Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

The firestorm of criticism that greeted newly elected Congresswoman (D-MN) Ilhan Omar’s tweets about the Israel lobby’s financial and political clout in Congress reveals as much about her critics as it does about the rising tide of progressive politicians who no longer show deference to establishment prohibitions on criticizing Israel.  Aware that they have largely lost the moral argument about Israel’s brutal occupation policies against the Palestinian people, Omar’s critics pounced on the allegedly antisemitic tone of her comments rather than address her questioning of the US’s one-sided support for Israel, especially in the US Congress.  Although she later apologized under intense pressure by the Democratic establishment, the fierceness of the response to Rep. Omar—along with the rush to pass legislation to shield Israel from boycotts over its human rights abuses—reveals a growing insecurity among Israel’s defenders about the progressive lawmakers and activists who are breaching the norms and taboos that once shielded Israel from critical scrutiny. We asked several commentators to reflect on this largely manufactured controversy and what it tells us about the current state of debate about Israel in the US today.


It’s not all about the Benjamins. It’s about the empire too.

Joel Beinin

Representative Ilhan Omar’s response to Glenn Greenwald’s tweet as an explanation for the extraordinary and almost unconditional support for Israel among the U.S. political class was inelegant and only partially correct. Suggesting that the Zionist lobby injects an enormous amount of money into the political process and therefore has an outsized influence over U.S. Middle East policy, however, is not an antisemitic canard. It’s a fact.

In April, 2016, J.J. Goldberg, editor-at-large and former editor-in-chief of the (now only online) American-Jewish newspaper, The Forward, participated in a J Street sponsored panel about the upcoming election held in a Washington D.C. synagogue. The panel’s moderator, New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, asked Goldberg about “funding” and pro-Israel politics. Goldberg responded that he had recently read a report of the Center for Responsive Politics listing the top donors to 527s (tax-exempt campaign entities) and super-PACs that “knocked my socks off.”1 “[E]ight of the 36 Republican bigs were Jewish, and of the 14 Democrats, only one was not Jewish.”2

Once Goldberg opened this Pandora’s box, Stephanie Schriock, president of Emily’s List, which funds pro-choice Democratic women candidates, revealed some truths of her own. Schriock, apparently the only non-Jew on the panel, explained how money and pro-Israel politics–with the assistance of the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC)–became linked in the Democratic Party:

I started as a finance director. I worked for candidates in the 90’s as their finance director. And I would come on a congressional race, I am a twenty-something kid who also knows nothing beyond the state borders, let alone overseas, and you thought about where you are going to go to raise the money that you needed to raise to win a race. And you went to labor, you went to the choice community, and you went to the Jewish community. But before you went to the Jewish community, you had a conversation with the lead AIPAC person in your state and they made it clear that you needed a paper on Israel. And so you called all of your friends who already had a paper on Israel – that was designed by AIPAC—and we made that your paper.

 

This was before there was a campaign manager or a policy director or a field director because you got to raise money before you do all of that. I have written more Israel papers than you can imagine. I’m from Montana. I barely knew where Israel was until I looked at a map, and the poor campaign manager would come in, or the policy director, and I’d be like, ‘Here is your paper on Israel. This is our policy.’ We’ve sent it all over the country because this is how we raise money. … This means that these candidates who were farmers, school teachers, or businesswomen, ended up having an Israel position without having any significant conversations with anybody…

Incredulously, Cohen asked if the Israel position papers were all the same. “Very similar. Incredibly similar,” replied Schriock. She clarified, “…this country had one very clear unmovable set of policies, and it wasn’t driven by voters.” Cohen asked what might happen if a candidate didn’t adopt AIPAC’s position on Israel. “You thought that the money was going to be gone,” replied Schriock. She explained, “These are candidates…who “really have to get those $5000 PAC checks from the pro-Israel PAC in St. Louis.” That’s 50 Benjamins.

