A little over a month ago, Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., a longtime critic of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, wrote a tweet condemning the significant influence The American Israel Public Affairs Committee has in American politics. Criticizing the way the organization uses money to garner support for Israel, the tweet reads “It’s all about the Benjamins baby.” Almost instantaneously, celebrities, pundits and leaders from both parties rushed en masse to label the tweet as both anti-Semitic and unacceptable. According to Steve Hunegs, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, the references to “age-old stereotypes about Jews using money to buy influence” were pretty clear.
But there’s a problem: What Omar said is completely true. A recent article written by a former AIPAC employee for The Nation explains exactly how AIPAC’s gargantuan political machine pushes a pro-Israel legislative agenda through indirect fundraising and money distribution. As a result, these enormous campaign contributions have a tangible impact on American policy toward Israel. It’s utterly ridiculous for Omar’s tweet to be labelled anti-Semitic for pointing this out. If discussing the salience of pro-Israel campaign money is automatically anti-Semitic, how are pro-Palestinian activists and politicians supposed to raise their concerns?
The short answer to that is, they aren’t. Over the past couple of years, anti-Semitism has been deliberately weaponized to prevent meaningful criticism of Israel within the United States. However, by dissecting these attacks and their targets, we can uncover their true nature and determine whether or not certain accusations are warranted. Only then can substantive dialogue take place.
Shortly after the Twitter debacle, Omar came under fire for another set of provocative comments. While speaking about the scandal during a forum held at a bookstore in Washington, D.C., she remarked, “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country. … Why is it OK for me to talk about the influence of the [National Rifle Association], or fossil fuel industries or Big Pharma, and not talk about a powerful lobbying group that is influencing policy?” Many argued that her statements drew from the old anti-Semitic trope of a “dual loyalty” amongst Jewish-Americans.
In neither remark did Omar mention the Jewish people. Each time, she specifically referenced AIPAC, a lobbying group with a publicly stated political agenda. Meanwhile, the most notable piece of legislation currently being promoted by AIPAC is the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, which would prevent public employees from boycotting Israeli businesses at the risk of losing their jobs; numerous civil rights groups, including the ACLU, oppose it. With that in mind, if wanting to restrict individual freedoms to the benefit of a foreign country doesn’t suggest some type of allegiance to said country, I’m really not sure what does.
This overzealous behavior even occurs here at Yale. Just earlier this month, an opinion column published in the News claimed that the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, a decentralized, nonviolent campaign in support of Palestinians, “does not recognize the right of the Jewish people to a state” and “aims to undermine the very existence of Israel.” These allegations are strongly reminiscent of conservative attempts to smear the similarly decentralized Black Lives Matter movement as a “racist terrorist organization”; no one should be making such broad generalizations. Arguing over the efficacy of boycotts, divestments and sanctions is one thing, but levelling accusations of anti-Semitism is quite another.
In this era of growing bigotry and far-right populism, we ought to remain vigilant. Anti-Semitism is on the rise in both Europe and the United States and, as demonstrated in the Pittsburgh shooting last October, has deadly consequences. Similarly, it’s also important to remember that anti-Semitism exists on both sides of the aisle, the Left included.
However, we ought to be cautious with our accusations. While the internet was busy dogpiling on Omar (a Muslim) for her alleged anti-Semitism, many of her detractors flirted with blatant Islamophobia. Omar’s fellow congresswoman, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., has spoken openly about how she fears that anything she says about Israel will be interpreted as anti-Semitic solely because she’s Muslim. Accusations like these can entirely derail productive conversation regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict and our foreign policy. When critics of Israel are automatically denounced as anti-Semites, we need to begin asking ourselves: Who are the critics? What are they criticizing and what is the content of their critiques? What language is being used? And, most importantly, does labeling them as anti-Semitic require the conflation of Israeli policy (or a political group) with Jewish people in general?
As a prestigious university with a significant Jewish population and a national presence, Yale is the ideal place to not only develop a better understanding of anti-Semitism, but also foster meaningful debate on Israel’s role in the world. We should take that responsibility seriously, using it to engage with others rather than to silence them.
Ian Moreau is a sophomore in Pierson College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .