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Ilhan Omar and the anatomy of a trope

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Representative Ilhan Omar’s straight-talk about the corruption of the US political process by a foreign government was a service to her country, as well as to the cause of justice and peace in the Middle East. Omar impaled a great taboo with the first name of a remarkable, multi-talented eighteenth century American hero whose portrait appears on $100 bills. Outraged agents of that foreign government, aided by US politicians who know the truth of her words better than anyone, kicked in the center beam holding up the sky — but to their horror, the sky did not quite fall. True, she was branded a peddler of age-old tropes; yet it was difficult not to notice that the emperor was, indeed, naked. Self-righteous condemnation from the most powerful human on earth (you know, the one who shoved his weight on Jerusalem and Iran in exchange for millions from a gambling magnate on behalf of Israel, and who says that Jews are good negotiators who use their money to buy politicians) instantly dissipated into fodder for comedy by no less a mainstream media as CNN, which posted a video collage juxtaposing Trump’s feigned outrage at Omar with clips of his true, classic antisemitism.

Yet the outrage over Omar’s truth-telling addressed only a lesser taboo, not the single, core taboo that is at the heart of Israel’s seemingly inexplicable ability to ‘hypnotize’ (to use Omar’s word) the West.

The real taboo that Ilhan Omar broke was not accusing AIPAC of buying politicians. That was just the way it manifested. The taboo itself was freeing the hostage — Jews — from Zionism and the Israeli state. Outrage over Omar’s tweets requires — requires— that Jews and Israel are seen as synonymous. Even to ‘apologize’, Omar, too, had to engage in this antisemitic lie.

Thus it is the very people who feign outrage at Omar who are the purveyors of antisemitic tropes. They, not Omar, took the simple concept of a political interest using money and pressure to buy influence, and conflated ‘Israeli influence’ as ‘Jewish influence’.

Indeed even anti-Zionists are complicit in this when they qualify that criticism of Israel is not ‘necessarily’ antisemitic, or that ‘legitimate’ criticism of Israel is not antisemitic. These qualifiers implicitly accept the Zionist premise of some obligatory connection between Jews, as Jews, and the Israeli state — otherwise the qualifier is nonsensical. Something is, or isn’t, antisemitic independent of whether it has to do with Israel or not. And if by happenstance it does happen to concern criticism of that nation-state in the Middle East, it is, or isn’t, antisemitic independent of whether the criticism was justified. Try this on a friend and see the odd looks you get: “Legitimate criticism of Burma is not necessarily anti-Buddhist.” Or try: “Legitimate criticism of Liechtenstein is not necessarily anti-Catholic.”

It makes no difference how many people self-identifying as Jews protest to the contrary — no one has the right to make Jewry itself into a tribe headquartered in Tel Aviv. It is time to acknowledge that Israel’s claim on Jewry is categorically unlike any other state’s claim on any other ‘people’. It is a vestige of a sorry era of ethnic nationalism to which we bid good riddance in the mid 1940s. That it continues to be inflicted on Jews, and that it is used to empower ongoing crimes against humanity in their name, should outrage us all.

Tom Suarez

Tom Suarez is the author, most recently, of "Writings on the Wall", an annotated collection of Palestinian Oral Histories collected by the Arab Educational Institute in Bethlehem (2019)

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21 Responses

  1. bcg on March 5, 2019, 10:48 pm

    An interesting sample of the discussion about Omar from New York Magazine –

    Ilhan Omar Has a Less Bigoted Position on Israel Than Almost All of Her Colleagues…It should be “okay” for Americans who want their country to have a close alliance with a foreign power to form political organizations that advance their views. The problem with AIPAC is not that it pushes American lawmakers to show deference to the interests of another country. The problem is that it pushes them to show deference to a country that practices de facto apartheid rule in much of the territory it controls. If there were a lobby pushing Congress to put the humanitarian needs of Bangladesh over the immediate economic interests of Americans — by imposing a steep carbon tax and drastically increasing foreign aid to that low-lying nation — would the left decry the idea that such lobbying was “okay?” Of course not. Because progressives aren’t hypernationalists. And I don’t think Omar is either. So she shouldn’t frame her opposition to the Israel lobby in nationalist terms. The problem isn’t Congress’s “allegiance to a foreign country,” but its complicity in Jewish supremacy in the West Bank, an inhuman blockade in Gaza, and discrimination against Arab-Israelis in Israel proper.

