Over the weekend, Republican House minority leader Kevin McCarthy said he would seek to formally sanction the first two Muslim congresswomen, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, because their criticism of Israel’s occupation of Palestine was even more reprehensible than Congressman Steve King’s defense of white supremacy. What motivated McCarthy’s false accusations of anti-Semitism? On Twitter, Omar suggested, “It’s all about the Benjamins baby,” quoting Puff Daddy’s ’90s paean to cash money. Omar subsequently specified that she was talking about spending from the likes of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, better known as AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israel lobbying organization.
By Monday morning, AIPAC had mobilized its allies to condemn Omar’s comment for playing into centuries-old anti-Semitic tropes that wealthy Jews control the world. Even the Democratic leadership put out a statement condemning her. All because she dared to point out that the emperor has no clothes.
As a Jew, an Israeli citizen, and a professional lobbyist (ahem, activist), I speak from personal experience when I say that AIPAC is tremendously effective, and the lubricant that makes its operation hum is dollar, dollar bills.
In 2006, fresh out of college, I landed a job as the first real staffer on a long-shot Democratic congressional race in deep-red Ohio. My boss, Victoria Wulsin, was a charming hippie doctor with a lefty perspective on international affairs. She was skeptical of military force and opposed to the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
About a month after winning the Democratic primary, we were struggling to gain attention or money. Nobody gave us a chance to win. One political-action organization, however, did reach out to us. It wasn’t Emily’s List, although Vic was fiercely pro-choice. It wasn’t a labor union or even a doctors’ association. It was AIPAC.
A local Democratic volunteer leader of the Cincinnati AIPAC chapter sat down in Vic’s living room and I recall him saying that he would like to raise $5,000 for our campaign and would also like to see Vic take a public stance on two relatively obscure issues relating to Iranian sanctions, arms sales to Israel, or some other such topic that very few voters in the district cared about.
Vic and I both thought of ourselves as pro-peace, not pro-Israel. We both felt icky about doing it; it was too hawkish and too quid pro quo. But we were desperate. So I read the AIPAC position papers that the volunteer left with us, I wrote up a statement saying that Vic supported AIPAC’s stance on its two pet issues of the cycle, she approved it, I posted it online, and the checks promptly arrived in the mail thereafter. We didn’t win, but the money helped us get close.
It was, I am ashamed to say, definitely about the Benjamins. We never would have done it otherwise. AIPAC’s power is about more than money, certainly. It’s about great organizing (they built a local chapter, and sent a local Democratic volunteer emissary who then facilitated the contributions). It’s about diligence (they paid attention to Vic’s campaign long before anyone else, and were happy to donate to both us and the militaristic, pro-Likud Republican incumbent). Their lobbyists on the Hill are the best in the business, and their legislator junkets to the Holy Land are masterfully orchestrated. But money is central to the whole system.
Technically, AIPAC doesn’t make the political contributions. Instead, as it notes proudly on its website, individual members of its “Congressional Club,” like that Cincinnati resident, do the bundling and donating directly, both as individuals and through Political Action Committees that AIPAC and its members have set up.
Omar is right to point all this out. These dynamics are not unique to the Israel-Palestine issue, however, and there is no reason that Americans should be surprised or offended by what she and I are saying. The NRA and the broader gun lobby operate in the same way. Same with ExxonMobil and the fossil-fuel lobby. But since Omar and Tlaib are powerful new spokeswomen for the movement to end the Israeli occupation, delegitimizing them is a central aim of the Israel lobby.
AIPAC and its partners, which include Christian Zionists and military contractors, are a central pillar of the Israeli occupation. Without congressional support, the Likud/anti-Palestine/pro-occupation project would be radically undermined. The money that AIPAC and the rest of the lobby spend is indispensable to that work. That’s why they spend it. Pointing this out is not anti-Semitic.
We do, in fact, have a growing anti-Semitism problem in America. But Omar and Tlaib are not a part of it. They are allies of mine and of Jews across this country who are fighting for peace, racial justice, immigrants’ rights, and the defeat of fascism. The anti-Semites are the Nazis and white supremacists who marched and murdered in Charlottesville, whom Donald Trump called “very fine people,” and the MAGA supporter who massacred worshippers at a Pittsburgh synagogue.
The Israel lobby flexed its muscles in response to Omar’s tweet. Almost all of Capitol Hill, sadly including the Democratic leadership that I have supported, was up in arms. It flexed with equal potency last month in marshaling through the Senate a clearly unconstitutional law to ban speech promoting a boycott of Israel.
For 12 years, I have harbored minor private shame for advising Vic to endorse AIPAC’s position papers and more significant shame for not doing enough to stop the oppression of the Palestinian people.
I am speaking up now because it may be my last chance. Although I am only 35, I am dying. As I write these words, I am sitting with my wife in the waiting room of the Santa Barbara hospital emergency room, slowly bleeding from my stomach into a pile of gauze. I had a feeding tube inserted four days ago but it isn’t healing properly. I am losing the ability to swallow, because I have ALS, a poorly understood neurological disease with no treatment, which seized my body 28 months ago and has basically paralyzed me since. My hands do not work and almost nobody can understand my mumbling, so I am using amazing technology that tracks the location of my eyes and allows me to slowly type out these words with my pupil-tips.
This is my chance to redeem my Jewish guilt, to speak out against the oppression that is being perpetrated in my name, and I do not intend to let a minor obstacle like ALS stop me.
Young Jews across America increasingly agree with Omar and me, and that is making the Israel lobby very nervous. As it should: The occupation is too immoral, illegal, and inhumane to survive an open and honest conversation in the marketplace of ideas. That is why AIPAC and its associates work to silence criticism of Israel by accusing its detractors of anti-Semitism and claiming that nobody may ever talk about how the Israel lobby uses money to build power.
The ugly truth is that the Israel lobby, like other powerful lobbies led by Jew and gentile alike, wields its money strategically and effectively. Outrage should be directed not at those who point this out (most often Muslims and people of color) but at the suffering of the Palestinian people and the simultaneous dependence of the Republican Party on genuine anti-Semites.
I do not expect to live to see the liberation of the Palestinian people. But I maintain hope that my toddler son will. If he does, it will be because young American Jews like him do the honest self-reflection taught by our forebears, take pride in our tradition of justice, and join in solidarity and struggle with fellow Semites like Omar.