Ilhan Omar: Anti-Semitism? Or Fear of Open Debate on Israel?

February 12, 2019

Why Are They Really Mad At Ilhan Omar? What does being a woman of color have to do with it? She said no more than other critics of American policy in the Middle East. Marc Steiner, Charles Lenchner, and Phyllis Bennis discuss the issue

Why Are They Really Mad At Ilhan Omar? What does being a woman of color have to do with it? She said no more than other critics of American policy in the Middle East. Marc Steiner, Charles Lenchner, and Phyllis Bennis discuss the issue


Ilhan Omar, anti-Semitism, Nancy Pelosi, AIPAC, Charles Lechner, Phyllis Bennis, Marc Steiner

Story Transcript

MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you all with us.

Congresswoman Ilhan Omar found herself in the middle of a firestorm after she responded to a Tweet by journalist Glenn Greenwald referring to attacks against her and Rashida Tlaib. It said, “It’s stunning how much time U.S. political leaders spend defending a foreign nation even if it means attacking free speech rights of Americans.” She then Tweeted back, “It’s all about the Benjamins baby.” Well, was she being anti-Semitic, referring to Jewish money power on the Hill, or was she channeling Puff Daddy from his 1997 hit, Benjamins, about one hundred dollar bills and their place in the street hustle? Whatever she meant, she was met with instant condemnation from the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, and everyone in the Democratic leadership. And the Republicans as well piled on.

DOUG COLLINS: The problem is that she takes her anti-Semitism, which came across very blatantly in these tweets and with others, and then she attaches it to saying the members of Congress are bought by the thing that she dislikes so much. And obviously, that is Israel. Just in Congress this past month, we denounced, again, white nationalism, white racism. That was something I did on the floor leading our side. We took a member who had made comments and took them off committees. These are kind of things that real, I think, apology shows, and she was only forced into this apology. That’s another issue you have to look at.

MARC STEINER: The congresswoman apologized in writing saying, “I unequivocally apologize. At the same time, I reaffirm the problematic role of lobbyists in our politics, whether it be AIPAC, the NRA, or the fossil fuel industry. It’s gone too long and we must be willing to address it.” But that firestorm is still raging and that didn’t settle people down. The question is, can you take on the power of AIPAC and criticize Israel without being labeled anti-Semitic? How do you do it?

Anti-Semitism is real and deep in this world. It comes in many unconscious forms, as is racism against African descended people in our world. And when Jews hear something that’s even vaguely anti-Semitic in the way it sounds, the pain is real, as is the growing political divide over Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land and the dwindling support for Israel’s right-wing government in this country. Democrats are dividing, Republicans are pushing to widen that divide. Palestinians are occupied, anti-Semitism is real, and we are in the midst of a great political change in part about Israel.

We are joined today by Phyllis Bennis, Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, and Charles Lenchner, who grew up in Israel, was a refusenik and worked for years in the peace movement, and now is here at Real News being the Digital Director. Is that your title, Charles?

CHARLES LENCHNER: Yes.

MARC STEINER: Just wanted to make sure I had that right. Welcome, Phyllis and Charles, good to have you with us.

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Great to be with you.

MARC STEINER: So when I saw this erupt, I read everything over and over again, trying to figure out what I was witnessing here. And it took me back to a conversation I had with Dimitri Lascaris on this network a couple months back when he made the comment that these Jewish legislators in Canada had dual loyalties is what he said. And I very honestly said, “Dimitri, that can be seen as a trope. When Jews hear you say that, people get really upset because that was a trope used to divide loyalties, you’re not really of this country.” And he understood, we had a great dialogue about that. Then I read what Ilhan Omar said, thinking about what she was saying, and how she was forced to apologize. And it showed the complexity of the pain of anti-Semitism, but I couldn’t really for myself parse out what she was saying as being anti-Semitic. I was really wrestling with this deeply, because it means a lot to me. So Charles, let me start with you. And Phyllis, just please chime in on this.

