Monday, February 11, 2019

Thoughts on Representative Omar’s AIPAC Comments.

Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN) recently was caught up in a firestorm of controversy when she tweeted remarks that were critical of AIPAC and the State of Israel. That is her right to do. And yet, many people (including me) believe that she crossed a line when she insinuated that AIPAC “buys” elected official with donations and that we need to “follow the Benjamins” to understand the Israel Lobby's considerable clout in Washington. This was not the first time that the Minnesota Congresswoman has been called out for controversial anti-Israel and potentially anti-Semitic comments. Social media sites have been flooded with both denunciations and defenses of her words.

While I do not share Ms. Omar’s positions in regard to Israel and AIPAC, I will defend her right to criticize. But in this case, she has gone too far. Her use of medieval anti-Semitic canards about Jews, money and dual loyalty have no place in US political discourse and are a great source of concern to me and many others in the American Jewish Community. 

To her credit, Rep Omar – after being rebuked from both sides of the political aisle - has offered an apology for her insensitivity and stated that she is grateful to those who pointed out the history of the bigoted tropes she referenced in her hurtful tweets. I have many friends in Minnesota who are leaders of the Jewish community and, up until this point, have tolerated her and believe that she is not an enemy. They are looking forward to a frank and intense dialogue in the wake of her insensitive  comments and subsequent apology. I look forward to hearing more from them about her desire and ability to learn and grow.

Current political conflagrations aside, the Omar controversy and the massive response it has generated has exposed ugliness from multiple sources. The growing anti-Semitism from the Far Left has been well documented. The disturbing convergence of intersectionality and anti-Israel rhetoric has made it difficult for those who are both proud Zionists and supporters of a centrist or center-left agenda to find their place. The recent calls for BDS[i], coupled with attacks on Israel, Zionism, and Jewish supporters at protest rallies around the country have instilled a sense of unease among many Jews who feel that their support of a just, Democratic and secure Jewish State is not welcome by their former peers. In addition, a new generation of young Jews are disillusioned by what they perceive to be out-dated knee-jerk support of Israel. Their anger and apathy are perfect targets for anti-Zionist propaganda.

The Far Right has also been strengthened by the tone set from the highest offices in our land. Racist language is commonplace. Islamophobia is rampant. Careless and incendiary missives on social media have emboldened angry bigots. When immigrants and Muslims are demonized, the Jews are never far behind. The horrific tragedy of the slaughter at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh can be directly traced to a feeling of empowerment by those who, until recently, have lived in the shadows of society. It is both ironic and frightening that the language of the Far Right and the Extreme Left is eerily similar when it comes to demonizing both Zionism, the Jewish people and all who don’t fit into a pre-conceived notion of a White Christian America that does not exist.

In regard to criticizing the State of Israel, let me be very clear. There are many reasons to be upset about the current Israeli government. Prime Minister Netanyahu has used fear-mongering, protectionism and racist tactics to hold on to power. His Far-Right coalition partners have demonized Liberal Judaism and alienated many in the American Jewish Community. In addition, his apparent abandonment of the Peace Process in favor of isolating and ignoring the Palestinian people’s legitimate desire for a homeland has led to increased tensions, conflict and war. 

But that is only half of the complex equation of the modern State of Israel. The Jewish State faces multiple relentless foes who are determined to destroy her through any means possible. Over the past 71 years, Israel has had no choice but to defend herself – and she has paid dearly in lives lost and ruined. Peace seems far away from the realm of possibility. As a result, the Israeli Left is a shadow of its former self. It is easy for me to be critical from my position of safety and comfort in Denver, CO. It is quite another thing to live every day with the awareness that it is only through military power and strategic alliances – particularly with the United States – that Israel can survive.

In this era of sound-bite diplomacy, it is vitally important for all of us to look deeply at how we are both manipulated by and participate in the usage of salacious and provocative language. There are times – such as the case of Rep. Omar – when we must speak out and condemn blatant falsehoods. But, as I have learned over the years, it is as – if not more important to teach – by words and deeds – our values of inclusivity, social justice and Tikkun[ii].

