“Because the attacks on Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib are certain to continue and escalate, it is essential that anyone who wants to be considered ‘progressive’ come to their defence now.”
So reads the statement from the Steering Committee of the US socialist group Solidarity on the recent controversy over Omar’s tweet implying that the US’s pro-Israel policy is “all about the Benjamins.” And not just Solidarity. This is the pervasive take of the American revolutionary left, who have mobilised their lists, contacts and fringe arenas in support of the sentiments expressed in that tweet.
The remainder of the argument, if it is an argument, is an extended exercise in whataboutery. What about the Republicans who give Trump and Rep Steven King a pass? What about Democrats who seek to limit free speech by enshrining anti-BDS legislation into law? This is particularly disarming, not least of all because it emanates from a corner of the political spectrum that has easily dismissed — and rightfully so — much pro-Israel contextualising as an extended exercise in hypocritical misdirection and special pleading. Worse, it compounds this mistake by a not too subtle below the belt kick.
“Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib are under attack for who they are — as Muslim Arab-American women, and as progressive critics of US foreign policy not only in Palestine but throughout the Middle East and in Latin America as well.” Disagree with what they say? What they say is not your real concern. The real issue is their identity. Criticise them and you brand yourself as a racist and Islamophobe. And this from comrades who are forever warning us — again with more than a grain of truth — that opposition to Israeli policies and Zionist dogma is not the same as antisemitism; that you can criticise Jewish and Israeli political leaders, ideas, organisations and ideologies without being a Jew hater. (Although it should be said, that this is often left boilerplate conjured forth to provide ourselves carte blanche inoculation against any and all pushback.
The fact that criticisms of Israel and Zionism is not per se antisemitic, doesn’t mean that they can’t be, even when those criticisms are accurate. The “framing” matters, just as it does when evaluating the responses to Omar’s tweets.) If there were a political bookkeeping ledger, these accounts wouldn’t be in balance. And that should be of concern to the left. And they don’t balance even if we acknowledge that Omar’s apology was sincere and the backlash against her was indeed fanned and amplified by people who are on some level anti-Muslim bigots, or at least prepared to exploit bigotry, and who have turned a blind eye to similar trafficking in antisemitic tropes by people on the right.
But even if it were better balanced, concerns about hypocrisy and double standards are not the primary issue. Socialists, in my opinion, failed in their basic task: to acquaint their audience with how we understand foreign policy to be fashioned and to place Omar’s tweets within that larger understanding.
AIPAC [the American Israel Public Affairs Committee] does not “purchase” foreign policy on behalf of Israel the way big Pharma, agra-business or the oil lobby purchase legislation providing them with a market edge, subsidies, tax relief or tariffs. You would have to boggle your mind to believe that the executive functions of the capitalist state were run like a livestock auction. Even more so if you believe that AIPAC’s relatively paltry expenditure of $3.5 million in the last election cycle is the determinant factor – or even a secondary or tertiary factor – for American foreign policy.
Foreign policy is determined by the standing state bureaucracy: the state department, department of defence and intelligence agencies that provide policy continuity above partisan politics. Its sole purpose is to advance American corporate power and influence around the world.
America’s alignment with Israel is based on a convergence and mutuality of concerns as negotiated from on high by the corresponding policy-making bureaucracies. If Israel is to carry out its brutal settlement and annexation policies, policies that its military and administrative agencies believe are needed to secure Israel’s viability, it needs massive injections of American aid and support. Otherwise it runs the risk of taxing its citizens to death and jeopardizing its ideological hold on the Israeli masses. American imperialism thereby subsidises a willing partner in the Israeli people, who are spared from an alternative reality more conducive to actively seeking security in reconciliation and regional integration. In exchange for that support, Israel has in effect agreed to be one of America’s regional power surrogates — sharing intelligence, acting as a weapons depot and covertly exporting its military and technical expertise at the behest of American imperialism as its surrogate. Israel hardly has the whip hand here.
The US does not need the policy of Israeli annexation and settlement. Its support of Israel might be better served by maintaining a more convincing fiction of impartiality. What the US needs is Israeli expertise, and as long as Israel pursues a policy of expansionism and exclusion, the US has a hook on the Israeli establishment that gives it leverage to bend Israeli foreign policy to its will, to act as America’s proxy — and to deflect fallout from the US — in a seemingly endless host of unsavory interventions.
That power over Israel is not total. Israel is a junior partner, not a vassal, and it is capable of mobilising and voicing disagreement — Obama’s Iran deal being emblematic. AIPAC has a role in all this. It’s just not the role that Omar assigned to it. Its function is to police and secure the alliance between the US and Israel, so that the American electorate cannot inflict its democratic opinion on the American-policy making establishment and that thwart its operational leeway. Were Omar and her congressional colleague to raise objections against Saudi intervention in Yemen, they would find themselves, for symmetrical reasons, on the receiving end of primary challenges financed by the oil and “Arab” lobbies, lobbies that can hardly be accused of trafficking in Islamophobia.
The upshot is this. Omar’s tweet was not just politically naïve, it was deeply flawed in ways that matter. The “well-heeled” Jews (and Christian Zionists) who fund AIPAC and the so-called Israel lobby do not determine American policy. Israel is not the tail that wags the American dog. Jews are not the masters of the universe. Elite corporate interests, not Jewish money, shape American foreign policy. By rushing uncritically to Omar’s defence, socialists squandered an important opportunity to enlighten the public about foreign policy, legitimised antisemitic tropes and repackaged this entire mess into a guilt-tripping defence of minority identity.