Last Sunday, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) tweeted, “It’s all about the Benjamins baby” in her flippant criticism of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s control over U.S. foreign policy on Israel. She has since been in hot water for her anti-Israel stance and anti-Semitic tweets, which buy into the long-standing trope of Jewish corruption and Jewish money in politics. Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the entire Democratic House leadership condemned her comments and President Trump called for Omar’s resignation.
Omar apologized on the same day, again via Twitter. But the hullabaloo over her stance on Israel is just beginning. Ever since Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) were sworn in as the first two Muslim-American women to serve in Congress, journalists and elected officials have been finding ways to portray their comments as anti-Semitic. Yet, both women have staunchly retained their views. Both support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which aims to pressure Israel on the Jewish state’s treatment of Palestinians through economic and diplomatic means.
It’s not surprising that the two Muslim-American congresswomen are being treated this way. The same thing happened when President Obama was elected in 2008 and the birther conspiracy gained momentum in an attempt to disprove Obama’s U.S. citizenship and drag his character through the mud. The same thing also happened when white schools were desegregated for the first time and the National Guard had to be called in to ensure the safety of black students. The same thing happened when President Trump signed Executive Order 13769 that banned individuals (primarily refugees) from several Muslim-majority countries from entering the country to keep out people who “have this hatred of the United States.”
Whenever Americans — whatever is construed as properly American in 2019 — feel that their concept of traditional political and religious institutions are being challenged, they adopt reactionary and often racist rhetoric to express their fears. Christianity, masculinity and support for the Jewish state of Israel are part and parcel of the American ideal. So when two Muslim-American women challenge these traditions, they are constructed as a threat to an unsutured homogenous America that lives in perpetual peace.
But we are far from the reality of a perfect America. We have to fairly evaluate all sides of the story. In this case, Omar’s anti-Semitism was abhorrent, and I hope that she doesn’t repeat her mistake as she continues to lobby for anti-Israeli foreign policy in Congress. Her words and actions will undoubtedly be under a microscopic lens. If she expresses anti-Semitic rhetoric again, Democratic leaders and voters are unlikely to be so lenient. Anti-Semitism clearly has no place in our public discourse, whether on Twitter or on Cornell’s campus, where three swastikas were found on North Campus last semester.
But the less-than-welcome reception for Omar on the congressional floor and on House Foreign Affairs committee are worrying as well. The response marks the intersection of an unwillingness to reconsider two modern problems in American politics: corruption and Israel. Omar’s original intent was to problematize the influence of a pro-Israel interest group in congressional decision-making. AIPAC isn’t often discussed, because criticism of the group typically brings up charges of anti-Semitism.
We shouldn’t think of anti-Israeli policies as necessarily anti-Semitic, and we shouldn’t think of anti-Palestine policies as necessarily Islamophobic. The fundamentals of religious freedom and freedom of speech undergird our democracy and our campus politics, and we have to respect the rights of both sides regardless of your personal politics. At Cornell, the arguments and protests have grown heated and at times crossed the line between respectful disagreement and dishonest attack. For example, Students for Justice in Palestine members lied to Cornell Police and Hillel members to stage a die-in at an Israeli Independence Day event in May 2017. In this instance, protestors shouldn’t have appropriated Hillel’s event to spread their own message.
Notwithstanding the rhetoric Omar used, our senators and representatives must be more cognizant of AIPAC’s outsize influence on foreign policy towards Israel. As Mehdi Hassan of The Intercept reported, AIPAC bragged that it could obtain the signatures of 70 senators in 24 hours on a napkin and controlled the appointment of pro-Israel cabinet members for President Bill Clinton’s administration.
No group should have this much sway (bipartisan, no less) over our elected officials. Although Hassan believes Omar “destroyed” the taboo against criticizing AIPAC, I’m hesitant to believe that Omar’s stances should be thought of as a victory against money in foreign policy or even Israel policy. The Democrats introduced the anti-corruption “For the People Act” in January 2019, but the expanded provisions against lobbying are vague and the bill isn’t likely to be passed this year. Until vigilance against AIPAC and accepting no PAC money are feasible and popular, Democrats and Republicans alike will be held in the hands of lobbyists.
As is the case for politicians on the national stage, pro-Israel supporters must step out of their comfort zone. They must be willing to criticize how money can be used to influence political decisions on Israel and they must be willing to reflect on Israel’s human rights violations instead of furthering a “perfect Israel” narrative. Similarly, pro-Palestine supporters can’t slip into anti-Semitic rhetoric that continues a long history of Jewish exclusion in the United States. They can’t pursue protest methods that infringe on other groups’ rights to assemble and hold events peacefully. Both sides have much to learn from Omar’s tweet and the firestorm that followed.
Darren Chang is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Swamp Snorkeling runs every other Monday this semester.