by Rabbi Yeshaia Charles Familant

In his Washington Post (3/5/19) article, Dana Milbank claimed “She [Ilhan Omar] has suggested that Americans who support Israel — by implication, Jews — are disloyal to the United States. At an event in Washington last week, Omar said, in the context of the pro-Israel lobby, that ‘I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country.’”

In fact, contrary to Milbank’s claim, Ilhan Omar implied no such thing – neither about Jews or any other social entity. Omar’s use of the terms, disloyal and dual-loyalty/allegiance had a specific reference (as will be shown below).

In response to the threats and accusations made against her, Omar clarified in a tweet her actual intent when using either of those terms:

I should not be expected to have allegiance/pledge support to a foreign country in order to serve my country in Congress or serve on committee.

This clarification was discounted both by Milbank and Rep. Nita M. Lowey, D-N.Y., chairperson of the House Appropriations Committee, as merely an example of  use of “anti-Semitic tropes that accuse Jews of dual loyalty,”

However, Omar’s point was taken to heart and not only emphasized, but further elaborated upon in another Washington Post article by Paul Waldman (3/5/19).

“Here’s the truth”, he says: “The whole purpose of the Democrats’ resolution is to enforce dual loyalty not among Jews, but among members of Congress, to make sure that criticism of Israel is punished in the most visible way possible. This, of course, includes Ilhan Omar. As it happens, this punishment of criticism of Israel is exactly what she was complaining about, and has on multiple occasions. The fact that no one seems to acknowledge that this is her complaint shows how spectacularly disingenuous Omar’s critics are being.

You may have noticed that almost no one uses ‘dual loyalty’ as a way of questioning whether Jews are loyal to the United States anymore. Why has it almost disappeared as an anti-Semitic slur? Because over the last three decades, support for Israel has become increasingly associated with conservative evangelicals and the Republican Party.

Not coincidentally, this happened at the same time as the America Israel Public Affairs Committee, the most prominent and influential pro-Israel lobby, went from supporting Israel generally to being the lobby in America for the Likud, Israel’s main right-wing party. While AIPAC works hard to keep Democrats in line, their greatest allies are in the GOP, where support for Israel and a rejection of any meaningful rights for Palestinians have become a central component of party ideology. When the most prominent advocates for Israel are people like Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin, “dual loyalty” loses any meaning as a slur on Jews.

The idea that taking issue with support of Israel means one is necessarily criticizing Jews as Jews ignores the last few decades of political developments around America’s relationship with Israel. “Supporters of Israel” hasn’t been a synonym for “Jews” since the 1980s. I have to repeat this: In America today a “supporter of Israel” is much more likely to be an evangelical Christian Republican than a Jew.

Omar certainly didn’t say that Jews have dual loyalty. For instance, in one of the tweets that got people so worked up, Omar said, “I should not be expected to have allegiance/pledge support to a foreign country in order to serve my country in Congress or serve on committee.” You’ll notice that she didn’t say or even imply anything at all about Jews. She said that she was being asked to support Israel in order to have the privilege of serving on the Foreign Affairs Committee, which was true. Many on the right have called for her to be removed from that committee (see here or here or here or here). Her argument, to repeat, isn’t about how Jews feel about Israel, it’s about what is being demanded of her.

“And here’s the ultimate irony: Dual loyalty is precisely what AIPAC demands, and what it gets. Again, it makes this demand not of Jews, but of every member of Congress, and even of politicians at the state level whom you wouldn’t think would be conducting foreign policy. And it works. 

“Take, for instance, the wave of state laws passed in recent years in opposition to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, in which a state will refuse to do business with anyone who supports BDS. In some cases those laws require that contractors sign a document promising not to support any boycott of Israel. It’s illustrated in the case of a speech pathologist in Texas who sued over the requirement that she sign such a pledge in order to work in a school district. That is literally a demand that she pledge her loyalty to Israel. She’s not Jewish, and the officials who demanded that she do so aren’t either; the Texas Republican Party is not exactly an organization dominated by Jews. When Gov. Greg Abbott — also not a Jew — proclaims that “Anti-Israel policies are anti-Texas policies,” he’s expressing his dual loyalty.

“Yet when Omar says that she shouldn’t have to do the same, everyone jumps up to accuse her of antisemitism, on the bogus grounds that 1) she’s secretly referring to Jews and not to what she is being asked to do, and 2) it’s some kind of anti-Semitic smear to even raise the issue of people being asked to promise their allegiance to Israel, when the truth is that members of Congress are asked to do just that all the time.

“When this episode is over, Omar and everyone else will have learned a lesson. You’d better not step out of line on Israel. You’d better not question AIPAC. You’d better not criticize members of Congress for the craven way they deal with this issue. You’d better not talk about how policy toward Israel is made and maintained. Because if you do, this is what you’re going to get.”

Milbank reminds us that Ilhan Omar apologized for suggesting that pro-Israel lawmakers had been bought (“it’s all about the Benjamins”) and for an old quote of hers about “evil” Israel hypnotizing the world. Democratic leaders plan to introduce a resolution on the House floor on Wednesday rebuking such comments.

I would not attempt to make excuses for Omar’s rhetoric, which, unfortunately, detracts from her legitimate points, and, consequently, has unwittingly invited misunderstanding – let alone threats – by others.  AIPAC  – along with other pro-Israel lobbies – does indeed wield a powerful influence over our elected representatives in congress with regard to Israel, irrespective of  that nation’s questionable policies vis-a-vis the Palestinians, those of Likud especially. Furthermore, although AIPAC, because it is not a Political Action Committee, cannot give money directly to candidates for elected office, it can make its enormous sums available to others who, in turn, can give money to such candidates who can then advance AIPAC’s legislative agenda. This, in fact, is one of Omar’s assertions.

Favor, as I do, Bernie Sanders over all other Democrats vying for the nomination, possibly the most contentious point precipitating the demise of his presidential bid might not be Wall Street, the fossil fuel industries, big pharma, the agribusinesses and the billionaire class, but the powerful pro-Israel lobby; all because he is a proponent of a more even-handed approach to the Palestinian-Israeli problem.