Earlier today Jonathan Chait wrote something particularly stupid. It wasn’t particularly stupid because he wrote it. Rather, it was particularly stupid because it is based on misreading someone else’s reporting. Here’s what Chait wrote:
But at an event last night, Omar went much farther, reports Laura Kelly. After an audience member shouted out, “It’s all about the Benjamins,” at which, according to Kelly’s reporting, she smiled. (Jeremy Slevin, Omar’s press secretary and strategist, denies she acknowledged that line from the audience.) Later she stated, “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is okay to push for allegiance to a foreign country.”
This is much worse. Accusing Jews of “allegiance to a foreign country” is a historically classic way of delegitimizing their participation in the political system. Whether or not the foreign policy agenda endorsed by American supporters of Israel is wise or humane, it is a legitimate expression of their political rights as American citizens. To believe in a strong American alliance with Israel (or Canada, or the United Kingdom, or any other country) is not the same thing as giving one’s allegiance to that country. Omar is directly invoking the hoary myth of dual loyalty, in which the Americanness of Jews is inherently suspect, and their political participation must be contingent upon proving their patriotism.
Here’s what Laura Kelly actually reported from the event (emphasis mine):
“It is about the Benjamins,” shouted one audience member to laughter and acclaim, referencing Rep. Omar’s now-deleted tweet linking Congressional support for Israel to Jewish influence and lobbying. To this, Reps. Omar and Tlaib both smiled along furtively.
Rep. Omar elaborated that when she hears her Jewish constituents offer criticisms of Palestinians, she doesn’t automatically equate them as Islamophobic but is “fearful” that people are painting her as anti-Semitic because she is a Muslim. Omar continued, “What I’m fearful of — because Rashida and I are Muslim — that a lot of our Jewish colleagues, a lot of our constituents, a lot of our allies, go to thinking that everything we say about Israel to be anti-Semitic because we are Muslim,” she explained.
“To me, it’s something that becomes designed to end the debate because you get in this space of – yes, I know what intolerance looks like and I’m sensitive when someone says, ‘The words you used Ilhan, are resemblance of intolerance.’ And I am cautious of that and I feel pained by that. But it’s almost as if, every single time we say something regardless of what it is we say…we get to be labeled something. And that ends the discussion. Because we end up defending that and nobody ever gets to have the broader debate of what is happening with Palestine.”
“So for me, I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is okay to push for allegiance to a foreign country,” Rep. Omar exclaimed, seeming to suggest, as Tlaib had in a tweet of her own, dual loyalty among a particular group of Americans. Loud rounds of applause and shouts of affirmation punctuated the event’s heavy focus on Israel.
You notice the nuance, I’m not even sure it’s nuance to be honest, that Chait either missed or elided? First, Congresswomen Omar and Tlaib smiled furtively when someone interrupted and shouted “all about the Benjamins” at them. My read of that is that they smiled awkwardly because they knew exactly what would happen when it was reported. Second, do you notice that Congresswoman Omar didn’t state any specific group of people pushing for allegiance to a foreign country. Is it possible that she’s talking about Jewish Americans? Sure, it’s possible. But given that the largest American demographic in support of Israel is actually the Evangelical Christians referred to as Christian Zionists*, she could have been referring to them. Or she could have been referring to both. Or just to anyone who thinks that whatever Israel’s leadership says should be done in the Middle East is what the US should do. You know, like every Republican presidential candidate in 2012 and 2016 – none of whom were Jewish! In fact I briefed the command group and senior staff of III Corps at FT Hood on the Middle East the day after the 16 January 2012 GOP primary debate and one of the colonels actually asked me, during the Q&A, about Governor Perry’s response to a question about what he’d do to respond to a crisis in the Middle East at the debate the night before. Perry answered the question by stating that before he took action on any problem in the Middle East, he’d ask Bibi Netanyahu what to do and then just do that. It also wouldn’t surprise me if she was just referring to the Republican caucuses in the House and the Senate, who are overwhelmingly, to the point of unanimity, supportive of whatever the Israeli government does, despite not having a single American Jew in the Republican Senate caucus and only two in the Republican House caucus.
This may shock some people, but Congresswoman Omar has a point. There are Americans, some Christian, some Jewish, who are so attached to Israel that they’ve made it into a political fetish object. And Netanyahu has certainly gone out of his way to turn Israel into a major political and religious issue in the US beyond just the American Jewish community and then into a partisan issue. It is not an accident that Ron Dermer, the American born, former Republican political operative from south Florida, is now Israel’s ambassador to the US, nor was it an accident when he served as Israel’s economic envoy from 2005-2008. Bibi’s appointments of Dermer were done specifically to weaponize Israel as a partisan issue. And, to be perfectly honest, this is ultimately going to come back to bite Israel on the tuchas.
Chait’s analysis and criticism of Congresswoman Omar’s response to a member of the audience’s shout and to her remarks is disingenuous. He assumes intentionality that cannot be determined from the primary reporting. And he asserts in the absence of evidence specifying who she is talking about, that Congresswoman Omar was obviously talking about Jewish Americans, despite more American Evangelical Christians being supportive of Israel than American Jews. If the concerns about Congresswoman Omar being anti-Semitic are actually founded, it will become obvious soon enough. But her remarks last night, specifically where she made clear she’s not trying to just bash Israel, but to raise the issues pertaining to the treatment of the Palestinians, were not anti-Semitic. Whether they are actually the beginning of a long overdue expansion of the narrow limits that American domestic politics places on our discussion of issues pertaining to Israel and the Palestinians is something yet to be seen. And only time will tell whether Congresswoman Omar is able to thread the needle to actually open up the space to begin a broader, deeper, and more nuanced discussion. But the current relationship between the US and Israel is not good for either state. It is co-dependent, it is abusive, and having it turned into just another partisan issue is ultimately dangerous for the long term viability of Israel.
* Full disclosure: Liz Oldmixon, who is interviewed by Sean Illing here, is an old – as in we went to grad school together – friend. She’s an excellent political scientist and a wonderful person. I highly recommend her scholarly work for anyone interested in that sort of thing.
More full disclosure: I served as a Subject Matter Expert with the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Security Dialogue and Middle East Peace assigned to US Army Europe from June through August 2014 and served as the Cultural Advisor (Temporary Assigned Control) to the Commanding General of US Army Europe from December 2013 through June 2014 to assist US Army Europe with issues pertaining to the US’s 2014 Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative.