The arguments I’ve seen online this week trying to untangle anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, anti-lobbies and anti-AIPAC have sometimes hit the mark and other times missed it. Before we break it down, let’s just preface with this by saying politicians who use Twitter to make off-the-cuff comments on social, political or any other kind of issues, are not behaving wisely. We see it with our Chief Executive; junior members of congress should learn from him. Until they have facts in hand, understand implications of what they are saying and really think they can control backlash, they should lay off Twitter and instead, use their staff to research background and help draft proper – and informed – statements.
Stepping off my soapbox, let’s take a closer look at what we saw happen this week: Ihlan Omar’s “It’s the Benjamins!” statement was in reaction to journalist Glenn Greenwald, who tweeted about “how much time US political leaders spend defending a foreign nation,” the implication being that these politicians are bought to the extent that they would put another nation’s interest ahead of their own. The accusations that Jews are trying to control the world has, like so many anti-Semitic tropes, been around for far too long. In this clip, Fareed Zakaria provides excellent commentary, history and context on anti-Semitism in the American left and in the Islamic world. Regarding this particular thread, of using money to run the world, we see how as a trope it is repeated throughout history. The “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” was published in 1903. In 2001 a reprint of Henry Ford’s anti-Semitic “The International Jew in Egypt” featuring Nazi imagery of an octopus engulfing the globe was published. Even more recently, the mural Jeremy Corbyn only recently expressed regret for defending depicted a group of men with hooked noses counting money and playing a Monopoly-like game on the backs of subjugated naked men. The storyline hasn’t disappeared over time. Google Soros or Globalism and see for yourself.
Journalist Batya Ungar-Sargon’s tweet both asked Omar to spell out who she “thinks is paying American politicians to be pro-Israel” and pointed out its anti-Semitic trope. When the Congresswoman retweeted with the word “AIPAC,” she implied that this lobby owns politicians. I’ll discuss the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in a minute, but just want to focus on the fact that doubling down instead of, say, investigating what Ungar-Sargon meant by calling the accusation an anti-Semitic trope, was ill advised. And inflammatory.
What follows next is also interesting. House Democrats issued a statement, House Speaker Pelosi met with Omar, and then Omar issued an apology, thanking “Jewish allies and colleagues” for helping her better understand. This was a good step forward, as Yair Rosenberg aptly pointed out in his Tablet Magazine piece calling for dialogue. Sensitivity needs to start somewhere and this is a starting point.
But then I saw a few half steps backwards. Jewish leaders (e.g., local allies and colleagues) from Minnesota disappointingly explain that they’d explained the history to her before; in their eyes, it seems that she still hasn’t learned. Ady Barkan tweeted about his experiences with AIPAC and ends his long thread with “I am deeply disappointed in @SpeakerPelosi for her failure today.” I have to ask, failure in what? Is pointing out to Omar that implying Jews dictate American foreign policy is offensive and why an apology would be a good thing a failure? Omar then retweets the thread, and adds, “In solidarity my friend, in solidarity”, implying endorsement. I read this not only as agreeing with Barkan’s assessment of AIPAC’s strength, but also as agreeing that she regrets what Pelosi did, i.e., facilitate the apology. Again, perhaps Twitter isn’t the best place to be voicing opinion on policy.
Calling out the power of lobbyists
I think we can all agree that lobbyists have too much power. I do think Omar and all Democrats ought to take this on as a party platform. Omar’s platform, though, did not call for campaign finance reform. Those who excuse her tweet because it is tackling a legitimate issue, I think, are a bit disingenuous..
If she wanted to focus only on PACs, I’d say great. And in fact, Omar was among 50 Democrats who pledged not to take money from corporate PACs. This is admirable and the numbers means it extends beyond just the freshmen (I personally find this encouraging; given the disgust the public has with money in politics, if the party wants to stay intact, Democrats already in office need to get on that bandwagon).
Still, corporate PACs are not the same as special interest PACs. And no one is refusing money from those. Perhaps even more confusingly, she is among at least 24 freshmen in the House and Senate who just started their own Leadership PACs, yet another kind. Its purpose is to raise money to contribute to other politicians, e.g., in primary fights. Leadership PACs generate controversy too, since politicians sometimes use their money for things they shouldn’t. Omar herself received money from Special interest groups and PACs and her leadership PAC received from an agricultural cooperative.
So, she is not calling for overall reform, nor is she calling for refraining from taking money from all PACs. No, she is focusing on AIPAC alone. And that, in this context, troubles me.
Let’s talk about support for Israel, including AIPAC’s. Some groups spend on lobbying, some contribute to candidates, and some do both. The pro-Israel lobby is made up of many interest groups, the largest among them isn’t even Jewish but Christians United for Israel. One Washington Post article argues that Christian support is more of a reason than Jewish support. Regardless, the fact that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East also plays a part in the support the country receives.
