Analysis

Ilhan Who? In Israel, Nobody Knows or Cares About the Omar anti-Semitism Controversy

Israelis' obliviousness this week parallels their lack of concern over tropes and tweets of white supremacist U.S. politicians — and their sometimes deadly consequences

Rep. Ilhan Omar walks to the chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 7, 2019.
J. Scott Applewhite,AP

For the past week, the controversy over Rep. Ilhan Omar’s statements about Israel and its supporters in the United States dramatically roiled Washington.

From her “All about the Benjamins” tweet to the charge that D.C.’s Israel lobby demanded “allegiance to a foreign country,” Omar’s remarks managed to outrage most of the American Jewish establishment and spark a battle of words within the Democratic Party so intense that 2020 presidential contenders found it necessary to weigh in.

It also served as a handy weapon for GOP leaders to gleefully paint all Democrats as anti-Israel, seizing the opportunity to give the other side of the aisle a taste of its own medicine when it comes to crying racism.

President Donald Trump commented not once but twice, decrying Democrats’ failure to decry anti-Semitism — a sin for which he has been condemned in the past — declaring that Omar’s “terrible comments” meant it was a “dark day for Israel.”

If it was indeed a “dark day,” the residents of sunny Tel Aviv and Jerusalem were utterly unaware of the fact.

Last Monday, and all of the days that followed as the controversy intensified in Washington and across the media echo chamber, not a single Israel politician — on the right or the left — weighed in on the Omar controversy.

If 100 Israelis were randomly stopped on the street during the week and asked who Omar was or were shown a picture of her, there would likely be no glimmer of recognition.

Given that Israel is the red-hot center of a controversy in the capital of the country that is its biggest ally — one with whom Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is making his relationship a centerpiece of his re-election campaign — and the fact U.S. media was saturated with the issue, one might assume the Israeli media would give the controversy at least a passing mention.

But no Hebrew-language Israeli newspapers, television channels, radio stations and websites are interested in the story (with the odd exception, such as Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy). Not only has the U.S. firestorm over anti-Semitism and the future of support for Israel in the Democratic Party (or lack thereof)  stayed out of the top headlines — it has been utterly absent.

On Thursday, most Israelis were oblivious to the fact that Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives had spent the week fiercely arguing over the text of a resolution condemning anti-Semitism, which was viewed as a rebuke of Omar and the result of pressure from Israel’s defenders on Capitol Hill.

They had no clue that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi struggled all week to control the battle of drafts of that resolution, resulting in an “All lives matter,” kumbaya vote in the House on Thursday evening — which Omar herself voted for.

Granted, with the election campaign now in full swing the pace of news in Israel this week has been more unrelenting than usual. Still, it is notable that the Omar story was so dominant, Meghan McCain — co-host of U.S. women’s talk show “The View” — was reduced to tears Thursday over her fears that anti-Semitism was sweeping across progressive America.

Yet the Israeli media gave a collective yawn and did not bother to report it.

Perhaps it simply expects no less from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. The hostility toward Israel — and by extension, the Jewish community — from left-wing parties in Europe may have led it to view this as business as usual, instead of the growing sea change within the Democratic Party that so upsets many American Jews.

With Netanyahu at the helm for a decade, and after the searing experiences around the Iran deal, Israelis have apparently gotten the message loud and clear that bipartisan support of Israel is a thing of the past — the implications of losing Democratic support ignored by all but policy wonks in the Israeli Foreign Ministry and think tanks.

Whatever the reason, it demonstrates that the Ilhan Omar furor isn’t really about Israel at all.

What has played out over the past week was solely an American story; Israel wasn’t even a minor player. The drama’s plots and subplots involved Republicans and Democrats, the “mainstream” and “progressive” wings of the Democratic Party, and the pro-Israel lobby and American Jewish community (two groups that are no longer identical or interchangeable, given the growing presence and influence the evangelical community wields in the former).

Following the Pittsburgh synagogue atrocity last October, my Haaretz colleague Chemi Shalev wrote that the response of Israel’s leaders — defending Trump and separating his rhetoric from the violent event — highlighted the fact that the vast number of American Jews had made that connection.

Their blindness to the dangers of the racist pot Trump was stirring was encapsulated by the headline, which read “Israelis’ post-Pittsburgh defense of Trump isn’t just Realpolitik: They just don’t get it.” Essentially, the non-reaction in Israel to this week’s events proves that point.

Israeli politicians and the Israeli media might have seized on the news that a hijab-wearing Muslim politician was being pilloried for her anti-Semitism. But their obliviousness parallels their lack of attention or concern over the tropes and tweets of white supremacist U.S. politicians like Iowa Congressman Steve King — or the president himself — and their consequences.

It is also the ultimate proof that, in the end, all politics is local.