There are two parts to the Omar affair, and despite the furor and all the statements and counterstatements, and the tweets and countertweets, not enough has been said about either. I will deal with them in this order: first, Rep. Omar’s lies and, second, the fearfulness of her critics
1) I don’t think that Rep. Omar is a liar; she is just repeating other people’s lies. It’s possible that she believes them or, maybe, she thinks they are half-true and politically useful (and she has proven that they are politically useful). In any case, her claims are false. AIPAC, aka the Zionist lobby—actually the right-wing Zionist lobby; there are others on the left—does not control American policy in the Middle East. The organization can make a lot of noise; it has influence in Congress—though less than its leaders tell its donors—and the influence comes from the money it spends. I am sure that there are politicians in the House and Senate who never fail to answer AIPAC’s phone calls and who speak passionately about Israel when they are asked to do so. But that’s about all they do, for Congress has very little impact on what America does in the Middle East or anywhere else. Putting Omar on the House Foreign Affairs Committee is probably a good idea; she will learn how little the committee has to do with foreign affairs.
American foreign policy is made in the White House. That may be constitutionally wrong, but it’s been true for a long time. When the people elect a president who agrees with AIPAC, the organization looks very powerful. And when the people elect a president who disagrees with AIPAC, the organization is powerless. I don’t remember how AIPAC responded to Carter’s Middle East policy or to Clinton’s. In neither case was AIPAC influential, not when Israel withdrew from the Sinai and not when Rabin and Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn; its leaders were probably not consulted. But its lack of influence was most clear in the Obama years, when it disapproved of almost everything Obama did in the Middle East, from the Cairo speech to the treaty with Iran, and could do nothing to change his policies
There are indeed Zionist lobbies at work in Washington. They advocate different policies, and sometimes one or another of them gets its way, but not because of its power or its money. It finds people in office who share its ideological commitments, or it doesn’t. Omar’s claim about “the Benjamins” is simply false. Money counts in American politics, but not in the way she says it does. American support for Israel has moral, political, religious, and strategic reasons; it isn’t bought. That falsehood is more important than the anti-Semitism that probably motivates it—or, better, we shouldn’t care about Omar’s moral character but rather about what she says.
2) Jewish critics of Omar have complained more about her character or her anti-Semitism than about the lies she repeats. It is as if they think that what Omar is doing wrong is this: She is telling the world about Jewish power. “Sha; we don’t want the goyim to know.” The critics should be saying that we Jews don’t have that kind of power; we never have. We hope to influence American policy toward Israel, a perfectly legitimate hope, but we don’t agree about what the policy should be. Evangelical Christians have far more influence than we do—in part because of their greater numbers, in part because they don’t disagree so much among themselves.
A congressional resolution condemning all forms of bigotry is no doubt commendable, but it doesn’t serve our political purpose. What is necessary is a fierce and detailed expose of all the lies about the Jews. And it is important that the word be used: lies. Many of Omar’s critics prefer to be offended, hurt, and distressed by her repetition of anti-Semitic tropes rather than outraged by the dishonesty of the tropes. And they are, in turn, afraid to offend Omar’s supporters, who seem to think that the lies Omar repeats are simply her opinions; they are just like everyone else’s opinions. Indeed, Omar is entitled to her falsehoods; it is, as we say, a free country. But the falsehoods have to be given their proper name. If Jewish Democrats don’t get tough about this, they will soon find themselves unable to be tough about anything. They will be pushed out of the Democratic Party just as Jews are being pushed out of the Labour Party in the U.K.
Long ago, August Bebel gave a name to left-wing anti-Semitism: “the socialism of fools.” Now the fools are in Congress.
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Michael Walzer is professor (emeritus) at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. He is the author of Just and Unjust Wars and The Paradox of Liberation, among other books, and the former co-editor of Dissent magazine.