As it turns out, compared to other lobbies, the pro-Israel lobby is bubkes. As the 50th largest (not the first, not the second, not the tenth), pro-Israel groups together contributed $14.9 million in this last cycle. In first place was the securities and investment industry with $399 million, almost 27 times the amount.
Quite a number of pro-Israel groups contribute to candidates; 2018’s biggest contributor to politicians was J Street, a group which actively advocates for a two-state solution and is highly critical of AIPAC. J Street donated $4M to 111 Democratic candidates in 2018. Four million dollars.
J Street spent another $300K on lobbying efforts, which is admittedly far less than the $3.5 million AIPAC spent on lobbying. While AIPAC doesn’t directly give money to any candidates, eligibility to its Congressional Club is predicated on donating both to AIPAC and committing to donating to pro-Israel Congressional and Senatorial candidates. AIPAC encourages donating in an impactful way. They are also very, very well organized, perhaps better than other lobbies, in reaching out to politicians when they have bills they want passed or not passed.
(To be honest, this is one area I’d love to see adopted from Israeli politics, assuming it hasn’t changed from when I lived there in the 1990s. Politicians do not fundraise for election campaigns. They aren’t beholden to big business or special interest groups. Instead they do their jobs (I know, what a concept). When I lived there, I remember the government distributed money for advertising based on a formula and that was all that could be spent. Two weeks of television ads back to back on prime time, for an hour or two at a shot, and that was it. I imagine that the Internet has changed things, that ads can be posted online at other times. But the main point is that ego, ideology and coalition and portfolio power struggles were all the public had to filter for; lobbyist and special interest money just don’t come into play.)
If Omar wants to reduce AIPAC’s power, then I believe it ought to be carried in a way that creates criteria applicable to all strong lobbies. But in singling out the Israel lobby, she targeted Jews much like others in history have. Jews do not run the world. And as Emma Green pointed out in The Atlantic, it also makes it that much more difficult to have the kind of nuanced discussion the topic requires.
I am afraid the backlash of defending Omar due to AIPAC’s strength will actually feed more of the same anti-Semitic tropes her tweets embodied in the first place. Follow me here, because this is tricky. People who blame those on the left who are calling out Omar for being anti-Semitic and who instead agree without qualification that AIPAC is running things, are reinforcing the anti-Semitic stereotype of Jews dictating world policy. What they should be doing instead is just calling out the trope for what it is. Leave AIPAC to another discussion. Their position reinforces the reasons hers were anti-Semitic and in riling up more people winds up directing more and more energy to these conversations instead of towards ones which focus on the actual issues at hand. And this brings us to…
AIPAC is bipartisan. It is not affiliated with any one political party in America. It is also not an agent of the Israeli government. It knows that it has be able to work with whomever is in office in both countries. AIPAC works to strengthen Israel and because of that (and because Netanyahu’s Likud government has been the ruling party for so long), it would be easy to say it AIPAC is doing Israel’s bidding. This 2002 article looked at AIPAC and at the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and how their leadership was not always fully aligned with all members and/or with the Israeli government. It is careful to present a unified public face. The takeaway here is that AIPAC is its own entity, not an agent of Israel. Israel is not hypnotizing the world. Nor is it taking it over.
Per the Jerusalem Report, “Israel and AIPAC are assiduously separate. AIPAC doesn’t take orders from Jerusalem. And when Israel needs to make its way through the federal labyrinth, it engages an international law or public relations firm. AIPAC also makes sure that it is never more to the right – or left – of whatever Israeli government happens to be in power. Mainly, AIPAC sees its job as fostering the US-Israel relationship. ”
AIPAC is criticized for its exclusively pro-Israel stance that doesn’t look from a Palestinian perspective. On the one hand, it makes sense. That is not its raison d’être. On the other, it means AIPAC is missing the bigger discussion of what kind of Israel do we want to see in the future? (Then again, given it does not plan policy for Israel, can it even have those kinds of shaping conversations?)
The lack of progress in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict takes a toll on the soul. As I’ve written before, we need to swap out the call for ending the occupation with one calling on both parties to “Show you want a future!” Truly, if only a fraction of the efforts spend on denouncing AIPAC or promoting BDS or creating hostile atmospheres on college campuses or feeding anti-Semitic tropes were instead funneled into working with Israeli-Palestinian joint efforts, like these, which promote cooperation, positive progress might actually accomplish something. But sadly, that is not the case.
What is the case is that we have politicians and others substituting Twitter rants for researched policy papers while conjuring up images of Jewish bogeymen buying influence instead of working within the party (let alone across the aisle) to address the power lobbyists and special interest groups hold. Isn’t it time our elected leaders started leading?