  2. wondering jew on March 5, 2019, 11:23 pm

    Jews and Zionism need not be one in order to see the Benjamins tweet in a negative light. It is heavy handed to sing a song or quote a song with the notes symbol, it is flip, it is a sign of not caring. It was interpreted as those rich Zionist Jews do this. even if one is not a Zionist, “those rich Zionist Jews” might rub you the wrong way if you are sensitive to being rubbed the wrong way. my initial reaction is that in her use of the vernacular she was trying to stir things up. well, when you stir things up and then say, let’s get precise about what was said and what was not said, i said nothing wrong. i apologize. you tools of a foreign country.
    well, guess what. that just sounds like you want to fight a war with the zionist jews and all jews , unless they are entirely convinced of the righteousness of Jewish Voice for Peace, might take offense at you stirring shit.
    now, i understand why she’s stirring shit and maybe when we emerge from this “crisis” we will have a better perspective on american middle east policy and the effects of lobbying, but right now we’re not in the post storm stage, we’re still in the storm.
    and if ocasio cortez wants there to be a shitstorm every time some other group gets offended, then she can devote her life to that cause, meanwhile a shitload of jews have devoted their lives to the israel lobby and to the jewish sensitivity lobby and criticize that, don’t criticize that, build something of your own, don’t criticize us for being sensitive. it does not become you.

    • wondering jew on March 5, 2019, 11:33 pm

      btw- Ilhan Omar will have a major contest on her hand in the democratic primary for the next candidacy. Ocasio cortez has a safe seat for the next 40 years.

    • eljay on March 6, 2019, 8:05 am

      || wondering jew @ March 5, 2019, 11:23 pm ||

      It’s amazing: Ms. Omar talks about the ugly realities of Israel and AIPAC and Zionism and the only thing Zionists like you can do is double-down on anti-Semitic conflation of Israel and AIPAC and Zionism with all Jews and all Jews with Israel and AIPAC and Zionism so that you can then smear her with destructive accusations of anti-Semitism.

      Utterly shameful…but par for the Zionist course.

      • eljay on March 6, 2019, 8:52 am

        … It is indeed interesting that the label “antisemitism” is being pinned on an argument directed at mostly non-Jewish lawmakers and not at Jews at all. It is also interesting that the House resolution’s current text twists that reality on its head by falsely implying that the comments were directed at Jewish politicians. The most Omar-specific parts of the resolution read as follows:

        Whereas the definition further includes ‘‘accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations’’;

        Whereas the myth of dual loyalty, including allegations that Jews should be suspected of being disloyal neighbors or citizens, has been used to marginalize and persecute the Jewish people for centuries for being a stateless minority;

        Whereas accusing Jews of dual loyalty because they support Israel, whether out of a religious connection, a commitment to Jewish self-determination after millennia of persecution, or an appreciation for shared values and interests, suggests that Jews cannot be patriotic Americans and trusted neighbors, when Jews have served our Nation since its founding, whether in public life or military service;
        . . .

        Omar’s comments have nothing to do with Jews, Judaism or Jewishness, but with the geopolitical entanglements between the US and a nation which currently serves as an outpost for US military agendas in the Middle East. It’s a basic, unassailable fact that the agenda to maintain this relationship holds immense sway in America’s capitol, which is why the only arguments you see against it are fallacious, dishonest, irrelevant, or even prove it to be true. …


      • RoHa on March 7, 2019, 10:23 pm

        Mixed messages in that resolution.

        The aim is to present American Jews as being ordinary Americans, just plain folks full to the brim with apple pie and motherhood.

        But the line “a commitment to Jewish self-determination” suggests that Jews are, in fact, a separate group with a separate right to self-determination. Good old American self-determination is not enough.

      • Mooser on March 7, 2019, 11:46 pm

        “Good old American self-determination is not enough.”

        Ah, but the good old American rights of citizenship, civil rights, protection of contracts, access to the courts, freedom of association, privacy protections are certainly good enough to create the affluence and the inclusion which American Zionism depends on. But it’s a hell of a way to use those “blessings of liberty”.

    • Misterioso on March 6, 2019, 9:53 am

      @wondering jew

      You live in a fantasy world. The anachronistic “Jewish state” is doomed. The ugly, repulsive truth about racist Zionism and its well documented past and present monstrous crimes committed against the indigenous Palestinians are now part of mainstream discussion, including ever increasing numbers of Jews. Time, demographics and the thrust of 21st century geopolitics are with the Palestinians.

      “The Widening Cracks in Zionism”

      “Zionism has imposed an ideological orthodoxy that seeks to lock Jews – and Western politicians – into unquestioning support for whatever Israel does, but more people are beginning to break ranks.”