No one denounced this panel as antisemitic—that would have been absurd for an event held in a synagogue. Yet the substance of Goldberg’s and Schriock’s comments was exactly the same as Ilhan Omar’s tweet. The difference? Goldberg and Schriock were shielded by the venue, J Street’s sponsorship of the panel and their largely Jewish audience. Most importantly, Goldberg and Schriock do not advocate Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel. If they did, J Street would not have invited them to participate in the panel.

Moreover, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), despite his attack on Omar, actually agrees with Goldberg and Schriock. In late October he tweeted, “We cannot allow Soros, Steyer, and Bloomberg to BUY this election! Get out and vote Republican November 6th. #MAGA.” That tweet has been removed from McCarthy’s account, although no Republican ever suggested he should apologize for it.

But the extraordinary support for Israel among the U.S. political class isn’t all about the Benjamins. If AIPAC and the dozens of political action committees (PACs) whose contributions it coordinates were trying to convince politicians to adopt a policy that did not contribute to maintaining and expanding the American empire in the Middle East and beyond, then we would be hearing comments like Kevin McCarthy’s truly antisemitic tweet quoted above with great regularity from across the political spectrum. It’s the confluence of imperial interests, political money and the popular Jewish and non-Jewish understanding of Israel as the moral legatee of the victims of Nazi mass murder that have combined to shut down debate on US Middle East policy.

Politicians who challenge these propositions will face many more accusations of antisemitism. The best response is not an apology: it is to deepen the discussion and to explain what really motivates US Middle East policy and why it should change.

[1] A video of the entire panel is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DnJrYrBhR9s

[2] Goldberg spoke of the 50 largest donors; CRP’s list now includes the 100 largest donors.

 


Ilhan Omar and the Burden of Perfection When You Are Black, Woman and Muslim

Noura Erakat 

The recent maelstrom that enveloped Congresswoman Ilhan Omar for her comments about the power of the Israel lobby is as frustrating as it is unsurprising. And it has everything to do with who she is and what she looks like.

Omar is a black Muslim woman, a refugee from Somalia, and, most importantly, defiant and unapologetic. Her visible markers of distinction—not white, not Christian, not male—make her a presumptive threat to the political establishment. These markers may not have triggered the establishment’s anxiety, however, had Omar simply adorned them as displays of diversity that could be celebrated during moments of performative tolerance once or twice a year, such as Black History Month or International Women’s Day. But Omar did not come to Congress to fit in. She does not apologize for being radically different or base her political agenda on making sure that she and others like her fit in. She came to confront the system that systematically excludes people like her. By definition, therefore, she is a threat the moment she walks into a room and before she even says a word.

The presumption that Omar does not belong in Congress in the first place imposes upon her a burden to demonstrate fidelity to the political establishment’s views, including those on US Middle East policies. It’s no surprise, therefore, that the establishment responded so vehemently when she tweeted a few words about the powerful role of the Israel Lobby, which is an open secret in Washington. Like Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, who is unapologetically Palestinian, there is an expectation that Omar must prove her loyalty to US empire. Otherwise, she is an enemy lurking within.

The expectation to master and reproduce establishment norms is the burden imposed upon nearly all immigrants, especially refugees, upon black communities and upon Muslims who have borne the violent brunt of US imperial warfare and racial subordination. As a result, there was no way anyone was going to give Omar the benefit of the doubt if she did not express herself perfectly within establishment terms. On the contrary, it seems that everyone was waiting for her to make a mistake: to be less than perfect.

In this fraught context, Congresswoman Omar tweeted just seven words and an emoji in a total of two texts: “It’s all about the Benjamins Baby” and “AIPAC!” Had she added a few words to her tweets, she may have been more insulated, although even this may not have been enough. For example, her detractors may not have been as emboldened had she written: “AIPAC is not unique for its influence on our broken system” or “Congressional members are too beholden to special interest groups” or “let me be clear this is about a political lobby and not ‘Jewish money.’” But precisely because she was already a presumptive threat, they were merely waiting for an opportunity to attack.

