Ilhan Omar’s Denunciation of Israel Lobby is Not Anti-Semitism – Phyllis Bennis
Democrats’ resolution denouncing anti-Semitism is aimed at stopping criticism of Israel and at silencing a Black Muslim refugee woman who is not anti-Semitic – Phyllis Bennis joins Marc Steiner
MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you with us.
Ilhan Omar is under attack once again for allegedly saying that Jews have dual loyalties, which is an old anti-Semitic trope. If she had said that, then she should rightly be forced to address those comments. But she didn’t say that. She’s being once again accused of anti-Semitism, with right-wing Republicans calling for her to be ousted from the Foreign Affairs Committee, and the Democratic leadership sponsoring a new bill against anti-Semitism that doesn’t mention Ilhan Omar’s name, but clearly is directed at her. A political and generational divide is building around this, around Israel and Palestine, in the midst of the reality of increasing anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in our country.
And joining us now once again is Phyllis Bennis, who is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, serves on the Board of Jewish Voices for Peace. Her most recent book is the seventh updated edition of Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer. And Phyllis, welcome back. Good to have you with us.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Good to be with you, Marc.
MARC STEINER: For everybody watching, I want to play this short clip that started all this off. This, Ilhan Omar was, along with other congressional representatives, was at Busboys and Poets, where she made this statement very clearly saying she was not anti-Semitic, her feelings about the Jewish community, and had this to say.
ILHAN OMAR: I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country. I want to ask why is it OK for me to talk about the influence of the NRA, of fossil fuel industries, or big pharma, and not talk about a powerful lobby group that is influencing policy.
MARC STEINER: Phyllis, were you there that night as this happened?
PHYLLIS BENNIS: I was. I was sitting just a few feet away.
MARC STEINER: So talk a bit about what happened that evening, and what you think the response really was. I mean, why it took place, what it really meant. What occurred here?
PHYLLIS BENNIS: It was an extraordinary moment, Marc. And you could hear it from the applause at the beginning. There were hundreds of people crammed into the room. This was weeks after the the last set of attacks against Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, again allegedly for anti-Semitism, where essentially she is being attacked by members, in this case, of her own party for anti-Semitism that she never expressed; for supposed anti-Jewish prejudice that she never held; and for hatred of Jews that she doesn’t hold and never said.
So it was important–it was the reason that we went through and actually transcribed what she did say in answer to this. It was clear she was talking about the pro-Israel lobby. That’s not the Jews. The pro-Israel lobby includes organizations like CUFI, Christians United For Israel, which is one of the most influential and wealthiest of the lobby groups, that, like all lobbies, that’s what they do. They use money to win points in Congress. That’s what they do. That’s how the lobbying system works. AIPAC is no different.
What was going on here was a very powerful and, indeed, passionate articulation of Ilhan Omar’s own experiences as being, as she described, it part of a religion that has been marginalized; a people that is often treated as second class citizens; you know, because keep in mind, Marc, we’re talking about a Muslim woman, a covered Muslim woman, a black woman, an African immigrant, a refugee from Somalia. These are all categories which even individually, let alone collectively, a lot of people in Congress, in the White House, in the media, and elsewhere in the country think do not belong in Congress. And when you have one person who personifies all of that, as well as being a strong, tough, outspoken woman, that woman is going to face enormous challenges.
And that was a big part of what Ilhan spoke about that night. She talked about the death threats that she gets every day. Just in the last few hours I was seeing coverage in one of the New York papers that the FBI is investigating another assassination threat against her. This is what she is facing on a daily basis. And I think we have to be clear here, she did not talk about Jews having dual loyalty. She didn’t talk about prejudicial attitudes. And yet that’s the language that’s in this Democratically-initiated resolution that’s going to be voted on tomorrow that on its face, oh, well, it’s against anti-Semitism. Fine, we’re all against anti-Semitism. I’m Jewish. You’re Jewish. We fought against anti-Semitism for years in that context of fighting against white supremacy and racism.
But this isn’t about what she said. It’s about who she is. It’s about the fact that she is a Muslim African immigrant, a Somali refugee, who is talking about Palestinian rights, who is talking about the power of the Israel lobby, and the big pharma lobby, and the lobby for fossil fuels. And that’s not OK. That’s not OK. And that’s why she’s facing death threats. It’s why she’s not getting support enough from the Democratic Party. She’s not getting any support from the leadership. She’s getting support from the progressive members of the Democratic Party. But that’s not enough. That’s not good enough.
MARC STEINER: So what do we know about this bill that’s in Congress going to be voted on tomorrow? I mean, everybody’s talking about this bill coming up, put out by the Democratic leadership. It does not mention Ilhan Omar, as you said, by name, but clearly this came on the heels of this latest attack because of the words that she did not say. So what’s in this bill? What are they saying in this bill?