CHARLES LENCHNER: One of the tensions I see is that the movements that many of us belong to on the left prioritize the absence of nuance to be very vocal, very strident in supporting or opposing whatever you are for. Washington, DC is a city that thrives on nuance, the ability to parse out in legalistic language exactly the right way to say something so as not to inadvertently be accused of something bad, as Ilhan has been. And I think that that’s a symptom that we’re going to see more and more of as people who haven’t traditionally had power ascend into Congress. And it makes perfect sense that Ilhan, as well as AOC and Rashid Tlaib, are going to be bearing the brunt of these kinds of attacks. But I think what’s hopeful is that they are not crumbling under the pressure.

It’s true that Ilhan apologized publicly for the way in which she said it, but without backing down an inch on what the meaning of her words were, which is to put the spotlight on the way that AIPAC and lobbying influence the debate over Israel in ways that are not conducive to good government, and that we should we should be looking at and opposing. But I also think there’s room for doing better. And I’m glad that Phyllis Bennis is here with us, because I look to her as one of the people who can help these movement people navigate the intricacies of Capitol Hill.

MARC STEINER: Phyllis?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Well, Thanks for that, Charles. I’ve got to say, I don’t think this was the pain of anti-Semitism that was motivating either Nancy Pelosi or Kevin McCarthy, neither of whom are Jewish, we should note. They weren’t feeling the pain of anti-Semitism. They were both reacting–somewhat differently, they were both reacting with outrage to the accusation that Congress people’s support for Israel might be something other than pure and welcoming an ally who shares our democratic values. That’s what was going on here. This wasn’t about anybody being so outraged. So I think that we have to separate this out. I think that what Ilhan Omar was doing here, and I thought it was terrific, was focusing on AIPAC, which is the biggest and most influential parts of the pro-Israel lobby, a lobby which is not only Jewish, includes amazingly powerful and wealthy organizations like CUFI, Christians United for Israel.

It includes a whole host of fundamentalist Christian organizations, it includes most of the arms industry in this country, which makes a killing, if you will, on selling arms to Israel because the U.S. gives them money, which goes to arms that goes to Israel, 3.8 billion dollars every year, a total of 38 billion dollars over ten years has been pledged over ten years directly to the Israel military. That’s all what is at the root of this notion of the power of the pro-Israel lobby, it’s the reason that it’s so powerful. It’s not just that it’s Jewish money. This is what Kevin McCarthy said, Kevin McCarthy, who is the House minority leader who is now, of course, accusing Ilhan Omar of anti-Semitism, is the one who said that Jewish billionaires, and he named three, were the ones who were trying to “buy the elections.” That, to me, sounds closer to anti-Semitism when you’re talking about individual Jewish money.

CHARLES LENCHNER: So it’s good, Phyllis, that you mentioned that tweet that was mentioning Soros, Bloomberg, and that other guy, you probably remember better than me. But not only that. You can also look at things like the efforts in Hungary, which is run by an anti-Semitic ruler, assisted by Jewish Israeli political expertise to help him do that. You can see about the support that the Netanyahu government has given to anti-Semites around the world. It’s a weird world in which something that is basically not anti-Semitic is being jumped on, whereas actual political actors actually doing anti-Semitism are being left alone by a large part of the mainstream Jewish community.

PHYLLIS BENNIS: And this is what we’re seeing here, I think, when we talk about the idea that real anti-Semitism is on the rise and is a real threat to Jews. We’re talking about the attack on, the killing of eleven Jews in Pittsburgh in the Synagogue, we’re talking about Charlottesville when the Nazis were marching, shouting “Jews will not replace us.” This is real anti-Semitism, and this is what Donald Trump says is OK when he was talking about the so-called “good people” among the Nazis in Charlottesville. He’s the one who is now calling on Ilhan Omar to resign. I mean, that’s really rich, that’s an extraordinary reality. If we’re serious about challenging anti-Semitism, we have to be serious about understanding the links between anti-Semitism and white supremacy. That’s the origins of it, and we have to fight them together.