It is my prayer that Rep Omar and the critics on both the Right and the Left might attempt to learn more about the complexity of the Middle East before they condemn. In this way, the suffering on all sides might be lessened.

[i] Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (against Israel).
[ii] Repairing the world.


  1. Is that what lobbyists do -- buy off politicians? This doesn't seem anti-semitic to me, merely a statement of fact.

    1. "Isn't that what lobbyists do" that should read.

  2. To “Unknown”:
    First of all: identify yourself. I don’t like replying to anonymous voices.
    Second- AIPAC’s job is strengthening the US- Israel relationship. The fact that they are successful in promoting and supporting our ally is not a crime.

  3. Please clarify how Zionism is distinct from settler colonialism, and how occupation is distinct from apartheid. I ask this as an American of mixed Jewish and WASP descent who has never been able to comprehend these double standards. In my mind, the solidarity needed between Israeli and Palestinian leftists is constantly undermined because, among other things, questioning Zionism is taboo among many liberal Jews. Our people were dispossessed by European Nations from Spain to Russia, and yet, the hunger for a Jewish State has fallen on people of color to satisfy. If there is some history of Palestinian pogroms, inquisitions and holocausts towards the Jewish people, I must have missed that. I appreciate your thoughts on this in advance.

  4. Oliver- I would direct you to Walter Laquer’s “History of Zionism” as a start. I think one key difference is that the occupied territories were taken as a result of a war, in 1967, that Israel won. Israel also returned the vast majority of these territories in exchange for a promise of peace. The Sinai Pennisula was returned in its entirety. The Gaza Strip was given back to the Palestinians and the West Bank has differing levels of Palestinian control-based on security needs.
    Israel has consistently and repeatedly offered land for peace. In some cases (Sinai), there has been success. In other cases (Gaza), Israel’s enemies have not only rejected the possibility of peace, but have waged an aggressive campaign of terror.
    Israeli Arabs are fully integrated into Israeli society. Go to any hospital, court of law, University or theater and you will see Arabs and Israelis working together. Are there flaws? Of course. Are there demagogues and racists in Israel? Unfortunately, as in every nation, there are.
    The situation of the Palestinians inGaza is tragic. Don’t forget that they are controlled by Hamas- a terrorist organization that oppresses its own people as it is committed to the destruction of the JEwish State. There are no simple answers here.

  5. Rabbi Black, thank you for your concise statements and responses. It is appreciated and much needed.

  6. There are different definitions of those terms, many of which have political biases.

    Trying to be as objective as possible, colonialism generally has to do with nations asserting their influence and/or control over external territories. Whatever the colonizer's intentions may be, colonialism has often involved exploiting colonies for the benefit of the colonial power. Colonialism is related to but not exactly the same as imperialism.

    A historical example is what existed in the area that is now Israel before Israel was founded. Between the 14th century and early 20th century, this land was occupied and controlled by the Ottoman Empire. After the Ottoman Empire and before the State of Israel, it was occupied and controlled by Great Britain as Mandatory Palestine.

    There were different Zionists who thought different things. That said, Zionism can generally be thought of as one of two competing philosophies which proposed solutions to the problem of how Jews might avoid extermination.

    Assimilation can be generally understood as the philosophy that Jews' best chance for survival was to become less discrete and attempt to blend into their host cultures.

    Zionism, on the other hand, argued that the best chance for survival was to have a sovereign Jewish state.

    Most Zionists were secular, liberal intellectuals that opposed things like imperialism and colonization and championed things like democracy and religious freedom.

    Zionism was not necessarily tied to any particular geographic area. For example, before Israel there were proposals to create a Jewish state in parts of Uganda and Argentina. While the Zionists may have avoided the Holocaust by accepting such a proposal, there was a preference for the land that is now Israel because this is where the Jewish state could be created without requiring Jews to occupy or colonize land to which they did not have a legitimate claim.

    After the Holocaust, assimilation was widely rejected in favor of Zionism. The fate of the millions of Jews that had tried to assimilate in Europe seemed to prove that assimilation was not a viable strategy.

