Democrats Tried to Excommunicate Ilhan Omar, and Failed

Ilhan Omar

Richard Silverstein

NOTE: This is a substantially expanded version of a piece published yesterday by Al Jazeera.  It’s the first op-ed I’ve published there in ten years, so it’s an auspicious development.  My KPFA Flashpoints interview discussing the subject can be heard here.

For those who don’t remember their medieval history, during the Spanish Inquisition the newly triumphant Catholic monarchs adopted torture techniques to root out false converts to Christianity from the surviving remnants of the old regime.  That included both Jews and Muslims who were tortured on the rack, also known as the auto-da-fe, when suspected of observing Jewish and Muslim rituals or traditions in the secret of their homes.  In this modern age, it would be nice (but naïve) to think that we’d passed the stage when mental and physical torture would be used to elicit confessions of sin from victims.  Apparently, the Inquisition and its machinery are still in use in the U.S. Congress.

The 2018 Congressional election marked a watershed, sweeping a new progressive class into office.  Most prominent among them were Reps. Rashid Tlaib, Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, women who challenged the system, incumbents, and the Democratic machine to win sweeping victories on truly progressive platforms.  Their Middle East agenda was particularly forthright, and therefore shocking: they opposed U.S. aid to Israel, supported BDS and a one state solution (AOC has not expressed herself as explicitly on these issues, but presumably shares many of her colleagues’ views).

Anyone who knows the Israel Lobby knew that the other shoe was bound to drop.  They just didn’t know when.  And it didn’t take long.  Both Tlaib and especially Omar have been outspoken on Israel-Palestine since their elections.  And their markedly pro-Palestine views have rapidly become grist for the anti-Semitism mill churned by the Lobby and its water-carriers in Congress.

First, of course there was the famous “Benjamins” tweet in which Omar noted that members of Congress were obedient to the Lobby because of the hundreds of millions it raises and distributes to loyal pro-Israel candidates.  But somehow, noting that the Lobby derived its power from money morphed into outright anti-Semitism.  The way this happened was instructive: there is, of course, an ancient anti-Semitic trope that Jews are rich and use their wealth to control the finance, banking, entertainment, and the media sectors, etc.  That of course, has nothing to do with the true statement that the Lobby raises and distributes massive lucre to its favored candidates.  A reasonable person can see the difference between these two concepts.

But the Lobby plays a game of smoke and mirrors.  It sees a clear statement attacking it and manages through a bit of hocus-pocus to transform it into a classic anti-Semitic charge, when in actuality there is absolutely no connection.

Now, the Lobby has done it again after Omar gave a talk at a Washington DC bookstore in which she criticized those in Congress and the Lobby who had a foreign allegiance: “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is O.K. for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country.”

By this, of course she meant that groups like Aipac and their Congressional sponsors who take their marching orders either from Israel directly, or who conceive their agenda totally with Israel and its interests in mind.  They may believe that the interests of the U.S. and Israel are the same; and that therefore they are not betraying U.S. interests.  But anyone who believes that the interests of one of the greatest powers on earth is the same as that of a small Middle Eastern theocratic state is either terribly naïve or worse.

After Omar’s statement, the Lobby went into Defcon mode.  The attack was launched by Eliot Engel, a veteran of the New York Democratic machine, who attacked the Somali-American Congresswoman:

“[It is] unacceptable and deeply offensive to call into question the loyalty of fellow American citizens because of their political views, including support for the US-Israel relationship.

“Her comments were outrageous and deeply hurtful, and I ask that she retract them, apologize, and commit to making her case on policy issues without resorting to attacks that have no place in the Foreign Affairs Committee or the House of Representatives,” he said.