MARC STEINER: In a few minutes I’m going to play this clip from Donald Trump, his most recent clip from today at a press conference. But I want to explore something before we do that, what you were just pointing out to us Phyllis. And I think this is a really important discussion to have. How people on the left, how do people on the progressive end of the spectrum, formulate this idea so it becomes popularly understood and it can become part of the dialogue, where you don’t end up being labelled as an anti-Semite because you oppose Israel’s occupation, because you oppose this much money going to Israel every year for the IDF, for the Israeli Defense Forces? When that becomes the focus of your work, and how you can take on AIPAC without having the slander of anti-Semitism thrown back at you, or self-hating Jew, which everybody at this table has heard before, a slander thrown at us.

PHYLLIS BENNIS: The first thing we have to do is recognize that we can’t control what we get called. I’ve been on the road doing speaking on this stuff for way longer than I’d like to admit. But one of the things that has–stop laughing. One of the things that has so massively changed is that I don’t get called an anti-Semite or a self-hating Jew nearly as often as I used to. The JDL, they fired into my house in LA back in the day.

MARC STEINER: I remember.

PHYLLIS BENNIS: They don’t do that anymore. What we’re seeing right now is a massive change of discourse, particularly inside the Jewish community. It doesn’t mean that no one is ever going to use criticism of Israel to falsely accuse someone of anti-Semitism or being a self-hating Jew. They still do it. We’re seeing it now, what they’re doing with Ilhan. But I think that we have to be able to say, “You know what, this isn’t anti-Semitic, I’m not going to collapse under the accusation, I’m going to fight real anti-Semitism where it exists because it does exist, and I’m going to fight it with the fight against racism because it’s the same white supremacy that is causing both of those realities.” And that’s how we fight back. It’s not about how can we prevent people from calling us anti-Semites, we can’t necessarily prevent them from calling us that. We can prevent it from being true and we can fight back against the real anti-Semitism. But it’s up to us, particularly Jews, like Jewish Voice for Peace and the other organizations who stand for Palestinian rights, it’s up to us to make that distinction and say we fight against real anti-Semitism and we fight just as hard against the false claims of anti-Semitism that are designed to undermine our movement.

MARC STEINER: Do you want to say something about that, Charles, as well?

CHARLES LENCHNER: Yeah. I was just going to sort of read a little bit of what Ilhan Omar was saying in her apology from yesterday. She’s writing, “Anti-Semitism is real and I’m grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of anti-Semitic tropes.” What I’m drawing from that is not that–this isn’t the kind of apology where she’s regretting her intent or all of her words, but she is addressing something that’s real. It is very easy for someone who didn’t grow up in the United States, isn’t super familiar with the history of anti-Semitism in this country, in the world, to sort of reference Jews and money in a way that will make some Jews feel uncomfortable. And some people exploit that for their own goals, for example to support AIPAC or the relationship with Israel. And I feel like there’s a generational shift, where you have older people who are more powerful knowing enough about how to tread lightly around these topics, to get away with various things, whereas people who might be younger or grew up in different circumstances, just don’t have that ear yet to avoid accidentally tripping themselves up in that way.

I have no objection personally to what she said, but I do think that this was an educational moment, not just for her, but to many other people who we want their voices to be loud, but we also want them to understand how not to fall into the trap that’s being laid to folks on the left when talking about AIPAC and Palestine.

MARC STEINER: It would have been good to see, I wish that some of the newly elected and other Jewish members of Congress would have stood up and said something similar to what’s being said here at the table. That would have gone a long way to dissipating this attack.

CHARLES LENCHNER: Well, in that line, Max Rose from Staten Island actually made an effort today to visit her. And he announced publicly that he thought this issue should be laid to rest. Now, that’s important. He’s basically saying to everyone, “Calm down, it’s fine, we’re all Democrats, there’s no need to carry this on.” That’s progress.

MARC STEINER: Well, Phyllis, what were you about to say to that?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Well, I was about to say that I disagree a little bit with your point, Charles, because I think it puts too much responsibility on people who are having to respond to false accusations. I don’t think we should be worrying so much about either our new members of Congress, are new heroines in the freshman class, as they like to put it, or anybody else, to have to focus on making sure it doesn’t feed into some of these false claims of anti-Semitism. There is a massive shift underway in the public discourse on this issue. And the problem is, Washington lives in a bubble, so they don’t get it. They think that this is still something that their base cares about. I think Kevin McCarthy probably believes that his base out in California thinks that there’s something anti-Semitic about challenging AIPAC.