PHYLLIS BENNIS: They’re saying things like anti-Semitism is bad. OK, we all agree with that. One of the references is to the decision by the Department of Education to accept for their own use a very contested definition of anti-Semitism that, among other things, includes specific kinds of criticism of Israel, whereas the vast majority of people do not believe that criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic. There have been a number of important Jewish organizations and Jewish individuals in the last couple of days who have issued statements saying exactly that. That not only, the broad point, criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitism; it’s criticism of what the Israeli state does, primarily to Palestinians. But some of them are also saying that this is a situation where many in the Democratic Party are delighted to have somebody who looks like Ilhan Omar in their party. It makes them look very diverse. But they don’t want to hear diverse views on this issue.
MARC STEINER: So you know, I’m really interested in what this might really portend for where this could be taking this. I mean, you saw the most extreme attacks, like this poster that popped up in West Virginia that kind of tied Ilhan Omar to the 9/11 attacks. You’ve got this tweet that Ilhan Omar put out about that moment, we’re going to show you here on the screen. And then you have the response from Nita Lowey that’s up there, which says “Lawmakers must be able to debate without prejudice or bigotry. I am saddened that Representative Omar continues to mischaracterize support for Israel. I urge her to retract the statement and engage in further dialogue with the Jewish community on why these comments are so hurtful.” In response, Ilhan Omar’s tweet, which was “Our democracy is built on debate. Congresswoman, I should not be expected to have allegiance, pledge support to any foreign country in order to serve my country in Congress, or serve on a committee. The people the 5th elected me to serve their interests. I am sure we agree on that.”
So I mean-
PHYLLIS BENNIS: This was an extraordinary moment, because it was very clear, there was no doubt, that her reference was to the pro-Israel lobbies, including groups like CUFI and the other Christian organizations who are not Jewish. And what she was talking about was the pressure that is brought to bear on members of Congress. She was talking about members of Congress, not Jews, who are forced to pledge some kind of affiliation, support, loyalty, whatever you want to call it, to Israel to maintain the privileging of Israel in U.S. foreign policy; $3.8 billion a year that was granted over a ten year period. $3.8 billion of our tax money every year that goes directly to the Israeli military. And that they are expected to go to Israel on AIPAC-sponsored tours. They are expected to show up at the AIPAC dinner every year. These are expectations of all members of Congress. That was what she was referring to. She wasn’t talking about any individual people, Jews or otherwise, having so-called dual loyalty. She was talking about the kind of pressure that is brought to bear on members of Congress to be uncritically supportive of Israel; a kind of pressure that does not exist for any other country in the world.
MARC STEINER: Finally, this bill that’s going to be for Congress tomorrow will most likely pass. Right?
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Certainly.
MARC STEINER: But also there seems to be a huge divide happening inside the Democratic Party and within the progressive community around this issue. So I wonder, you know, I mean, you’ve been covering this for years. This is one of the things you know a lot about. What do you see happening here? What do you see the future hold for–I know you’re not prescient, but I mean, what do you think the future holds?
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Well, I think in a certain way this actually has some good news in it. The good news is that the response to this new, latest attack on Ilhan Omar has engendered an enormous level of public engagement on the issue. People are suddenly talking about what is and is not anti-Semitism. Is criticism of Israel anti-Semitic or not? The New York Times just a few hours ago published an extraordinary piece where the title was some version of why the current controversy over Ilhan Omar opens up the question of whether AIPAC is, in fact, too powerful, or too influential. And the article pretty much answers it in the affirmative. The article includes numerous interviews with staff members of AIPAC who are talking, essentially bragging, about how it was their initiative to make members of Congress go after Ilhan Omar after her statements went public. They’re saying “We did this.” AIPAC did this. If you wanted evidence of the kind of power that AIPAC can bring to bear against members of Congress, there it is, in the pages of The New York Times.
So that’s a good thing. We’re seeing an extraordinary level of engagement because what the pro-Israel lobby has been facing for the last five years, or six years, or eight years, is the beginnings, and it’s now moving right into the center of a generational split, where young people, particularly young Jews–and particularly progressive young Jews, Democrats who are young Jews–do not have the same assumption about their support for Israel that you and I did growing up. We all assume that if you’re Jewish, you support Israel. That’s what it was. Now that’s no longer the case. Young Jews growing up have choices. They have a right, a left, and a center. They can join, if not now, they can be part of the biggest organization in the Jewish community these days in terms of how fast it’s growing, Jewish Voice for Peace, that supports rights of Palestinians. They have choices that you and I never had as young people.
And that’s making all the difference in the world. Part of the reason that we’re seeing this escalation in attacks on Ilhan Omar, in broader attacks on other supporters of Palestinian rights, whether it’s Angela Davis, Michelle Alexander, or others, is precisely because they are worried they are losing their young supporters, and they’re not prepared to give up without a fight. That’s what we’re dealing with now. And that’s all good news.
MARC STEINER: Well, Phyllis Bennis, thank you for all the work you do and for joining us here today. I look forward to many more conversations with you, obviously, and have a wonderful evening. Thanks so much.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Thank you, Marc.
MARC STEINER: And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you for watching. Take care.