The opportunism among her critics reflects a similar outcry against Marc Lamont Hill in late November, 2018. The liberal establishment blasted Hill for calling for freedom in Palestine from the “river to the sea.” He may have been spared some of the vitriol had he merely said, “for Palestinians and Israelis from the river to the sea.” But this was not about what Hill meant, this was about his audacity as a black radical to challenge Israel and US empire. His fatal mistake, like Omar’s, was that he was not perfect.

As Congresswoman Tlaib tweeted on 11 February 2019:

Omar’s remarks about the powerful influence of the Israel Lobby on US Middle East policy, nevertheless, are not unprecedented, nor lacking factual support. The political scientists Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer wrote a book on the topic in 2007. They show that the Israel Lobby’s seeming success is largely a reflection of shared interests with US empire. But in cases where those interests diverge, the influence of the Israel Lobby compels US lawmakers to act against US interests. Despite their work reflecting scholarly rigor and research, Walt and Mearsheimer were nevertheless assailed with accusations of antisemitism for breaching a taboo in U.S. politics, much like Omar today.

Since at least 1967, the US has aligned itself with Israel as its “most unique ally” in its effort to establish US hegemony in the Middle East. Even after the US emerged as the world’s sole superpower in the early 1990’s, cultural and political norms continue to entwine Israel with US political identity. This imbrication was on display after al-Qaeda attacked the US in 2001, when the racist tropes about Arabs and Muslims that Israel uses to justify its systematic abuse of Palestinians and wars in the region were deployed by the Bush Administration. In the US “global war on terror,” Israel became the eastern-most front-line against “Muslim terrorists.”

But what is different now than when Walt and Mearsheimer wrote about the Israel Lobby is that the deep and counterproductive entwinement between the US and Israel has recently come under intense scrutiny, thanks to decades of relentless activism and sacrifice by grassroots movements, scholars and journalists who no longer respect the norms and taboos that shielded the US alignment with Israel previously. Rep. Omar, along with Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and others, reflect this new progressive sensibility and its refusal to operate within the old prohibitions when it comes to Israel.

The controversy over Omar’s comments, therefore, are not just about Israel but also about a Democratic Party establishment that is threatened by an insurgency within its ranks and seeks to keep progressive new lawmakers in their place. Perhaps unwittingly, the Democratic establishment has played into the Republican Party’s hands, which is jumping on an opportunity to divide the other side of the aisle. The Democratic establishment practically delivered this opportunity to Trump himself, who tweeted that Omar should be removed from her Foreign Affairs Committee appointment if not from Congress all together. As anti-BDS legislation, which just cleared the Senate, heads to the House, it seems likely that Democrats will vote for the legislation to prove their fidelity to Israel while attempting to rehabilitate their own party which they single-handedly fractured.

As several journalists have deftly shown, while Omar’s comments may be abstractly related to historic antisemitic tropes, her mistake pales in comparison to the overt antisemitic tropes on display by officials in the highest office, including by President Trump. The difference is that Trump remains a fervent supporter of Israel even if it comes at the expense of protecting Jewish life. There is an important difference between protecting Israel and protecting Jews—they are not the same—yet we often see politicians rushing to protect Israel even as they kindle antagonism against Jews. It seems that the Israel Lobby is more concerned with the former, while giving blatant antisemites a pass. And unlike Omar, Trump does not have to prove his loyalty to the US over and over again.

 


A Manufactured Controversy

Omar Baddar

The controversy around Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s tweets was manufactured to achieve specific political ends. It was not born out of any genuine concern about antisemitism: After all, President Donald Trump, who is demanding that Omar resign, has (unlike her) trotted out actual antisemitic tropes throughout his campaign for the presidency. To take but one example, during a meeting with the Republican Jewish Coalition in late 2015, he told them: “You’re not gonna support me because I don’t want your money. You want to control your politicians.”

Antisemitism is certainly a real and growing problem in the US that demands to be taken seriously. Any suggestion that American Jews are disloyal to the US or that “Jewish money” is controlling US politics should be combated by every person who has a shred of decency. At the same time (not “but” because these are perfectly complementary ideas), there is nothing more contemptible than to trivialize antisemitism by wielding it as a political weapon to justify the oppression of Palestinians and to silence critics of Israeli policy.

