In 2019, the role of lobbyist money in politics is no secret.
Brand New Congress has forced the issue into the national spotlight by denouncing the influence of corporate money in politics and supporting candidates like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY-14) and Cori Bush (MO-01) to run groundbreaking campaigns entirely funded by small-dollar donations.
Thanks to progressive organizations like Brand New Congress, many prominent contenders for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination have promised to reject corporate lobbyist PAC donations, acknowledging that things need to change in Washington. And sitting members of Congress like Donna Shalala have publicly and proudly proclaimed their refused to be “bought” by influential lobbyist groups like the NRA.
Then why did politicians on both sides of the aisle respond with cries of outrage and demands for apologies when Rep. Ilhan Omar (MN-05) took to Twitter to do the same?
Omar and, Michigan Congresswoman, Rashida Tlaib are the only members of Congress to support the international, nonviolent, Palestinian-led Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which challenges decades of bipartisan support for the state of Israel’s “regime of settler colonialism, apartheid, and occupation over the Palestinian people.” In response, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has threatened “action” against Omar and Tlaib for their support of the BDS movement, stating: “[This] is unacceptable in this country.”
Apparently, nonviolent dissent and protest are unacceptable in the United States these days – at least to politicians who are being paid by special interest groups like the American Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC) to cast votes and pass legislation. This hypocrisy is exactly what Representative Omar pointed out when she replied on Twitter: “It’s all about the Benjamins baby” and called out AIPAC for its outsized role among pro-Israel lobbyist groups.
Although AIPAC does not donate to congressional campaigns, it has spent over $3.5 million dollars each year since 2014 to lobby the federal government to take actions such as withdrawing from the Iran deal, cutting U.S. aid to Palestinians, and recognizing Jerusalem as the official capital of Israel despite international condemnation.
The reaction to Omar’s comments were swift and harsh, with political figures on both sides of the aisle labeling her as anti-Semitic. Although the trope of Jewish people controlling the world through money is a tired and harmful stereotype, many Jewish Americans have defended Omar, emphasizing that the role of pro-Israel lobbyist money in American politics is a “basic political fact.” “Would talking about the role of the NRA on gun control laws attract this kind of attention? Lobbies influence politics, I don’t think that’s controversial to say,” said Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace.
Vilkomerson is right. And the reason that Omar’s comments have created so much outrage – more outrage than Rep. Steve King’s repeated espousal of white nationalist ideas over a thirty-year career – is because she’s right. Pro-Israel lobbyist groups have been instrumental in shaping American political opinion for decades, contributing more than $14.8 million dollars in the 2018 midterms alone to candidates from both parties. Even as Democratic politicians swear off money from the oil and gas industry and decry the role of the NRA in lobbying against sensible gun legislation, Democrats like Joe Manchin and Tammy Baldwin were still among the top recipients of pro-Israel lobbyist money in the 2018 cycle.
We deserve government leaders who work to enact just, clear-eyed policy on all issues, and U.S. foreign policy should be built on humane and just action that protects the marginalized above all. Indeed, the struggle for Palestinian self-determination mirrors the fight for racial and indigenous justice in the United States, and has found solidarity among American movement groups like Black Lives Matter and IfNotNow. But lobbyist money, no matter where it comes from, erodes the possibility of factual, compassionate legislation and instead tilts the scales in favor of those with the deepest pockets.
Rep. Omar has taken the taboo step of boldly calling out the existence of pro-Israel lobbyist money in shaping foreign policy, but she can’t do it alone.
We need an entire Congress of Americans who aren’t scared of taking on the establishment and who will work honestly and passionately to bring justice and light to the most pressing social, economic and political issues of our time.