The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent

Volokh Conspiracy

Why Rep. Omar was accused of indulging in anti-Semitic rhetoric

It's not about AIPAC. She suggested that the only reason a Republican would call her out for past anti-Semitic comments was that he was paid off by Jewish money.


As readers are likely aware, Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota has been embroiled in a controversy about alleged anti-Semitic tweets she posted. The controversy has devolved into a debate over whether, to what extent, and under what circumstances discussing the influence of AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups over American Middle East policy relies on anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and tropes.

Lost in the shuffle is that the context of Omar's tweets makes the underlying anti-Semitism much clearer than the way the debate, as described above, has been framed.

Here's what happened: The Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz posted an article in English describing how House Minority leader McCarthy promised 'Action' against Omar and fellow freshman congresswomen Rashida Tlaib. As the article noted, both women are strongly anti-Israel, and both had been accused of engaging in anti-Semitic rhetoric. Indeed, Omar had already apologized for one of her comments, suggesting that Israel "has hypnotized the world," stating that she didn't realize that that this language seemed to play on classic anti-Semitic tropes and was thus offensive to Jews. Given that McCarthy analogized Omar and Tlaib to Rep. Steve King, it seems fair to surmise that just as House Republicans demoted King for racist comments, McCarthy sought to penalize Omar and Tlaib for anti-Semitic rhetoric.

In stepped Glenn Greenwald, who retweeted the Ha'aretz piece, and commented: "GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy threatens punishment for @IlhanMN and @RashidaTlaib over their criticisms of Israel. It's stunning how much time US political leaders spend defending a foreign nation even if it means attacking free speech rights of Americans."

Greenwald, as his wont, drew no distinction between "criticizing Israel in an anti-Semitic manner" and "criticisms of Israel." He also conflated criticizing anti-Semitic comments about Israel with "defending a foreign nation," and made the bizarre suggestion that McCarthy threatening to penalize members of Congress for racist/anti-Semitic statements somehow impinges on their free speech rights–as if King had a first amendment right not to be demoted after praising white supremacy.

Ilhan, in turn, retweeted Greenwald with the comment, "It's all about the Benjamins baby." After receiving lots of pushback, she "clarified" that she was referring to AIPAC.

The context of the controversy, in other words, was not a debate about a specific Israeli policy, nor about the general influence of AIPAC, but about a leading Republican calling out two leftist Democrats for comments that were widely perceived to be anti-Semitic, and for which one of the Democrats had already apologized.

So the anti-Semitic implications of Omar's initial tweet are rather clear: 'McCarthy isn't criticizing me because it's an obvious political move for a Republican to criticize anti-Semitism among Democrats, but because he's been bought off by Jewish money. And, moreover, that calling out anti-Semitism in this particular context constitutes loyalty to a foreign country.'

She then tried to save herself by suggesting that she wasn't referring to Jewish money in general, but specifically to AIPAC, the leading pro-Israel lobby group. And in fact she partially succeeded in redirecting the debate to one over AIPAC's influence.

Let's be generous, and assume she meant AIPAC to begin with. Two freshman Democrats who have attracted a great deal of attention are widely perceived to have engaged in anti-Semitic rhetoric while criticizing Israel. The leader of the House GOP, just off demoting a member of his caucus for racist comments, threatens similar action against the two Democrats. Again, this seems like a rather obvious political move, that neither needs any lobbying group for inspiration, nor is in fact about Israeli policy, as such. Suggesting in the absence of "Israel lobby" money, the House Repbuplican leader wouldn't call out anti-Semitism by House Democrats suggests that you believe that the lobby, i.e., Jews, are pulling the strings in a classic Jewish-conspiracy kind of way, such that even the most mundane and obvious of political maneuvers are really just tribute to a Jewish cabal.

UPDATE: How might someone in Omar's position have responded to Greenwald's tweet, assuming some response was deemed appropriate, if she wanted to seem sincere in her previous apology and not fan new flames of anti-Semitism? How about, "I erred in using rhetoric that inadvertently echoed anti-Semitic canards, but I apologized sincerely for my error and reject Rep. McCarthy's attempt to gain partisan advantage through his divisive tactics. I look forward to working with the Jewish community on issues of mutual concern."