A funny thing happened on the way to the Omar inquisition

The question of where the Democratic party stands with respect to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians has been simmering for some time but the last week saw it burst into the open. It began with comments made by new congressional representative Ilhan Omar who has been critical of Israel. Criticizing Israel has long been a touchy issue in this country and people who do so are often immediately characterized as being anti-Semitic. The fact that Omar is a hijab-wearing Muslim who has supported the BDS movement was used to imply that this was a slam-dunk case against her and a resolution was proposed by the Democratic leaders of congress to effectively censure her. Normally the progression of such an uproar follows a predictable course. The person is publicly shamed and is forced to apologize and the lesson is sent that one must not criticize Israel’s behavior or if one does it must use highly circumspect language that is laden with caveats.

But this time things did not quite work out that way. Although it seemed initially that the resolution would pass easily like previous resolutions favored by the Israel lobby, opposition suddenly sprang up to defend Omar and say that she had been wrongly accused by people who were assigning to her words and sentiments that she did not express. Glenn Greenwald was one of those who said that people were lying about Omar.

Marco Werman, the host of public radio program The World, played Omar’s remarks on this topic in full on the air. He then interviewed American rabbi Susan Silverman who lives in Israel who said that she had been initially excited by Omar’s election but felt that Omar was like many on the left who seemed to view Israel as ‘uniquely evil’. Werman pushed her on the fact that she was impugning to Omar things she did not say but Silverman kept implying that Omar had said that Israel was uniquely evil when, even as Werman kept pointing out, she had said nothing of the sort. Her response perfectly illustrated the actual concern that Omar had expressed, that if you criticize Israeli policies or US support for those policies, then those seeking to suppress that debate heap all manner of other views upon you and the charge of anti-Semitism is hurled so that the debate then shifts to whether or not you are an anti-Semite, and the original point of discussion gets shelved.

But as these questions about Omar being anti-Semitic started being raised, pushback increased. Presidential contenders Bernie Sanders and Kamal Harris criticized the resolution to condemn Omar, as did Elizabeth Warren. Sanders even called Omar to offer his support.

As a result of this backlash, Nancy Pelosi and the party leadership found that unlike previous attempts to condemn critics of Israel that would pass easily, they were forced to pull the resolution because of a revolt within its own ranks. The problem that Nancy Pelosi is facing is of her own doing. She and the rest of the top party leadership have for so long reflexively supported Israel whatever it did that they did not realize that the country has shifted under their feet and that a resolution such as this, which would have passed easily a decade ago, is now being closely examined and found wanting. This essay by a young American Jewish woman shows what is driving that change.

As an example of this old thinking, look at what California Democratic congressman Juan Vargas, who is close to the party leadership, tweeted: “It is disturbing that Rep. Omar continues to perpetuate hurtful anti-Semitic stereotypes that misrepresent our Jewish community. Additionally, questioning support for the U.S.-Israel relationship is unacceptable.” That last sentence is the most revealing about what these charges of anti-Semitism boil down to. They are meant to prevent any criticism of the unquestioning support that the US government gives to Israel. Vargas got a lot of pushback to that tweet.

Allison Deger describes the anger that was expressed at the closed door meeting of the House Democratic caucus, including the fact that the party leadership was seeking to pass a resolution against its own member on dubious grounds after ignoring manifestly much worse comments sympathetic to neo-Nazis by Donald Trump and Republican politicians.

Twitter, of course, has been all over this story.

Mehdi Hasan says that this incident has helped break the taboo against criticizing the Israel lobby groups like AIPAC. The editors at Mondoweiss write, that what Omar was saying was that it was perfectly acceptable to criticize other lobbies and their financial clout but not so for the Israel lobby. They directly quote her words

“I have not mischaracterized our relationship with Israel, I have questioned it and that has been clear from my end.

I am told everyday that I am anti-American if I am not pro-Israel. I find that to be problematic and I am not alone. I just happen to be willing to speak up on it and open myself to attacks.

Being opposed to Netanyahu and the occupation is not the same as being anti-Semitic. I am grateful to the many Jewish allies who have spoken out and said the same.

We must be willing to combat hate of all kinds while also calling out oppression of all kinds. I will do my best to live up to that. I hope my colleagues will join me in doing the same.”

Philip Weiss adds that progressives are no longer cowed by the lobby and casually thrown charges of anti-Semitism and that what Omar has done has brought this controversial topic of AIPAC influence out into the open.

So rather than stifle debate on the issue of Israeli policies and US support for them, this move to censure Omar has given that topic even more prominence.


  1. says

    Somehow I suspect that if somebody, reacting to the way MBS of Saudi Arabia has been treated with kid gloves despite his involvement in the Khashoggi killing, had said, “It’s all about the Benjamins, baby”, they would not be accuse of being anti-Muslim.

  2. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    “She’s a witch!”
    Somewhere in the interpipes there’s a Monty Python clip where John Cleese really makes the case.

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