Last October, after a crude mail bomb was found in George Soros’ mailbox, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who is now House minority leader, tweeted, “We cannot allow Soros, Steyer and Bloomberg to buy this election!”
The tweet, since deleted, was referring to Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg, both of them, like Soros, Jews who are often the object of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. Speaking on CNN, Steyer, who had also been sent a mail bomb, described McCarthy’s tweet as a “straight-up anti-Semitic move.”
So it was a bit rich when, last week, McCarthy posed as the indignant defender of the Jewish people, threatening to force congressional action against two freshman Democratic representatives, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, for their criticism of Israel.
It would have been easy enough for either Omar or Tlaib to point out McCarthy’s cynical hypocrisy. Instead, Omar responded with a blithely incendiary tweet quoting Puff Daddy’s ode to the power of money: “It’s all about the Benjamins, baby.” When an editor at The Forward, a Jewish publication, asked who Omar thinks is paying American politicians to be pro-Israel, she responded, “AIPAC!,” meaning the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the United States’ most prominent pro-Israel lobby.
Consciously or not, Omar invoked a poisonous anti-Semitic narrative about Jews using their money to manipulate global affairs. This came just weeks after she’d had to apologize for a 2012 tweet in which she said that Israel had “hypnotized” the world, phrasing that also recalled old canards about occult Jewish power. Her words were a gift to Republicans, who seek to divide the Democrats over Israel, even as their president traffics in anti-Semitic imagery and stereotypes. The knives were out for Omar and she ran right into them.
On Monday afternoon, Nancy Pelosi and the rest of the House Democratic leadership rebuked Omar and called on her to apologize for her “use of anti-Semitic tropes and prejudicial accusations about Israel’s supporters.” It was a depressing fall from grace for someone who just weeks ago was being feted as a path breaker, a refugee from Somalia who, alongside Tlaib, rose to become one of America’s first two Muslim congresswomen.
Omar herself has been subject to vicious Islamophobic smears, and has also come under attack for supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which seeks to use economic pressure to secure Palestinian rights. Perhaps such criticism is why she’s sometimes seemed unwilling or unable to distinguish between disingenuous political pile-ons and good-faith calls to respect Jewish sensitivities. But whether from carelessness or callousness, her weekend tweets damaged her political allies and squandered some of her own hard-won power.
After I tweeted about Omar on Monday, an anti-racist activist sent me a message expressing genuine confusion about why I found the congresswoman’s words offensive. After all, it’s hardly radical to point out that lobbyist money has pernicious political effects. (AIPAC doesn’t make direct contributions to candidates, but it does rally donors on their behalf.) And I certainly have no problem with denunciations of AIPAC, which plays a malign role in pushing American policy in the Middle East to the right.
But at a moment when activists have finally pried open space in American politics to question our relationship with Israel, it’s particularly incumbent on Israel’s legitimate critics to avoid anything that smacks of anti-Jewish bigotry. And the idea of Jews as global puppet masters, using their financial savvy to make the gentiles do their bidding, clearly does.
In 2017, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, a left-wing, broadly anti-Israel group, put out a guide to help progressives understand anti-Semitism. It describes how in “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” the early-20th-century Russian forgery purporting to reveal a Jewish plan for world domination, “Jews are depicted as shadowy figures with a lot of money, top-level access, ready to betray the nations of our residence (and our neighbors) in service of an unseen authority.”
In truth, while AIPAC’s influence is extensive, no one needs to pay off conservatives to make them support Israel. Evangelicals, a far bigger constituency than American Jews, tend to be pro-Israel for religious reasons; some believe that the return of Jews to their biblical homeland is a precondition for the rapture and the second coming of Christ. Plenty of others on the right love Israel because it’s a nationalistic, pro-American power in the middle of the Middle East. You can’t blame Jewish money for Kevin McCarthy’s terrible politics.
Not long after Pelosi’s statement, Omar released one of her own, apologizing “unequivocally.” She wrote, “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.” Personally, I’m happy to accept her apology. Progressive American Muslims and Jews should be natural allies; our mutual future depends on deepening this country’s embattled commitment to multiethnic democracy. Prejudice helps bind the modern right together, but unchecked it can rip the left apart.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.