Though not antisemitic, one could, nevertheless, still argue that Omar’s comments were not strategic, by opening herself up to this twisting of words and diverting attention to confronting the often-deranged accusations against her instead of about what really matters, namely, how to end unconditional US support for Israel’s reprehensible policies. Nonetheless, Omar didn’t say anything particularly wrong: Special interest money has undue influence on US politics, whether this concerns medical insurance industry money affecting healthcare policy, fossil fuel money affecting environmental policy or pro-Israel money affecting foreign policy with Israel. In fact, Omar herself has consistently criticized the undue influence of money in politics, from corporate influence over elections, to fossil fuel industry money and even to Saudi money influencing President Trump’s unstinting support for Saudi Arabia.

The idea that the pro-Israel lobby (widely acknowledged as one of the most effective lobbies in Washington) is somehow an exception in this system, and magically doesn’t use the same tools of influence that other special interest groups use, is utterly absurd. Former Congressman Brian Baird spoke openly about how the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) uses money to influence politics, as have countless other Washington insiders (including former AIPAC employee MJ Rosenberg). Indeed, the AIPAC website invites people to join a Congressional Club by committing (this is a requirement) to spend thousands of dollars on pro-Israel congressional candidates during election cycles. Indeed, AIPAC is so influential that it often can’t help bragging about how influential it is, as former Senior AIPAC official Steven Rosen once did when sitting with pro-Israel journalist Jeffrey Goldberg in a restaurant, where Rosen pointed to napkin and boasted that AIPAC could have 70 senators’ signatures on it in 24 hours. A simple google search on Sheldon Adelson, with his oversized role in Republican electoral funding and his zealous support for Israel’s far-right, should be enough to demonstrate that pro-Israel money plays a role in US politics.

It is safe to assume that most of the people attacking Omar and accusing her of antisemitism don’t believe their own accusations. They have never called (nor would ever call) Thomas Friedman of the New York Times an antisemite or a self-hating Jew, even though Friedman explicitly said in 2011 that a standing ovation the US Congress gave to Netanyahu was “bought and paid for by the Israel lobby.” The reason is that Thomas Friedman’s mild centrist criticism of Israel is not seen as a threat to the US-Israel relationship the way this new progressive wave of women in the Democratic party is seen as a potential game changer.

This is what the manufactured controversy is really about: We are witnessing an attack on this new progressive wing of the Democratic Party because they recognize the injustices Israel imposes on Palestinians and they want to promote a more just and progressive US foreign policy. The best way to undermine this conscientious approach to Middle East policy is to smear it with false accusations of antisemitism. The softest targets to attack, given the current anti-Muslim climate that brought us the Trump presidency, are brown Muslim members of Congress who are already suspect and susceptible to such smears. The Democratic establishment shamefully caved in to this smear campaign, and coerced an apology out of Omar not because of what she actually said, but because of what the smear campaign chose to interpret she had said.

Watching the conversation unfold online, however, it is apparent that the discourse is shifting on the issue of Israel’s unjust treatment of Palestinians, and progressives are no longer intimidated by these smear campaigns—countless activists and journalists, including some Washington insiders, have come to Omar’s defense. This is a significant political moment, with the Democratic Party at a crossroads, as the progressive base is demanding an end to blind US support for Israel, given the routine atrocities it commits against Palestinians, the system of apartheid it imposes on them and its refusal to seriously pursue peace. Nevertheless, the old guard of the party will fight tooth and nail to maintain the status quo, so one must be ready for a bitter fight leading into the 2020 election.

