Five Things to Know This Week: Breaking Down the Ilhan Omar Scandal
1. Unpacking the Ilhan Omar scandal
The Facts: Freshman Democrat Ilhan Omar, one of two newly-elected Muslim women in the House of Representatives, created a firestorm over the weekend after tweeting “It’s all about the Benjamin’s baby” (as in $100 bills carrying the portrait of Benjamin Franklin). The context? a response to a tweet about Republican leader Kevin McCarthy calling on Speaker Pelosi to penalize Omar and fellow Democrat Rashida Tlaib for supporting anti-Israel boycotts. Responding to a follow-up question on Twitter inquiring who is paying American politicians to be pro-Israel, Omar responded: AIPAC!
Why does it matter? Because arguing that Jews somehow use their money to control world politics is one of the oldest anti-Semitic canards, one that has fueled hatred and violence against Jews for centuries. “The notion that wealthy Jews are controlling the government is a longstanding anti-Semitic trope and one of the pillars of modern anti-Semitism,” said ADL’s CEO and national director Jonathan Greenblatt, calling the claim “a retread of ideas spread by bigots from David Duke to Louis Farrakhan.”
Did Omar know how offensive her tweet was to Jews? She at least should have. The alleged nexus of Jewish money and political power is so fundamental to anti-Semitic rhetoric that it is hard to imagine anyone, especially not an elected official, not being aware of it. (Just as it is hard to imaging that Donald Trump was unaware of this sensitivity when he tweeted the Hillary, Star of David, pile of dollars ad back in July of 2016.) And if claiming that Jews use their money to control politicians did not raise any red flags for Omar, well, she should have probably spent more time engaging with Jewish groups and civil rights advocates battling anti-Semitism.
The reactions: Response to Omar’s tweet was nothing short of wall-to-wall condemnation. Republicans were naturally quick to denounce Omar and demand that Democratic leadership take action against her; Democrats expressed their dismay, and in some cases, disgust, at Omar’s comments. Jewish groups also weighed in, and even Trump’s ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, added his voice, tweeting his rebuke of the claim that American officials are paid to support Israel: “This US official gladly took a massive pay cut for the privilege to serve & the honor of advancing US’ best interests by supporting the US-Israel relationship.”
What does it mean for Omar? Alongside Tlaib, Omar has sought to position herself as a new voice on Israeli-Palestinian issues. She is unabashedly pro-BDS (after being against it during the elections), willing to take on the party establishment’s almost automatic embrace of Israel, and has taken the Palestinian side, which is extremely unpopular in Washington. Now, her power to change the discourse about Israel seems diminished. As former ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro put it: “Had she come to DC, shown sympathy and empathy for Israelis and Palestinians, learned to assign responsibility in appropriate measure to both sides, considered the totality of US interests in the region, maybe taken a trip to learn, she could have had real influence.”
Is there any silver lining here? Yes, there are a couple. First, for the Democrats who have been struggling to find their footing on Israel since the midterm elections. The unfortunate set of tweets by Omar helps demarcate the party’s boundaries on the issue. Democrats have unanimously made it clear that anti-Semitism is off limits, while leaving the floor open to a Bernie Sanders-like approach willing to question Israeli policies. Ilhan Omar herself also may have something to gain from this teaching moment: She has already proven in the past (after stating that “Israel hypnotized the world”) her willingness to listen, respond, and retract after learning that her comments were insensitive. On Monday, Omar tweeted an apology for her weekend comments. “Listening and learning, but standing strong,” she wrote adding: “We have to always be willing to step back and think through criticism, just as I expect people to hear me when others attack me for my identity. This is why I unequivocally apologize.”
2. Why Dermer won’t meet J Street
Michael Oren, who served as Israel’s ambassador to Washington from 2009 to 2013, was once asked by a guest about his views regarding J Street, a pro-Israel left-leaning lobbying group established in 2007. Oren stood up theatrically, opened his desk drawer and pulled out a business card of one of the lobby’s leaders. “Look at it,” he urged his guest. “Not even one letter in blue, the color of the state of Israel.” Later, in his book Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide, Oren expanded on this seemingly meaningless example, noting that the group’s logo was void of any symbol of Israel, in stark contrast to that of other pro-Israel groups. “I had no illusions about the group, which received funds from anti-Israel contributors, supported every legislator critical of Israel, and stridently attacked mainstream American Jewish leaders,” he wrote.
