After years of activists, journalists, and scholars exposing the overreach and influence of the pro-Israel lobby on Congress with regard to Israel, Palestine, and Iran, one would think that criticism of the Israel lobby from within Congress would not become an international scandal.
Not so. Last weekend, Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s weighed in that pro-Israel attacks on her and Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, in part for challenging unconstitutional legislation penalizing boycotts of Israel, were “all about the Benjamins” meaning that the critics were primarily interested in financial support from the Israel lobby. According to The Forward opinion editor Batya Ungar-Sargon, this was an antisemitic tweet and mentioning Zionist lobbying money is akin to Neo-Nazi style conspiracy theories about “Jewish puppet-masters controlling stuff”. When Ilhan Omar clarified her tweet was a reference to AIPAC, Ungar-Sargon condemned her comments as antisemitic on behalf of America’s Jews. Ungar-Sargon was echoed by Chelsea Clinton as well as the Democratic Party leadership. Ilhan Omar apologized amidst repeated attacks on her by the Democratic Party leadership, despite the fact that her statements are objectively true and publicly verifiable. There was no reason she should have been expected to apologize by anyone.
According to Ungar-Sargon, Omar should have criticized AIPAC in a “non-anti-Semitic way,” though that was exactly what she was doing. Ungar-Sargon also used the opportunity to encourage readers to “criticize the occupation” and “stand up for Palestinian civil rights”. She encourages others not to allow Netanyahu to “speak for you as Jew,” though Ungar-Sargon has no qualms about speaking for America’s Jews herself. A much longer essay by Ungar-Sargon in The Forward claims that the Left has “abandoned the Jews,” and defends the Anti-Defamation League’s record as a civil rights organization from leftist critics of the ADL’s past of spying on Arab-Americans and running a police exchange training program with Israel. Ungar-Sargon also argues that the left shouldn’t condemn Zionism because it will exclude, well, Zionists.
This isn’t a new pattern. The closest term for this self-contradicting ideology is liberal Zionism: adherents do not support Netanyahu, would likely be perceived as “anti-Israel” by others, and may even identify as leftists. Yet they reproduce the same pattern: apologetics for Israel and broad suspicion of virtually any criticism, which is reduced to one of many classical antisemitic tropes.
Here are just a few examples:
In the Washington Post, pro-“human rights” rabbi Jill Jacobs transparently attempts to stigmatize normal empathy with those who suffer under Israeli occupation: Strong language, anger, and even rhetoric that plainly describes Israeli atrocities — such as the killing of babies– are little more than attacks on Jews. Jacobs fears that Jews might “feel unwelcome” if they support Israel, revealing that her concerns about “anti-Semitism” are about preserving support for Israel. Opposing Israeli training of police and Steven Salaita’s comments about Israel’s role in international affairs amounts to “seeing Jews as insidious influencers;” rejecting a nationalistic Jewish connection to historic Palestine, viewing Jewish settlers as “European colonizers,” referring to them as “Zionists” and alleging that Zionism is white supremacy (read: anti-Zionism) amounts to antisemitism. Refusing to “judge how other people carry out their liberation movements” amounts to a “lack of concern for Israeli lives” and is antisemitic. The movement to boycott Israel is “rife with anti-Semitic undertones”. Acceptable sympathy for the Palestinians, per Jacobs, is limited to citing sterile passages of law or encouraging slightly less violent repression of the Palestinians (such as maiming children instead of killing them), while claims of massacre or genocide are dismissed.
Kenneth Stern, the author of a definition of “anti-Semitism” that is now used to criminalize and monitor support for Palestinian rights by multiple governing bodies, has spent years attempting to reconcile liberal values with Zionism, writing extensive literature conflating antisemitism with anti-Zionism and actively lobbying against boycotts of Israel on college campuses.
Emily Shire, a self-described “Zionist” and feminist wrote in the New York Times that she is is “critical of certain Israeli government policies” and supports a two-state solution. She asked why she is expected to drop her support for Zionism at feminist rallies, while smearing Palestinian political activist Rasmea Odeh as a member of a “terrorist organization.”
And at a sermon in New York, Rabbi Angela Buchdahl resists the notion that all criticism of Israel is antisemitic — while reducing one criticism of Israel after the next to Jew-hatred.
Liberal Zionists, themselves critical of Israel but having no actual commitment to Palestinians as people, reproduce the same underlying racism of their right-wing counterparts — with the same poisonous consequences — while maintaining the aura of concern for human rights.
The politics of liberal Zionism also underpin the values of a coterie of liberal organizations, like J-Street, a self-proclaimed “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobbying group, and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, which regularly raises the specter of phantom left-wing antisemitism, and until recently, according to members that I have talked to, discouraged its members from even discussing Israeli abuses.
And liberal Zionist racism is that much more damning. Shedding the stench of right-wing chauvinism that has blackened Israel’s image in the eyes of people with basic empathy, these writers and political organizations have embraced the time-honored racism of the white moderate, long ago cited by Martin Luther King Jr. as the true stumbling block to advancement. Writing in the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” King wrote,
“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”
Had King applied his analysis of white people to the relationship between U.S. Jews and Palestine, it would be difficult for him not to come to the same conclusions about liberal Zionists. The running themes in the liberal Zionist broadside against the Left are exactly the same as those of the white moderate: criticisms of Israeli atrocities must be limited and avoid any sense of urgency, while “peace” is premised on preserving an Israeli- and Jewish-dominated hierarchy of needs. Anything more: from the outrage normally reserved for mass killings to the scrutiny we should apply to Israel’s lobbyists, let alone supporting outright resistance to Israel, is unacceptable, alienating, or just too much.
