Opinion

Anti-Israel Progressives in the U.S. Are Ignoring Reality to Suit Their Agenda

For those eager to brand any support for Israel as universally and hawkishly right-wing, Israel and Jewish advocacy groups’ criticism of Netanyahu's decision to bar entry to Reps. Omar and Tlaib are inconvenient truth that they have chosen to ignore

Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., left, joined at right by Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., listens to President Donald Trump's State of the Union speech, at the Capitol in Washington, February 2019.
J. Scott Applewhite,AP

Israel’s decision to deny entry to Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashaida Tlaib has been an utter fiasco – and U.S. President Donald Trump’s comments claiming Jews who vote Democrat show “disloyalty” somehow managed to make it worse. And then Trump tweeting the words of a conspiracy theorist radio show host who called him “the King of Israel” – a boast whose ludicrousness almost outshines its offensiveness – actually made that even worse.

But in the rush of well-deserved outrage over both Israel’s decision and Trump’s accusation against Democratic Jews, a lot has been overlooked. The first is the way the leading American Israeli advocacy groups swiftly criticized Netanyahu’s decision, challenging the way anti-Israel progressives have long sought to characterize them. The second has to do with Omar, Tlaib and claims of anti-Semitism.

To the first point, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee – which has been denounced as a right-wing machine of support for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by politically left-leaning organizations like MoveOn and news sites like The Intercept – explicitly opposed Bibi’s choice to block the congresswomen. Just a couple of hours after the decision was announced, AIPAC tweeted a statement saying they “believe every member of Congress should be able to visit and experience our democratic ally Israel firsthand.” It included more general support for Israel than the harshest critics would have liked, but AIPAC was clear in conveying their belief that Israel had acted in error (and they even beat Sen. Bernie Sanders to the punch in criticizing the decision).

AIPAC had plenty of company in swiftly criticizing Israel. Within a few hours of Israel’s announcement, the leading Israel advocacy groups in the United States were quick to denounce the denial of entry to Reps. Omar and Tlaib in unequivocal terms. Shortly after AIPAC, the Anti-Defamation League’s CEO Jonathan Greenblatt tweeted, “while we absolutely disagree with the pro-BDS positions of Reps. @IlhanMN & @RashidaTlaib, keeping them out is counterproductive.” A Wider Bridge, an LGBTQ Israel advocacy group that is often attacked for “pinkwashing,” called on Netanyahu to “reverse the politicized decision” in a steady stream of tweets criticizing the denial of entry.

Similarly, within hours of Trump’s “disloyalty” accusation, the American Jewish Committee released a statement “call[ing] on President Trump to stop such divisive rhetoric and to retract his disparaging remarks.” The ADL’s Greenblatt criticized the president, tweeting, “charges of disloyalty have long been used to attack Jews.” The Israel Policy Forum tweeted, “We reject President Trump’s comments suggesting ignorance and disloyalty among American Jews.”

However, for the growing cohort of progressives who have been eager to brand any support for Israel as universally and hawkishly right-wing, these Israel and Jewish advocacy groups’ criticisms are an inconvenient truth that they have chosen to ignore.

It is almost as inconvenient as the fact that when Reps. Omar and Tlaib were party to a windfall of media sympathy after Israel denied them entry, they shared on Instagram over the weekend a cartoon of the two of them being physically silenced by Bibi and Trump. The cartoon was drawn by Carlos Latuff, who came in second in Iran’s infamous International Holocaust Cartoon Contest in 2006. While some have taken this to be an anti-Israel rather than an anti-Semitic display, many Jews and Jewish groups took it as the latter. The ADL released a statement criticizing the congresswomen’s choice to share the cartoon, with Greenblatt tweeting that the representatives “absolutely shouldn’t have lifted up the work of a cartoonist who frequently promotes hate toward Israel, mocks the Holocaust and traffics in #antisemitic tropes. Doing so legitimizes his bigotry.”

The Forward’s Batya Ungar-Sargon tweeted why she found the cartoon to be deeply anti-Semitic: “If the artist placing 2nd in a Holocaust denial competition isn’t enough for you (!), consider how Trump is drawn as an instrument of Israel, when we know Israel barred the Congresswomen at Trump’s behest. Jews controlling and subverting world leaders is a classic anti-Semitic trope. So is Jews silencing critics. But no one has silenced the Reps. The ways in which it gets the story wrong fits into an aesthetic designed to give anti-Semites pleasure.”

