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Ilhan Omar’s tweet revealed core truths about anti-Semitism in America

Omar’s tweet was bad. But the Republican reaction was profoundly hypocritical.

Rep. Ilhan Omar in January.
Rep. Ilhan Omar in January.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

The controversy over Rep. Ilhan Omar’s (D-MN) tweets about the pro-Israel lobby will not die.

After the Muslim Congress member tweeted Sunday night that American political leaders’ support for Israel is “all about the Benjamins,” a political firestorm broke out over the question of whether the tweet was anti-Semitic. Omar apologized on Monday under pressure from the House Democratic leadership, who issued a unified statement condemning her comments. On Tuesday, President Trump called on her to resign her seat in Congress.

There’s an air of farce about all of this. Her tweet really was troubling, but the reaction to it has devolved into a partisan fight by bad-faith actors that obscures the reality of how anti-Semitism works in the United States.

There are two related, yet distinct, kinds of anti-Semitism that have snuck into mainstream politics. One is associated with the left and twists legitimate criticisms of Israel into anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. On the mainstream right, meanwhile, political leaders and media figures blame a cabal of wealthy Jews for mass immigration and left-wing cultural politics in classic anti-Semitic fashion.

Omar’s tweet was a pretty clear example of the first kind of anti-Semitism. Plenty of Jews who are critical of the Israeli government, including me, found her comments offensive. It was false — support for Israel is complex and related to many more factors than just lobbyist money — and it played into centuries of conspiracy theories about Jewish money corrupting Western politics.

But it’s also clear that a lot of Omar’s critics don’t have much of a leg to stand on. Conservatives have been trying to label Omar an anti-Semite since she was elected in November, on the basis of fairly flimsy evidence. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the Republican House minority leader, blasted her tweet despite having sent his own tweet accusing prominent Jewish Democrats of trying to “buy” the 2018 election. Trump once told a room full of Jewish Republicans that “you’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money,” adding that “you want to control your politicians, that’s fine.”

The fact that Omar apologized under pressure, and that Trump and McCarthy have never faced real consequences for their use of anti-Semitic tropes, tells you everything you need know about the politics of anti-Semitism in modern America.

This is not to minimize Omar’s offense: Her tweet was ignorant at best, and she was right to apologize. If we’re trying to understand anti-Semitism in American politics, though, we need to be clear-eyed about where all the problems are — and what’s being done to address them.

There are two core truths about this incident. First, Omar’s statement was unacceptable. Second, Republicans going after her — including the president — should spend less time on Democrats and more time dealing with the far worse anti-Semitism problem on the right.

Why Omar’s comments deserved pushback

In the day and a half since Omar’s initial comments, a number of left-wing writers have emerged to defend her. They argue that Omar was attempting to point out the financial clout of the pro-Israel lobby — the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC — and not to make generalizations about Jews. The pushback against Omar, they say, is part of a broader campaign to smear a young Muslim congresswoman and silence criticism of Israel.

“Of course everyone knows [AIPAC money matters]. And to call that anti-Semitic is just obscene,” the Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald said on Democracy Now.

It’s true that in some cases, all criticism of Israel or AIPAC, even if it’s legitimate, is labeled anti-Semitic — and that’s a real problem. Omar’s faith has made her a particular target, and it’s fair to want to defend her against these smears in the abstract.

But the specifics of Omar’s tweet make things quite different. In the original context — where she was quote-tweeting Greenwald— she says that US lawmakers’ support for Israel is “all” about money. Yes, it’s a Puff Daddy reference, but she’s a member of Congress and maybe should be a little more careful about the implications of what she says:

There are two problems here: First, the tweet isn’t true. The US-Israel alliance has deeper and more fundamental roots than just cash, including the legacy of Cold War geopolitics, evangelical theology, and shared strategic interests in counterterrorism. Lobbying certainly plays a role, but to say that “US political leaders” defending Israel is “all” about money is to radically misstate how America’s Israel politics work (and discount the findings of the scholars who study it).

Second, and more important, totalizing statements like this play into the most troubling anti-Semitic stereotypes. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an infamous early-20th-century Russian forgery, describes a plot by Jewish moneyed interests to subvert and destroy Christian societies through their finances. This in turn draws on longstanding European anti-Semitic traditions that portray Jews as greedy and conniving.