Lastly, while hardline pro-Israel organizations like AIPAC were once only a threat to Palestinian rights, their growing desperation to halt this progressive shift in public opinion against Israeli policies has led them to promote policies that undermine the First Amendment right to free expression in the form of recent anti-boycott legislation. Marco Rubio—one of the largest recipients of funding from the pro-Israel extremist billionaire Sheldon Adelson—introduced and passed legislation that allows the US government to punish those who engage in boycotts of Israel or even its illegal settlements, in clear violation of the US Constitution. Moreover, Israel’s wanton killing of unarmed Palestinians at the Gaza fence earlier this year, its relentless bombing of civilian areas and its killing of hundreds of Palestinian children—outrages against humanity and against professed US values—does not generate a fraction of the backlash Congress has reserved for Ilhan Omar for merely daring to mention the influence of the pro-Israel lobby.

If we live long enough to see a reversal of the US’s uncritical embrace of Israel’s oppressive policies against Palestinians, I have no doubt that historians and political scientists will reflect on the hysterical attacks on Israel’s critics we’re currently witnessing in disbelief. Let’s be the generation that rights this colossal moral failure.

 


Israel, Zionism and Antisemitism

Mouin Rabbani

The recent uproar over Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s tweets about the Israel Lobby has unleashed renewed allegations that the progressive left provides an institutional home to antisemitism. The fact that some on the left go beyond criticizing specific Israeli policies to include a critique of the settler-colonial and exclusivist nature of Zionism, and thus reject the Israeli state itself, has additionally led to the charge that there is an intrinsic relationship between anti-Zionism and antisemitism, particularly on the left. It is a charge is worth exploring further as Israel solidifies its dominion over all of historic Palestine.

There are certainly individuals and groups who oppose Zionism and reject Israel on the basis of a hatred of Jews and a conviction that Jews form a nefarious collective who play a pernicious role in society and international affairs. For them any assessment of Zionism and Israel on the basis of their historical development or conduct is beside the point; if Israel had been established on an uninhabited Pacific island and developed into a model member of the international community, they would be just as implacably opposed to the “Zionist Occupation Government” and no less hostile to “international Jewry.”

Purely antisemitic hostility to Zionism and Israel, therefore, is not based on any specific concerns about Zionism, the nature of the Israeli state, or its mistreatment of those over whom it rules, and therefore fails to provide a persuasive case for a necessary link between anti-Zionism and antisemitism. An antisemite is not anti-Zionist per se, but opposes Zionism and Israel because they are prejudiced or discriminate against Jews—all Jews—solely because they are Jewish.

It therefore follows that there is no intrinsic relationship between antisemitism and anti-Zionism, properly understood. Anti-Zionism is opposition to the ideology and political program specific to the Zionist movement, not opposition to Jews in general. While there are various definitions of Zionism’s core principles, the most fundamental is that Zionism is a form of Jewish nationalism. Essentially, Zionism posits that the Jews are not just a religious community (like Catholics) or minority (like the Roma) but primarily a nation (what used to be known as a race and we today call a people) in its own right, no different than the English or Japanese. In the late nineteenth century European milieu in which Zionism emerged, this rather quickly developed into a program calling for the establishment of a Jewish nation-state. After considerable debate, the First Zionist Congress in 1897 identified Palestine as the focus of Jewish national aspirations, which ultimately led to a colonial settlement program and conflict with the indigenous inhabitants of Palestine, which is ongoing to this day.

Zionism has been confronted with anti-Zionism from the very outset. The first anti-Zionists were neither Palestinian Arabs nor European antisemites, but rather European Jews; many devoutly religious Jews rejected the project to establish a Jewish state in Palestine as sacrilege, on the grounds that a Return to Zion must result from divine rather than human intervention. An even broader spectrum of European Jews rejected Zionism for more profane worldly reasons. Many saw Zionism’s conception of Jews as a distinct nation, and its program to establish a separate national political entity, as fundamentally irreconcilable with the promise of Jewish emancipation and equal citizenship within Europe that emerged in the wake of the French Revolution. Such Jews rejected the Zionist view that Jews did not belong to the societies in which they lived nor belonged in Europe, and should therefore relocate to a “super ghetto” in the Middle East. This was augmented by fears that the existence of a Jewish state would expose Jewish citizens outside of that state to accusations of dual loyalty and that its policies could produce an anti-Semitic backlash.

