Can Ilhan Omar Criticize AIPAC?

Alex Edelman/CNP via ZUMA

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One of our new Muslim members of Congress has once again caught flack over her criticism of American policy toward Israel:

Freshman Minnesota Democrat Ilhan Omar ignited a new controversy on Sunday night when she suggested GOP support for Israel is driven by campaign donations from a prominent pro-Israel group. Omar singled out AIPAC, one of the most influential lobbying groups in Washington, as the source of those donations.

Omar’s comments touched upon a long-running, and particularly ugly, thread of the anti-Semitic movement — that Jewish money fuels backing for Israel in the United States and elsewhere. A freshman Democrat, Max Rose of New York, said, “Congresswoman Omar’s statements are deeply hurtful to Jews, including myself.”

There’s a problem here. It is common, on both sides of the aisle, to claim that the opposition has been “bought” by lobbies of one kind or another. Bernie Sanders accused Hillary Clinton of being bought by Wall Street because of the speeches she gave to big banking groups. Republicans accuse Democrats of being bought by Planned Parenthood. Democrats accuse Republicans of being bought by the NRA. And everyone accuses both parties of being bought by the defense industry.

In all these cases, the defense is the same: These groups didn’t buy my vote. They contributed to my campaign because I already support them.

In nearly all cases, both are true. Members aren’t literally being bought. They really did believe in these causes to begin with. If I were running for Congress, I’d be delighted to get support and campaign contributions from Planned Parenthood. At the same time, there’s little question that lobbyist money goes a long way toward putting golden handcuffs in place. If the NRA or Planned Parenthood or whoever gets into trouble for crossing a line, they can count on vigorous support in Congress anyway. That’s due largely to money.

None of this should be slightly controversial. The idea that money drives politics is so commonplace that you’d be laughed at for denying it. Of course money makes a difference.

But that leaves us with a problem. It is entirely correct that the idea of Jewish money controlling the world is an old antisemitic trope. At the same time, there’s no question that Jewish money is deployed in defense of Israel in the form of US campaign contributions. And there’s no question that everyone believes money drives politics.

So is this something Ilhan Omar is allowed to say because it’s a commonplace observation? Or is she not allowed to say it because it’s an old antisemitic trope? And does the answer depend on the fact that she’s Muslim and a frequent critic of Israel?

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