Discussing the role of the pro-Israel lobby in forming US Middle East policy is perilous. I’ve heard hundreds of stories from fellow advocates, colleagues on Capitol Hill, and journalists who have learned that lesson the hard way. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) has once again brought that peril on herself.
Responding to journalist Glenn Greenwald’s comments about the amount of energy Congress spends defending Israel, Omar tweeted, “It’s all about the Benjamins baby.” When the Forward’s opinion editor asked her who she thought was “paying off” members of Congress to support Israel, Omar tweeted “AIPAC.”
The backlash was swift and powerful. Criticism and denunciation of Omar’s tweet as anti-Semitic came from all directions, left and right. It culminated with leading Democrats denouncing the new congresswoman and Omar’s apology. Omar’s initial comments evoked for many the image of Jews nefariously controlling a political agenda with their money, an old and sordidly familiar anti-Semitic trope.
Having been through this sort of thing before when she had to apologize for a tweet evoking the trope of subtle Jewish power by saying that Israel had hypnotized the world, Omar might have known better than to tweet so flippantly on a subject that requires significant nuance.
How Problematic Were Omar’s Tweets?
Omar certainly deserves some criticism here. Anti-Semitism is again on the rise, so it’s more important than ever to avoid even the perception of classic anti-Semitic tropes. In this case, Omar’s tweet implied to some that money was the only reason for U.S. policy toward Israel. Maybe she was just trying to say money was a key factor, and she used the familiar lyric to illustrate the point. That is, of course, exactly the kind of light care with language that elected officials should avoid, especially when dealing with this issue.
Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, put it well. “I have been working on these issues for years and thus I have learned a lot about how this works and the nuances. The nuances are extremely important. But the truth is, a tiny number of people are really versed in them.” There was no space given to Omar that she just might not fully understand those nuances yet. Her subsequent apology seemed to indicate just that.
As I explained in the past, there are geo-strategic, albeit misguided, reasons for our policy in the Middle East. There is also the fact that Israel and the United States share values. Pro-Israel forces often point to democracy, freedom, and “Judeo-Christian values.” Others claim it’s the legacy of colonization, dispossession, and racism—or some combination of these factors. Either way, and despite the often diverging interests between the United States and Israel, there is clearly a certain amount of genuine commonality between the two countries. Beyond the military and intelligence cooperation, Israel’s advanced tech sector makes it a key player in a variety of industries throughout the global economy.
The religious beliefs of many evangelical Christians as well as Jews in the United States also create a powerful sense of kinship with Israel. For many, the view of Israel as a “Western outpost in the Arab desert” is compelling (though many supporters of Palestinian rights see racism in that imagery). Others romanticize Israel’s “startup nation” character or its birth, which many older people still recall wistfully. The United States supports Israel for many reasons other than campaign financing.
That’s the soil in which the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), as a lobbying organization, plants its advocacy. Given its undeniable skills, it is no wonder AIPAC is so successful. True, Omar was factually inaccurate about AIPAC contributing to political campaigns. AIPAC is a tax-deductible non-profit and does not contribute to election campaigns. But it does guide donations with its scorecards and commentary on every elected official, as well as its work in media, social and traditional. It is certainly a vital cog in the campaign financing machine advocating for Israel.
This is not something an elected official should be trying to discuss over Twitter. Short, pithy, glib tweets that can easily tread on negative stereotypes are sure to be counterproductive when it comes to Israel-Palestine. Like no other issue, this one requires nuance if the tide of the debate is to turn.
But Omar Was Right!
All of that, however, has to do with tactics. What about the substance of what Omar was trying to convey?
It is true that “Jewish money” influencing government leaders is a pernicious and dangerous anti-Semitic canard. But in Washington, money is a big part of the game. And the Jewish community, in its effort to support Israel as well as numerous other, more liberal political pursuits, plays that game exceptionally well.
According to a study by Gil Troy, U.S. Jews contribute around 50 percent of Democratic campaign funds and 25 percent of Republican. This from a group that comprises only 2 percent of the U.S. populace. That’s not something Jews need to be ashamed of; it is how the American political system works, problematic as that is. Jews have as much right as anyone else to capitalize on it.
In many cases those contributions have nothing to do with Israel. Poll after poll has shown that U.S. Jews do not vote based on Israel. But politician are going to assume that supporting Israeli policy is the way to respond to that reality.
Clearly, it plays into a stereotype. That’s unfortunate, but it would be far more anti-Semitic if the mere existence of such a trope forced Jews to relinquish their right to participate fully in U.S. politics. This money does not create the U.S. bias toward Israel. Congress doesn’t make that policy, and that is where the influence is most notable. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a crucial factor.
As Lara Friedman pointed out,
Over 15+ years working the Hill on Israel-related issues from a non-AIPAC point of view, members/staff (both parties) told me over and over that they agreed with me but didn’t dare say so publicly for fear of repercussions from AIPAC et al. Crossing these groups, they made clear, would be courting misery – guaranteeing a parade of outraged major donors and potential revenge exacted in the next primary or general election. Every member/staffer has concrete examples of how real a threat this is.
No one disputes that AIPAC is one of the most effective and powerful lobbies in Washington. It excels at messaging and at developing influential networks and relationships that make things happen in DC. And it plays hardball.
It can do that because of those campaign contributions. In 2018, for example, official pro-Israel contributions were just under $15 million for all congressional candidates. But that doesn’t include some big-ticket individual donors who put Israel on a short list of critical issues. The most prominent person in this category is Sheldon Adelson. His fund contributed a whopping $123 million in 2018. That kind of money absolutely buys significant input.
Adelson has interests besides Israel, but he has made it clear that Israel is always at or near the top of his list. It has become a ritual ever since the cap was blown off of campaign financing that Republican presidential candidates come to Adelson on their knees, begging to receive the bulk of his largesse.
Haim Saban, on the Democratic side, famously said that he is a “one-issue donor and that issue is Israel.” In 2016, he donated nearly $14 million. That’s a mere pittance next to Adelson, but it’s still a great deal of money, and enough to establish considerable influence in Democratic politics on Israel.
Beyond Jewish pro-Israel money, there is also Christian pro-Israel money as well as campaign financing from the arms and technology sectors. Stack that against the money that comes in to support the Palestinians, which is essentially non-existent, and this situation is obviously unique. The NRA spends far more than pro-Israel PACs. But even if the NRA’s funding dwarfs its opposition, there is a significant opposition. A supporter of gun control can count on material support for her candidacy, in contributions, in advertisements, in various other ways. There simply is no such thing when it comes to the Palestinians.
Tom Friedman once said that Congress was “bought and paid for.” He is no anti-Semite. There is much talk of the NRA’s lobbying efforts, or the Saudis’, or a laundry list of K Street clients who work tirelessly to influence policy. Israel should be no different.
Blaming the lobby illegitimately lets the United States off the hook for its own immoral policies. Blaming the Jews is always convenient, and it is dangerous, especially now. But pretending that Adelson, Saban, and the many people who donate to AIPAC and pro-Israel PACs are throwing their money away to no effect is just as dangerous, and just as ridiculous. Maintaining vigilance against anti-Semitism cannot blind us to obvious realities. Ilhan Omar may have been careless with her words. But acknowledging that one of the most influential lobbies in Washington is good at its job and that it matters is not anti-Semitism. And until Americans can discuss that aspect of pro-Israel activism without either exaggerating or minimizing its role, the United States can never play a positive role in the Middle East.