By Dana Milbank
February 11 2019
Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar
Thank you, Ilhan Omar.
The first-term Democratic representative from Minnesota did something ugly Sunday night. Responding to a tweet about the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel, the young Somali American suggested U.S. lawmakers defend Israel because “It’s all about the Benjamins baby.”
And who is paying American officials these “Benjamins” — slang for $100 bills — to be pro-Israel? “AIPAC!” Omar tweeted, referring to the pro-Israel lobbying group.
Wealthy Jewish interests bribing U.S. lawmakers to sell out America? In addition to being false — the real power backing current Israel policy in the United States is evangelical Christianity — this is Protocols-of-the-Elders-of-Zion stuff.
What happened next, though, was as inspiring as Omar’s initial action was appalling. Denunciations rained, not just from Jews and opportunistic Republicans but from Democrats, almost as furiously as they did after Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) acknowledged wearing blackface.
Monday, the Democratic House leadership issued a joint demand for an apology, saying “Omar’s use of anti-Semitic tropes and prejudicial accusations about Israel’s supporters is deeply offensive.”
Ninety minutes later, Omar issued an “unequivocal” apology, saying “anti-Semitism is real and I am grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of anti-Semitic tropes.”
Contrast that with what happened when President Trump on Saturday appeared to joke about the genocide of Native Americans. Again referring to Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahontas,” Trump tweeted: “See you on the campaign TRAIL, Liz!”
Suspicions that Trump was making light of the Trail of Tears were boosted when Donald Trump Jr. posted on Instagram his father’s tweet and somebody else’s response (“The Native American genocide continues with another murder by the president”) — and added, approvingly, “Savage!!! Love my President.”
And the outraged demands from Republican leaders for an apology? We’re still waiting.
The juxtaposition offers hope for those who believe the United States will reject Trump’s politics of racial, religious and gender grievances. Those who believe in a tolerant, multicultural America need to speak with one voice against the scapegoating of minorities by the likes of Trump and Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) — not quarrel among themselves.
A revival of anti-Semitism on the left threatens that coalition. The bigotry, mostly found in the BDS movement, is isolated in the Democratic Party, but it complicates the important work of uniting against Trump.
Omar’s apology, if genuine, is welcome. But more important is for Omar — and for Rep. Rashida Tlaib (Mich.), another Muslim Democratic freshman who has been in similar controversy — to understand that their recent actions hurt not just Jews but also Muslims, Democrats and ultimately all who support tolerance.
During her election campaign, Omar told a synagogue audience that the BDS movement is “not helpful” in reaching a two-state solution because its pressure “stops the dialogue.” But days after she was elected, Omar declared her support for BDS.
Last month, a 2012 tweet by Omar surfaced in which she said “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.” She said her use of the anti-Semitic trope was unwitting.
Tlaib, meanwhile, tweeted last month that senators who supported the anti-BDS legislation “forgot what country they represent.” Days later, a man who has equated Zionism and Nazism posted a photo with Tlaib, saying they just had a “private dinner.” It then emerged that a man who organized campaign events for Tlaib had posted a video in 2018 calling Jews “satanic” and questioning the Holocaust.
Tlaib has said she can’t be held responsible for supporters’ actions and called herself the victim of right-wing media, saying, “Yes, I am Muslim and Palestinian. Get over it.”
I understand the anger toward Israel. I have criticized the Israeli government’s “moves toward authoritarianism and away from negotiated peace” and warned against building “an ultranationalist apartheid state.”
But accusations that pro-Israel Americans are unpatriotic puppet-masters is vile. And though the BDS movement isn’t necessarily anti-Semitic, it attracts those who are — and many who favor Israel’s elimination. BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti has said Zionism is based on “irredeemable racism” and “the current Zionist state of Israel” was “criminally built.”
As a Jew and an American, I’ve denounced Trump’s anti-Muslim conspiracy demagoguery, his proposed “Muslim ban” and resulting travel ban. The Anti-Defamation League and Jewish leaders have fought anti-Muslim discrimination because they understand that, as religious or racial minorities, we are all in this together.
Many American Muslims feel this way, too. Remember the crowd-funding campaign by Muslim Americans for victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre?
There is nothing wrong with criticizing the Israeli government. There is something very wrong with alleging the corrupting influence of American Jews, and with joining those who seek the Jewish state’s destruction.
If Tlaib and Omar can see that distinction, we can together confront the real haters.