It’s only somewhat about the Benjamins.
House Republicans don’t have a policy agenda that they’re planning to wield to win back the House from Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats, but they do have a new favored wedge issue: Israel. Republicans, led by Rep. Kevin McCarthy, are accusing two new Muslim members of Congress, who’ve made strident criticisms of Israel, of anti-Semitism.
The specifics of the controversy of the moment (“Omar ignites new anti-Semitism controversy with comments on AIPAC,” according to Politico) relate to some moderately ill-advised tweets Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) fired off Sunday night. But the tweets themselves only arose in the larger context of what was already a push from Republican leaders to label Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) as anti-Semitic over their views on Israel policy. That’s not a novel tactic to anyone familiar with the discourse around this subject, but it’s taken on a new urgency in the current Congress for two parallel reasons.
First, under the leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu, the government of Israel has become increasingly comfortable with the concept of Israel being used as a partisan wedge issue — something Israeli leaders traditionally felt would undermine Israel’s political support in the United States.
Second, as part of a larger resurgence of left-wing politics in the United States, a minority of Democrats are becoming increasingly comfortable with overt hostility to the Israeli government — and at least some establishment Democrats, stung by Netanyahu’s conduct during President Obama’s eight years in office, are prepared to back them.
Nonetheless, the issue of Israel remains deeply — indeed, almost uniquely — divisive in the Democratic Party. After about twelve hours of controversy, Omar’s remarks led to a remarkable joint rebuke from the entire House Democratic leadership team calling them “deeply offensive.”
Omar, in turn, apologized for the phrasing of her tweet while standing behind the substantive criticism of AIPAC’s policy agenda.
Listening and learning, but standing strong pic.twitter.com/7TSroSf8h1
— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) February 11, 2019
Meanwhile, the pro-Israel establishment in the American Jewish community remains determined to flex considerable financial muscle in favor of its preferred policy approach while simultaneously accusing those like Omar who draw attention to this fact of trafficking in anti-Semitic stereotypes.
Ilhan Omar’s Sunday night twitter controversy
It all began, as so many things do these days, with public figures being Extremely Online during non-working hours.
After years of tolerating Iowa Rep. Steve King’s increasingly overt racism, McCarthy took action against him early this year by stripping him of his committee assignments. Then on Sunday, Ron Kampeas of the JTA news service reported that McCarthy was preparing to challenge Democrats to take similar action against Omar and Tlaib, arguing, according to Kampeas, that “statements by freshmen Democrats Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota were equal to King’s and ‘more so.’”
It wasn’t clear from Kampeas’s report which statements he had in mind, but in the larger context of the GOP push for laws that would punish people for boycotting Israel, it seems like he was trying to say that Omar and Tlaib supporting the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement was worthy of punishment.
That led Glenn Greenwald, a prominent journalist and critic of both Israel and BDS laws, to send a tweet.
GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy threatens punishment for @IlhanMN and @RashidaTlaib over their criticisms of Israel. It’s stunning how much time US political leaders spend defending a foreign nation even if it means attacking free speech rights of Americans https://t.co/It1fGm1b70
— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) February 10, 2019
Then Omar followed up on Greenwald by saying that McCarthy’s approach to this issue was “all about the Benjamins baby” (i.e., motivated by money).
Offered an opportunity to clarify by Batya Ungar-Sargon, the opinion editor for the Forward, Omar instead upped the ante to say clearly that she believes the American Israel Public Affairs Committee is paying American politicians to be pro-Israel.
This is a sensitive subject for Jewish Americans with a wide range of views about Israel and US foreign policy, and by responding in this way to McCarthy’s provocations, Omar essentially gave McCarthy the pretext he’d previously lacked to analogize her to King. Omar’s fellow first-term Democrat Rep. Max Rose (D-NY) swiftly slammed her remarks as “deeply hurtful to Jews,” TPM’s Josh Marshall deemed it a “very unfortunate tweet,” and even Chelsea Clinton joined the pile-on, which prompted a whole other series of counterattacks.
Lest you think any of this is happening in good faith, recall that McCarthy himself in October was accusing three Jewish Democrats of trying to “buy” the 2018 midterms.
Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy posted this tweet AFTER a bomb was sent to Soros’ house. Up until a couple of minutes ago it was pinned to the top of his profile. pic.twitter.com/FEeKoPolHL
— Judd Legum (@JuddLegum) October 24, 2018
Nonetheless, whether or not one takes McCarthy’s complaints seriously, he has correctly identified a potentially explosive issue that is very well-calibrated to the specific goal of getting Democrats to fight with each other about a topic most Americans probably don’t care very much about.
It’s only partially about the Benjamins
The notion that congressional support for Israel is literally all about the Benjamins is clearly false, and Omar could have saved herself some grief by acknowledging as much in response to Ungar-Sargon’s initial inquiry. There are, pretty obviously, major questions of ethnic and religious identity in play — not just among American Jews but also with the incredible influence of Christian Zionism in American politics and, conversely, the not-coincidental reality that Omar and Tlaib, who are both Muslim, have strong feelings on this topic.
