There can be no doubt among reasonable and informed observers that pro-Israel lobby groups and individuals are among the most influential players in US politics. Why, then, has Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) been forced to apologize for tweeting the truth about the outsize influence of the Zionist lobby on US foreign and domestic policy?
Omar and Palestinian-American Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), the first two Muslim women elected to Congress, have only been in office for a month. Yet they have been constantly accused of anti-Semitism from House Republicans because of their criticism of Israel and their support for Palestinians. Now Omar’s own party has joined in on the attacks against her, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and four other leading House Democrats issuing a statement condemning the former refugee from Somalia for "the use of anti-Semitic tropes and prejudicial accusations about Israel’s supporters."
"All About the Benjamins"
Rep. Omar’s offense? Tweeting the obvious – that US support for Israel is "all about the Benjamins, baby" (a hip-hop reference to hundred dollar bills) and that AIPAC, the powerful lobby group American Israel Public Affairs Committee, pays politicians to be pro-Israel. While AIPAC doesn’t actually contribute directly to politicians, it nevertheless wields tremendous influence within the halls of US power, as you’ll soon see.
All lobbying is "all about the Benjamins," especially since 2010 when the Supreme Court affirmed in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that corporations are people, money is free speech and corporations and other special interests can spend unlimited amounts of money influencing the outcome of US elections. This corrupt system has not only allowed but has encouraged corporations, special interest groups and wealthy individuals to spend billions of dollars on candidates and causes. Pro-Israel groups and individuals have spent hundreds of millions of dollars backing politicians and policies favorable to Israel and, by natural extension, harmful to Palestinians.
It is perfectly acceptable to criticize the National Rifle Association (NRA) for its incessant objection to any and all gun control efforts, or the American Petroleum Institute (API) for opposing meaningful action to combat climate change, or the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) for supporting myriad reprehensible policies and actions. No one cries "Islamophobia" when pro-Saudi Arabia groups are criticized for spending millions of dollars influencing the United States. So why is Israel off limits?
"It’s a Trick"
The answer lies largely in the very power of the Zionist lobby, which has worked very hard to conflate legitimate criticism of Israel with hatred of Jews. "It’s a trick," explained the late Israeli cabinet minister Shulamit Aloni. "When somebody from Europe is criticizing Israel, we bring up the Holocaust. When in [the US] people are criticizing Israel, then they are anti-Semitic." Aloni continued:
The organization is strong, and has a lot of money… and they have power… They are talented people and they have power and money, and the media and other things, and their attitude is ‘Israel, my country right or wrong’…and they are not ready to hear criticism. And it’s very easy to blame people who criticize certain acts of the Israeli government as anti-Semitic, and to bring up the Holocaust and the suffering of the Jewish people, to justify everything we do to the Palestinians.
While it is true that fallacious accusations of an insidious global Jewish conspiracy to control the world have long been a weapon of choice of anti-Semites, it is also undeniably true that Israel and the Zionist lobby are far more powerful than one would expect considering that Israel is the world’s 100th-largest country by population, its 150th-largest by land area and its 31st-largest economy. Now consider that every major Republican and Democratic 2016 presidential contender spoke at AIPAC’s annual convention, either in person or via video.
"Any member of Congress knows that AIPAC is associated indirectly with significant amounts of campaign spending if you’re with them, and significant amounts against you if you’re not with them," former congressman Brian Baird (D-WA) explained to the New Yorker.
In an effort to protect Israel’s reputation amid growing international outrage over its illegal occupation and settler colonization of Palestinian territory, more than 100 laws have been passed or proposed in a majority of US states that outlaw support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, the peaceful campaign for freedom, justice and equality for Palestinians. One bipartisan bill in Congress, the Israel Anti-Boycott Act (S. 720), would make it a felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison and a $1 million fine, to comply with or support peaceful boycotts of Israel. According to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, S. 720 "was drafted with the assistance of AIPAC." Americans have also lost or been denied employment for failing to sign pro-Israel oaths in work contracts, and lobbyist-backed anti-BDS measures have targeted students, staff and speakers on college campuses across the nation.
For what other other foreign nation would members of both houses of Congress and countless state and local officials be willing to sacrifice Americans’ sacred First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and association?
"A Big, Big Issue"
The 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq is another case in point. While pressure from Israel and the Zionist lobby wasn’t the only – or even the leading – reason why the Bush administration decided to invade Iraq, it was a major factor driving the US toward war. This might be a controversial, even taboo, assertion in the United States. But don’t take my word for it; former British prime minister Tony Blair testified before the UK Iraq war commission that "Israel was a big, big issue" and 9/11 Commission chief Philip Zelikow said that the "real threat" from Iraq was not to the United States but rather "against Israel." Bush’s decision to invade Iraq delighted Israeli leaders including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who publicly stated that 9/11 was good for Israel and who boasted how he’d deceived Bill Clinton to sabotage the Oslo peace process.
"America is a thing you can move very easily," bragged Netanyahu, who marveled at the "absurd" level of popular support for Israel in the United States. He wasn’t the only one gloating – AIPAC executive director Howard Kohr said in 2003 that one of the lobby’s "success stories" was its "quiet lobbying" of Congress for a war resolution.
Thanks to groups like AIPAC, criticism of Israel or even expression of sympathy for the Palestinian people has become the third rail of American politics. Aspiring pro-Palestinian politicians are quickly brought to heel; witness candidate Barack Obama acknowledging on the 2008 campaign trail that "nobody is suffering more than the Palestinian people." That statement raised Zionist eyebrows and ire from Brooklyn to Beersheba and the presidential hopeful’s tune quickly changed – a year later as he closed in on the prize of a political lifetime, Obama crushed the hope of many Palestinians when he appeared at AIPAC’s annual policy conference and pledged his full support for Israel. Explaining why it’s so difficult for an American president to be an honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Obama later told Palestine advocates that "you cannot simply rely on the belief that you are right; I hear from AIPAC every week, you need to raise your voice so that I hear you and not just them."
Silence Is Betrayal
The problem is that the Zionist lobby – which has even made the word "Zionist" taboo – is doing everything in its power to make sure that only its voice, and not the growing international chorus of voices condemning Israeli crimes against Palestine, is heard. Anti-Semitism is an ancient and deadly scourge that has sparked some of the most horrific crimes against humanity ever perpetrated by humankind. It should be roundly condemned wherever it raises its ugly head. So should Israel, the only country in the world today guilty of simultaneously committing occupation, ethnic cleansing, colonization and apartheid. Pro-Israel groups and individuals deny these things are happening and seek to silence those who condemn them, including Rep. Omar. Neither she nor anyone else who speaks out against Israeli crimes or those who aid and abet them should ever apologize for doing so, for as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said, "there comes a time when silence is betrayal." We passed that time long ago.
Brett Wilkins is editor-at-large for US news at Digital Journal. His work, which has recently appeared in Common Dreams, Counterpunch, and Daily Kos, focuses on issues of war and peace, human rights, and social justice.