Oren, who initially had some low-level contacts with J Street, ended up boycotting the group, refusing to attend their conferences or meet leaders of the organization. Toward the end of his tenure, Oren dispatched his deputy, veteran diplomat Baruch Binah to address J Street’s conference. What was supposed to be a goodwill gesture, did not end well. Binah’s speech was polite, but his message was clear: Israel views J Street’s activism as too extreme.
When Ron Dermer succeeded Oren as ambassador, the boycott against J Street continued. Dermer, a close advisor to Netanyahu, served as ambassador in the most tense period the relationship between the two countries had known, when the Obama administration negotiated a nuclear deal with Iran. Israel was staunchly against it. J Street supported the deal.
Last week, Dermer sat down in New York to discuss his tenure and, among other issues, tried to explain his boycott of J Street. Jewish Insider reported that Dermer argued that J Street brought it upon itself. “The problem that you have here is not that they have positions. It is that they work to pressure to Israel to accept their decisions. That’s not Zionism. Zionism means respecting the will of the Israeli public even if you disagree with it,” Dermer said.
So are Jewish Americans not allowed to try and advance positions contrary to those of the Israeli government? Dermer went on:
“Two weeks after I arrived as an ambassador, there was the interim agreement with Iran. There wasn’t, if I recall correctly, any Zionist party in Israel that supported it. But here you had an organization that not only supported it but lobbied for it…To be pro-Israel, I think means, that on matters of life and death, when all of the Israeli public are united about something, that if you take an opposite view to that and you press to have that view imposed on Israel, I don’t think that’s a Zionist response.”
There are a couple of issues here:
First, the claim that no Zionist party in Israel supported the deal is inaccurate. Meretz did.
Also, not all of the Israeli public was “united” against the deal. While a huge majority of 78 percent of Jewish Israelis agreed with Netanyahu that the deal endangered Israel, 15 percent thought otherwise and 7 percent did not know.
But also, what about disagreeing with Israelis on issues that are not “life or death”? Will Dermer boycott the Reform and Conservative movements, the Federations and major Jewish organizations that spoke out and advocated against Netanyahu’s stance on the Western Wall? And on conversions?
And what happens when resistance to Israeli policy comes from the right-wing? Dermer touched on that issue:
“Israel’s government could make a decision for peace, to make a big concession, and then the question is: will there be an organization here in the United States that will go to an administration to lobby to force Israel to accept something that its free people do not want?” When asked if in that case he will meet with that organization, Dermer replied: “I will not.”
But here too, there’s a need for a quick reality check: Dermer gladly engages with the Zionist Organization of America and its leader Morton Klein, although back in the mid 90s they had lobbied the U.S. Congress to limit aid to Palestinians, even though the elected Israeli government wanted it continued and expanded.
3. Will Congress fund school Holocaust education?
It may come as a surprise to some, but only eight states have laws requiring schools to teach about the Holocaust. A bill introduced last week by Democrat Carolyn Maloney and Republican Elise Stefanik, both from New York, will try to deal with this issue by providing support and federal funding for Holocaust education in public and private schools. Another surprising fact: Maloney already introduced the bill in the last Congress, but it never passed.
4. Peace plan watch: Jared is on the move
Can’t wait for the Trump Middle East peace plan? Well, things are happening. Jared Kushner is off to the region to present parts of the plan to Arab nations. Then, alongside special envoy Jason Greenblatt, he will join the U.S-organized anti-Iran summit in Warsaw to talk a little more about the plan and will discuss it privately with Bibi Netanyahu. Fox News reported that a draft of the “deal of the century” is all done, that it consists of 175-200 pages and was already approved by the big boss in the Oval Office. Not so, tweeted Greenblatt. “We aren’t there yet & we’ll continue to refine it until release.” He added that the “175 pages is also inaccurate” and the plan isn’t, in fact, that long.
5. Bibi’s pre-election photo-ops
As elections in Israel approach, Netanyahu is adding to his photo-op collection. After adorning towers in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv with giant billboards depicting himself and President Trump, Netanyahu will meet this week with Vice President Mike Pence in Warsaw, then with Russia’s Vladimir Putin later in the month.