By Danette Zaghari-Mask
Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, an African-American, Muslim refugee, stood up to one of the strongest and most influential lobbying firms in U.S. History – the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
Last Sunday, Rep. Omar retweeted Glenn Greenwald’s statement: “GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy threatens punishment for @IlhanMN and @RashidaTlaib over their criticisms of Israel. It’s stunning how much time US political leaders spend defending a foreign nation even if it means attacking free speech rights of Americans.” Rep. Omar added the line: “It’s all about the Benjamins baby,” in reference to AIPAC, a powerful U.S. lobbying firm which works to gain support for the secular, nationalist ideology known as Zionism.
While AIPAC itself does not make political contributions (its legal status prevents such action), it puts its multi-million-dollar lobbying budget to use to buy support for Zionist foreign policies. It also plays a very significant role, linking Congress members and those who want to hold Congressional office, to Zionist donors that will directly fund Congressional campaigns.
The phrase: “It’s all about the Benjamins baby,” are the lyrics to a song by American rapper and producer Puff Daddy. “Benjamins” is a reference to $100 bills that feature Benjamin Franklin’s image. The reference appeared on the debut album, “Ready to Die,” by The Notorious B.I.G.
Zionism drives the illegal occupation of Palestine and relegates Palestinians to, at best, a second-class status. AIPAC’s lobbying efforts and candidate-donor linking buy Congressional and Executive Branch support for segregation and even ethnic cleansing of Christian and Muslim Palestinians. It is a system akin to Apartheid South Africa and the segregated Jim Crow era of the United States, which is why it has inspired the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) that works to put economic pressure on the Israeli government, to force Israel to adhere to international law and respect the natural rights of all people, regardless of their ethnic or religious identity.
The Pro-Israel Zionist lobby spent a whopping $14.9 million dollars in 2018 and has historically given more money to members of the Democratic party than any other political party. It was the 50th biggest spender in the last election cycle. AIPAC ensures that Zionism’s ideology receives unbridled, even bipartisan, support in the U.S. Congress through political intimidation. Within the Democratic Party, it operates very much like the NRA. Indeed, criticism of AIPAC is treated as a political death sentence. It is a cash cow and it is the sacred cow in American politics.
Yet, Rep. Omar broke all the political rules. Not only is her political career not funded by AIPAC, she also dared to openly express that there is likely a causal relationship between the outside money received and the official benefits conferred. And on top of all that, she drove home her point with a quote by a black rapper.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wasted no time in responding. She claimed that her colleagues’ comment was clearly anti-Semitic. Really?
If that were true, we could never critically examine AIPAC. No special interest lobbying group should ever be off-limits. Outside money in American politics is a genuine concern.
Furthermore, Anti-Semitism is a real and present global danger. When we claim that criticism of AIPAC’s relationship with its political payees is inherently anti-Semitic, we are detracting from actual instances of anti-Semitism throughout the world. Instances in which people are targeted and harmed, simply because they are Jewish.
Pelosi’s swift reaction illustrates a very real splinter between her and many politically progressive women of color. If we want to understand that schism, we must listen to women of color and validate their experiences. Those experiences include Rep. Omar’s courageous stone-throw against Goliath moment, which Pelosi turned into a stage act for scoring her own political points.
Rep. Omar is a survivor. Against all odds, she rose to a congressional position. Not surprisingly, she uses her powerful platform to advocate for other oppressed people – in this case, the Palestinian people.
Yet, what does Pelosi do?
She presents Omar with an impossible deal. Either sign onto an apology or be crushed and eliminated. If we want to truly understand why women of color generally have so much resentment towards white liberal women, case-in-point. Too often white liberal women like Pelosi pose for the photo-op, but we do not rise to the occasion for our minority sisters.
A true ally is not created from convenience. A true ally will stand should-to-shoulder on principle and courage. Women like Pelosi will throw a woman of color under the bus, then on a more convenient occasion, snatch her back off the ground, scrub off the wheel marks and smile for the camera.
I’m not impressed if Pelosi can clap back for the camera. She’s not a role model for my Muslim Arab daughter. She is certainly not her ally. She represents privilege, pain, betrayal, and disappointment. And, personally, I’m tired of being represented by white women like Pelosi who don’t support women of color in their own parties. I’m tired of politicians like Pelosi who curate a mythology of courage around themselves while tearing down women like Ilhan Omar who exhibit actual courage and conviction.
Danette Zaghari-Mask is an attorney for the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization. Her views are her own and do not necessarily represent those of the organization she serves.