Jewish antizionism is partially accounted for by the zeal with which the Zionist movement cultivated antisemites. The belief that antisemitism is a permanent and immutable feature of European civilization, and efforts to defeat it therefore futile, was an explicit premise of Zionism from its very inception, together with the conviction that the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine required Great Power sponsorship. These convictions laid the basis for efforts by Zionist leaders to seek the endorsement and support of powerful antisemites on the basis of a shared interest in mass Jewish emigration from Europe to Palestine. Early Zionist history is in fact riddled with such initiatives, and finally bore fruit in 1917 when British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour, who had been repeatedly denounced as an antisemite for many years, committed Great Britain to the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine. The willingness of the Zionist movement to engage with antisemitic leaders whom most advocates of Jewish emancipation argued should be opposed was by this point a well-established pattern. It continues today, with Israel openly courting various European populist-nationalists such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban and US evangelical leaders who are elsewhere rightfully denounced for their hostility to Jews (and uncritical endorsement of Israel and its policies).

 The fact that anti-Zionism exists in a variety of forms, motivated by a variety of concerns among different peoples, not least by those who see Zionism as an oppressive settler-colonial project in their indigenous homeland, has been conveniently forgotten by those who believe that only an antisemite would oppose Zionism. That Zionism defines itself as a national liberation movement that has achieved self-determination for the Jewish people, and that Israel’s establishment has been widely supported as an appropriate response to centuries of Jewish persecution culminating in the Holocaust, is in this context irrelevant. As a historically specific nationalist ideology and program, Zionism—like any other movement—can and should be judged and criticized on the basis of historical evidence, political and ideological values, as well as internationally-recognised criteria regarding law, rights and justice.

Those who today equate anti-Zionism with antisemitism base their argument on two simplistic propositions. The first is that rejecting Zionism or the state of Israel rather than condemning specific Israeli policies betrays antisemitic sentiment because Israel is the world’s only Jewish state and such opposition is not extended to other states, or similar settler-colonial states such as Australia and Canada. The second is that criticism or activism against Israeli policies is so disproportionate compared to criticism of other, worse, states that it betrays what is at best an unhealthy obsession with Jews.

Yet there are fundamental and fundamentally relevant differences between Israel and other states established through colonial settlement. Its continued mistreatment of Native Americans and African-Americans notwithstanding, the United States for example ceased implementing the Indian Removal Act and abolished slavery well over a century ago. Australia, Canada and New Zealand have for their part gone much further and recently commenced the long overdue process of recognizing and atoning for past sins and making amends through concrete policies to the descendants of their indigenous victims. In the words of Palestinian scholar Ahmad Samih Khalidi, “Israel was born in the full light of the twentieth century. Its actions are to be measured by contemporary mores, not by those of the fifteenth-nineteenth centuries”.

The two most instructive cases of settler-colonial states to compare with the Israeli case, in this regard, are those of South Africa, which in the 1990s was transformed beyond recognition, and Rhodesia, which no longer exists. South Africa was in fact expelled from the United Nations General Assembly in 1974 for its system of institutionalized racial inequality and only re-admitted after completing its democratic transition in 1994. For its part Rhodesia was never admitted to the world body due to the racist nature of the state. In 1968 United Nations Security Council Resolution 253 unanimously (15-0-0) denounced the latter’s “illegal regime” and applied comprehensive economic sanctions against it. It additionally required all UN member states to deny entry to any individual traveling on a Rhodesian passport and foreign resident of Rhodesia believed to be assisting or encouraging its unlawful regime; bar vessels and airlines operating from or registered in Rhodesia from their territory; and prevent emigration, tourism and remittances to the renegade state.

And if it is antisemitic to decry Israel’s crimes while turning a blind eye to those of Sudan or Syria, we are surely obligated to similarly consider the exponentially larger number of organisations and individuals in the West who opposed the Vietnam War, Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor, apartheid in South Africa, Sudan and Syria’s wars against their own people and most recently Russia’s annexation of the Crimea, yet do not similarly oppose Israel’s widespread violations of Palestinian rights that commenced before any of those and continue to this day. It would be preposterous to categorically denounce all those who fail to place Palestine on their agenda as anti-Arab racists. Why it is no less outlandish to claim that Israel generates selective criticism and condemnation because of antisemitism, remains to be explained.

