Ilhan Omar: Breaking AIPAC’S Code of Silence
DR. ALAN NED SABROSKY
By now, most people know at least the broad outlines of the firestorm of controversy ignited by first-term Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (D-MN). Barely six weeks into her first term, she went where no member of Congress since former Representative Cynthia McKinney (D-GA) and former Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE) has gone: She belled the AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) colossus in public view, decrying its influence on Capitol Hill and the supposed need to be loyal to a foreign country (Israel) in order to serve in the Congress.
After an initial half-apology that wasn’t really an apology, she went back to that well again and threw buckets of criticism the way of AIPAC and its domestic adherents, especially in the Congress. Given the howls of outrage, one would have thought she had made some outrageous demands, like expecting members of Congress to actually be honest and to serve their constituents. Calls arose from both sides of the aisle, the White House and many outside individuals and groups denouncing her alleged anti-Semitism and calling for her to be censured, stripped of her committees, and even to resign. In short, AIPAC let her have both barrels, fully expecting from past experience that she would find herself isolated and either retract her charges or be crushed.
To AIPAC’s certain astonishment, none of that happened. Within the Democratic party, young progressives – many Jewish themselves (she is a Muslim immigrant from Somalia) – rallied around her, as did several senators. Many columnists (including Jews) and organizations (likewise) sided with her. And Omar herself doubled down, refused either to recant or to resign, and by doing so, forced the Democratic leadership of the House to produce an omnibus anti-hate resolution that condemned almost everything: anti-Semitism (which was not any part of Omar’s critique), anti-Muslim discrimination (which is a very real part of the Islamophobia stoked by AIPAC that has infected the country for decades) and other forms of hatred – but not Omar herself.
And this led to the final phase of the opening firestorm: If many older Democrats, AIPAC and its minions had gone berserk at Omar’s opening comments, and had grudgingly accepted a watered-down condemnation rather than publicly split the party, now the Republicans – showing their loyalty to their paymasters – went berserk in their turn, closed ranks and condemned the House condemnation and Omar personally. Republicans in both houses of the Congress brayed about the evils of unrestrained anti-Semitism (under their own beds, perhaps?), the failings of a House Democratic leadership that refused to condemn both the act and the alleged transgressor (Omar), and – on President Trump’s part – a denunciation of a Democratic Party he asserted had become both anti-Israel and anti-Jewish, a bit of hyperbole even for the Hyperbolist-in-Chief.
The Firestorm’s Fallout
It is an ill wind that does no good, it has been said, and there is certainly some good coming from this particular ill wind. For openers, AIPAC has been revealed openly for the first time in memory for what it is and what it does. Its rock of concealment has been lifted a bit, albeit briefly, and it does not like that at all. Not only that, but the person who did it is – at least for now – still in place and on her committees. I suspect the reason AIPAC did not pull out the stops to get its puppets in the House to censure Omar and strip her of her committees was because it desperately wanted this very public dispute to end before even more Americans began to become even dimly aware of AIPAC and its agenda. In open disclosure lies the potential for disaster, and AIPAC knows it.
Second, there is at minimum a very serious rift within the Democratic party between younger members (many progressives and/or socialists) and old-line liberals, who do not share many of the same views on policies and especially on what it is permissible to criticize. The caucus where Democrats tried to create a consensus for the original resolution condemning only anti-Semitism and reprimanding Omar by name apparently degenerated into a raucous shouting match between the opposing sides – the last thing the Democratic leadership wants or needs. That this division was mirrored in the media and among outside Jewish groups just reinforced the sense of open splintering, with obvious and potentially catastrophic consequences for the Democratic agenda now and in the 2020 elections.
Third, even if the allegations (almost all untrue generally, and certainly untrue in this case) of anti-Semitism and Israel itself were not going to be issues in 2020 before the Omar Incident (I think it deserves capitals), Trump and the Republicans will make them so – trying mightily never to mention AIPAC. I expect them to beat the Democrats over their political heads with the “anti-Jew, anti-Israel” bludgeons – utterly untrue, but who in politics cares for truth? – positioning themselves as better friends of Israel than the Democrats. And it may work in a few close but decisive elections: the Republicans have some moderates but no progressives and certainly no socialists, lots of pro-Israel evangelicals, and the “Tea Party” rifts of the past are largely gone, so unity on this issue may well have some partisan payoff. None of this will benefit the United States or help the American people, of course, but as with truth, these are only rhetorically important for Republicans as well as their Democratic opponents.
Ilhan Omar: Quo Vadis?
And what about Omar herself? She showed enormous political courage and a great deal of integrity, although her timing could have been better – acting prematurely is sometimes even worse than not acting at all. She also seems comfortable with what she has done and is entirely unrepentant – which is as it should be, since she said nothing untruthful and nothing anti-Semitic. Calling out a lobby for what that lobby publicly prides itself on being and doing is hardly a sign of bigotry – note the program of AIPAC’s annual conference in Washington at the end of March 2019, as all of the good boys and girls from both parties and both houses of the Congress put in their appearance before what amounts to their feudal lord. And I am sure Bibi Netanyahu will grace them with smiles.
But Omar embarrassed AIPAC twice over: first by disclosing what they are and what they do, and second – with the assistance of those younger progressives within the Democratic Party – by essentially beating back their efforts to muzzle and to censure her. AIPAC and company might – might – take that from someone like Senator Bernie Sanders (who is Jewish), but from a first-term immigrant Muslim Congresswoman from Somalia?
Never. They will go for her hard in her district’s primary, make no mistake about that, no matter what she does or does not say or do before then. AIPAC forced McKinney (pictured), a black woman with six terms in Congress, out for opposing them – and she was a long way from being the first such casualty. Hagel was a two-term senator, but his former colleagues on the Senate Armed Services Committee – being more obedient to AIPAC authority – forced him to publicly recant each and every criticism of AIPAC and Israeli influence he had ever made, and then barely confirmed him as Secretary of Defense.
I sincerely hope Omar fares better. I do not like most of her domestic agenda, but character and courage matter a lot, and she has shown in this fight on this critical issue that she has both. I can only hope she perseveres.
Dr. Alan Ned Sabrosky (PhD, University of Michigan) is a ten-year US Marine Corps veteran. He served two tours in Vietnam with the 1st Marine Division and is a graduate of the US Army War College. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org