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Ilhan Omar’s Victory for Political Sanity

The freshman congresswoman was right: The pro-Israel lobby uses financial muscle to influence Congress. That shouldn't be a controversial statement.

Joshua Roberts/Getty Images

Would House Democrats censure one of their own for daring to suggest that the deep-pocketed fossil fuel lobby buys influence in Congress? What about a member who said the same about Big Pharma? And yet, Democratic leaders on Wednesday were on the cusp of implicitly rebuking U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar for criticizing the pro-Israel lobby’s power. “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is okay for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country,” she said a recent event.

This was destined to be another example of the impossibility in Washington of deviating from unflinching support of Israel’s policies. But then something remarkable happened. The Democrats’ resolution against anti-Semitism was tabled after an outcry from members who felt Omar, a Muslim woman of color, was being singled out and that the party should condemn the full spectrum of religious bigotry, including the Islamophobia practiced by President Trump. A powerful lobby tried to suppress criticism of its work, and rank-and-file Democrats spoke their minds.

Omar’s latest comments were not the freshman congresswoman’s first this year to draw accusations of anti-Semitism. Earlier this month, she tweeted that support in Congress for Israel was “all about the Benjamins baby,” referring to $100 bills. She later apologized for the tweet, even though it referred to a time-honored practice in Washington. Pro-Israel supporters have gained influence through hefty political spending, just as Big Oil and Big Finance and Big Tech have. There’s nothing particularly novel about that fact.

Let’s be clear about the sums we’re talking about. When considering single-issue lobbying, “pro-Israel” is the sixth-largest topic in Congress, larger than interest groups who lobby on abortion policy or gun control or women’s issues. AIPAC, by far the largest of the pro-Israel groups, spent nearly $7 million on lobbying in 2017 and 2018 combined. Outside of lobbying, AIPAC rallies its members to assist in political campaigns of like-minded candidates. Fundraising pitches are routinely made in side rooms at AIPAC’s 20,000-person strong policy conference.

AIPAC aside, one of the GOP’s largest donors is Sheldon Adelson, who is almost singularly focused on Israel policy. An Adelson summit in 2015 promised up to $50 million to counteract campus activists seeking to boycott, divest from, or sanction Israel, otherwise known as the BDS movement. (The bill that AIPAC most frequently lobbied on during the last Congress was the “Combating BDS Act.”) Adelson’s campaign contributions exceeded $100 million in 2018, breaking his own record of $82.6 million in 2016. Haim Saban, a major donor to Democrats who’s worth $4 billion, has called himself a “one-issue guy,” with that issue being Israel.

While Omar critics claim she’s accusing Jews of dual loyalty—a trope that slipped from popular discourse long ago—keep in mind that evangelicals are the far greater majority of Israel-supporting activists. Millions of Christian theocrats who believe that Jews must control Israel to usher in the end of days have massive influence over the GOP in Washington. Christians United for Israel, the manifestation of this line of thinking, is a larger organization than AIPAC by twenty-fold. CUFI has the ear of the conservative movement and in particular Vice President Mike Pence, the keynote speaker at its conference in 2017.

It is no more a trope that wealthy interests want to protect the pre-eminence of Israel in Middle East policy than it is to say that large corporations have an interest in protecting the source of their fortune. How these interests are advanced in Washington is pretty elemental. Through carrots and sticks, members of Congress are persuaded to support the preferred policies of various groups: They’re handed a check at a fundraiser, or implicitly threatened with support for a political opponent, or just overwhelmed with scores of lobbyists making persistent arguments.

The new contingent in Congress from the Democratic left, an astounding number of whom pledged not to accept corporate PAC money, presents a problem for powerful lobbyists. That’s why the Omar resolution has run into difficulty. These members are not as susceptible to the usual pressures, and they don’t see what’s wrong with criticizing influence-peddling when the party’s signature legislation this session—H.R. 1—is a full-throated denunciation of money in politics.

The Democratic leadership seems to believe that one major lobby in particular is beyond reproach, but making such an exception undermines the entire message. Either big-money lobbying puts powerful interests ahead of the public interest, or it doesn’t. Omar has made clear where she stands on the matter. It’s Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer who have some explaining to do.