I’ve Been Inside AIPAC. Ilhan Omar is Right.

Raegan Davis
9 min readFeb 11, 2019
Representative Ilhan Omar

I am one of the few people in the world who is an alumni of both the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and National Students for Justice in Palestine. If the acronym AIPAC sounds familiar to you, you’ve probably been paying attention to the controversy surrounding Minnesota representative Ilhan Omar this past week. If you haven’t, here’s a quick debrief:

The debate began with journalist Glenn Greenwald posting this article and commenting on its contents, saying, “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.” This morning, in an interview with Democracy Now, Greenwald explained the context for his statement. “My point was, in saying how weird it is, what a priority it is for U.S. politicians to defend Israel, was based on the fact that the very first bill passed by the U.S. Senate [this session] was not about helping Americans; it was about empowering states to punish people who support a boycott of Israel.”

Representative Omar retweeted the original commentary with the caption “It’s all about the Benjamins baby!” For anyone familiar with modern antisemitism, this can raise red flags, which is probably why Batya Ungar-Sargon, an opinion editor for Forward, replied “Would love to know who @IlhanMN thinks is paying American politicians to be pro-Israel, though I think I can guess. Bad form, Congresswoman. That’s the second anti-Semitic trope you’ve tweeted.” Omar replied “AIPAC,” which to me, as someone incredibly familiar with the organization, clarified the lack of antisemitism in her comment: she was referring not to Jewish people but to the pro-Israel lobby, the way one might conjure images of “Big Pharma.” For others, however, her clarification seemed to have the opposite effect.

Before discussing AIPAC, I think it’s important that we understand what antisemitism is, where it comes from, and why it’s important we fight it as a part of any modern liberation movement. My knowledge of antisemitism come most notably from an amazing lecture I went to, led by representatives from Jewish Voice for Peace, and from reading this sixty-page resource, Understanding Antisemitism, published by Jews for Racial and Economic Justice. JFREJ defines antisemitism as “originating in European Christianity, antisemitism is the form of ideological oppression that targets Jewish people” and JVP defines it as “discrimination against, violence towards, or stereotypes of Jews for being Jewish.”

In order for any fascist or white supremacist movement to succeed, it needs a scapegoat. After all, when the folks on the bottom rungs of the privilege ladder begin to question why they’re not at the top, the answer can’t be the system; that would mean the system might have to face a well-deserved reckoning. Instead, those at the top shift blame towards someone else and that “someone else” has historically been the Jewish people. In feudal Europe, Jewish folks were relegated to positions deemed “immoral” by Christianity and detestable by the poor, like tax-collecting and banking. So long as the peasants were fighting with their tax-collectors, they did not have time to think about beheading the king who forced both the tax-collector and the peasant into subjugation.

The line of thinking continues to this day. So long as modern fascists can rely on the poor cursing their landlords for their Jewishness, they never have to worry about the poor cursing capitalism itself. However, in order for this scapegoating to work, the scapegoated population must have at least a modicum of power. Enter the image of George Soros!

The Soros conspiracy theories prove that it does not actually matter if Jewish people have power in society or if they are capable of “globalist” influence. What matters is that the alt-right has someone to point at as an excuse for why the “superior race” has failed at any given point. The other important element of this power structure is that what power minimal Jewish folks are allowed to have exists to be taken away. It is purely temporary; any privilege Jewish folks seem to have “for being Jewish” is a) not real and b) constructed so that white supremacists can campaign on removing it once they have power. It’s no wonder antisemitism is frequently called the “oil in the gears of white supremacy.”

Understanding all of this makes it more than clear that fighting antisemitism is a mandate for modern social justice movements. Not only is antisemitism on its own capable of some of the worst atrocities the world has ever seen (ex. the Holocaust, pogroms, the Spanish Inquisition) but it also can be utilized to reinforce any other kind of oppression. It has also historically been used to discredit movements for collective liberation. Have you ever heard the phrase “cultural Marxism?” This conspiracy theory claims there is a loose Marxist movement seeking to apply communism to matters of family composition, gender, race, and cultural identity within Western society and the original idea behind the theory was that the movement was led by (you guessed it), Jewish people! The alt-right genuinely thinks that all social justice movements are secretly communism and that that communism has been injected into our society by “the Jews.” This imagined combination of Judaism and communism, despite being patently nonexistent, is enough to get them to ignore literally anything social justice advocates say. The same technique has been applied going back farther to the anti-apartheid movement and the varied civil rights movements of the 1960’s, as well.

What I’m saying with all of this is that, as a Black Muslim refugee, Ilhan Omar would have to be very invested in undermining her own rights to advocate antisemitism in any form. Aside from the fact that I believe she is too smart to do that, I also know the lobby she’s talking about and it has nothing to do with the stereotypes that have historically subjugated Jewish people. It has everything to do with AIPAC, which is a real and genuine lobbying organization that generously flew me out to Washington DC when I was 19 to convince me that Israel was the greatest country to ever exist. For five days, I was inundated with propaganda and poorly-formed arguments because the students at my local student branch of AIPAC pegged me as someone who might go into politics one day.