I mean, if you look back every year–I think Charles, you’ve probably been at some of them, I’ve been in a bunch of them–protests at the yearly AIPAC gathering is predominantly Jewish. And that’s the reality of the new situation. It is part generational, for sure, but I don’t think that means that these young people, or those of us who are older and move with young people on this, I don’t think it’s up to us to worry about our language in how we are responding to false claims of anti-Semitism. I think that our responsibility is to fight against real anti-Semitism as hard as possible, to fight against racism, to fight for Palestinian rights, and not allow these fake accusations to derail us from that.

CHARLES LENCHNER: But Phyllis, just imagine if you could go back in time and have Ilhan say what she said without using the word Benjamins. Wouldn’t that have saved all of us a lot of effort?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: No, because I don’t think this was actually about the statement. This was a chance for them to go after her. Remember, this is two hours after Kevin McCarthy said he wanted to go after Ilhan Omar and Rashid Tlaib, not because she said something about Benjamins or she said something about AIPAC, but because they support Palestinian rights, whether that’s BDS or in some other form. That’s what he was saying before she ever said this, this was in response to that. Yes, he grabbed this opportunity, he would have grabbed another opportunity. So no, I don’t think that this is something that would have been so different if we could go back in time and had Ilhan say something not mentioning Benjamins. That’s not what he was actually responding to.

MARC STEINER: And I think that part of it here–first of all, they’re after Ilhan Omar and some of the other new folks to begin with. They want to get rid of them, and they’re going to do their best to get rid of them in the next election.

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Trump just said it again, she should resign from Congress.

MARC STEINER: Right, and I’m going to play that clip right here. And the other piece is, we keep saying Benjamins, she was talking about a rap song. That’s what it came out of.

CHARLES LENCHNER: Money.

MARC STEINER: The money.

PHYLLIS BENNIS: And the fact that she is a Black African Muslim refugee. That’s really what’s going on here. Who’s being targeted for these kinds of claimed actions? Kevin McCarthy, when he said “These three billionaire Jews, Soros and Stayer and Bloomberg are buying elections,” nobody called him out for anti-Semitism in a serious way.

MARC STEINER: Somebody should have, because that wasn’t an anti-Semitic statement.

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Maybe, maybe not. Probably was. But nobody held him responsible. The people being held responsible are this new group that, in their view, have no business being Congress because they’re Black women, they’re Muslim women, they’re Arab women, they’re African women. That’s not who gets any slack here. That’s not who gets to say that the U.S. support for Israel is wrong. They don’t get to say that in their view, and that’s what they’re responding to. It’s not the particular word she used.

MARC STEINER: So let me shift this a bit here in the little bit of time we have left and kind of look at where this takes the political struggle at the moment in America. There’s a graph we’re about to put up here, and this graph shows how different things have become, it’s from the Pew study that just came out recently. And it shows how the support for Israel, in some ways, has remained constant in terms of 45 to 46 percent supporting Israel over Palestinians, Palestinians have grown a little. But the interesting thing to look at here is that the one graph sympathized with Israel by party, Republicans were 79 percent, Democrats were 27 percent, and Independents were 42 percent.

PHYLLIS BENNIS: It’s a hugely partisan issue now and it never was before.

MARC STEINER: It never was before.

PHYLLIS BENNIS: When I was a kid growing up in the Zionist movement in California, it kind of was a partisan movement then because it was a left-wing issue. And it was Democrats who supported Israel, the Republicans were sort of generically anti-Semitic and they linked that to Israel, didn’t support it very much. There’s been a massive shift.

MARC STEINER: So I’m curious, where do you think this takes us in the next several years, as the presidential battle looms in 2020? Because I too was in a Habonim and Hashomer, that same movement, as a kid in the 50s and early 60s. But let’s play this clip of Trump at his press conference. And I just want, for a few minutes here before we end, to talk about what this portends for the political battle both inside the Democratic Party, and the larger political struggle and where it might take us vis a vis the Jewish community and other communities in this country.