It matters not to liberal Zionist writers that antisemitism in the United States has virtually no institutional support, is not enforced by border agents, police officers, or the military, does not feed news cycles attempting to jump-start wars, or have any meaningful support among mainstream U.S. society, let alone “the Left”. It is true that Jews in the United States must fear unhinged extremists — overwhelmingly from the far-right — but this is markedly different than that threats faced by communities facing daily assaults of state-sanctioned violence. And it is true that there is a history in this country of antisemitism where antisemitism was used to discredit the Civil Rights Movement, underlined turning away Holocaust refugees, and excluded qualified citizens from universities and from purchasing homes in certain towns. But this is not happening today, as Jews in the United States have long ago overcome those shackles and achieved a position of significant privilege.
But in the end this is irrelevant because their feigned concerns are not, and have never been about, antisemitism at all. The attacks on Omar, like the attacks on solidarity with Palestine in general, are motivated by a deeply entrenched racism that sees Arabs and Muslims as subhuman and pervades liberal Zionism as much as it does in any other form of Zionism. Worse, standard empathy for Arabs and Muslims is suspicious, and standard criticisms of those who lobby Congress to kill them, hold them under occupation, or otherwise subject them to genocidal violence amount to coded discrimination against the Jewish settlers colonizing the land.
As such, when criticisms of Israel surface, the critic — and all of us watching — are subjected to gaslighting: a form of psychological abuse in which an abuser attempts to convince his or her victim that something both individuals know to be true is actually false, thereby damaging the victim’s connection to reality. That Israel’s own mouthpieces, including AIPAC, openly admit to using campaign cash to push pro-Israel legislation, should end any ambiguity: Omar and all sensible citizens were being gaslit by the Israel Lobby in the name of preserving the status quo and its decades of silencing Israel’s victims. Unwilling to concede reality, liberal Zionists like Ungar-Sargon, Jill Jacobs, and their ilk reduce Zionist lobbying to little more than an antisemitic fantasy.
The bigotry of liberal Zionist groups also has an effect on those within the Jewish community who reject it. Pro-Palestine organizations like If Not Now which refuses to endorse the movement to boycott Israel, issue a condemnation of Zionism, or support the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and lands lest they alienate mainstream Jewish groups, and even joined the Democrats in welcoming Ilhan Omar’s apology. And Jewish Voice for Peace, while defending Omar and others from the criticisms panders to conservatives in its own organizing network by conceding basic Palestinian demands, such as refusing to endorse boycotts of Israel until 2015 or refusing to condemn Zionism until 2019, when they released a limited critique of Zionism only after lobbying conservatives within their own organization. That even those Jewish organizations whose sole purpose is to organize Jews against Israeli aggression are stymied in doing so emphasizes exactly how pervasive the entrenched liberal Zionist dehumanization of Palestinians is.
But it would be dishonest to pretend the buck stops with Jewish organizations, and the responsibility to squash liberal Zionism is not theirs alone. Groups like Jewish Voice for Peace and If Not Now do not operate in a vacuum; even Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim organizations and their personnel equivocate when defending Ilhan. Yousef Munayyer, the head of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, took to Twitter to suggest that Omar’s phrasing was incorrect and rife with “microaggressions” while acceptably nuanced statements about the Israel Lobby were limited to policy experts like himself. “The nuances are extremely important. But the truth is, a tiny number of people are really versed in them,” he wrote in a thread. Munayyer’s statement thereby pits groundless concerns about antisemitism supposedly emanating from pro-Palestine speech against Israeli oppression itself.
The prominent Muslim organization, MPower Change’s petition in defense of Omar begins by emphasizing her decision to apologize. And even a casual read of the statements from pro-Palestine activists finds one disclaimer after another responding to charges of antisemitism, as if the suspicion against them is reasonable and in need of an explanation — effectively changing the subject away from the suffering of Palestinians.
But others took braver stances. Al-Awda: The Palestine Right to Return Coalition unequivocally defended Omar and Rashida Tlaib, condemned the racism underpinning the attacks on them, pointed out the Israel Lobby’s links to the far-right, and rejected the notion that Zionism has any representative capacity over Jews in the first place. American Muslims for Palestine (AMP) praised Omar for shining a light on power, pointed out the racism underpinning previous attacks on her, and noted that the antisemitism accusations were themselves an extension of a common anti-Muslim stereotype. Finally, the U.S. Palestinian Community Network (USPCN) saluted Omar’s resistance, condemned the racist undertones of the Israel Lobby’s attacks on her, re-assured her that what she tweeted was “absolutely accurate,” and emphasized that apologies were unnecessary; USPCN refused to take the bait of changing the subject to antisemitism at all.
That Al-Awda, AMP, and USPCN’s refusals to equivocate were not shared by others in the Palestine solidarity movement is disgraceful. Given the circumstances, it is unsurprising that Omar was expected to apologize. Liberal Zionism has killed the wind behind her sails just as it has internally defanged much of the movement for Palestinian rights with cheap racism masquerading as concern for antisemitism.
There was nonetheless one advantage to the gaslighting of Omar: unlike the rest of us, who were gaslit privately in school disciplinary hearings, tenure hearings, employment evaluations, and through angry e-mails, Omar’s abuse happened in front of the future of the Democratic Party. It is much harder to disconnect your victim from reality when your numbers are sizeable; the rest of us see what Ilhan sees.
But that won’t matter until we confront the politics of those who are abusing us. Zionism, its US lobby, or its machinations in the Middle East are still viewed not through the lens of its victims in Palestine, Iran, or even domestically in the United States, but based on whether criticism is anti-Jewish. If we can’t even confront the racism in our own midst, what hope do our representatives have?