Pro-Israel Jews like Engel are particularly exercised by the implication of dual loyalty.  That is, that pro-Israel Jews are more loyal to Israel than America. An especially apt historical phrase connoting dual loyalty is the term “Israel Firster.”  It was not invented by an anti-Semite or white supremacist. But rather by the dean of American Jewish historians, Abe Sachar, the first president of Brandeis University.  And he used the term to deride precisely the figures Omar is now attacking: a powerful Lobby and its apologists who put Israel before all else. This is a passage from the 1961 American Jewish Yearbook:

American Jews continued to object to Israel’s claim that a genuine Jewish life was possible only in Israel. Abram L. Sachar, president of Brandeis University, at the biennial convention of JWB [Jewish Welfare Board], declared on April 2, 1960 that among Jews there is no room “for Israel Firsters whose chauvinism and arrogance find nothing relevant or viable in any area outside of Israel.”

The NY Times headline about the speech said Sachar derided the “dogma of Israel.”  If American Jews can quarrel over the meaning and primacy of Israel in Jewish life, why would we deny Arab American the same right, considering that their Palestinian sisters and brothers are under the boot heel of Israeli Occupation?

It would not be so bad if Israel was a democratic, secular nation like the U.S. and most western democracies.  Then at least there would be a confluence of interests and values.  But Israel is no longer a democracy.  Instead it has become a theocracy, run by fundamentalist extremists bent on holy war with the Muslim world.  Israel’s interests are diverging from those of the democratic west more than ever.  And this fissure can only continue to widen as Israel sinks ever deeper into mass murder, Occupation and oppression.  Israel’s interests and America’s are no longer the same. Not even close.  That little sliver of daylight which presidents used to boast about not existing when it came to Israel and U.S. interests: it’s now a wide-open expanse of sky.

Apparently, Congress has not yet read the memo.  It is sunk in old ways and habits.  The smell of greenbacks remains too enticing to resist.  But the old ways are dying.  The election victories I referenced above testify to that more strongly than a $100-million Sheldon Adelson donation.

That’s why the anti-Semitism fire-drill convened by the Democratic Congressional leadership was initially so infuriating.  It decided to take Omar to the woodshed and whip her by passing a resolution denouncing anti-Semitism by its members.  This represented the Democratic Party eating its young.  Nancy Pelosi, at the goading of Engel, Nita Lowey and other pro-Israel members, tabled a pointless resolution.  It would have forced members to swear allegiance on pain of getting a public spanking like Omar.  The final wording never ended up referring directly to Omar.  But the message was clear: shut up on the subject or the Party caucus will exact a toll.

To her credit, Omar has bent but not broken.  After her first imbroglio she did apologize and deleted the “offending” tweet.  But she has stood tall in the face of Engel’s new onslaught.  She has given as good as she’s gotten.  And has neither asked for nor given quarter.  That is a fighter.

Democratic progressives not to take these attacks lying down. At a Democratic caucus meeting two days ago members of the Congressional Black and Progressive caucuses raised their voices in anger at the railroading of one of their own.  They told the Speaker in no uncertain terms that they could not stand by and see her singled out for opprobrium.  Pelosi, according to news reports, was drawn up short.  She was used to the old ways in which the Lobby set the agenda for Israel-related matters and members fell into line.  When the restive younger generation shook off these shackles, Pelosi didn’t quite know what to do.

So a pro-Israel House member sat down with a member of the Black caucus and they drafted what’s come to be called a “kitchen sink” resolution which denounces everything from white supremacy to the Dreyfus Affair to the Japanese internment.  The text is heavily tilted toward appeasing pro-Israel Jewish House members and offers a detailed, and skewed, version of Jewish history and suffering.

Despite the content of the resolution, what’s clear is that Ilhan Omar and her supporters in the House and the rest of the country won a major victory. As Splinter reported:

It’s easy to imagine a time ten years ago, or even five years ago, when the recent controversy surrounding Rep. Ilhan Omar’s comments on AIPAC and Israel’s unrivaled influence in American politics would have been the death knell for her career. And indeed, when senior lawmakers from her own party openly attacked her to the point where the House Democratic leadership planned a resolution condemning anti-Semitism that was indirectly aimed at her, it looked like the same story was going to play out again.

