Ilhan Omar's AIPAC apology shows need to get money out of US politics

Ilhan Omar's AIPAC apology shows need to get money out of US politics
Comment: If you can't fight the lobby, fight the system that created the lobby, writes Wilson Dizard.
5 min read
12 Feb, 2019
Omar has been a particular focus of right-wing hate groups [CQ-RollCall]

Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar, the first Muslim Somali refugee to serve in the US Congress, drew charges of anti-Semitism over a tweet on Sunday that called out the financial relationship between Congress and the Israel lobby.

By Monday evening, Omar had apologised, under pressure from her own Democratic Party as well as Republicans eager to attack her.

So what did she tweet?

"It's all about the Benjamins, baby", Omar wrote on Twitter, referring to an article about how Republicans want to investigate her for her criticism of Israel. Benjamin Franklin, by the way, is the American revolutionary on the $100 bill.

When pressed on what she meant, she tweeted "AIPAC!" - the acronym for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, America's most influential pro-Israel lobby group, whose pithy slogan is "America's pro-Israel Lobby".

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Messages of support were left outside Omar's office after her tweet sparked angry criticism [Getty]

"I apologize unequivocally," Omar wrote on Twitter, saying others were "educating her" on the history of hateful stereotypes about Jewish people. "I reaffirm the problematic role of lobbyists in our politics, whether it be AIPAC, the NRA or the fossil fuels industry."

"Listening and learning, but still standing strong," Omar added, with a flexed arm emoji.

The whole business appears to be another sad instance of Washington refusing to have anywhere close to an honest conversation about Israel. But this is also a moment for reflection, showing what the progressive left should do and should not do in challenging the Israel lobby.

Omar, new to Washington, has broken that unspoken rule that prevents even mentioning the Israel lobby

These rules don't yet exist, but it is up to new lawmakers such as Omar to figure them out.

The first priority, however, should be getting money out of politics, a far-fetched idea that still has a much greater chance of seeing bipartisan support far sooner than Congressional approval for any resolution condemning Israel's human rights abuses.

In this sense, her apology showed her steering this course, as she condemned the Israel lobby along with other interest groups whose influence distorts democracy; advocates who are pro-gun-death and pro-pollution.

AIPAC sometimes serves as a synonym for the whole Israel lobby itself - whose first rule is that you don't talk about the Israel lobby, whose existence is an open secret in Washington, just like George HW Bush's alleged adultery.

Omar, new to Washington, has broken that unspoken rule that prevents even mentioning the Israel lobby. For that, she was punished by her own party, forced to retract something Palestinians, Israelis and even the lobby itself admits to freely. Reaction from Jewish communities to Omar's tweet has not been uniform, but representative of growing scepticism held by young American Jews for Israel's claims of blamelessness and the outrage they have for the catastrophe of the occupation.

Fortunately, there are ways for disaffected youth to challenge the Israel lobby's influence in Washington without mentioning Israel once. But it requires a total reformation of how money works in American politics.

Directly taking on the Israel lobby won't work, as criticism of the Israel lobby earns immediate bipartisan condemnation. Progressives need to change the system of campaign finance that helped create the Israel lobby in the first place.

Although there are certain unique aspects to its role in US political life, the Israel lobby operates much like other lobbying groups in DC. The closest comparison is the gun lobby, lead by the National Rifle Association (NRA). Like the Israel lobby, the gun lobby finds friendly voices in Congress and donates money to their campaigns. What's different is that the Israel lobby enjoys bipartisan support, while the gun lobby does not.

Both lobbies rely on cynical, sometimes deranged, mischaracterisations of their opponents (eg: the Iran deal, or an assault weapons ban) and their followers seem to live lives beyond the reach of human reason.

The Israel lobby also works in absolutes, and considers illegitimate any attempt by international law to hinder Israel's actions

What do they have in common, the gun lobby and the Israel lobby? Well neither is immune to moral outrage over their complicity in the murder of children. Sandy Hook (2012, 26 dead), Parkland (2018, 17 dead), Las Vegas (2017, 58 dead), Pulse Night Club (2016, 49 dead), even Columbine (1999, 13 dead), are all names America associates with mass shootings and death, where the receipts lead back to firearms manufacturers.

Gun makers want weapons to be easy to buy, so they oppose practically every restriction on firearms they can, citing the language of the Second Amendment. The Israel lobby also works in absolutes, and considers illegitimate any attempt by international law to hinder Israel's actions.

Imagine if Omar's tweet had been the same - "It's all about the Benjamins" - but attached to a story about the gun lobby buying more political influence in Washington with campaign donations. Well, to Democrats, that's just fine.

It's okay to suggest Republicans gutting and rolling back gun laws are motivated by either depravity or greed.

Omar is learning the hard way how fiercely and relentlessly the Israel lobby is defended by its apologists and supporters, with a whole Hasbara culture that sees any criticism of Israel as anti-Semitism, deliberately and erroneously conflating Israel's occupation with Judaism, an ancient and humanitarian religion. But this conflation is not so different from the National Rifle Association conflating human freedom with gun ownership.

Israel's military occupation of Palestinian territory is no more central to Judaism or Jewish identity than the ability to shoot dozens of people at once is central to human liberty or American identity.

But both the Israel lobby and the gun lobby thrive on exploiting this manipulation and misconception. The way to dull the influence of both groups is to get money out of politics entirely.

Wilson Dizard is a reporter and photojournalist covering politics, media and culture. He enjoys bicycling. 

Follow him on Twitter: @willdizard

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.