There are also perfectly justifiable reasons why many individuals and organisations focus their political energies, even exclusively so, on the plight of the Palestinian people, just as Israel advocates devote themselves full-time to promoting its interests.

Insisting that Palestinians, for example, give due consideration to the plight of the Rohingya is a position akin to demanding that residents of Yemen focus their energies on relieving the blockade of the Gaza Strip. It is also not surprising that a growing number of progressive Jewish organisations and individuals feel a greater need to disassociate themselves from a state that claims to act in their name and for their collective benefit–Israel–than to set things right in Darfour. It is also preposterous to assert that Christians who take a special interest in peace and justice in the Holy Land, or the preservation of their faith’s oldest community, are only acting out of hatred.

Arabs and Muslims also have a variety of obvious historical, political, and religious motivations for feeling a special affinity with Palestine and its people. And given that Palestine remains the only Western colonial venture that continues to deny the indigenous population either national self-determination or legal equality, it should come as little surprise that its cause enjoys iconic status throughout Africa, Asia and Latin America. In each of these cases, it is the reality rather than identity of the colonial state that generates opposition to its policies.

Among those who focus on Palestinian rights in the West, a major motivation for their stance is the special responsibility they feel towards Palestinians as a result of their own government’s role in creating Israel, as in the case of Great Britain’s long history of support for the Zionist colonization of Palestine, or complicity in enabling its oppression of the Palestinians, as in the case of the US’s role as Israel’s strategic benefactor. From this perspective it would appear more appropriate to question the motives of those preoccupied with China’s role in Tibet, yet few claim that is the result of a particular hatred for the Chinese.

More generally, Israel was established by the West in part on account of European antisemitism, and sustained by it in part as atonement for the Holocaust. The proposition that the West paid for its crimes in Palestinian currency, and therefore has an obligation to promote rather than obstruct justice for the victims of its victims, seems eminently reasonable and can hardly be equated with antisemitism. Yet, too often and in too many ways, it is.

Given that antisemitism is for historical reasons widely perceived as a uniquely malignant form of prejudice, Israel and its supporters have an obvious interest in conflating opposition to the Jewish state with opposition to Jews. As expressed by former Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban: “One of the chief tasks of any dialogue with the Gentile world is to prove that the distinction between antisemitism and anti-Zionism is not a distinction at all”. Yet the arguments Eban’s foot soldiers have mobilised on behalf of this campaign uniformly fail to withstand serious scrutiny

If it is legitimate to examine if anti-Zionism generates antisemitism in order to eliminate the scourge of the latter, it should be no less valid to examine the role Israel and its policies play in fostering anger against Israel and the nature of the Israeli state in regards to its unjust treatment of Palestine’s Arab inhabitants rather than focusing on trivial instances as an example of a unadulterated antisemitism. A Palestinian refugee who refers to “the Jews” the way an African peasant might refer to “les blancs,” a poorly formulated sentence in an interview or an ill-phrased tweet are all examples of trivialities that do not deserve the feverish examination that has occurred in recent times.

There are compelling reasons in 2019 to focus discussion of Israel upon its policies against Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, the Palestinian refugee question and the status of its Palestinian citizens, in short its massive violations of Palestinian rights, rather than the nature of Zionism and legitimacy of the Israeli state. There are even more persuasive reasons for politicians in the West advocating Palestinian self-determination to focus on such issues, particularly when addressing media and constituencies as ignorant of history as they are primed for character assassination. But these are political, strategic and tactical choices. Antisemitism has nothing to do with them.

 

How to cite this article:

Joel Beinin, Noura Erakat, Omar Baddar, Mouin Rabbani "The Manufactured Controversy About Ilhan Omar and the Israel Lobby," Middle East Report Online, February 18, 2019.
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