Reality check: A word of advice to Ilhan Omar: Stop talking about ‘Benjamins'

One of the first Muslim congresswomen, Omar last month said that Israel’s supporters in the US were pushing American politicians to pledge “allegiance to a foreign country.”

March 11, 2019 08:21
4 minute read.
Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) participates in a House Education and Labor Committee Markup on the H.R. 582

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) participates in a House Education and Labor Committee Markup on the H.R. 582 Raise The Wage Act, in the Rayburn House Office Building on March 6, 2019 in Washington, D.C. (photo credit: MARK WILSON / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / AFP)


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According to US President Donald Trump, “The Democrats have become an anti-Israel party and anti-Jewish party.”

Not surprisingly, given it’s the current US leader we’re talking about, the facts portray a different story.

A Gallup poll released last week showed that for the years 2017-2019, 58% of liberal Democrats and 66% of moderate/conservative Democrats viewed Israel “very/mostly favorable.” To be sure, moderate/liberal Republicans (72%) and conservative Republicans (87%) polled higher numbers in Israel’s favor, but still, the Democratic figures are hardly those of an “anti-Israel party.”

Trump’s remarks, however, did not come out of nowhere. He was speaking after last week’s US House of Representatives vote condemning bigotry, which originally was intended to condemn antisemitism following comments by Democratic Congresswoman Ilhan Omar of Minnesota. In the end, the resolution was watered down to become a broader anti-hate measure condemning antisemitism, anti-Muslim discrimination and bigotry against minorities “as hateful expressions of intolerance.”

One of the first Muslim congresswomen, Omar last month said that Israel’s supporters in the US were pushing American politicians to pledge “allegiance to a foreign country.” She has also tweeted (for which she later apologized) that defending Israel was “all about the Benjamins,” a reference to $100 banknotes featuring Benjamin Franklin.

Both remarks are deeply problematic, rekindling longtime antisemitic tropes about Jews having dual loyalties and the undue power of Jewish money, and she deserves to be called out and condemned. In a side note, though, it should be remembered that Omar is not the first American politician to crudely reference Jewish money. Remember Trump on the campaign trail back in 2015 and his remarks to the Republican Jewish Coalition: “You’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money.”
Seeking to defend herself, Omar tweeted last week that she was concerned that any criticism of Israel’s policies or Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be construed as antisemitic. This question will become particularly relevant over the next few years, as the Democratic Party seeks to integrate the new, more left-wing progressives such as Omar and New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who entered national politics in last November’s midterms.

This cohort is definitely less pro-Israel than centrist or conservative Democrats. The annual Gallup world affairs survey found a striking decline in net sympathy (the percent of those who sympathize more with Israelis minus the percent of those who sympathize more with Palestinians) among liberal democrats from +17 in 2013-2016 to +3 in 2017-2019.

There are a number of reasons for this decline. As Peter Beinart points out in a long essay in The Forward, “younger progressives are highly universalistic. They’re suspicious of any form of nationalism that seems exclusive. That universalism makes them suspicious of both Zionism and the white Christian nationalism that in the US sometimes shades into antisemitism.”

On top of this, Netanyahu’s total one-sided support for the Trump administration has also placed Israel on the wrong side of the progressives’ agenda. While our prime minister is quick to denounce any perceived moral equivocation from the Left, there was a deafening silence from him when Trump meekly talked of violence “on both sides” in the Charlottesville protests and failed to condemn the white supremacists’ shouts of “the Jews will not replace us.”

SO, NOTING Omar’s comment, how should left-wing parties overseas draw the line between legitimate criticism of Israel and antisemitism?

This is an issue with which the Labour Party in the United Kingdom is also grappling and, so far, utterly failing to resolve. Under the left-wing Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, seven Labour members of Parliament recently resigned the party whip and formed an Independent Group in the House of Commons due to the antisemitic abuse they have received from other party members because of their support for Israel.

The truth is, for as long as Corbyn is party leader, the British Labour Party is unlikely to make much progress here. After all, Corbyn is a person who failed to notice the antisemitic imagery in a London street mural that showed Jewish-looking bankers playing Monopoly, with their tabletop resting on the bowed naked backs of several workers.

It’s therefore worth looking to one of Corbyn’s predecessors and three-time British prime minister Tony Blair for guidance. In a radio interview in which he was asked about antisemitism in the Labour Party, he had this to say: “It’s not that you can’t have criticism of the government of Israel... but when that then trends into criticism of the existence of Israel, or you single out Israel in the Middle East, that it very quickly seeps into antisemitism, and that’s tragic.”

So there you have it, Congresswoman Omar: Feel free to criticize Netanyahu and Israel, but remember there are other burning issues in the Middle East worthy of your attention – 600,000 dead Syrians for example – and, yes, avoid talking about “Benjamins.”

The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.

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