You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

This Is What the Beginning of a Real Israel Debate Looks Like

Before Ilhan Omar came to the national stage, Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer tried to discuss pro-Israel lobbying. They were shouted down.

Ilhan Omar (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

With all the shouting it was easy to miss, but something new happened in Washington this week. If you can’t see it yet, put yourself back in 2006, when everything about a Somali-American, Muslim congresswoman tweeting a line from a Puff Daddy song—as Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar did Sunday evening—would have been unthinkable.

In March 2006, two established, neo-realist foreign policy wonks named John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt published an article in the London Review of Books. They argued that outsized U.S. support for Israel, which receives more U.S. military aid than any other country on the planet, made little sense in a post–Cold War context in which Israel was no longer a “vital strategic asset.” Mearsheimer and Walt attributed the irrational persistence of this policy to highly effective lobbying efforts “to steer US foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction.” The Israel Lobby, as they called it, was not a cabal or a conspiracy, but something altogether ordinary in Washington, like the gun lobby or the steel lobby: a “loose coalition of individuals and organizations” encompassing Christian evangelicals, neo-conservatives, and the powerful America Israel Public Affairs Committee, whose support or opposition could make or break a candidate. “The bottom line,” they wrote, “is that AIPAC, a de facto agent for a foreign government, has a stranglehold on Congress, with the result that U.S. policy towards Israel is not debated there.”

To almost anyone with experience in American electoral politics, Mearsheimer and Walt were stating the obvious: The near unanimity of politicians’ support for Israel resulted not from inborn Zionist sympathies, but rather organizing and influence—which in Washington invariably involves money. The uproar was nonetheless fierce. Pundits lined up to get their kicks in. Jeffrey Goldberg, writing in The Atlantic, called the two authors “neo-Lindberghians” and characterized Walt as a “grubby Jew-baiter” who “makes his living scapegoating Jews.” David Rothkopf, in Foreign Policy, was only slightly more generous: While Mearsheimer and Walt “may not be anti-Semites themselves,” he allowed, “they made a cynical decision to cash in on anti-Semitism.” Jonathan Chait went after them repeatedly in the pages of The New Republic, dismissing their views as “simply kooky.”

By the time Ilhan Omar walked onto the national stage, a lot had changed, and not much at all. Since 2006, we’ve seen three devastating and overwhelmingly one-sided Israeli assaults on Gaza, the massive expansion of settlements in a brutal and seemingly endless occupation, the collapse of U.S.-sponsored peace negotiations and anything that could be called an Israeli “left,” a widening gulf between Israeli and American Jews, and an Israeli prime minister who went out of his way to embarrass a popular Democratic president and to embrace the neo-fascist right. Ever-larger cracks are appearing in the defensive wall the U.S. media has for years erected around Israel: Critical voices—even Palestinian ones—are increasingly making it into the op-ed pages. Space for debate is finally opening up. And the controversy that blew up around Omar is a foretaste of how bitterly that space will be contested.

It began, of course, on Twitter. Omar and fellow Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib both support the movement for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) as a response to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands. On Sunday, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy threatened to “take action” against the pair. “This cannot sustain itself,” McCarthy had said. “It’s unacceptable in this country.”

McCarthy did not specify what “it” was, but it was probably not anti-Jewish sentiment that riled him: McCarthy, who last fall dipped into the murky waters of conspiracy theory, tweeting that three prominent wealthy Jews—George Soros, Tom Steyer, and Michael Bloomberg—should not be allowed to “BUY this election,” seemed to be referring to Omar and Tlaib’s support for BDS. More than any other policy matter, BDS has highlighted both the power that pro-Israel lobbies continue to exert over American politics and their panic at losing it. No fewer than 26 states have passed legislation to punish supporters of the boycott, a nonviolent tactic that citizens have been using for decades—to end apartheid in South Africa, for instance, or segregation on the buses of Jim Crow Montgomery, Alabama. The Senate’s most urgent priority recently after three weeks of crippling shutdown was to pass Marco Rubio’s Combating BDS Act, which lends a federal blessing to state efforts against the boycott.

“It’s stunning,” journalist Glenn Greenwald tweeted Sunday evening, tagging Omar and Tlaib, “how much time U.S. political leaders spend defending a foreign nation even if it means attacking free speech rights of Americans.”

“It’s all about the Benjamins,” Omar responded, adding a musical note emoji in reference to the hip-hop lyric. Batya Ungar-Sargon, an editor at the Forward, tweeted to ask Omar whom she was referring to.

“AIPAC,” Omar answered.

That was enough. With five words and one acronym, Omar had, Ungar-Sargon wrote, placed herself in a long tradition of anti-Jewish paranoia, one that “belongs in a Der Stürmer cartoon, not on the Twitterfeed of a U.S. Congresswoman.” The pile-on began. Openly calling out AIPAC and the role of money in securing a pro-Israel consensus was bad enough, but a sinister and anti-Semitic intent even seemed to be imputed to Omar’s reference to “Benjamins,” i.e. hundred-dollar bills. (Benjamin Franklin was very much a goy.)

Nancy Pelosi and the House leadership rebuked Omar. Chuck Schumer jumped in on Twitter, as did Chelsea Clinton. Omar apologized on Monday without exactly backing down, reaffirming “the problematic role of lobbyists in our politics, whether it be AIPAC, the NRA, or the fossil fuel industry.” The following day, President Trump demanded she resign. Mike Pence called for “consequences.” For a minute it seemed like it would be 2006 all over again, only potentially far uglier, since neither Mearsheimer nor Walt wore a hijab.

And then, suddenly, it didn’t anymore. Leftist Jews rushed to Omar’s defense, taking to the pages of the Guardian, Jacobin, and The Nation to declare that Omar was right about AIPAC, and that accusing her of anti-Semitism was opportunistic and absurd. Prominent liberal Jewish commentators refused to join the anti-Omar pile-on. Peter Beinart focused on “the sick double standard” of the attacks on Omar. Her tweets had been “irresponsible,” he wrote, but her “fiercest critics in Congress are guiltier of bigotry than she is.” Rothkopf, who had shown little mercy to Mearsheimer and Walt, tweeted that while Omar’s words had been “ill-considered,” it was “vitally important we distinguish between criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism.”* And Jeremy Ben-Ami, chair of AIPAC’s liberal rival J Street, dismissed the whole affair as “overblown,” issuing a statement warning politicians to “refrain from labeling all criticism of Israeli actions or policies as ‘anti-Semitic,’ in a transparent effort to silence legitimate discussion.”

By Wednesday, the story was no longer Omar, but the schism within the Democratic Party that the controversy had revealed. CNN, Slate, Politico, Time, and the The Washington Post all ran stories on the Democrats’ Israel split, pointing out that only one of the seven Democrats vying for the presidency voted for Rubio’s anti-BDS bill, and citing poll after poll finding Democratic voters’ allegiance to Israel slipping.

That story has been developing for years, but what happened in Washington this week was something we haven’t seen before. The imputation of anti-Semitism, an old and much-used tool, was suddenly revealed to be blunt. Critics of Israel have long understood that speaking too loudly would get them silenced and shunned. But Ilhan Omar is still standing. Let the arguing begin.

* An earlier version of this article suggested that David Rothkopf still worked at Foreign Policy. He is now the host of Deep State Radio.