Progressives Reject Anti-Semitism Charges Against Rep. Omar, Accuse GOP of Hypocrisy

Interview with Sonya E. Meyerson-Knox, media program manager with Jewish Voice for Peace, conducted by Scott Harris

After newly-elected Muslim member of Congress Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minnesota, tweeted that American political leaders’ support for Israel is “all about the Benjamins” on Feb. 10, she was attacked for what her detractors charged was anti-Semitism.  During a subsequent talk and Q&A session at a Washington, 
D.C. bookstore where she apologized for the remark, Omar asked why it’s 
OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country … and not talk about a powerful lobby that is influencing policy,” a reference to the lobby group the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC.
This set off a new round of accusations from Republicans and Democrats that Omar was repeating anti-Semitic tropes about Jews not being loyal to their nations. Again, the congresswoman apologized saying she had not intended her words to be interpreted the way many had heard them. A resolution was raised by the Democratic leadership in the House, initially to condemn anti-Semitism without singling out Omar, but then the language was broadened out to condemn all “hateful expressions of intolerance.” The measure passed overwhelmingly with only 23 Republicans opposing it.

Many progressives have come to the defense of Omar, arguing that it’s fair to point out the influence of AIPAC, and charge that the attacks are part of a broader campaign to smear a young Muslim congresswoman and suppress all criticism of Israel. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Sonya E. Meyerson-Knox, media program manager with Jewish Voice for Peace. Here, she shares her views on the criticism of Omar while pointing out the hypocrisy of many Republicans and their President Donald Trump, who regularly engage in hateful, racist, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic rhetoric.

SONYA E. MEYERSON-KNOX: (Rep.) Ilhan Omar has now twice been accused very publicly and with quite a lot of attention, including from Democratic Party leadership, of employing anti-Semitic tropes. And I think it’s very important to actually look at what she said and what she tweeted. So the first time she tweeted a response to a tweet that Glenn Greenwald, the journalist from the Intercept, had put out looking at the first bill that this current Senate passed, which would make the boycott, sanctions and divestment movement for Palestinian human rights criminalized and make it illegal in one way or another.

And Ilhan Omar basically responded to that tweet by jokingly pulling a line from a Puff Daddy rap song saying, you know, “It’s all about the Benjamins.” And when asked directly what that was referring to, she said AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee), meaning basically that she was implying that AIPAC, which is a very large and very successful lobby, which prides itself on being able to influence congressional politics such that there is a staunch support for Israel – and increasingly not just for Israel, but for the Likud party – which is Benjamin Netanyahu, the current prime minister, his party in particular. That’s what they pride themselves on doing and they are not shy about that.

None of that is anti-Semitic. Implying that Jewish people are using Jewish monies to specifically buy elections in corrupt, insidious and backhanded,- secret ways – that is a longstanding anti-Semitic trope. But Ilhan Omar didn’t refer to that trope at all. She didn’t talk about Jews at all. She talks about AIPAC’s influence in terms of making America support Israel, which she criticizes based on its treatment of Palestinian human rights. There’s nothing anti-Semantic there at all. And then after the fury and furor that developed from that, she then offered an incredibly heartfelt and I thought nuanced, detailed apology. And then continuing to speak about that experience, a week or so later, two weeks later, she pointed out, talking about herself as a member of Congress, she was expected to have a dual loyalty, meaning that she was expected to not criticize the state of Israel. And again, that is not in any way anti-Semitic.

Members of Congress are all the time expected to not criticize the United States’ and Israel’s “special relationship,” which is a continuing amount of support for the state of Israel. There are anti-Semitic tropes that go way back, that accused Jews of not being able to be trustworthy because they would have a secondary loyalty or a loyalty that supersedes to the state of Israel. Such as Catholics often for a long time, and maybe still do face, racism and prejudice that they couldn’t be loyal to America because they would hold the pope in the first highest authority. That’s anti-Semitism or that’s racism and that’s unacceptable. But Ilhan Omar didn’t talk about Jews having dual loyalty. She talked about herself and members of Congress being expected to have dual loyalty and in fact, when you look at who the most ardent supporters of Israel are right now – Michael Huckabee and Sarah Pailin and what not – we’re looking at Christian evangelical politicians. So increasingly, the idea that that only Jews support Israel is obviously incorrect, as is the idea that all Jews support Israel is increasingly incorrect and furthermore, therefore criticizing Israel then cannot be anti-Semitic.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Sonya, I did want to ask you about the hypocrisy of some members of Congress, particularly Republicans who have been cited over and over again for comments or tweets or campaign rhetoric that many have interpreted to be anti-Semitic with very little focus from the media or other members of Congress being critical of those comments.

SONYA E. MEYERSON-KNOX: It’s an incredible hypocrisy and it absolutely reinforces the point that much of the criticism that Congresswoman Omar’s been exposed to is based entirely upon the fact that she is Muslim and wears the hijab and she’s also black. She’s Somali, so we have racism. We have Islamophobia. We have, I think also sexism and the general fear of a new rising powerful generation of politicians coming together.

Meanwhile, we have the former House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy tweeting out about seven months ago or so, accusing three different Jewish Democratic donors of buying the election, certain election results. Rep. Jim Jordan more recently referred to a wealthy donor by name in a tweet and replaced the “S” in that donor’s name with a dollar sign. These are absolutely enigmatic dog whistles, but we have even more explicit examples than that.

We also have Trump himself engaging in quite a lot of anti-Semitic tropes. He brought (Nazi-linked) Sebastian Gorka and Steve Bannon onto his administration at various points. He retweeted incredibly anti-Semitic tropes about George Soros that have been circulating now for a number of years that really do employ all of the anti-Semitic stereotypes that we’re used to seeing. George Soros’ caricature was disfigured so that he had a hook nose and big eyebrows and was clutching bags of money. I mean, this is unacceptable behavior. And it’s targeting a person, an individual, George Soros himself. And Trump retweeted that.

When neo-Nazis carried tiki torches through Charlottesville and chanted “Jews will not replace us,” we were told by the president that “some very fine people were there” and that behavior was not in any way criticized or condemned. So we are seeing anti-Semitism at the highest reaches of the United States government. And then we see it, of course, finally manifest in the killing of 11 Jewish people in The Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. And yet these are the people, and this is the party that demands that everybody else that criticizes Israel is automatically anti-Semitic? It’s absolutely absurd and reprehensible and speaks to nothing more than the extent to which what we’re seeing now with Ilhan Omar is really all about Islamophobia and racism as they attempt to silence any criticism of Israel.

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