This news broke shortly after it was discovered that Miftah, the Palestinian organization that the congresswomen planned to travel with to the Middle East, published an article in 2013 perpetuating the blood libel as part of a larger denouncement of President Barack Obama’s willingness to host a Passover seder at the White House. After initially calling the reports accusing it of anti-Semitism a “smear campaign,” the group subsequently apologized.

Of course, why shouldn’t progressives ignore these pesky truths? Israel’s decision has revealed many things, not least of which is that Netanyahu both kowtows to Trump even more than we thought and fails to appreciate the insanely poor optics of his timing (Really? Reversing position mere hours after a Trump tweet?). But it has also shown that American Jews display a spectrum of complex, nuanced and ambivalent forms of support for Israel and are fully capable of criticizing the country and its leaders.

The reality is that the silence over Reps. Omar and Tlaib sharing the cartoon, and their association with Miftah, is deafening. Perhaps that is to be expected and even understandable when they have been the targets of one of the most hurtful and damaging Israeli decisions in the history of U.S.-Israeli relations.

More curious is the unwillingness of many progressives to recognize how willing Israeli advocacy groups are to criticize Israel, Netanyahu and Trump. Rather, many took this as an opportunity to castigate all Jews. Simone Zimmerman, a founder of IfNotNow, called on any American Jew who felt bad about the decision to “look in the mirror.” Lisa Goldman, a contributing editor at the progressive +972 Magazine, directed her ire toward New York Times writer Bari Weiss (who wrote a column chastising “King Bibi” the day the decision was made) and AJC Director David Harris (who tweeted his support for the congresswomen’s entry). Political analyst Peter Beinart wrote a column about how denying entry to the congresswomen meant “bipartisan support for Israel is dead” – and cheered that as a “good thing.”

And when it came to Trump’s attack on Democratic Jews, some still had the gall to apply the remark to American Jewish groups. Mehdi Hasan, a columnist for The Intercept, retweeted Trump’s remarks, adding, “Can someone let me know when @aipac, @ADL, @Conf_of_Pres, and @AJCGlobal have all condemned the president for his viciously and brazenly anti-Semitic remarks?”

These responses are disappointing for multiple reasons. For one, Zimmerman’s comment perpetuates the unfair (and debatably anti-Semitic) belief that Jews in America are accountable for every decision Israel makes, regardless of what their views on Israel are. Doing so is a fantastic tactic for shaming and ultimately silencing dialogue among American Jews about Israel. It is so exhausting to be repeatedly told you’re responsible for a whole country that you eventually just shut up.

Hasan shifted the focus away from Trump’s heinous comments and placed the onus on Jewish groups to respond – while ignoring the fact that many of the groups he cited had. As Tablet columnist Yair Rosenberg tweeted, “If your first response to anti-Semitism is to attack Jews over their response to it, you really need to reconsider your choices & whose side you think you’re on.”

But something else is upsetting about the willful ignorance of progressives when it comes to American Jews and Israel. It suggests that many of them would rather ignore the fact that American Israeli supporters are criticizing Netanyahu and Trump and, instead, paint anyone who supports Israel in blunt, black-and-white strokes. After all, it is a lot easier to demonize support for Israel when you claim that everyone who supports the country is a monolithic army of Bibi sycophants. But it also complicates your anti-Israel narrative when your leading advocates in Congress are defending statements viewed as anti-Semitic.

Unfortunately, it becomes more tempting to overlook these inconvenient facts when Trump pulls off a new, horrifying display of anti-Semitic dog-whistling that somehow sinks to a new low. Certainly, Trump’s outrageous remark claiming that any Jewish American that votes Democrat “shows a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty” only adds fuel to the fire. The vast majority of American Jews not only vehemently disagree with the president’s policies but are eager to distance themselves from him – especially when he is nodding and winking at anti-Semitic tropes about our loyalty.

The understandable rush away from Trump and everything he supports doesn’t mean that to fully oppose him (or, for that matter, Netanyahu), American Jews must oppose Israel. It also doesn’t mean that to truly empathize with Omar and Tlaib over being barred from Israel, they must tolerate the congresswomen’s statements and actions. More than ever, American Jews must reject these false choices, lest they become the reality.

Emily Shire is a journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, The Daily Beast, WashingtonPost.com, Slate, and Salon. She is also currently pursuing her J.D. at Yale Law School