      By Professor Lawrence Davidson

      “Zionism is an ideological movement that preaches the God-given Jewish right to control and settle all of historical Palestine. Since the founding of Israel in 1948 the Zionists have also claimed that the ‘Jewish State’ represents all of world Jewry, thus self-aware Jews owe allegiance to both Israel and its prevailing Zionist philosophy.

      “However, in the last decade or so, that allegiance has been breaking down. In the U.S. a growing ‘disconnect’ has been noted between the outlook and actions of the ideologically rigid leaders of major U.S. Jewish organizations (who remain uncritically supportive of Israel) and the increasingly alienated Jewish-American rank-and-file whom, at least up until recently, the leaders claimed to represent. This gap has been repeatedly documented by several sources ranging from, Pew Research Center surveys, to the Jewish Forward newspaper, and the organization of Reform Judaism.

      “As characterized by the Jewish Forward the situation is that ordinary American Jews are ‘far more critical of Israel than the Jewish establishment.’ Almost half of the American Jews surveyed by a Pew study in 2013 did not think the Israeli government was making a ‘sincere effort’ to achieve peace with the Palestinians. Almost as many saw Israel’s expanding colonization of the West Bank as counterproductive.

      “Thus, this disconnect is not a sudden or new situation. The numbers of questioning American Jews have continued to grow, and things have only gotten worse for the Zionist leadership. Indeed, just as many young American Jews may be joining pro-peace activist groups as are cheering on AIPAC at its conventions.”

    • Mooser on March 6, 2019, 12:20 pm

      “to see the Benjamins tweet in a negative light”

      “WJ” you are absolutely right to regard any reference to the “Benjamins” as anti-semitic. I have tracked the slur down and nailed it to the counter. “The Benjamins” refers to the 1980 movie starring Goldie Hawn. Lest there be any doubt I refer you to a synopsis of the film:

      “A Jewish-American princess, Judy Benjamin (Goldie Hawn), is devastated when her husband (Albert Brooks) drops dead on their wedding night. While she grieves a duplicitous recruiter for the Women’s Army Corps convinces her to enlist. Judy thinks her enlistment is like a vacation …”

      Straight outa Der Sturm-and-Dranger.

      • GusCall on March 7, 2019, 1:45 pm

        Dear Mooser, you’re utterly wrong. A ‘Benjamin’ is for obvious reasons a $100-dollar bill. Omar was referring to the Puff Daddy 1997 rap song ‘It’s All About the Benjamins’ – not to the Goldie Hawn movie.
        She was saying that the Israel lobby (not necessarily AIPAC directly) spends a lot of money in order to, duh, get politicians to support Israel. That’s all. Take it easy.

      • gamal on March 7, 2019, 2:47 pm

        “Dear Mooser, you’re utterly wrong.”

        “I got news for you Princess, there is no other ALLUSION”

      • Mooser on March 7, 2019, 11:20 pm

        “Dear Mooser, you’re utterly wrong.”

        Was Benjamin Franklin a “Jewish-American Princess”? I think not. Case closed.

  3. Talkback on March 6, 2019, 9:14 am

    “What Ilhan Omar Said About AIPAC Was Right
    I’m ashamed to admit that endorsing AIPAC positions was all about the Benjamins for me and my candidate.
    By Ady Barkan”

  4. Misterioso on March 6, 2019, 10:49 am

    For the record:

    New York Times, March 4/19 By Sheryl Gay Stolberg

    “Ilhan Omar’s Criticism Raises the Question: Is Aipac Too Powerful?”

    WASHINGTON — “When Representative Ilhan Omar landed a coveted seat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Stephen Fiske began working the phones to Capitol Hill.

    “Alarmed by messaging that he saw as anti-Semitic and by Ms. Omar’s support for the boycott-Israel movement, Mr. Fiske, a long time activist with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, began texting and calling his friends in Congress to complain. He is hoping Aipac activists will punish Ms. Omar, a freshman Democrat from Minnesota, with a primary challenge in 2020.

    “On Wednesday, House Democratic leaders will mete out one form of punishment: Spurred by outrage over Ms. Omar’s latest comments suggesting that pro-Israel activists ‘push for allegiance to a foreign country,’ they will put a resolution condemning anti-Semitism on the House floor.

    “’Many other people involved in the pro-Israel community, a lot of Aipac-affiliated members, there’s a lot of concern; there’s a clarion call for activism,’ said Mr. Fiske, who is the chairman of a political action committee that backs pro-Israel candidates. ‘It really hit a nerve, and the grass-roots Jewish community in South Florida is not one to treat it as an ostrich, putting their heads in the sand.’

