Ilhan Omar Is an Antisemite, and Democrats Must Confront Her
It’s time for Democrats to stop making excuses for Ilhan Omar.
The problem is not, as her most ardent defenders claim, that Omar is engaging in legitimate criticism of substantive Israeli policies. Rather, it is that she has muddled together a number of complicated issues to reach the disturbing conclusion that the participation of Jews in the electoral process is inherently illegitimate.
Omar has served in Congress for two months, but let’s start by considering her penultimate outrage rather than her most recent one.
Last month, she was criticized for claiming that AIPAC effectively buys political influence to ensure that American policies remain favorable towards Israel.
Democrats were eager to elicit an apology, and Omar complied — sort of. Specifically, she spoke about antisemitism, before doubling down and decrying the “problematic role of lobbyists in our politics, whether it be AIPAC, the NRA, or the fossil fuel industry.”
She probably felt that adding a couple of other favorite punching bags of progressives would inoculate her from further criticism, but she seemed not to care about what lobbyists actually do, or which ones are big spenders.
As it turns out, AIPAC’s lobbying expenditures over the last 20 years have been modest, peaking at $3.6 million in 2016. The NRA, meanwhile, spent $5.12 million in 2017, and it’s difficult to put a number on the “fossil fuel industry” without defining its players.
Missing from Omar’s screed was contempt for the National Association of Realtors, which spent $72.8 million in 2018 alone; large tech firms such as Google parent Alphabet Inc. ($21.7 million); defense contractors such as Boeing and Lockheed ($15.1 million and $13.2 million respectively); or the US Chamber of Commerce, whose activities are presumably too bland and incomprehensible for activists to hate, but which burned a walloping $1.5 billion on lobbying activities during the past 20 years, and $94.8 million in 2018 alone.
Having lost that argument, Omar’s supporters lazily slid into a different one.
The problem is not that AIPAC spends money — it’s that it presides over a conspiracy in which politicians are intimidated by AIPAC’s ability to mobilize its members.
The double standard applied here is undeniably antisemitic.
It is fair for a congresswoman to wonder aloud whether special interest groups have a disproportionate voice in the political process. But unless Omar wants to complain about the fact that, for example, California Senator Kamala Harris supports abortion rights and has the support of NARAL, Omar is distorting the issue.
There is no reason to think that Harris’ views on abortion are not bona fide or that NARAL is doing anything but encouraging people to vote for candidates who share its views. But when a large group of Jews participate in the political process in the exact same way, that fact invites allegations of dual loyalty and nefarious schemes.
Omar also seems to have no problem with James Zogby, founder of the Arab American Institute, who served for more than a decade as a powerful voice for the Palestinian cause on the Democratic National Committee. An honest debate about the role of special interests in American politics might question why Americans should care so much about either Israelis or Palestinians — but, of course, Omar has no interest in that conversation.
So what about the money? During the last presidential election, Donald Trump spent a total of $616.5 million and Hillary Clinton spent just shy of $1.2 billion.
The fact that Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign had large traditional corporate donors early on and was fined for financial reporting violations calls into question whether Obama actually was a grassroots candidate.
Nevertheless, once the Democratic field was whittled down, he did a good job of mobilizing small donors to devastating effect. This fact was celebrated at the time. Yet when AIPAC encourages its more than 100,000 members to donate to candidates who support Israel, Omar perceives an assault on American democracy rather than a legitimate expression of broad grassroots support.
For her, among the billions poured into American political campaigns, only the Jewish money is toxic.
Omar’s defenders are right about one thing. She is free to express her views on issues as diverse as the role of lobbyists, the influence of special interest groups, the role of money in American political campaigns, and American foreign policy.
Each of those is in itself a complex debate that would expose heroes and villains on both sides of the aisle and across the political spectrum. But Omar is unwilling or unable to inform herself of the facts, or recognize the nuances of these issues.
Instead, she seems content to dust off well-worn antisemitic tropes while daring her Democratic colleagues to call out one of their two female Muslim members of Congress.
But if Democrats want to deem themselves the party of conscience, they must do that now.
Ian Cooper is a Toronto-based entertainment and technology lawyer.