. And the frequency with which Israel is coming up in domestic American politics in recent years — in large part thanks to the no-daylight alliance between the Trump and Netanyahu administrations — has made this border on fetishization of Israel.

Declaring that criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic wrongly — and falsely — assumes all Jews are the same. The Israeli government encourages this: It implicitly claims to speak for all Jews, and Netanyahu claims to be the authority on what is anti-Semitic. His cozying up to Hungary and Poland despite their Holocaust revisionism is just one example. Reality is different: A poll by the American Jewish Committee last year found that less than half of American Jews supported Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem; other polls routinely find that American Jews rank Israel as less important to them than many other political issues. But the more Israel becomes a pawn in U.S. politics, the more elected officials will treat Jews as an object, rather than as individuals.

In the 1988 book “The Lobby,” Edward Tivnan wrote, “How successful and powerful can a lobby be before the backlash strikes? More to the point: How powerful can a Jewish lobby be before the anti-Semites come out of the woodwork?” There are anti-Semites out there. And monopolizing Israel’s image and using it as a cudgel, only seems to be encouraging them further.


An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Edward Tivnan's book. It was published in 1988, not 1987, and its title is "The Lobby," not "The Israel Lobby."

Read more:

Anti-Semitism doesn’t bother Netanyahu if it comes from one of his right-wing allies

Israel lets Jews protest the occupation. It doesn’t let Palestinians.

Don’t like boycotts of Israel? Boycott the West Bank instead.