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COMMENTARY: Attacks on Omar must not silence debate

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Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), in recent weeks, has been harshly criticized for tweets she made regarding how lawmakers were influenced by the pro-Israeli lobby. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) threatened punishment against Omar for criticizing Israel. Omar responded to this by tweeting a Puff Daddy lyric, “It’s all about the Benjamins baby.” When she was asked on Twitter who she believes is paying Americans to be pro-Israel she tweeted “AIPAC!”

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is a political lobby, much like the National Rifle Association (NRA), but instead of convincing legislators to vote in the favor of firearm corporations, AIPAC convinces legislators to appropriate billions of dollars in aid and arms to the Israeli government and enhance the military industrial complex. 

As we speak, an omnibus bill titled “Strengthening America's Security in the Middle East Act of 2019 (S.1)” has passed in the Senate with much of AIPAC’s help. According to AIPAC its most important provisions are “increases (in) security assistance to Israel by $200 million to fully fund the first year of the new 10-year U.S.-Israel Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). These funds help Israel maintain its qualitative military edge in the region in order to defend itself, by itself, from mounting threats on its borders.” 

Israel is mainly defending itself from its own occupation of Palestine. These funds, which would total $3.8 billion of American aid to Israel annually, go into maintaining and expanding Israel’s apartheid wall and checkpoint systems that segregate Palestinians from their own land and illegally annex more of it, restricting their access to family members, schools, hospitals, cemeteries and more.

The bill also “permits the president to withhold 5 percent of U.S. funding to any U.N. specialized agency that acts against the national security interest of the U.S. or an ally of the U.S., including Israel.” This provision was meant to combat an anti-Israeli bias within the United Nations. But when the majority of the world believes that Israel is committing war crimes against the Palestinians and also recognizes the state of Palestine it is hard to believe that Israel or the United States are the real victims. 

So when Omar tweets “It’s all about the Benjamins baby,” she is confronting how AIPAC spends $3.5 million a year to lobby federal lawmakers, according to Senate and House lobbying record — a few hundred thousand dollars more than the NRA’s $3.2 million spent on lobbying. Where AIPAC and the NRA differ is in how support falls along party lines. 

While Republicans have introduced and co-sponsored this bill, Senate and House Democrats have come out in support time and time again for Israel. The top two recipients of donations this past election cycle from pro-Israel lobby groups (that all donate heavily to AIPAC as well) are Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) at $548,507 and $352,894 respectively. 

Omar is criticizing the moneyed influence that AIPAC, like other federal lobbies, has on legislators’ votes. The profits driven by pro-Israel lobbies in Washington ensure that Palestinian voices are erased and that their occupation and brutalization at the hands of Israel is unquestioned.

She is and has clearly stated it is AIPAC and other pro-Israel lobbying groups that have done this work, not Jewish people. It is actually quite ironic that the biggest attacks of Omar come from the likes of President Donald J. Trump and others who have said incredibly anti-Semitic remarks but have faced no censorship from their colleagues. 

Does no one remember that the president of the United States who called for Omar's resignation also said that he only thinks “short guys that wear yarmulkes” should count his money, and kept a book of Adolf Hitler’s speeches on his bedside table? No apologies, no censorship. The initiator of this controversy, McCarthy, tweeted during the 2018 midterm election seasons that George Soros, Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg were buying the election for Democrats. No apologies, no controversy. 

What no one seems to call out is the blatant anti-Palestinian rhetoric by those who support the influence of pro-Israel lobbies in Washington. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) is a recurring speaker at the national AIPAC conference every year and has stated that the real reason there is no peace in the region is because the “Palestinians don’t believe in the Torah.” Nikki Haley, the previous U.N. ambassador for the U.S., habitually voted against any resolution that sought to condemn Israel for its violation of human rights or hold the country accountable for its targeting and murder of Palestinian civilians. 

The prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, always speaks at the conference and is invited again despite having recently been indicted in Israel on numerous charges of corruption. Not only this, but Netanyahu also has close ties to extreme Right-wing Zionist groups in Israel that carry out attacks against Palestinians, promote the expansion of illegal settlements by kicking out indigenous Palestinians and advocate for the diminished status and civil right violations of Palestinian citizens of Israel. These are the same people who threw hateful accusations of anti-Semitism against Omar. 

Rep. Juan Vargas (D-Calif.), in a tweet, stated that “questioning support for the U.S.-Israel relationship is unacceptable.” The critiques of Omar are not about purging America of its anti-Semitism, it is about silencing any discussion of our relationship to Israel and its continuous illegal occupation of Palestine. 

Students for Justice in Palestine is a recognized student organization at Rutgers University—New Brunswick.

*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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