DONALD TRUMP: Anti-Semitism has no place in the United States Congress. Congressman Omar is terrible, what she said, and I think she should either resign from Congress or she should certainly resign from the House Foreign Affairs Committee. What she said is so deep-seated in her heart that her lame apology, and that’s what it was, it was lame and she didn’t mean a word of it, was just not appropriate. I think she should resign from Congress, frankly.

MARC STEINER: OK. We can discuss “lame” a long time here. But so, let’s talk a bit about what this portends for the future. Phyllis, let me start with you and then we’ll go to Charles.

PHYLLIS BENNIS: I think we’ve been seeing this for quite a long time. The shift in discourse in the public arena is enormous, particularly in the Jewish community, where you now have a left, a right, and a center among American Jews, which you never really had before. There was one position. AIPAC used to be able to not only bring money to the table, but they also could guarantee votes in a number of areas because they were the only–they writ large, the lobby forces, which is not only AIPAC, the Council of Presidents, all of the various Jewish communal organizations really did speak with one voice for decades in this country. And they could guarantee a lot of votes. They can’t do that anymore. Right now, they’re only bringing money to the table because they no longer speak for the vast majority of American Jews. That shift is also evident in the media, it’s evident in popular culture. We’re not seeing it nearly as fast as in Congress and at the policy level. There are some steps that are moving forward, but not as fast.

And the fact that there are now these extraordinary, brave, principled young people who happen to be Women of Color who are Muslim and Palestinian in Congress, is shaking up that reality as well. So I think what we’re looking at is an incredible openness right now, an incredible moment to use and move forward on educating people who are now more open than ever to hear the reality of why is it that we would say that there are Jews in this country, there are Jews all over the world who are critical of Israel, who are spending their time, their energy, the time of their lives focusing on building support for Palestinian rights against the denial of those rights by Israel, that Israel doesn’t speak for Jews and that they don’t accept the notion that Israel is somehow their state. So I think that that shift is a massive one, and it bodes very well to me for what’s going to happen in the next period. Will we see this kind of a change in the presidential election, where somebody is going to run for president saying, “I stand for Palestinian rights?” Probably not yet, but we’re certainly moving towards that.

MARC STEINER: And Charles, as somebody who actually is involved in presidential politics, I’m curious where you think this might take us.

CHARLES LENCHNER: Well, I just want to point out that the main issue, sort of the large part of this conversation is that Trump is president. And I certainly don’t want him to be president after 2020. And in order to make that happen, we’re going to need a fairly large coalition that has a lot of people who don’t usually get along or have divergent interests. One of the ways that you could split that coalition up to defeat Trump, one of the ways that you could create a weakened united front in order to get rid of him, is to use the issue of Israel and anti-Semitism and Palestine in order to create a wedge between those two things.

And I feel as though If Not Now, which is another organization that’s been very active in these protests against the AIPAC annual conference, is sort of setting the correct chart. Rather than jumping only on one side, they’re expressing sort of sympathy with people who don’t agree with them, and at the same time, circulating petitions in Minnesota in favor of Ilhan Omar, and sort of trying to figure out how to bring all of our people together on the same side and remember who the main enemy is, instead of allowing this issue to divide us even more. And I think that there are some parts of the left that don’t quite see it the same way. They relish the idea of an internal fight that would pit, say, the Democratic leadership against the voices of Ilhan Omar. They are totally fine with it, because it helps one side of that grow and get more attention than the other, whereas I think it’s better to not have this fight at this time.

MARC STEINER: This has really been a fascinating discussion and I appreciate the two of you taking the time. Phyllis Bennis, it’s always a joy to talk with you, and I’ve enjoyed it over the years, thank you so much for being with us today.

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Thank you.

MARC STEINER: And Charles Lenchner here for The Real News Network, good to have you with us as well.

CHARLES LENCHNER: Thank you.

MARC STEINER: And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you for joining us. Take care.