After World War II and the creation of the state of Israel, the conspiracy theory shifted. Anti-Semites started using “Zionist” or “Zio” as a stand-in for “Jewish,” using Jewish activism in favor of the Jewish state as proof that they were right all along about the Jewish conspiracy. David Duke, the former Louisiana state representative and Ku Klux Klan grand wizard, released a YouTube video in 2014 that bills itself as an “illustrated” update of the Protocols. The video features footage of leading Democratic and Republican politicians speaking to pro-Israel groups, with the caption “both are in the grips of Zio money, Zio media, and Zio bankers.”

“Do you really think, in politics, that he who pays the piper doesn’t call the tune?” Duke asks rhetorically.

Omar is, of course, not coming from the same hateful place as Duke is. But by using too-similar language, she unintentionally provides mainstream cover for these conspiracy theories. After her comments, Duke repeatedly defended her, even tweeting a meme that said “it took a Muslim congresswoman to actually stand up & tell the truth that we ALL know” (he rescinded the praise after her apology).

This is not to equate Duke and Omar — which, to be clear, would be absurd — but rather to point out how if you’re not careful when talking about pro-Israel lobbying, you can provide ammunition to some awful people. By saying that US support for Israel is “all” about money, Omar was essentially mainstreaming ideas that have their roots in anti-Semitism, helping make them more acceptable to voice on the left.

Israel, left-wing anti-Semitism, and the need to tread carefully

Jeremy Corbyn Visits Middlesbrough
UK Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

There’s a real dilemma here. Pro-Palestinian activists, writers, and politicians have every right to point out what they see as the pernicious influence of groups like AIPAC. The group is undeniably powerful, and it’s worth mentioning in our conversations about both Israel policy and money in politics. You can and should be able to say, “AIPAC’s lobbying pushes America’s Israel policy in a hawkish pro-Israel direction,” without saying that it is literally only about dollars from (disproportionately) Jewish donors.

At the same time side, there is a special need on the left — where most pro-Palestinian sentiment resides — to be careful about just how you discuss those things. It’s not just a matter of providing ammunition to the David Dukes of the world; it’s about the moral corruption of the left and pro-Palestinian movement. If references to the baleful influence of Jews on Israel policy become too flip, too easy, things can go really wrong.

To see a real example, one need only to look at Britain.

In British left-wing and pro-Palestinian circles, derogatory comments about the political clout of Israel and “Zionists” have become quite common. When left-wing insurgent Jeremy Corbyn won the center-left Labour Party’s leadership in 2015, the people who inhabited these spaces seized control of the party power centers.

Corbyn, who had once referred to members of Hamas and Hezbollah as his “friends,” opened the floodgates for the language of Labour’s left flank to go mainstream. The result is a three-year roiling scandal surrounding anti-Semitism inside the party.

Dozens of Labour elected officials, candidates, and party members have been caught giving voice to anti-Semitic comments. One Labour official called Hitler “the greatest man in history,” and added that “it’s disgusting how much power the Jews have in the US.” Another Labour candidate for office said “it’s the super rich families of the Zionist lobby that control the world.” The party has received 673 complaints about anti-Semitism in its ranks in the last 10 months alone, an average of over two complaints per day.

Today, about 85 percent of British Jews believe there are “high” levels of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, and that Corbyn himself is anti-Semitic. Forty percent of Jews say they would “seriously consider” leaving the country if Labour wins the next parliamentary election. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of Britain, recently warned that British Jews feel “an existential threat” from Corbyn’s Labour Party.

This is why Omar’s tweet was so troubling, and why the pushback from leadership really was merited. If the line isn’t drawn somewhere, the results for Jews — who still remain a tiny, vulnerable minority — can be devastating.

There’s still a left-right difference here

The way Omar handled the controversy is interesting. Her apology was certainly given under immense pressure, but it reads (at least to me) as quite sincere:

What’s more, this kind of sincere willingness to reconsider past comments is characteristic of Omar. She had previously gotten flak for a tweet about Israel “hypnotizing” the world, and recently gave a lengthy and thoughtful apology for the connection to anti-Semitic tropes during an appearance on The Daily Show.

“I had to take a deep breath and understand where people were coming from and what point they were trying to make, which is what I expect people to do when I’m talking to them, right, about things that impact me or offend me,” she told host Trevor Noah.

