July 18, 2019

For Ilhan Omar, It’s Not About Israel, It’s About the Jews

Rep. Ilhan Omar Photo from Flickr.

The best and worst thing about a 24 hour news cycle is how quickly stories move in and out of our consciousness. The British Parliament struggles with Brexit, there’s a horrible plane crash in Ethiopia, then an embarrassing college admissions scandal in this country, and then worst of all, a ghastly terrorist attack in New Zealand. In the middle of all this conflict and this sorrow, it’s easy to forget how recently the headlines were about Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and the anti-Semitic slurs of which she has grown so fond.

But this also gives us the chance for some perspective that is often harder to achieve in the middle of the troubling debate such as the one that Omar has instigated. Even though not that much time has passed since she publicly revived the “dual loyalty” insult that American Jews have endured for most of our history, maybe we can look back at her charges from a greater emotional distance than might have been possible in the moment.

Among Omar’s allegations is the contention that U.S. Middle Eastern policy is the result of large sums of money spent by Israel’s supporters. In addition to her obliteration of the line between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, though, Omar also makes a broader point about the role of money in American politics.

“I reaffirm the problematic role of lobbyists in our politics, whether it be AIPAC, the NRA, or the fossil-fuel industry,” she said, in a combination of self-righteousness and ideological selectivity. “It’s gone on too long and we must be willing to address it.”

OK, so let’s address it.

Money spent by foreign governments on lobbying and other types of advocacy is legal (although foreign spending on our political campaigns, of course, is not.) So perhaps Omar thinks that is a problem. If so, the targets of her first complaints might be the nations of South Korea and Japan, who spend $57 million and $45 million since the beginning of 2017, both far more than Israel. (Keep an eye on those nefarious Bermudans too: their government spent $52 million lobbying our government over that same time.) Other countries that spend at approximately the same level as Israel are Ireland, the Bahamas, and the Marshall Islands.

If Omar’s motivation was the need for stricter campaign finance reform, we could assume that she would just as outraged by the money these other countries spend to lobby our country’s government. Yet only Israel’s advocacy has inspired her to such anger.

Where these numbers get even more interesting is when you break them down by per capita spending, by the amount of money spent per resident of the country in question. Israel spends $3.43 per resident on lobbying the U.S. government. The nation of Qatar, one of Iran’s most reliable allies in the region and one of the world’s most notorious supporters of terrorism, spends just over $5 for each of its 2.6 million residents. Not surprisingly, Omar is not on record criticizing Qatari’s considerable investment in lobbying American politicians. Maybe it’s not “all about the Benjamins” after all.

There are many strident critics of Israel’s government who don’t resort to personal vitriol and vindictiveness when mounting a policy-based attack. I obviously don’t agree with the goals of anti-Zionists, but I recognize that those who oppose the policies I believe will ensure the safety and security of the Jewish state are entitled to their opinions too.

But that’s not who Omar is. In her diatribes, she has only occasionally and belatedly bothered to mention settlements or the Iran nuclear agreement or any other aspect of Middle Eastern geo-politics.”

For Omar, it’s not about Israel. It’s about the Jews. It’s anti-Semitism, pure and simple, and it has no place in the halls of our Congress.

Omar frequently suggests that much of the anger directed toward her is a result of prejudice toward Muslims. But when Jewish religious and community leaders joined memorial services across the world to grieve the unspeakable tragedy in New Zealand, it didn’t matter that the victims were praying to Allah or that they lived in a city named after Jesus.

Just as Muslim leaders across the country stood with us after the heartbreak of Pittsburgh, we stand with them after the tragedy of Christchurch. That same shared commitment to our common humanity allows people of good will to disagree on matters of politics and geopolitics without resorting to bias and bigotry. This is our problem with Ilhan Omar, not a lack of respect for her religion but rather a recognition of her intolerance for ours.

This article was updated on March 17. 


Dan Schnur is a professor at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies and Pepperdine University. He is the founder of the USC-L.A. Times statewide political survey and a board member of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.