That said, while it’s true that to suggest a cabal of Jewish moneymen control Congress from behind the scenes via their perfidious financial influence certainly does traffic in anti-Semitic stereotypes, it’s also clearly true that pro-Israel forces’ financial clout makes a difference in American politics.
Don’t take my word for it — ask AIPAC, which says that “the United States Congress has provided Israel with the strongest support of any institution in the world” and tells its members that “involvement in the political process is a tangible way of showing friends of Israel that you care about who serves in Congress.” It also specifically defines this in terms of being sufficiently generous with your campaign contributions to qualify as a member of AIPAC’s Congressional Club.
Beyond its involvement in encouraging campaign contributions, AIPAC also spends a lot of money on lobbying.
The $3.5 million AIPAC spent lobbying in 2018 is trivial compared to what business groups spend (the National Association of Realtors took the cake with $543 million in spending and mostly lost the argument over the home mortgage tax deduction anyway), but very large relative to the world of foreign policy. The No. 2 foreign policy donor, UNICEF USA, spent just $744,000, and its activities are orthogonal to AIPAC’s interests anyway. The next-largest group lobbying on Israel, J Street, which advocates a pro-Israel, pro-peace agenda, spent less than 10 percent of AIPAC’s lobbying budget. It actually got outspent by a second, smaller hawkish Israel policy group, the Israeli-American Coalition for Action.
Last but by no means least, AIPAC spends on less formal means of influence-peddling.
Their annual trips to Israel for members of Congress are perennially the most popular form of foreign congressional travel, in no small part because the accommodations are rather lavish. As Rachael Bade and Amanda Becker have reported, AIPAC spends around $10,000 per guest on business-class airfare and luxury accommodations. Members are allowed to bring spouses and other family guests on the trips, and members frequently go multiple times. Comparable junkets for journalists are also available.
To view this as the primary driver of a foreign policy relationship that has roots in Cold War strategy and substantial links to evangelical eschatology is mistaken. But there’s also something a little willfully naive about the counter-assertion that money is irrelevant. Haim Saban, a major Democratic Party donor, for example, has in the past described himself as “a one-issue guy, and my issue is Israel.” That gives many rank-and-file Democrats who don’t particularly care about foreign policy (a good description of most members of Congress) good reason to adopt a pro-Israel line and enjoy the benefits rather than rocking the boat.
Republicans want a wedge; Omar gave them a sledgehammer
The larger context for this controversy, however, is not the strength of the pro-Israel lobby but its weakness. The concurrent administrations of Obama in the United States and Netanyahu in Israel led to a serious deterioration of the relationship between Democrats and pro-Israel organizations.
On a policy level, that was largely about Iran, where Israel stridently opposed Obama’s nuclear deal but congressional Democrats mostly chose partisanship and ideology over AIPAC’s preferences.
On a political level, that was about Netanyahu’s eagerness to break with precedent and allow Israel to be used as a partisan wedge issue — all but openly campaigning on behalf of Mitt Romney and John Boehner against Obama and congressional Democrats — even while aware that this risked a backlash from Democrats in Congress.
In the Trump era, the United States has tilted further than ever in a pro-Israel direction (moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem even without a diplomatic agreement with the Palestinians about the status of the city), while Democrats have grown stronger in their criticisms of anti-Iranian activities by Saudi Arabia and the UAE that Israel supports.
Bernie Sanders has played a leading role in much of this, continuing a trajectory of shattering taboos that he launched during his 2016 campaign.
But Sanders, who is Jewish, and whose policy team includes seasoned professionals with years of experience on the issue, manages to make his points in a thoughtful, politically effective way. Omar’s social media strategy, by contrast, is a gift to congressional Republicans who are eager to promote Democratic infighting. And there is now infighting aplenty, with other Democrats rushing to distance themselves from Omar while more left-wing writers and activists emphasize their agreement with the basic point that pro-Israel money matters.
NADLER: “It is deeply disappointing and disturbing to hear Representative Ilhan Omar’s (MN) choice of words in her exchange with a journalist yesterday, wherein she appears to traffic in old anti-Semitic tropes about Jews and money.”
— Sam Stein (@samstein) February 11, 2019
For nearly two weeks, Rep. @IlhanMN has avoided meeting with me to discuss why anti-Semitic tropes like these are hurtful to so many Americans. There is absolutely no place for this rhetoric in Congress — or anywhere. https://t.co/0arhEAVyXO
— Rep Josh Gottheimer (@RepJoshG) February 11, 2019
accurately describing how the Israel lobby works is not anti-semitism https://t.co/30M6rVmeJb
— Ashley Feinberg (@ashleyfeinberg) February 11, 2019
The fundamental reality, however, is that this is an inherently difficult topic for Democrats. A large majority of Americans say they sympathize more with the Israeli side than the Palestinian side in the conflict, but rank-and-file Democrats are split roughly 50-50.
That means that in order to be effective, people who want to challenge the pro-Israel consensus in politics need to be careful and strategic with their interventions — the opposite of tossing off inflammatory tweets on a Sunday evening with no strategy lined up.