April 23, 2019

Omar’s Hatred Has No Place in Congress

Screenshot from Twitter.

Congresswoman Ilhan Omar didn’t attend the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, D.C., this week, but her presence was impossible to escape. Democratic and Republican politicians alike pushed back at her — either by name or implication — and especially her contention that U.S. Middle Eastern policy is the result of large sums of money spent by Israel’s supporters. 

Omar’s “dual loyalty” slurs clearly energized Israel’s strongest supporters in both parties. But in addition to her obliteration of the line between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, the Minnesota Democrat made a broader point about the role of money in American politics that is worth further examination.

“I reaffirm the problematic role of lobbyists in our politics, whether it be AIPAC [the American Israel Political Affairs Committee], the NRA [National Rifle Association] 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. 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 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, which have spent $58 million and $53 million on lobbying, respectively, since the beginning of 2017 — far more than Israel’s $34 million, according to OpenSecrets.org. (Keep an eye on those nefarious Bermudans, too; their government spent $52 million lobbying the U.S. 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 she would be just as outraged by the money these other countries spend to lobby our government. Yet, only Israel’s advocacy has inspired her to such anger.

“Our problem with Ilhan Omar is not a lack of respect for her religion but rather a recognition of her intolerance for ours.”

These numbers get even more interesting when you break them down per capita — the amount of money spent per resident of the country in question. Israel spends $3.43 per resident on lobbying the U.S. government. 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 the Qataris’ 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 the settlements, 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 Congress.

Omar frequently suggests that much of the anger directed toward her is rooted in prejudice toward Muslims. But when Jewish religious and community leaders joined memorial services across the world to grieve the unspeakable tragedy in New Zealand recently, 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 enables people of goodwill to disagree on matters of politics and geopolitics without resorting to bias and bigotry.

Our problem with Ilhan Omar is not a lack of respect for her religion but rather a recognition of her intolerance for ours. That’s why pro-Israel Democrats and Republicans put aside their other differences this past week to make it clear that they reject the hatred masquerading as public policy that she continues to promote.


Dan Schnur is a professor at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies and Pepperdine University.