But then something entirely different happened. Many on the left came out in strong support of Omar’s statement, which, despite being aimed at all lawmakers, has been characterized as anti-Semitic not just by pro-Israel Democrats but by the GOP…

It’s not hysterical to say that this whole controversy seems to have turned American politics upside down.

It’s not clear what the fallout will be from this episode.  Will her caucus come to accept and understand Omar’s views on this subject?  Will they continue gunning for her and singling her out for persecution?  Will the Lobby mount an all-out offensive against her and the progressives who supported her in 2020?  If they do, I suggest the best response would be to primary the hell out of Engel, Lowey and others.  Aipac leaders have already threatened to primary Omar.  So let’s give them a taste of their own medicine.  As Splinter noted above: in the past, those who challenged the Lobby lost ensuing elections because the Lobby unleashed its power against them.  But now things are different.  There is a countervailing force that stands in the way.  It is the force of progressive Democrats, Jews and non-Jews, who no longer take marching orders from the white, male, plutocrats of the Lobby.

Anti-Semitism: What It is and Isn’t

For those who need a primer in anti-Semitism, let’s talk about what it is and isn’t.  It is the hatred of Jews for being Jews.  It should not be confused with Israel.  There is nothing wrong with criticizing Israel. Nothing wrong with advocating an Israel that is a democracy offering equal rights to all citizens, Jewish and non-Jewish.  There isn’t even anything wrong with advocating a one-state solution since that will not destroy Israel, but rather transform it.  There may be some who conflate Israel and Jews and who express anti-Semitism by attacking Israel as a substitute for Jews.  But such confusion is often fueled by a deliberate Zionist conflation between the two.

Ilhan Omar does not hate Jews nor hate Israel.  She has never said or written any such thing.  Attacking one of the most powerful domestic U.S. lobbies is not anti-Semitic.  Further, supporting BDS is not anti-Semitic either.  This non-violent movement advocating justice for Palestinians harbors no animus toward Jews.  And its three demands for Right of Return, full democratic rights for Palestinians in Israel, and an end to Occupation have nothing to do with Jews per se.  And BDS’ implied criticism of the Israeli status quo does not constitute anti-Semitism.  Anyone who claims otherwise knows nothing about the role of real anti-Semitism in Jewish history; and is singing from a prayer-book written for them by the Lobby.  If you follow public comments by Jewish historians, either Israeli or American, almost none agree with these false interpretations of Jewish history conveyed by the Lobby.

Though the Lobby stegosauruses like Aipac and the ADL, have launched full frontal attacks, many Jews are standing by Omar.  There is a Jews with Ilhan website hosting a petition signed by 2,400 Jews.  Groups like Jewish Voice for Peace and If Not Now have raised their voices in support.

Progressive members of the House Democratic caucus have also pushed back, protesting the overhasty rush to judgment against Omar:

A meeting of House Democrats turned contentious Wednesday as some new members who helped deliver the House majority confronted leaders over a resolution implicitly rebuking Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota over her comments on Israel.

In the party’s weekly closed meeting, Democrats protested the way Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other leaders tried to rush out a resolution this week responding to Omar’s latest remark about Israel…

Some Democrats hugged Omar during the meeting, according to other officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity…

There was clear dissention among the Democrats on whether a resolution condemning anti-Semitism was even necessary, given that the House voted on a similar measure already.

“I’m not sure we need to continue to do this every single time,” said Rep. Primayla Jayapal, the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Alexandria Ocasio Cortez has offered her support.  The New York Times, in a sympathetic report, noted the generational split between a younger generation of insurgents like Omar and older, veteran colleagues who came up politically in an earlier generation when Aipac held absolute control over these issues.

Media commentators like Mehdi Hassan, Jeremy Scahill and Ben Ehrenreich have complained that Omar is being “gaslighted” and “thrown under the bus.  A new hashtag #istandwithilhan has swept Twitter feeds.

