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Rep. Omar’s remarks about Israel stir charges of “anti-Semitism” as well as defense from many Jewish voices

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
April 2019

Rep. Ilhan Omar (R-MN), a Somali-American and one of two Muslim women elected to Congress in 2018, has stirred controversy with her remarks about Israel and the role of AIPAC in American political life.  
She insinuated that money from American supporters of Israel influence members of Congress ---"It's all about the Benjamins, baby," she wrote on Twitter, specifically citing AIPAC. This, noted The New York Times (March 5, 2019), "...revived a fraught debate in Washington over whether the pro-Israel lobbying behemoth has too much power sway over American policy in the Middle East. The backlash was fierce with even some Democratic leaders accusing her of trafficking in anti-Semitic tropes. The congresswoman apologized."  
Shortly thereafter, Rep. Omar stirred further controversy when she told an audience at a town hall event in Washington that accusations of anti-Semitism were meant to silence her criticism of Israel and AIPAC. She said she wanted to talk about "the political influence in this country that says it is okay for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country."  
In Minneapolis, there have been close ties between the Jewish and Somali communities. Barry Cohen, a leader with the Twin Cities chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, declared that, "She's (Omar) not an anti-Semite. The way I look at it, how and why would she necessarily have an understanding of Jewish history in any depth any more than any member of Congress has an understanding or knowledge of Somali history or culture. This is politics in the ugliest form."  
On Capitol Hill, the House responded to Omar's comments by passing a broad measure condemning hatred of all kinds. By failing to condemn Omar specifically, President Trump declared that the Democratic Party was now "anti-Israel" and "anti-Jewish."  
In fact, Rep. Omar has had many Jewish defenders.  
Rabbi Brant Rosen of Congregation Tzedek Chicago, who also serves as Midwest Regional Director of the American Friends Service Committee, stated: "There is no doubt in my mind that she (Rep. Omar) is being punished because she dares to call out the U.S.'s unconditional support for Israel---because, she points out correctly, that this support is enabled by a powerful Israel lobby. This resolution (critical of Omar) is not being introduced out of a general concern for anti-Semitism. It is about attacking Omar for her criticism of Israel."  
Israeli journalist Gideon Levy, a columnist for Haaretz, was interviewed by Amy Goodman on her program "Democracy Now" (March 8, 2019). He said, "The Israel lobby...is by far too strong and too aggressive. It's not good for the Jewish community. It's not good for Israel. What's happening now is that some kind of fresh air , some kind of new voices are emerging from Capitol Hill raising legitimate questions about Israel, about America's policy toward Israel and about the Israel lobby. These are important questions and it is more than needed to raise them. Whenever anyone dares to raise questions ...he is immediately or automatically labeled as an anti-Semite. Then he has to shut his mouth, because after this, what can you say?"  
IfNotNow, a group of liberal Jewish activists, said that Rep. Omar's criticism of Israel's occupation and of AIPAC is warranted. Those Democrats who wanted to isolate Rep. Omar with a resolution critical of anti-Semitism, the group stated, are out of touch with the party's younger members: "The older generation of American Jews pushing for this resolution ...are not motivated with a real concern with Jewish safety but a desire to stop political opposition to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian people...We have a new era where criticism of unjust Israeli policy is not simply equated with anti-Semitism. That is a victory."  
In an article entitled, "What Ilhan Omar Said About AIPAC Is Right" (The Nation, Feb. 12, 2019), Andy Harkan writes: "As a Jew, an Israeli citizen...I speak from personal experience when I say that AIPAC is tremendously effective and the lubricant that makes its operation hum is dollar, dollar bills. ...Omar is right to point all of this out... Delegitimizing (critics) is a central aim of the Israel lobby."  
Writing in Mondoweiss (March 8, 2019), Philip Weiss notes: "It is good to have the lines so clarified. Omar, who says she supports a two-state solution, is now a hero of the progressive left, including many Jews...We might even discuss Palestinian human rights."  
The Capitol Hill newspaper Politico declared that the congressional resolution condemning all forms of hate speech was a clear-cut victory for Omar and her allies. After the vote, Omar issued a statement with fellow Muslim representatives calling the vote "historical on many fronts" for "denouncing all forms of bigotry." They said, "Our nation is having a difficult conversation and we believe this is great progress." •

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