Ilhan Omar Is a Threat to US Empire

Progressive politicians like Ilhan Omar aren’t being attacked because they’re antisemitic. They’re being attacked because they threaten the bipartisan consensus on Israel and US empire.

U.S. Special Representative for Venezuela Elliott Abrams testifies during a hearing before House Foreign Affairs Committee February 13, 2019 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Alex Wong / Getty Images

In the early 2000s, I was a poster boy for AIPAC’s campus initiative. Not only was I one of the pro-Israel organization’s few dozen summer interns, I was one of just two asked to sit on the board as a campus representative.

My involvement taught me about the overlapping worlds of pro-Israel advocacy and the US foreign policy establishment. During my AIPAC days I introduced prominent Iraq War hawk Charles Krauthammer at a major gathering. I did book research for “war on terror” enthusiast Jonah Goldberg and befriended neoconservatives like David Horowitz. My summer intern class included the son of convicted felon Scooter Libby, an influential adviser to Dick Cheney and George W. Bush, and was chock full of young people exhibiting promise not only in pro-Israel activism but status quo “national security” polemics. Many were already affiliated with (or seeking employment with) think tanks and other institutions fully integrated into what has become known as the “foreign policy blob.”

Later, I joined the Marines and served in the Afghanistan War during one of its most violent moments. It was during that time I realized, in the words of fellow Marine Smedley Butler, that the war machine is a “racket.”

But back in college I was still a true believer. And to be a true believer meant believing that the enormous sway AIPAC holds in Washington wasn’t just good for Israel and its most ardent defenders — it was good for maintaining the US-led global order.

AIPAC’s supporters have never concealed the fact that the group holds enormous power in Washington. In 2011, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote: “I sure hope that Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, understands that the standing ovation he got in Congress this year was not for his politics. That ovation was bought and paid for by the Israel lobby.” AIPAC itself boasts that “the United States Congress has provided Israel with the strongest support of any institution in the world” in large part because of the “involvement in the political process” of its donors.

In the wake of Ilhan Omar’s recent tweets criticizing AIPAC, Medhi Hasan dug up related material:

Are we supposed to dismiss Uri Avnery, the late Israeli peace activist and one-time member of the Zionist paramilitary, the Irgun, who once remarked that if AIPAC “were to table a resolution abolishing the Ten Commandments, 80 senators and 300 congressmen would sign it at once,” as a Jew-hater? Or label Jane Harman, the ex-congresswoman and devoted defender of Israel, who told CNN in 2013 that her former colleagues on Capitol Hill had struggled to back Barack Obama’s Iran nuclear diplomacy due to “big parts of the pro-Israel lobby in the United States being against it, the country of Israel being against it. That’s a stiff hill to climb,” an anti-Semite?

The obvious answer to these questions is, “Of course not.”

The next question then becomes why there’s a different standard for Omar, who was accused of antisemitism across the spectrum — including an official condemnation from the Democratic leadership — for saying much of the same thing.

Clearly part of the problem is that Omar is not Jewish. As others have learned, like the academics John Meirsheimer and Stephen Walt after publishing The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, people who state the obvious while not being Jewish are more liable to being smeared as antisemitic. Another problem is that Omar’s — like Meirsheimer and Walt’s — single-minded focus on Israel lobby money does lend itself to antisemitic interpretations (and overstates the role of AIPAC in motivating US policy toward Israel rather than considerations rooted in great power politics and in global political economy).

The third problem, and this one can’t be overstated, is that Omar is a Muslim. The United States is an Islamophobic society whose government has killed, tortured, and displaced millions of Muslims in the last two decades and whose ruling class feeds the public a steady diet of anti-Muslim tropes, including claims of antisemitism.

But there is another, arguably decisive, reason the usual suspects are spending so much time slandering politicians like Omar and Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib. Harman’s example of AIPAC’s role in attempting to scuttle President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran speaks to this dynamic. It makes sense that Israel and its supporters would be concerned with a potential thawing of relations between its primary regional enemy and the United States. But it also makes sense that those invested in the US imperial project might be wary to cede any legitimacy or power to a government that has long been hostile to its aims.

The connections between US imperialism and Zionism should be obvious to anyone paying attention, but it needs to be emphasized at moments like this when progressives (especially Muslim progressives) like Omar are being attacked with outrageous claims of Jew-hatred. The fact is, this latest episode has very little to do with antisemitism. The Israeli government is a significant booster of antisemitic governments and movements in Hungary, Ukraine, Poland, and the United States (and its relationship with Jair Bolsonaro’s new government in Brazil flirts with antisemitic strands as well).

This history goes back at least a half century: Israel has often been happy to join the United States in backing antisemitic governments and movements across the world, specifically in Latin America, provided it fulfilled their settler-colonial or imperialist aims. During my AIPAC years, I watched from the inside as America’s most powerful “pro-Israel” organization hobnobbed and glad-handed numerous elements, especially segments of the Christian right, that were actively or passively complicit in antisemitic politics and networks.

This is not to say liberal Zionists like Batya Ungar-Sargon, the Forward editor whose tweets sparked Omar’s controversial response, aren’t sincere when they accuse the Minnesota congresswoman of antisemitism. It just means their sincerity is always being instrumentalized by much more powerful actors in the national security establishment set on rendering toxic all anti-imperialist threats —  and left politicians like Omar most certainly represent urgent threats. Lest one suspect I’m being overly cynical or paranoid, I’m speaking in precisely the terms I saw my AIPAC superiors speaking in throughout my internship, where the goal wasn’t just to neutralize the threat of anti-Zionism on campus, but anti-imperialist backlash everywhere.

People like Omar are not being repeatedly (and most likely systematically) targeted because they are antisemitic. They’re not even being targeted because they’re critical of Israel per se. They’re being targeted because they challenge an eighty-years-long bipartisan imperialist consensus that is finally showing signs of fraying. The goal is to prevent the very kind of subversive moments Omar elicited last week during her questioning of unrepentant war criminal Elliot Abrams — moments that, if they added up, would have a real shot at finally moving us toward a vision of America beyond empire.