It is a shameful stain on the Democratic Party, that in the face of death threats and smears like the one mounted by the West Virginia GOP, in which Omar’s image was imposed on a picture of the World Trade Center 9/11 attack, few have come to her defense.  Not Jewish members, not Pelosi, and certainly not Republicans.  Perhaps when a Jared Loughner comes along and empties a Glock pistol into her brain for being a Muslim terrorist, then they’ll come to their senses?  By then it will be too late.

Over the past few days I mercilessly tweeted the equivalent of “Where’s Bernie” to him and his foreign policy advisor, Matt Duss.  The leading progressive and presidential candidate, who has spoken out about Islamophobia in the past–when one of his political supporters was eviscerated in the halls of Congress–was AWOL.  Duss, who was just undeservedly lionized in a Nation cover story—was also nowhere to be found.  But then, the day before today’s vote, Bernie roused himself from slumber and finally spoke up in Omar’s defense.  He was late to the party, but at least he got there.

This issue is not confined to the U.S.  The Israel Lobby in the UK has adopted the same nasty habits in attacking Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn for imagined anti-Semitism.  Nine MPs have split from the Party, many claiming it was anti-Semitic, to form an “Independent Group.”  As in the U.S. Congress, there is no epidemic of anti-Semitism.  There is a Lobby desperate to preserve its power and searching for enemies with which to rally the troops.

Unfortunately, the Lobby in both countries has thrown in its lot with the right-wing, GOP and Tories respectively.  That means enemies must be found on the political left.  Labour and the Democrats better wise-up.  The Lobby wants to eviscerate both these parties to ensure pro-Israel rivals (GOP and Tories) gain or retain power.  They will not stop at toppling a single Omar or a Corbyn.  They want to destroy your party.  Unless of course they can eviscerate it and turn it into a pro-Israel clone of its rival.  Is that what Speaker Pelosi wants?

For the latest developments in the Labour Party anti-Semitism witch hunt, read this piece by Neve Gordon.

This post originally appeared on Richard’s blog.

5 thoughts on “Democrats Tried to Excommunicate Ilhan Omar, and Failed

  1. Thank you for this excellent on the whole and much-needed post. The major exception I take is with the statement that the interests of Israel and the US are not intertwined. From the perspective of the US Ruling Class–and that is the perspective that matters in the real world of geopolitics, yes?–Israel sits on the border of what has for a century been considered the region (the “Middle East” or more bluntly The Arab World, overwhelmingly Muslim) harboring the richest crude oil reserves on the planet. [In recent years, it’s been claimed that the “South China Sea” and even Venezuela are potentially richer in this commodity. And thus we see US Navy warships deliberately provoking China in one area and trying desperately to overthrow an avowed Socialist on this side of the Pacific Ocean.] And so, having turned away Jews fleeing extermination during and ongoing persecution right after World War 2, the WASP Ruling Class of the US was all too happy to endorse a “Jewish Homeland” to be called modern Israel. “We don’t want them here, so let’s send them over there as the tip of a dagger we can aim at Arab nationalists and would-be socialists. After their experience in Europe, these Jews are eager to fight, so we’ll arm them heavily. Hell, we’ll swear on a stack of bibles to go whole hog to back them up militarily if they can be painted as victim of Arab aggression.” And thus to this day, billions of our tax dollars go to upgrading the Israeli military. This has gone on year after year, whether Israel was led by a “moderate” or a terrorist-thug like Begin and Netanyahu. So I repeat here for the umpteenth time my assertion that if the existence of the Israeli state on the border of the oil-rich Arab World was NOT still deemed in the interest of the United States, that flow of tax-dollar aid would dry up in a New York minute.