This is not the kind of behavior you see from deeply committed anti-Semites. Yair Rosenberg, a journalist at the Jewish magazine Tablet who frequently writes about anti-Semitism, argued on Monday that Omar has earned the benefit of the doubt:

I’ve covered anti-Semitism for years on multiple continents, and this level of self-reflection among those who have expressed anti-Semitism is increasingly rare. Not only did Omar apologize for the specific sentiment, but she put herself in the shoes of her Jewish interlocutors and realized that she ought to extend to them the same sensitivity to anti-Semitism as she would want others to extend to racism. ... Omar has just begun her congressional career, and she has expressed a genuine willingness to reexamine her prior beliefs. She deserves all the denunciation today, yes, but tomorrow, she deserves a chance to move beyond it.

This is what it looks like when the system works. A member of Congress says something offensive, most of her party explains why it’s wrong, and then she issues a sincere apology and demonstrates an interest in changing. That is a healthy party dealing with bad behavior in a healthy way.

This is not what you see on the Republican side when it comes to most forms of bigotry — up to and including anti-Semitism.

Take McCarthy, the House minority leader, whose campaign to stigmatize Omar and fellow Muslim Rep. Rashida Tlaib kicked off this whole incident. Last summer, McCarthy sent a tweet accusing three Democratic billionaires of Jewish descent — George Soros, Tom Steyer, and Michael Bloomberg — of trying to buy the midterm election:

As many noted at the time, this kind of tweet engages in exactly the kind of Protocols-esque rhetoric that Republicans have condemned Omar for. Yet McCarthy quietly deleted the tweet, with nothing like the level of internal criticism from his own party that Omar has faced.

Around the same time, President Trump claimed that protesters against Brett Kavanaugh were being paid by Soros:

And Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz suggested Soros was behind the so-called “migrant caravan” coming to the US through Mexico, a theory spread when Trump tweeted the video in Gaetz’s original tweet:

This all follows years of Soros demonization in the conservative press, with everyone from conspiracy theorist Alex Jones to Fox News anchors blaming the Jewish billionaire for various ills in the United States.

The defense of these lines is the same as the left-wing defense of Omar: It’s not anti-Semitic to simply state facts. But many of these “facts,” like Soros masterminding immigrant caravans, are false. Moreover, creating a narrative in which Soros and other left-wing Jews are puppet masters, using their money to undermine America from within, they are engaging in the same normalization of Protocols-style anti-Semitic tropes as Omar.

What’s more, they’ve done it with virtually no official pushback. The GOP has not reacted to the Soros hate and other anti-Semitic conspiracy theories with the same fierceness with which the Democrats responded to Omar’s comment. There has been no leadership statement condemning the mainstreaming of anti-Semitism; in fact, demonizing Soros has long been part of the overall party strategy. In 2016, Trump released a campaign ad that played a quote from one of his speeches over footage of Soros and former Fed Chair Janet Yellen (also Jewish) that comes across as an anti-Semitic dog whistle.

“For those who control the levers of power in Washington and for the global special interests, they partner with these people that don’t have your good in mind,” the now-president said.

There is a fundamental asymmetry, then, in how anti-Semitism is treated when it’s on the left and relates to Israel versus when it’s on the right and it doesn’t. The Democratic Party is willing to condemn its own, while the Republican Party is not.

“Don’t kid yourself that the most violent forms of hate have been aimed at others — blacks, Muslims, Latino immigrants. Don’t ever think that your government’s pro-Israel policies reflect a tolerance of Jews,” Jonathan Weisman, the New York Times’s deputy Washington editor and author of the new book (((Semitism))), writes. “We have to consider where power is rising, and the Nationalist Right is a global movement.”

Partly for this reason, the United States is not like Britain. Here, rising anti-Semitism is most closely associated with the online alt-right rather than the pro-Palestinian left. These people, Trump fans whom the president has done little to distance himself from, harass and threaten Jewish journalists and public figures. This is where David Duke — who served in the Louisiana legislature as a Republican — feels comfortable. This is the milieu from which the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter emerged.

Republican elected officials are quick to condemn Omar but do not seem to see how their own rhetoric encourages these far worse elements who identify as part of the political right. The double standard is palpable, and has largely been downplayed in coverage of the Omar situation.

But it shouldn’t be. While the Democratic Party handled an offensive comment quickly, Republicans have never shown a willingness to do the same when it comes to right-wing anti-Semitism. There’s a reason most Jews in the United States are Democrats, and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future.

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