    “Ms. Omar’s insinuation that money fuels American support for Israel — ‘It’s all about the Benjamins, baby,’ she wrote on Twitter, specifically citing Aipac — revived a fraught debate in Washington over whether the pro-Israel lobbying behemoth has too much sway over American policy in the Middle East. The backlash to Ms. Omar’s tweet was fierce, with even Democratic leaders accusing her of trafficking in anti-Semitic tropes. The congresswoman apologized.

    “But the swirling debate not only around Ms. Omar but also around broader currents buffeting the Middle East has forced an uncomfortable re-examination of the questions that she has raised: Has Aipac — founded more than 50 years ago to ‘strengthen, protect and promote the U.S.-Israel relationship’ — become too powerful? And with that power, has Aipac warped the policy debate over Israel so drastically that dissenting voices are not even allowed to be heard?

    “Those questions have grown louder with the controversy around Ms. Omar and will grow louder still in the run-up to this month’s annual Aipac policy conference — a three-day Washington confab that is expected to draw more than 18,000 people, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and leaders of both parties in Congress. To critics, Ms. Omar had a point, even if it was expressed with unfortunate glibness. Aipac’s money does have an outsize influence.

    “’It is so disingenuous of some of these members of Congress who are lining up to condemn these questioning voices as if they have no campaign finance interest in the outcome,’ said Brian Baird, a former Democratic congressman from Washington State, who became a vocal critic of Israel, and Aipac, after a constituent of his was killed by an Israeli Army bulldozer in Gaza while protesting the demolition of Palestinian homes in 2003.

    “’If one dares to criticize Israel or dares to criticize Aipac, one gets branded anti-Semitic,’ Mr. Baird added, ‘and that’s a danger to a democratic republic.'”

  5. Elizabeth Block on March 6, 2019, 1:18 pm

    Thanks for giving us Tom Suarez. He’s wonderful.
    As for the Benjamins, I wish it were all about money. It’s also about the effect of decades of Israeli propaganda. And it’s about one imperial country built on stolen land supporting, and being supported by, another one.

  6. Stephen Shenfield on March 6, 2019, 6:10 pm

    Members of Congress are devoted solely to the good of their country. They don’t give a damn about money. Naturally they are offended by the suggestion that their political stances are up for sale to the highest bidder. Especially when it is true.

  7. JWalters on March 6, 2019, 7:55 pm

    “The taboo itself was freeing the hostage — Jews – from Zionism and the Israeli state.”

    Very important point. The Jewish community is the first victim of the predatory Zionist cult.

    “Rabbis want to criticize Israel but fear donors”

    “Why I left the cult”

  8. klm90046 on March 7, 2019, 12:01 am

    What’s all this unnecessary outcry about Benjamins? I hired some of the now-retired plumbers of Watergate fame to break into AIPAC headquarters and steal top secret papers. Here is the information we got:-

    For the 2016 election, AIPAC contributed exactly $37.45 to all pro-Israel candidates combined.
    The largest amount to a single candidate was $9.17.
    The smallest amount: $0.23

    For the last mid-terms, the combined contribution went up to $85.39.
    Largest single contribution: $21.00
    Smallest: $2.75 (bus fare)

    If someone has more accurate figures, please make them public.

    Oh shit–they again taped the doors!! Some people never learn.

    • bcg on March 7, 2019, 1:49 pm

      @kim90046: AIPAC doesn’t exert its outsize influence by leaving a direct money trail:

      David Ochs, founder of HaLev, which helps send young people to American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual conference, described for the reporter how AIPAC and its donors organize fundraisers outside the official umbrella of the organization, so that the money doesn’t show up on disclosures as coming specifically from AIPAC. He describes one group that organizes fundraisers in both Washington and New York. “This is the biggest ad hoc political group, definitely the wealthiest, in D.C.,” Ochs says, adding that it has no official name, but is clearly tied to AIPAC. “It’s the AIPAC group. It makes a difference; it really, really does. It’s the best bang for your buck, and the networking is phenomenal.” (Ochs and AIPAC did not immediately return The Intercept’s requests for comment.)

      “Pro-Israel Lobby Caught on Tape Boasting That Its Money Influences Washington”

  9. Keith on March 7, 2019, 4:26 pm

    TOM SUAREZ- “…but to their horror, the sky did not quite fall.”

    Comparing the Omar situation with what is going on in the UK, Jamie Stern-Weiner makes the following observation:

    “”It is worth noting: had Rep. Ilhan Omar been a member of the British Labour Party, she would have been suspended.

    Those who rose to her defence — Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris among them — would have risked suspension as well.” (Jamie Stern-Weiner)

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