Ilhan Omar Can’t Break the U.S.-Israel Bond

By Walter Russell Mead

Wall Street Journal

March 11, 2019


To ask whether freshman Rep. Ilhan Omar was being anti-Semitic or merely inartful when she suggested U.S. support for Israel is driven by moneyed interests (“It’s all about the Benjamins baby”) and Americans who owe “allegiance to a foreign country” is a waste of time. Ms. Omar is a gifted and ambitious politician who thinks Jew-baiting will help her career; the question is not whether she is a nice person but whether she is a significant one. Does her appearance on the political stage herald a substantial change in American politics—either a renewed anti-Semitism or a diminished U.S.-Israel alliance?

The answer at this point is that Ms. Omar’s notoriety is more sizzle than steak. Politically, her election doesn’t mean very much. That the congressional district Keith Ellison represented for six terms chose Ms. Omar to replace him hardly represents a political earthquake. Mr. Ellison had ties to the Nation of Islam and a strongly anti-Israel record. Voters in Minnesota’s Fifth Congressional District have tolerated these sentiments for some time.

Democratic Party luminaries like Bernie Sanders and Chuck Schumer supported Mr. Ellison in his 2017 bid to be chairman of the Democratic National Committee (he ultimately became deputy). Even before Ms. Omar, the party has been more interested in reaching an accommodation with militantly anti-Israel politics than in driving it out of the party.

Like Mr. Ellison, Ms. Omar plays to a national as well as a local constituency. Mr. Ellison became a symbol both for those who welcome and those who fear the increasing prominence of Muslim American voices in U.S. politics. Younger, more photogenic and perhaps more charismatic, Ms. Omar hopes to repeat and if possible surpass Mr. Ellison’s success. But the path she has chosen is not new.

In a longer historical perspective, the appearance of progressive anti-Semitism and its presence in both immigrant and native subcultures is also par for the course. Nineteenth-century abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, as well as more recent figures like Louis Farrakhan and Al Sharpton, used anti-Semitism for political purposes. Immigrants from Germany and Russia brought the infection of anti-Semitism with them from the old country, and tensions between immigrant Catholics and the American Jewish community tormented Democratic politicians long before the party struggled to accommodate both Alan Dershowitz and Mr. Ellison.

Will the new wave of left-leaning anti-Israel activists succeed in breaking up the U.S.-Israel alliance? The answer is almost certainly no, less because of the Benjamins than the weakness of the conspiratorial anti-Israel case. The argument that the American Jewish community—animated by slavish loyalty to the Jewish state, armed with unlimited financial resources, and abetted by fundamentalist Christians hoping for Armageddon—has imposed a pro-Israel policy on the gentile majority may resonate with the faithful, but it strikes most Americans as implausible and lame.

Americans who follow politics at all know, for example, that American Jews are anything but monolithic on the subject of Israel. Many American Jews are more hostile to Jewish settlements in the West Bank than are non-Jewish Americans. Far from robotically supporting strongly hard-line pro-Israel politicians, most American Jews voted against Donald Trump and George W. Bush. An American politician whose sole goal was to raise money and votes from American Jews would do better to criticize Benjamin Netanyahu than praise him.

Americans also know, in many cases from personal experience, that Christian support for Israel is not confined to Bible-thumping fundamentalists counting the days to Armageddon. It is and long has been widespread among Christians of many theological views who regret the murderous Christian anti-Semitism of past centuries, who admire Israel’s economic success and military strength, and who, without being intolerant of Islam, also abhor the venomous Jew hatred that is so regrettably prevalent among some Muslims today.

There is another problem for Ms. Omar and her allies. The theory that “the Jews” control American foreign policy by distributing Benjamins to elected officials isn’t a theory only about rich and unscrupulous Jews. It is a theory about stupid gentiles unable to perceive the devious purposes of the hooknosed Master Race. This reflects not just anti-Semitism but contempt for the American people as a whole.

Ms. Omar, like many other anti-Israel activists, seems to believe that mixing crackpot theories about U.S. politics with insults to voters’ intelligence will change the way Americans see the Middle East conflict. When this strategy fails, as it invariably does, anti-Israel activists attribute the failure not to the weakness of their arguments but once more to the Benjamins of those oh-so-clever Jews, and to the stupidity of the hypnotized non-Jewish voters. They try again, fail again and curse the “lobbyists” and their lackeys again.

This hasn’t been a recipe for success in American politics in the past. Ms. Omar and her backers seem to think that this time will be different. We shall see.