Ilhan OmarWas Dead Right About Lobbyists for Israel

February 2019

Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., walks through the Capitol building in January.
(Andrew Harnik / AP)

By Jacob Sugarman


On Monday, Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., issued an apology for a series of tweets suggesting that pro-Israel lobbying groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) had effectively purchased the support of U.S. lawmakers. In one such such tweet, she had quipped that Congress’ staunch defense of Israel was “all about the Benjamins”—a reference to the Puff Daddy song of the same name.

Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., walks through the Capitol building in January. (Andrew Harnik / AP)

On Monday, Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., issued an apology for a series of tweets suggesting that pro-Israel lobbying groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) had effectively purchased the support of U.S. lawmakers. In one such such tweet, she had quipped that Congress’ staunch defense of Israel was “all about the Benjamins”—a reference to the Puff Daddy song of the same name.

It’s all about the Benjamins baby 🎶 https://t.co/KatcXJnZLV

— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) February 10, 2019

“Anti-Semitism is real and I am grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of anti-Semitic tropes,” she wrote in a statement. “My intention is never to offend my constituents or Jewish Americans as a whole.”

Yet since issuing her mea culpa, the substance of Omar’s initial claims has largely been reaffirmed. Citing “The Lobby,” a four-part documentary in which an Al-Jazeera journalist successfully poses as a volunteer for The Israel Project, The Intercept’s Ryan Grim reminds his readers that prominent lobbyists for Israel have been caught on tape bragging about their pull in Washington.

“In [the film],” he writes, “leaders of the pro-Israel lobby speak openly about how they use money to influence the political process, in ways so blunt that if the comments were made by critics, they’d be charged with anti-Semitism.”

During one of the documentary’s more explosive scenes, David Ochs, whose group HaLev serves as a recruiter of sorts for AIPAC, reveals how the lobbying group and its donors organize fundraisers while avoiding the required financial disclosures. Ochs also explains how the Kosher sausage (so to speak) is made on Capitol Hill. “Congressmen and senators don’t do anything unless you pressure them,” he tells Al-Jazeera. “They kick the can down the road, unless you pressure them, and the only way to do that is with money.”

In another revealing moment, Eric Gallagher, who served as a top AIPAC official from 2010-2015, acknowledges the organization’s lobbying consistently achieves its desired aims. “Getting $38 billion in security aid to Israel matters, which is what AIPAC just did,” he admits during a surreptitiously recorded lunch. “Everything AIPAC does is focused on influencing Congress.”

Realizing they had been infiltrated, the Israel lobby quickly snapped into action. As a result of their efforts, nineteen lawmakers from both major parties wrote a letter to the Justice Department demanding an investigation into “the full range of activities undertaken by Al Jazeera in the United States,” and the network spiked the documentary amid pressure from Qatar. (It was later obtained and published by The Electronic Intifada, an online publication devoted to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.) But as Grim notes, Al-Jazeera’s reporter “[won] the confidence of senior officials, who divulged insider details, many of which have been leaked and created international news.”

Ilhan Omar, a Somali immigrant and one of the first two Muslim women in Congress, has faced a cavalcade of criticism from Democrats and Republicans alike. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi censured the congresswoman for her “prejudicial accusations,” while President Trump, who has called American Jews “negotiators” and told them that Israel is “their country,” simply said that Omar should be “ashamed” of her remarks. (The president has subsequently called on her to resign, both from the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Congress altogether.)

This is not the first time that Omar has had to address remarks deemed anti-Semitic in tone, if not in content. Last month, she apologized for tweeting that Israel has “hypnotized the world,” so it stands to reason that she might avoid a stale rap hook when criticizing the nation’s lobbyists in the United States, even if organizations like AIPAC speak for one of the narrowest and most reactionary segments of the Jewish community. What seems undeniable, and Trump’s attacks likely confirm, is that the right is using her tweets as rhetorical cover to delegitimize any form of Palestinian advocacy. As Grim’s colleague Mehdi Hassan observes in The Intercept, “We should thank Omar, the freshman lawmaker, for having the guts to raise this contentious issue and break a long-standing taboo in the process—even if she maybe did so in a clumsy and problematic fashion.”

Both the Democratic Party and its rank-and-file have a choice: Accede to the bad-faith arguments of their political opponents, or rally behind one of the few genuine progressives in their caucus. Unfortunately, the party’s leadership has made theirs.