Let’s begin by stipulating that Representative Ilhan Omar stepped way over the line when she suggested in a tweet that support for Israel was all about “the Benjamins,” meaning Ben Franklin’s face on a hundred dollar bill; and that she compounded the damage when asked by a reporter for the Jewish publication The Forward what she meant—and Omar tweeted, AIPAC!
AIPAC is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, otherwise known as the Israel lobby. What followed was a predictable, justifiable, and near-universal firestorm of criticism of Omar for playing into anti-Semitic stereotypes, and a demand for a groveling apology, which was duly forthcoming.
Obviously, the entire subject of Jews, political money, and Israel is radioactive. To criticize the status quo, especially for a Muslim freshman member of the House, requires nuance and clarity, neither of which are hallmarks of Twitter.
That said, there was a lot of disingenuous posturing in this affair, including some indignation at the apparent mistaken premise that AIPAC donates money. Though AIPAC is not a political action committee (despite the -PAC) in its name, and does not donate to candidates, anyone who follows politics knows that AIPAC vets candidates for their views on Israel and advises the Jewish donor community who is a friend and who isn’t.
AIPAC and allied Jewish donors and political action committees have destroyed political careers when they detected heretical views on Israel. Among their prey were former South Dakota Democratic Senator Jim Abourezk and former Illinois Representative Paul Findley, who had spoken out against Israel’s policy towards Palestinians and its influence in Washington, and were branded enemies by AIPAC and its donor allies.
AIPAC’s power to target and demonize critics serves as an object lesson to other politicians. But you can’t quite assert that in polite company without being branded an anti-Semite.
One of AIPAC’s hoariest tactics is to conflate criticism of the Israeli government or Israeli policy with simple anti-Semitism. The group J Street, founded as an effort to legitimize criticism of Israel by supporters of Israel’s right to exist, has been an effort to counter-balance this ploy.
Anyone with an iota of worldly political wisdom knows that AIPAC in effect is an instrument of Israeli government policy, devoted to propagating a politics of Israel-right-or wrong. It’s a long-standing AIPAC credo and strategy to make sure that “there is no daylight” between the position of the Israeli government and that of Washington. But, as a critic, you can’t say that in polite company either, without being accused of anti-Semitism.
And AIPAC has managed to avoid being required to register as an agent of a foreign government, despite the fact that it plainly is. (The fiction is that it’s a group for American supporters of Israel.) Even the Jewish Forward recently argued that it was high time for AIPAC to register as a foreign agent. This whole piece is worth a careful read.
And speaking of tropes, one of the oldest anti-Semitic accusations is that of “dual loyalty.” Once this meant that American (or British, French, German, Italian, Persian, Egyptian, Turkish) Jews had higher loyalty to some global tribe of Hebrews.
Today it means dual loyalty to Israel. By promoting exactly such dual loyalty, AIPAC doesn’t make this any easier. That also can’t be mentioned in polite company.
AIPAC also displays a stunning double standard when it comes to the gross anti-Semitism of the Trump administration. It’s no secret that Trump fans neo-fascism. Yet the Israeli government has never had a better friend in the White House. AIPAC is quick to claim that criticism of Israel is anti-Semitism, but is curiously reticent on other forms of right-wing anti-Semitism.
In 1986, I wrote an investigative cover piece for The New Republic, “Unholy Alliance,” on how AIPAC and closely allied pro-Israel political action committees were promoting alliances between Jewish Zionists and right-wing evangelicals, in order to broaden American support for Israel. This tactic has now come to full fruition, despite the fact that much of the fundamentalist right supports Israel as prologue to Jews who did not accept Jesus burning in hell.
And despite the fact that most American Jews were and are liberals, I found that AIPAC and its PAC allies were also supporting right-wing Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate, who were ardently pro-Israel but reactionary on other issues of importance to Jews. Liberal Jews of that era were trying to wean the community from “single issue politics.” The fruit of that effort was eventually groups like J Street.
I got a lot of flak for that piece, as I will likely get for this one. But I was partly bulletproofed because The New Republic in that era was owned by Marty Peretz, an ardent supporter of Israel. However, even Marty found AIPAC’s swagger and outsized influence offensive.
One other AIPAC story. AIPAC makes sure to have close ties with whoever is president of the U.S. When Bill Clinton succeeded George H. W. Bush, the then AIPAC leadership had lost its White House ties. Clinton was serious about brokering peace between Israel and Palestine, an effort that culminated in the second Camp David summit in 2000.
To head AIPAC in that era, the group turned to Steve Grossman, a liberal, pro-peace activist, and subsequent chair of the Democratic National Committee. Grossman, in turn, did heroic work to keep the more reactionary portions of the Israel lobby from sabotaging the peace process. AIPAC was faithful to the Israeli government, but at the time that meant Yitzhak Rabin. Those were the days.
Today’s AIPAC richly deserves criticism, as does the Netanyahu government and its U.S. allies, who include true low-life types like casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson. Making these criticisms without playing into accusations of anti-Semitism is like traversing a minefield. Let’s hope that Representative Omar gets it right next time.