    Now that Israel exists, Zionism can be understood as the belief that Israel should continue to exist - and for most Zionists, as a free, liberal, democratic and Jewish state.

    Unlike colonialism and imperialism, Zionism is not concerned with expanding Israeli influence outward. On the contrary, Zionism seeks to avoid occupying or controlling external territories to the maximum extent consistent with Israel’s continued existence.

  7. I appreciate the thoughtful responses though I remain unpersuaded. I see no recognition of the destructive encroachment on ceded territories by settlers. If we understand that the West Bank and Gaza Strip are Palestinian territory, the settlers and Israeli military are in fact colonial. If Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are on Israeli territory, then they are currently living in an apartheid regime without equal rights, due process and political power. The ambiguity and failure to resolve territorial hegemony fosters the kind of lawless expansion that befell indigenous Americans (and continues to this day). I recognize that there have been horrible acts of violence by Palestinians and Israelis both, but don't detect the same compassionate characterization of the plight of Palestinian people that you afford their Israeli brothers and sisters. A government that condones settlements and collective punishment should not be exempted from a Leftist critique, either as an Apartheid state, a settler colonial state or both.

    This is a vexing test of our capacity to create a more just world, and very complicated. Despite our disagreements, I am grateful for every opportunity to openly face our predicament without hostility. Thanks Rabbi Black and Jay Melnick for engaging.

    1. Oliver, I wasn't really trying to persuade anyone of anything. I was just chiming in on the question about the differences between Zionism and colonialism. However, I have a couple of thoughts I would like to add.

      First, I don’t think Zionism implies any position on any policy matter other than the fundamental question of Israel’s right to exist. I don’t think you could be a Zionist and believe that Israel does not have the right to exist. But Zionists can and do oppose things like expansion of settlements or how a particular security threat was handled or the current administration generally. Zionists can be right wing or left wing or anywhere in between.

      Second, the “apartheid” label is pretty inflammatory. It just isn’t something people who support Israel’s right to exist say. It is almost always associated with delegitimization and implies that Israel is a racist endeavor.

      The international working definition of antisemitism is helpful:

      If you are so inclined, there are resources out there which explain why the apartheid analogy doesn’t fit. As is usually the case, people will seek out and accept or avoid and reject that information according to their preexisting biases. A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.

      In any event, pretty much every Zionist I’ve ever met supports Israel because they believe Jews cannot risk another Holocaust. They see the existence of Israel as a important factor in the freedom of association that diaspora Jews found for the first time in late 20th century America. They perceive “anti-Zionism” not as an abstract intellectual debate or as a liberal or conservative political issue but as a direct, existential threat. I’ve never met any Zionist that wanted to harm or exploit anyone or conquer or colonize territories or expand Zionist influence externally or anything like that. Most Zionists are deeply troubled by the plight of the Palestinians and feel a tremendous amount of pain for this heartbreaking humanitarian situation. They favor a two-state solution because it is the only option which permits the Jews to live and which is also consistent with the liberal and democratic ideals to which they are committed.

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    3. Thanks Jay. I reposted for I didn't know any other way to correct the typo.

      I understand the imperatives of the Jewish people, but any peaceful resolution needs to center the Palestinian imperatives also. Solidarity with oppressed people everywhere, even when it is most elusive. I say that with every sympathy for those who have less security than I, though I am only two degrees of separation from the victims at the Tree of Life. Maybe I am pre-disposed to accept Omar's apology and assume good faith. From where I live, the Anti-Semitism that elicits the most fear is that weaponized by white-skinned people.

    4. You are so spot on with description of "weaponized" antisemitism. It seems like tolerating antisemtism on their fringes is just about the only thing the left and the right can agree on these days. That said I do have the give Pelosi and the establishment Democrats credit in this instance. This was the first time anyone forced them to acknowledge that elephant in the room, and they did the right thing - knowing that because of how our primary system works, that could leave some of them vulnerable to challenges from insurgents. To me that was the silver lining in this story.

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  9. An excellent analysis. Keep up the good work