This article appears in the Winter 2019 issue of the Massachusetts Peace Action newsletter.
Newly elected US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) was attacked on Feb. 11 by leaders of both parties for pointing out what is obvious to anyone who follows politics in Washington: that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has enormous influence on US policy regarding Israel and the Middle East.
In response to a post by journalist Glenn Greenwald pointing out how much time politicians such as reactionary GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy spend trying to punish critics of Israel’s policies, Rep. Omar had tweeted, “It’s all about the Benjamins, baby”. She was referring to a Puff Daddy song that uses the slang “Benjamins” to denote hundred dollar bills carrying a picture of Benjamin Franklin.
She was immediately pounced on by Republicans, leading Democrats, and a host of media outlets who accused her of “buying into anti-Semitic tropes” and implying that some politicians’ support of Israel was influenced by money. Omar apologized and is engaging in dialogue with Jewish groups.
Yet money does influence politics on almost every issue in American life, as Omar noted, whether it’s donations inspired by AIPAC, the National Rifle Association, the fossil fuel industry or the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association. Political intimidation is also part of the picture, as is well illustrated by this episode.
Omar is the first Somali-American elected to Congress, one of the first two Muslim women elected, and the first woman of color to represent Minnesota. She has been a critic of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and is a supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement aimed at changing those policies. To state what should be obvious: Criticism of Israel’s policies is not inherently anti-Semitic, as many Omar attackers have claimed.
As Jewish Voice for Peace, If Not Now, and many other groups point out, support for Palestinian rights carries forward the Jewish community’s long historical tradition of fighting for justice and equality for all oppressed groups.