A guide to antisemitism for American progressives

Claiming American Jews are more loyal to Israel than to the United States is an old antisemitic claim.

Ilhan Omar (photo credit: REUTERS)
Ilhan Omar
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Many American liberals and progressives seem flummoxed by how to respond to charges that freshman member of Congress Ilhan Omar is antisemitic.
It’s widely accepted among liberal Americans that criticism of Israel is not the same as criticism of Jews, and that criticism of Israel is not inherently antisemitic. Read any Israeli newspaper, including this one, and you won’t have a hard time finding criticism of the Israeli government.
But there is a line, a place where criticism of Israel becomes a cover for antisemitism, and it’s essential that liberals figure out where that line is, and not tolerate antisemitism in their midst. The UK, of course, has a very similar problem with Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party.
We need some clarity on this issue. It’s not enough to say, as former US Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart said about pornography, “I know it when I see it.”
Unfortunately, we often have to rely on knowing it when we see it, because it’s a complicated topic – you have to know some history to know which statements are echoing long-standing antisemitic tropes, and which are just criticism of Israeli policy. Some examples:
OK: wanting to understand the impact of AIPAC in American politics.
Not OK: “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is okay to push for allegiance to a foreign country,” something Omar said on a panel discussion. Why? It’s an echo of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an early 20th-century fictitious Russian propaganda piece that depicts Jews as fundamentally disloyal to the countries where they live.
Claiming American Jews are more loyal to Israel than to the United States is an old antisemitic claim. If anything, Muslims should be more susceptible to a charge like this than Jews. Mecca, in Saudi Arabia, is arguably more important to Muslims than Israel is to Jews – it’s a religious obligation on Muslims to go on hajj, to visit Mecca at least once in their lives. Yet no one claims Muslims have an overwhelming political allegiance to Saudi Arabia.
OK: Pointing out human rights abuses perpetrated on Palestinians by Israel. As a former chairman of the Israeli NGO Rabbis for Human Rights, I’m very familiar with these problems.
Not OK: equating Israel with the Nazis (there are no death camps for Palestinians) or singling out Israel for condemnation while ignoring even worse human rights violations by countries such as Saudi Arabia or China. That’s why most Israelis feel the UN is completely irrelevant: In 2018 it issued 21 resolutions condemning Israel, and only six criticizing other countries. No, Israel is not three times worse than the rest of the world combined. And those same critics of Israel’s human rights record ignore the Palestinian Authority’s human rights record: for example, gays are routinely arrested and tortured by the PA. Where’s the outcry over that?
OK: Criticizing the role of big money in politics.
Not OK: Tweeting, as Omar did, “It’s all about the Benjamins baby,” regarding American support for Israel. It’s a long-standing antisemitic trope that Jews control the world by paying off politicians. Omar doubled down by saying explicitly that it’s AIPAC that pays American politicians to be pro-Israel. Not true. AIPAC is a lobbying organization, not a political action committee. It advocates, it doesn’t directly support candidates. Most years, AIPAC’s spending on lobbying doesn’t even break into the top 50 organizations. Individual tech companies, banks, drug companies and industry associations all far outspend AIPAC.
Not OK is tweeting, “We cannot allow Soros, Steyer, and Bloomberg to BUY this election! Get out and vote Republican November 6th,” as then-House majority leader Kevin McCarthy did. What purpose can there be to singling out these Jewish billionaires, when there are plenty of non-Jewish wealthy supporters of the Democratic Party, other than to arouse support from antisemites? It would be similarly wrong for liberals to single out wealthy Jewish Republican donors, such as Sheldon Adelson.
Progressive Americans should not give Omar a pass on antisemitic comments because she’s a woman or a person of color. Antisemitism needs to be condemned just as strongly when it comes from “your team” as when it comes from the “other team.”
And if Omar truly wants to have a “broader debate of what is happening with Palestine,” as she claims she does, she would be well served to avoid using antisemitic tropes. Because if she does, the debate will be about her antisemitism and not about the political situation in Israel/Palestine. I suggest she hire someone who’s Jewish to help her with messaging on anything having to do with Israel. She appears to be tone-deaf herself.
The writer is a rabbi and businessman who divides his time between Israel and the US. He regularly writes about ethical issues for The Jerusalem Post.