Ilhan Omar is being attacked because she's a radical anti-imperialist, black, Muslim woman on the left, and deserves unconditional solidarity argues Shabbir Lakha
Ilhan Omar, the black Muslim Congresswoman from Minnesota, is facing a massive-scale attack for comments deemed antisemitic. Not unlike the attacks on Jeremy Corbyn and Palestine supporters in the Labour party, the witch-hunt is primarily being led by members of her own party.
The smear campaign began almost immediately after she was sworn in following November’s midterms, when she declared her support for the BDS campaign along with Rashida Tlaib, the other first Muslim (and first Palestinian-American) Congresswoman. The furore then escalated after she tweeted about Aipac’s influence on American politics, and again over the weekend when she said she “should not be expected to have allegiance/pledge support to a foreign country in order to serve my country in Congress”.
She has faced atrocious attacks from both Democrats and Republicans, including Trump who called for her to resign and be excluded from any committees, and was pushed into apologising for “her insensitive language”, though she stuck to her argument. The hypocrisy is laid bare when her resignation is being called for by Trump who said there were “good people” among neo-Nazis who murdered Heather Heyer, and the promise of “action” was made by Kevin McCarthy who just last October alleged that three Jewish millionaires (including Soros who had had a bomb sent to his house just one day before) were trying to buy the elections.
This week the Democratic establishment drafted a resolution denouncing antisemitism as a means of rebuking Omar but were forced to put it off after pressure from the left - a positive development. It remains unlikely, however, that this is going to go away.
Did Ilhan Omar say anything wrong?
No. While Aipac is one of a number of Pro-Israel lobby groups, it is one of the biggest and is essentially the face of the Israel lobby in the US. Unlike other Political Action Committees like the National Rifle Association, Aipac does not directly fund or endorse candidates. What it does do, is serve as an umbrella group for other pro-Israel PACs and strongly encourages its members to work with and fund candidates. So Ilhan Omar might have been wrong in technical terms about Aipac’s role, but she’s not mistaken about the influence it holds.
1 In the 2018 election cycle, Aipac was the top spender - $3.5m - on lobbying compared to other pro-Israel lobby groups, the second highest coming in at $550k.
2 Aipac has been open about pushing for more fiscal and military aid for Israel, for US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, for legislation to outlaw BDS and for opposing the Iran nuclear deal and pressing for sanctions on Iran.
3 Aipac was central to drafting and promoting the Israel Anti-Boycott Act and Combating BDS Act which were passed in the Senate last month despite opposition from Jewish Senators Bernie Sanders and Dianne Feinstein and civil rights groups like ACLU.
4 Open Secrets, which tracks money spent on lobbying in the US, describes the Israel lobby as “one of, if not the most, powerful international issue lobby” although it doesn’t even include the contributions of individual mega-donors such as Sheldon Adelson who donated close to $100m to the Republican Party and along with his wife donated over $70m to Taglit-Birthright Israel in 2018 alone.
5 Pro-Israel lobbyists spent $22m on lobbying and contributions in 2018, reaching the majority of US politicians. The very same Democratic leaders that have called Ilhan Omar antisemitic and demanded an apology, have been among those that receive high-level contributions from the pro-Israel lobby.
Every year, Aipac hosts a ‘Policy Conference’ which it boasts is the largest gathering of pro-Israel Americans, including two thirds of Congress and gives the opportunity for delegates to make lobbying appointments with members of Congress. During election years, it is standard practice for any Presidential candidate to attend and speak at the conference – which is why Bernie Sanders skipping the conference in 2016 was seen as a big deal.
What about imperialism?
As John Rees accurately argues:
“Imagine that no ‘Israel lobby’ existed. Imagine there were no meetings of Israeli propagandists with western politicians, no funding, no paid for trips to Israel. Would that then mean that western foreign policy would cease to be in favour of Israel? Would there be a sudden reversal in the attitudes of previously pro-Israeli politicians?
US and British foreign policy is not a product of Israeli lobbying, the existence of the state of Israel is a product of western support. The tail does not wag the dog.”
The imperialist intentions of Britain in paving the way for the creation of the State of Israel is perhaps best summed up by the words of Ronald Storrs, the first British military governor of Jerusalem, who stated the aim was to create "a loyal Jewish Ulster in a sea of potentially hostile Arabism" which could protect Britain's interests in the Middle East. A mantle that was taken up by the US post-WW2.
So where does the Israel lobby fit into this? I would argue that rather than viewing the pro-Israel lobby as a foreign actor seeking to influence US foreign policy from the outside, it is one of the of the instruments through which the US’ own capitalist class can assert its will in the political system.
Let’s take the example of President Harry Truman who supported the partition of historic Palestine in the UN in 1947. He later stated in his memoirs:
“The facts were that not only were there pressure movements around the United Nations unlike anything that had been seen there before, but that the White House, too, was subjected to a constant barrage. I do not think I ever had as much pressure and propaganda aimed at the White House as I had in this instance. The persistence of a few of the extreme Zionist leaders—actuated by political motives and engaging in political threats—disturbed and annoyed me.”
Are we to assume that were it not for the lobbying efforts of leading Zionists that the US might not have supported the creation of Israel? Of course not.
The US was manoeuvring itself in the beginnings of the Cold War and taking over the spheres of influence and control of resources previously held by the British Empire, it most certainly would have backed creating a loyal ally in the Middle East. But whether they thought the United Nations Partition Plan was the best way to do this (the Zionist leadership certainly did) or not is not certain, and that’s where the lobby played a role. A lobby not primarily made up of foreign actors, but facilitated by the US’ own ruling class, and among its staunchest supporters not Jews but Christian Zionists.
And we can see the same scenario playing out over and over again today. US Foreign policy is determined to support Israel with or without the lobby, but that doesn’t necessitate the uncritical support of all or even most democratically-elected representatives in the Congress or Senate and it doesn’t mean laws that contravene the First Amendment to clampdown on grassroots support for Palestine would organically materialise etc. Or for example when Obama thought the best way to deal with US imperial decline was to forge a nuclear treaty with Iran, that the Israel lobby was able to supplement the Washington consensus against it by a mass lobbying and propaganda operation.
This becomes particularly important in a situation where politics is polarising, as it is right now – where on the one hand there is the beginnings of a surge in socialist ideas and in support for left wing politicians, and on the other an erratic and unconventional Donald Trump is torn between ruling class interests and appeasing his extremist core voter base.
Defend Ilhan Omar, defend Palestine
Whether or not you agree with this particular analysis or not, the fact remains that Ilhan Omar is the victim of the weaponisation of antisemitism as part of an attack on the left and on the Palestine solidarity movement and as a means of shutting down dissent. The vitriolic campaign she is facing has spurred the most vile Islamophobic hate speech against her including death threats and posters and flyers linking Omar to the 9/11 terrorist attack and calling her a jihadi in the Capitol.
In the face of this attack, there is no room for ifs or buts, and those who pushed her to apologise for her language or who began any defence of her by first criticising her have only given ground for the continuation of the smear campaign. The pressure for her to row back on her positions will only increase, and to ensure she doesn't, she needs the support of the organised movement.
As evidenced also by her grilling of Elliott Abrams and refusal to back regime change and US intervention in Venezuela, Ilhan Omar has brought a much-needed anti-imperialist voice to US politics. She deserves solidarity and to be defended unreservedly. And this is a critical moment for the left and the Palestine solidarity movement in particular to amplify the arguments against Zionism and mobilise in defence of Palestine and Congresswomen like Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib.
Shabbir Lakha is a Stop the War officer, a People's Assembly activist and a member of Counterfire.
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