The Democratic Inquisition has come after Ilhan Omar

But strong popular resistance is foiling attempts to burn her at the political stake.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) event in Washington
US Congresswoman Ilhan Omar is the first Somali American to win a seat at the US Congress [File: Anadolu]

In the late 15th century, as Catholic monarchs Ferdinand II and Isabella I pushed to conquer territories in the Iberian Peninsula under Muslim rule, they launched a religious tribunal which came to be known as the Spanish Inquisition. 

One of its main tasks was to discover “false converts” to Christianity among the Jews and Muslims of Andalusia. The Inquisition used torture generously to extract forced confessions of “sin” from people suspected of observing Jewish and Muslim rituals or traditions in the privacy of their homes and subsequently punished them in public in what was known as auto-da-fe.

In this modern age, it would be nice (but naive) to think that we have put behind these times. Apparently, these medieval practices are still in use in the US Congress.

The new Inquisition comes after a watershed 2018 Congressional election swept into office a new progressive class of American politicians. Among its ranks are three remarkable women, Representatives Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who challenged the system, incumbents, and the Democratic machine to win landslide victories on truly progressive platforms.

Their Middle East agenda was particularly forthright, and therefore shocking: They opposed US aid to Israel and vehemently criticised its government. Tlaib and Omar have even openly supported the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Anyone familiar with the Israel lobby in Washington knew that the other shoe was bound to drop. And it didn’t take long.

Both Tlaib and especially Omar have been outspoken on Israel-Palestine since they took office and their markedly pro-Palestine views have rapidly become grist for the anti-Semitism mill churned by the Israel lobby and its water-carriers in Congress.

The Inquisition machinery has targetted one of them in particular, Ilhan Omar.

Omar’s ‘sins’

First, of course, there was the “Benjamins” tweet in which Omar noted that members of Congress supported policies pushed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) because of the millions it raises and distributes to loyal pro-Israel candidates. Somehow, noting that the lobby group derived its power from money was made to look like outright anti-Semitism by Omar’s accusers.

There is indeed an ancient anti-Semitic trope that Jews are rich and use their wealth to control the finance, banking, entertainment, and media sectors, but it has nothing to do with the fact that the Israel lobby in the US raises and distributes massive lucre to its favoured candidates. Any reasonable person can see the difference between these two concepts. Nevertheless, Omar was forced to “confess” wrongdoing and apologise for the tweet.

Then there was the talk at a Washington bookstore in which Omar said: “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country.”

By this, she meant that lobby groups like AIPAC and their Congressional sponsors conceive their agenda totally with Israel in mind and shape US policy to defend Israeli interests.

It did not take long for the political establishment to charge back. The counterattack was led by pro-Israel Congressman Eliot Engel, who said: “[It is] unacceptable and deeply offensive to call into question the loyalty of fellow American citizens because of their political views, including support for the US-Israel relationship.”

Pro-Israel Jews like Engel are particularly exercised by the implication of dual loyalty. Yet, the term “Israel Firster” was not invented by an anti-Semite or white supremacist, but rather by the dean of American Jewish historians, Abram Sachar, the first president of Brandeis University. He meant the term to deride precisely the figures Omar is now attacking: powerful lobbyists and their apologists who put Israel before all else.

These influential political actors may believe that the interests of the US and Israel are the same and that therefore they are not betraying US interests, but they are either terribly naive or worse.

Israeli interests have diverged from those of the democratic West more than ever and this fissure can only continue to widen as Israel sinks ever deeper into mass murder, occupation and oppression. It is becoming increasingly clear to many Americans that it is not in the long-term interest of the US to support Israel’s aggressive actions which continue to antagonise millions of Arabs, Muslims and people sympathetic with the Palestinian cause across the world. 

Anti-Semitism: What it is and isn’t

For those who need a primer in anti-Semitism, let’s talk about what it is and isn’t. It is the hatred of Jews for being Jews. It should not be confused with Israel. There is nothing wrong with criticising Israel or advocating for an Israel that is a democracy offering equal rights to all citizens, Jewish and non-Jewish.

There isn’t even anything wrong with advocating a one-state solution since that will not destroy Israel, but rather transform it. There may be some who conflate Israel and Jews and who express anti-Semitism by attacking Israel as a substitute for Jews, but such confusion is often fuelled by a deliberate Zionist conflation between the two.

Ilhan Omar does not hate Jews or Israel. She has never said or written any such thing. Attacking one of the most powerful domestic US lobbies is not anti-Semitic. Supporting BDS is not anti-Semitic either. This non-violent movement advocating justice for Palestinians harbours no animus towards Jews. Its three demands for the right of return, full democratic rights for Palestinians in Israel, and an end to occupation have nothing to do with Jews per se.

The implied criticism of the Israeli status quo inherent in BDS activism does not constitute anti-Semitism. 

Auto-da-fe in Congress

Stuck in its old ways and almost taking dictation from the Israel lobby, the Democratic congressional leadership decided to make an example of Omar by preparing a resolution denouncing anti-Semitism and by implication, her. This is the Democratic Party eating its young. 

Democratic Party leader Nancy Pelosi, at the goading of staunch Israel supporters like Engel and Representative Nita Lowey, has tabled this pointless document. Members are pressured to swear allegiance to it on the pain of getting a public spanking like Omar. The message is clear: shut up on the subject or the Party caucus will exact a toll.

But what the political establishment has failed to recognise is that times are changing and the election victories of 2018 are a testament to that. The pushback came almost immediately.

Progressive members of the House Democratic protested the overhasty rush to judgment against Omar. They have questioned the need for such a resolution, given that similar ones have already been passed in the past.

Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Bernie Sanders have criticised the vicious campaign against Omar; other progressive members of Congress have also expressed their support for her. The New York Times, in a sympathetic report, noted the generational split between a younger generation of insurgents like Omar and older, veteran colleagues who started their political careers at a time when AIPAC held absolute control over these issues.

Media commentators like Mehdi Hassan, Jeremy Scahill and Ben Ehrenreich have defended Omar, saying she is being “gaslighted” and “thrown under the bus”. A new hashtag #istandwithilhan has swept Twitter feeds.

Many Jews have also stood by Omar. There is a “Jews with Ilhan website” hosting a petition signed by over 1,200 Jews. Groups like Jewish Voice for Peace and If Not Now have also raised their voices in support. 

All this has caused the House Democratic leadership to rethink the resolution and delay the vote. There are now efforts to broaden it to condemn all forms of bigotry, including Islamophobic rhetoric.

Omar has recently faced death threats and a string of Islamophobic attacks, including one mounted by the West Virginia GOP, in which her image was imposed on a picture of the 9/11 attacks. The Democratic Party and the House leadership have shamefully failed to condemn the vicious harassment the congresswoman has faced.

To her credit, Omar has bent but not broken. She has stood tall in the face of the Democrat establishment onslaught. She has given as good as she’s gotten. That is a fighter.

I would urge Democratic progressives not to take these attacks lying down. AIPAC activists have already expressed hopes that Omar will be challenged with a primary in 2020. In the past, members of Congress who have stood up to the Israel lobby lost ensuing elections because it unleashed its power against them.

If an Omar primary opponent surfaces, it would be a great opportunity to demonstrate that AIPAC’s influence over the American electorate is diminishing rapidly. Today there is a countervailing force of progressive Democrats, Jews and non-Jews, who no longer take marching orders from the white, male, plutocrats of the Israel lobby. They have become strong enough not only to bring the likes of Omar to Congress but also to keep them there and grow their numbers.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.