Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., again faced accusations of anti-Semitism on Sunday night after she suggested in tweets, which started with a Puff Daddy rap lyric, that members of Congress support Israel because of money from the pro-Israel lobby.
It’s the second time this month that Omar has become entangled in a Twitter controversy replete with emoji and snarky clapbacks centered on the complex Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Omar, who supports the anti-Israel movement called BDS, for “boycott, divestment and sanctions,” has persistently fought accusations of anti-Semitism by maintaining that her condemnation of the Israeli government for its treatment of Palestinians does not equate to condemnation of Jewish people. She has also claimed to be the victim of GOP attacks seeking to misrepresent her position on Israel as anti-Semitic.
But on Sunday, some Democrats also joined a chorus of critics rebuking Omar for using what some described as an ugly anti-Semitic trope: that Jews control politics through money.
The flap started over a tweet from Omar that said, “It’s all about the Benjamins baby,” and included a music-note emoji, an apparent reference to the 1997 Puff Daddy single featuring the Notorious B.I.G., Lil’ Kim and The Lox. Her tweet linked to a statement by journalist Glenn Greenwald about Republicans’ growing disdain for Omar’s anti-Israel position. Taken together, she appeared to suggest that Republican outrage was rooted in money. A spokesman for Omar did not immediately respond to a request from The Post for comment; her spokesman told Politico earlier Thursday that the tweets “speak for themselves.”
An opinion editor at the Jewish publication The Forward sought clarification from Omar: “Would love to know who [Omar] thinks is paying American politicians to be pro-Israel,” wrote Batya Ungar-Sargon, “though I think I can guess. Bad form, Congresswoman. That’s the second ant-Semitic trope you’ve tweeted.”
Omar’s response only caused more backlash: “AIPAC!” she told Ungar-Sargon, referring to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a powerful pro-Israel lobbying entity.
Democrats including Chelsea Clinton and Rep. Max Rose, D-N.Y., and Republicans such as Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y., and Nikki Haley, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, were among those to condemn Omar’s comments as anti-Semitic. Rep Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., called for her removal from the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
The American Jewish Committee demanded an apology, calling her suggestion that AIPAC is paying American politicians for their support “demonstrably false and stunningly anti-Semitic.” The organization linked to a 2018 Gallup poll finding that 64 percent of Americans sympathize with the Israelis over the Palestinians, saying, “American politicians are pro-Israel because Americans are.”
“Please learn how to talk about Jews in a non-anti-Semitic way. Sincerely, American Jews,” Ungar-Sargon wrote back to Omar, a statement that Clinton said she seconded.
Rose, who is Jewish, wrote in a statement, “Congresswoman Omar’s statements are deeply hurtful to Jews, including myself.”
“When someone uses hateful and offensive tropes and words against people of any faith, I will not be silent,” he wrote, adding: “Implying that Americans support Israel because of money alone is offensive enough. … At a time when anti-Semitic attacks are on the rise, our leaders should not be invoking hurtful stereotypes and caricatures of Jewish people to dismiss those who support Israel.”
Omar’s comments come on the heels of escalating Republican ire for the positions that she and Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., have put forth in Congress, joining a small group of lawmakers willing to challenge the United States’s traditional support for Israeli policy. On Friday, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., urged Democratic leadership to admonish Omar and Tlaib because of their backing for the BDS movement, which is intended to put economic pressure on Israel to end its occupation of the West Bank. McCarthy suggested their positions on Israel were worse than the recent remarks from Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, that were denounced as racist.
As Omar pointed out, retweeting an observation by Women’s March organizer Sophie Ellman-Golan, McCarthy has also been accused of anti-Semitism after sharing conspiracy theories on Twitter about Jewish billionaire philanthropist George Soros.
“From scapegoating Jews to win an election to scapegoating Jews to attack his Muslim colleagues, [McCarthy] sure loves to invoke the Jewish community to further his right-wing objectives,” Ellman-Golan wrote.
Others have defended Omar and Tlaib, contending their positions are being “twisted” into anti-Semitism when, in fact, their condemnation is confined to the Israeli government, not Jews generally.
“She’s talking about the influence of Israel and this immediately gets twisted into antisemitism,” one man wrote in comments retweeted by Omar. “Is she also Islamophobic for attacking Saudi’s influence on American politics in the exactly the same way?”
“Accurately describing how the Israel lobby works is not anti-semitism,” Ashley Feinberg, a HuffPost reporter, wrote in another tweet that was shared by Omar.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which is not a political action committee, does not make campaign contributions to politicians, but its individual members can make donations, and the organization spends millions on lobbying efforts for pro-Israel legislation every year. In 2018, AIPAC spent more than $3.5 million lobbying for pro-Israel measures, according to lobbying disclosure filings maintained by the Senate’s Office of Public Records. Such legislation includes financial support for Israel and measures that would ban boycotts of Israel, including the BDS movement that Omar and Tlaib support.
Still, even some who agree with Omar’s position on Israel argued that she could criticize the Israeli government or the pro-Israel lobbying establishment without using stereotypes that Jews find offensive.
“OF COURSE it’s possible to critique AIPAC et al in a non-anti-Semitic way,” Ungar-Sargon wrote. “This ain’t it, chief.”
“No, criticism of Israel isn’t anti-semitism, just like criticism of a Muslim majority state isn’t islamophobia, by default,” wrote Hend Amry, a Libyan-American writer. “However racist or bigoted tropes can be intentionally or unintentionally triggered in making those critiques and yes that matters-it always matters.”
Omar has found herself responding to anti-Semitism accusations before. Last month, she acknowledged that she “unknowingly” used an anti-Semitic trope after a 2012 tweet surfaced in which she said, “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.”
Omar had initially said she didn’t understand why American Jews would be offended by the statement, which critics argued evoked ugly Nazi conspiracies about Jewish people’s power to “hypnotize” the world. She then backtracked and apologized after a New York Times columnist explained to her why Jews could find it offensive. And she later expressed regret while on “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah,” saying she had to “take a deep breath and understand where people were coming from and what point they were trying to make.”
Omar made no apologies Sunday night, but she did accept an invitation from Chelsea Clinton, one of her critics, to talk about anti-Semitism.
Clinton told a Twitter follower that she planned to try to talk to Omar about her comments, saying, “I also think we have to call out anti-Semitic language and tropes on all sides, particularly in our elected officials and particularly now.”
“Chelsea – I would be happy to talk,” Omar wrote. She suggested her comments were being weaponized by the GOP: “We must call out smears from the GOP and their allies. And I believe we can do that without criticizing people for their faith. I look forward to building an inclusive movement for justice with you.” She added an arm-muscle emoji.
Clinton said she would contact the congresswoman’s office Monday.
(c) 2019, The Washington Post · Meagan Flynn