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Ilhan Omar Feels the Heat over AIPAC Tweet

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February 12, 2019 11:08 EDT

Is the crime of criticizing Israel and the AIPAC lobby an open and shut case in the US?

A new controversy around anti-Semitism in politics has blown up in America. The story began with complaints concerning a new member of Congress, Democratic Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, a young Muslim woman who has dared to violate the tacit rule that obliges Washington legislators to vow unconditional support of the Israeli government’s policies. Omar has dared to express concern with the plight of Palestinians. She has now crossed a red line by criticizing the documented role of the Israeli lobby in US politics and suggesting that money may be involved.

The Washington Post reports that, even before this specific situation, “Jewish lawmakers in recent weeks have huddled privately to discuss what they should do about their new colleagues, who openly criticize Israel.”

Here is today’s 3D definition: 


Freely and without constraint, limited in modern democracies only by the intimidation and sometimes effective silencing of powerful, well-endowed lobbying groups

Contextual note

An open society theoretically protects all meaningful speech — even speech that grates or alienates certain people or groups of people. Its laws may put some restrictions on forms of speech deemed directly injurious and unfounded. But, in democracies, the fundamental principle of free speech applies rigorously to all forms of political discourse, even controversial ones.

The United States claims to be not just an open democratic society, but the first in history. Its Constitution provides a theoretically unconditional framework protecting political speech. Its laws, nevertheless, make an exception for what is called “hate speech” attacking factors of identity designating a group of people, such as gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation and religion. Political opinion and, more particularly the support of a particular government’s policies do not constitute a factor of identity.

The lawmakers in question seem to believe it is a crime to “openly criticize Israel.” Is it less of a crime to criticize Israel behind closed doors? And, in a spirit of equality, shouldn’t they also consider it a crime to criticize Russia? Or France? (Remember when even Democrats criticized the nation that refused to follow George W. Bush’s military foray into Iraq?) Or Saudi Arabia as Republican Senator Lindsey Graham has been doing for months, while President Donald Trump remains steadfastly impervious to the criticism?

There appears to be a mafia-style omertà, a law of silence, in the US about the state of Israel and the role of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) influencing legislation. That has been evident for some time but, thanks to The Washington Post, we now can see it is an explicit expectation: no one has the right to “openly” criticize Israel.

Historical note

Two Democratic Jewish members of Congress, Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey and Elaine Luria of Virginia, reacted by circulating a letter in which they said: “We must speak out when any member — Democrat or Republican — uses harmful tropes and stereotypes, levels accusations of dual loyalty, or makes reckless statements like those yesterday.”

As Omar’s criticism concerns two things — the policies of a foreign government and the role of money in politics — we can only wonder what they mean by “tropes” and “stereotypes.” Is the Israeli government a trope? Is AIPAC a stereotype?

As for “accusations of dual loyalty,” that is a separate issue and one worth investigating in particular cases, at least to the same degree that Trump’s “collusion” with Russia is being investigated. But the two members of Congress bring this up simply to remove it from the discussion — much like Trump, in his State of the Union speech, attempted to invoke specious general principles to neutralize his investigators: “If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation.”

The government of Israel and AIPAC are both political organizations, of two different types, whose actions have an impact on people’s lives. As with any actors in a democracy, their actions should be open to criticism and detailed analysis, rather than protected by silence. The fact that both are Jewish is incidental and irrelevant. The Vatican is Catholic, but criticizing its historical coverup of pedophilia does not amount to anti-papism or impugn Catholics in general. The issues under discussion concern political actions and personal choices — including the funding of political campaigns — that have nothing to do with a people’s collective identity.

One of the obvious strategies of the vigilantes who see anti-Semitism everywhere is to refuse to consider the specifics of a conversation. The Jewish representatives have formulated their complaint in these terms: “All members of Congress should reject anti-Semitism, just as we reject all forms of hatred, bigotry, and intolerance, and must denounce those who deny Israel’s right to exist.” They are perfectly right, except that cases of bigotry and intolerance do exist in Congress, but they are directed principally against other minorities.

Those same Democrats criticize Trump, but even Trump loyalists don’t suppose that in so doing they are denying the president or the American nation’s “right to exist.” Criticizing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Israel’s occupation and settlements in the Palestinian Territories would, in their mind, be tantamount to denying Israel’s right to exist.

The drama didn’t last long, though. The Times of Israel recounts the predictable final chapter: “The Minnesota congresswoman ‘unequivocally’ apologized earlier Monday after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats rebuked her.”

The US Constitution defined a judicial system that did not, at the origin, impose trial by humiliation. That is a modern innovation that came to the fore in the McCarthy era and is once again thriving.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.] 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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