The central tenets of their arguments ranged from skewed to downright Islamophobic. I was told that I would be thrown off of a building if I went to Palestine because I’m queer. I was conveniently housed in the same bedroom as three of the maybe ten Catholic girls in the entire conference, during which point they told me how much Jesus wanted Israel to have the West Bank. I watched videos about how real progressives love Israel because of its superior culture. They showed me how the Iran deal was really just “Obama’s legacy project” that we needed to get rid of and how “Trump is good for the UN.” I was told it was my job, as an elected representative in a political student organization, to ignore calls for solidarity with Palestine if they arose. I was then brought to a career fair where I got to apply directly to work with the Department of State and Department of Defense, was introduced to legislators to network all over Congress, and was told that if I did good work I might even get to go to Israel myself one day on AIPAC’s dime. They made it very compelling for a young person who wanted to be a politician to want to get on their good side.

When I returned to campus, I was invited frequently to parties, barbecues, and luncheons with the student version of AIPAC on my campus, as were the leaders of all student political groups and student government. I learned that these student “cadres” exist all over the country, connecting students to internships with whichever candidate AIPAC identifies as “most pro-Israel” in every national race. Students knock doors and make calls for one candidate from each major party during the primaries, then shift support to the “more pro-Israel” one after the primary season concludes (regardless of the individual student’s political leanings).

AIPAC itself does not give money to candidates, as it is a “public” affairs committee rather than a “political” affairs committee. However, its endorsement is a green light for other organizations and individual donors and the lobbying its members do is more influential on US foreign policy than the lobby representing any other foreign nation.

AIPAC’s influence isn’t a conspiracy — rather, it is the most effective and consistent lobbying structure I have ever heard of or witnessed. Starting as young as fourteen, students like myself are taught a skewed version of the situation in Palestine and told the evil Palestinians will never allow peace to happen, so it’s our duty to defend American jobs and American values by supporting Israel. They gain connections and opportunities. Eventually, they run for office and this group has been supporting them their entire lives — it’s no wonder support for Israel is bipartisan. Even as someone who is now active in Students for Justice in Palestine, I can’t be upset with them. I view them, rather, as Sherlock Holmes viewed Moriarty: an adversary I can’t help but be in awe of.

I want to clarify now in case you haven’t picked it up yet that AIPAC is not a “Jewish” organization. The girls who were recruited to lobby me were all Catholic, for example, and most Americans who identify as Zionists identify as Christian Zionists. These are Christians who vehemently support Israel on the grounds that the Jewish people must “return to Zion” in order to catalyze the rapture. This theological interpretation of the Bible is disputed among theologians and also bears antisemitic undertones, as the “end goal” of this movement is eternal damnation for the Jewish people it claims to support.

The pro-Israel lobby in the US also has a history of reinforcing antisemitism itself. Just last year, the Zionist Organization of America invited Steve Bannon, a noted antisemite, to speak as its conference keynote. Fascist support for Israel itself is actually rooted historically in antisemitism, exemplified in documents like the Haavara Agreement. By encouraging support for a Jewish ethnostate in historic Palestine, antisemites are able not only to normalize the existence of ethnostates (since constructing an ethnostate is the white nationalist goal), but they are also able to relocate an “undesirable” population to a faraway place where white nationalists no longer need interact with them.

The point here is that being pro-Israel does not necessarily make a person pro-Jewish and being pro-Palestine does not necessarily make a person antisemitic. Israel as a state, what a person believes our nation’s relation to it should be, and the fate of the Palestinian people are political problems and while antisemitism plays a role, it is much more complex than the binary line Nancy Pelosi wanted to draw when she and other Democrats condemned Omar for calling out AIPAC. Attempting to make it binary means conflating “Judaism,” a religion of peace, with “Israel,” a nation that has been deemed an apartheid state by the United Nations, as well as to assume the Jewish people are a monolith in support of such behavior.

We can’t know what’s going on inside Ilhan Omar’s mind, so the only way we can determine if she is an antisemite is look at her actions and her statements. Omar was referencing one of the largest lobbying organizations in the country in the context of objecting to an unconstitutional Senate bill which targeted her directly for advocating a boycott of Israel. She has also spent her entire life fighting for underserved populations and attempting to dismantle the bigoted systemic structures which promote antisemitism. If, in your mind, that constitutes hatred of Jewish people or anything the likes of it, I would encourage you to examine your own biases and ask why you believe AIPAC should be treated any differently from the NRA.

Every day, new student pro-Palestine activists are doxed as their names and photos are uploaded to a website called Canary Mission, which businesses use for hiring purposes, schools use in their acceptance processes, and the state of Israel uses to determine who can enter the country. The kind of law Omar was voicing opposition to has been used to take jobs away from hard-working people like Bahia Amawi. Angela Davis, a lifelong civil rights advocate who was even arrested for her steadfast dedication to equality, briefly lost the Alabama Civil Rights Institute achievement award which she was selected for as a result of her activism for Palestine. Supporting a boycott of Israel is enough to get anyone pegged automatically as an antisemite regardless of everything I’ve just explained about antisemitism and its relation to Israel.

Activists for Palestine, in growing numbers, are systematically being disenfranchised by the laws our government passes and defamed by pro-Israel advocates at the expense of their physical and emotional security. What does it mean that we as a society would side with white nationalists and fascists in curtailing the First Amendment rights of pro-Palestine activists just because we were misinformed about the pro-Palestine position? What does it say about the world we live in that charges of antisemitism can “cancel” leftists while real hate crimes are being carried out by the pro-Israel alt-right? How detached are we from the true suffering of Jewish people that we continuously use them as a stick with which to beat other marginalized individuals? And what does it say about AIPAC that this is exactly what they’re aiming for?



Raegan Davis

DC-based community organizer. IU Political Science Grad @TheRaeganDavis (Opinions are mine, not my employer’s)