    Moving on to Member of Congress Omar, her clash with the moribund Democratic Party leadership was all too easily predicted. The Dems and GOP have been battling to outdo one another in “support of Israel” for a long time. And yes, thanks to AIPAC, Sheldon Adelson, the so-called Anti-Defamation League (now reduced to serving as a hate group, frankly!), etc., politicians are jostling one another to collect those “Benjamins” Ms. Omar so accurately spoke of. I am proud to say that, as a member of Jewish Voice for Peace, I helped apply the pressure that forced the Dems to “broaden” the language of their recent resolution. But I am not a supporter of the Democratic Party, which can only look “good” these days by comparison with the Modern (batshit-crazy) Republican Party. I see from a CNN online headline today (March 9, 2019) that the titular leader of that party, the incumbent President, wants legislation (or perhaps he’ll issue an Executive Order?) to guarantee “freedom of speech on college campuses.” Oh, brother! This can only mean one thing: he wants to stop college administrations from banning neo-Nazi presentations on campus. You know, those “very fine people” he said participated in the Charlottesville events that left one young woman dead and many injured.

  2. Darn! I neglected in my previous comment to excoriate the “liberal” New York Times for its editorial response to the “Omar Affair.” Thomas Friedman is just one of their opinion columnists unleashed as an attack dog against the young woman from Minnesota. In my opinion, Mr. Friedman–who was a big cheerleader for Bush’s war against Iraq–has had only one good idea in his life (in terms of his columns for NYT, at least). Years ago, before the global climate even was getting unmistakably crazy, he proposed the US Government launch a Manhattan-Project-level effort to shift to renewable energy sources. Needless to say, the Established Order was not in the least interested in that concept. And the world’s environment has suffered for it.

  3. Love this article, so thank you for the clarity in which you expressed most of my ideas and positions. But the one exception is in agreement with Greglaxer to a T!. I have been trying to convince people of this reality for years and have only been met with silence or challenge to prove this in writing. This means show them a book on the issue by some major mainstream writer. However, we often understand reality by seeing what people do more so than what they say and it has been very clear that the holocaust and all those hungry, frightened, and angry Jewish survivors were ripe for the picking to place them smack dab in the middle of a region whose resources were coveted by the western ruling elite. And what could be better than moving a group of white, european thinking people into a region of darker skinned, Arabs who controlled all that oil. In other words, while Jews were truly persecuted in Europe they also were of the same racist ilk with many now filled with extreme anger/hatred and very bitter wanting revenge. And we do see this played out against the Palestinians in genocidal brutality. I would add to this perspective the other 7 million that died in the camps who never get any mention and certainly did not get any national movement to aid in those survivors rehabilitation. For that matter Israel today treats the remaining holocaust survivors pretty poorly, many of them older and impoverished women. So yes, the idea of creating Israel was clearly a significant part of the oligarchy’s program to insert itself into that region and be supported heavily in its military development as well as its move toward right wing extremist. The US has always preferred totalitarianism–so much less messy to deal with than real democratic countries.


    This link shows how the Democratic Party leadership supinely bows to AIPAC and throws one of their own under the bus.Until we can force Schumer and Pelosi out of their leadership positions the Democrats will continue to lose the growing youth and Progressive vote. across the political board there is condemnation of Israel and Saudi influence over our foreign and domestic policies. To see this pathetic performance by the Dems leadership on the heels of the disappointing Mueller report is disheartening.

    • Just when you thought the Dems couldn’t get more cowardly, right?!? I do not wring my hands over the state of the Dems’ party because they do not represent me, a retired working-class guy living near the poverty line (though their unctuous hypocritical words try to persuade me otherwise). So it is on general principles that their behavior enrages me! We should enjoy the breaths of fresh air that Representatives Omar, Tlaib and Ocasio-Cortez have brought while we still can. I predict that the Dems’ leadership will actually work behind the scenes to see that these youngsters LOSE next year. Meanwhile, Speaker Pelosi, enjoy the goodies the Israel Lobby showers on you in the wake of the AIPAC convention.

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