Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) recently made comments about American support for Israel widely regarded as anti-Semitic. She apologized within 24 hours for those comments under an avalanche of broad condemnation.
When Omar argued on Twitter that U.S. policy toward Israel was “all about the Benjamins,” and followed up by saying that “AIPAC” was behind it, she struck a nerve. We Jews are uncomfortable saying we use our money for power and influence. There’s deep historic anti-Semitism tied up in that idea.
After her apology, Omar continued with her work on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. The House of Representatives then voted to condemn anti-Semitism. And Republicans, who overplayed their hand by calling for Omar to leave Congress, forgot that many of their leaders also traffic in white nationalist tropes against Jews.
So it was a typical week in Washington: an outrageous tweet followed by widespread bipartisan condemnation, a media frenzy, then partisan finger pointing. But what did we learn?
For participants in the Omar controversy, condemnation was easy. Criticizing her proclamation that Jewish money controls the pro-Israel agenda on Capitol Hill is the low-hanging fruit — easy to rebuke with minimal cost to the critic.
But pro-Israel money and lobbying is real. We Jews often say it to ourselves. The pro-Israel community uses its lobbying to convince lawmakers to support Israel. The numbers bear this out.
As an American Jew who loves Israel, including having lived there for more than a year of my life, it’s easy for me to care about Israel. But what about members of Congress who have zero personal connection to Israel? What makes their connection so deep?
It’s a time-tested truism that politicians care most about what their supporters — both voters and donors — care most about. For pro-Israel Americans, dominated by Jews and the Christian right, the number of voters impacting elections is limited; it’s high in a small number of districts (New York, Florida, Ohio) and dispersed throughout the country. But when it comes to donors — and lobbyists — financial influence knows no hard geographic boundaries.
According to Open Secrets, the preeminent public website tracking money in politics, “pro-Israel” lobbying was the sixth largest single-issue lobbying industry in 2018, with just more than $5 million spent — an all-time high. Among its two largest organizations spanning the ideological spectrum, AIPAC spent $3.5 million while J Street spent $300,000 on lobbying.
In terms of campaign finance, pro-Israel political action committees donated just less than $15 million directly to candidates in 2018, making it their largest non-presidential cycle ever and their third biggest overall. JStreetPAC gave the most money — more than $4 million — with the remaining $10 million plus in donations doled out by a variety of groups often associated with but not formally linked to AIPAC.
Interestingly, 63 percent of the donations went to Democrats and 37 percent to Republicans, demonstrating that pro-Israel supporters are staunchly Democratic. In short, there is a lot of money and lobbying muscle supporting Israel. This is not something to apologize for, and apparently, neither AIPAC nor J Street do, as they both vocally boast of their political power to their supporters in order to demonstrate their value as organizations.
For example, on its website, AIPAC brags about attracting “more than two-thirds of Congress” and “more than 18,000 pro-Israel Americans” to its annual DC Policy Conference. Meanwhile, J Street boasts of attracting “thousands of pro-Israel, pro-peace leaders and advocates” to its national conference in order to “send a strong message to Congress.” It also highlights how “hundreds of activists” go to Capitol Hill during the conference to “directly lobby your members of Congress on vital legislative issues.”
The pro-Israel lobby isn’t shy about its power, reach and influence. It crows about it. As an American Jew who cares about Israel, I’m thrilled to see my fellow citizens taking such an active, politically valuable role in shaping U.S. policy toward Israel and the Middle East.
Therefore, to deny the impact that these organizations have on Congress and the policymaking process would be to deny AIPAC, J Street and other pro-Israel organization’s own public words. Bluntly, if pro-Israel organizations didn’t have an impact, they would disappear. But they don’t. Instead, they thrive.
So perhaps the redline that Ilhan Omar crossed wasn’t that she thought that pro-Israel money and lobbying influences American policy toward Israel. Perhaps her real sin was that she, as a Muslim, had the chutzpah to say it. JN
Joel Rubin is a former deputy assistant secretary of state in the Obama administration and a council member in the Town of Chevy Chase, Maryland.