On November 10, 1975, Daniel Patrick Moynihan spoke to the UN General Assembly, which had just passed Resolution 3379. The resolution declared Zionism “a form of racism.” In response, Moynihan said, the “abomination of anti-Semitism has been given the appearance of international sanction.”
A preposterous lie had been perpetrated by the General Assembly: that the term “racist” described a national movement distinguished by its conviction that anyone born of a Jewish mother, or any convert to Judaism, regardless of race, was part of the Jewish people. The General Assembly had also perpetrated an obscene lie: that the national movement of a people decimated by the Nazis was akin to Nazism.
The Soviet Union, for whom anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism both had their geopolitical uses, was among the foremost advocates for these lies, and in 1991, with the Soviet Union on the verge of dissolution, the UN repealed resolution 3379.
Reflecting on that repeal, 20 years later, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon would agree that the “reputation of the United Nations was badly damaged by the adoption of resolution 3379.” But by then, the lie that Zionism is racism was again fashionable in some precincts. It is the marrow of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, whose defining 2005 call equates Israel with apartheid-era South Africa, and demands that, through academic, cultural, and economic boycotts, the Jewish nation should suffer the characteristic Jewish fate: exile, now not from England or Spain but from the international community altogether. In campuses across the United States, ever year, students and faculty participate in “Israel Apartheid Week” in the hope of hastening the day of that exile.
It’s in this context, that we should consider Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, herself a BDS supporter, and her tweets. There was the old one that spoke of Israel hypnotizing the world and the more recent ones, which pretended that congressional support for Israel was “all about the Benjamins,” directed by AIPAC. Last week, Noah Rothman and Abe Greenwald said what needed saying about those tweets and Omar’s unconvincing apologies for them. I’d only add that Ilhan Omar and her defenders are reviving the lies that Moynihan, for a while, made hard to tell in the United States.
Consider some of Omar’s allies who are having none of her apology. They are instead hailing the dawning of a new age in which it’s possible to criticize Israel. “This is What the Beginning of a Real Israel Debate Looks Like,” proclaimed Ben Ehrenreich in the New Republic. Once, critics of Israel “understood that speaking too loudly would get them silenced and shunned.” But last week, “leftist Jews rushed to Omar’s defense.” At Slate, Joshua Leifer explained that the primary lesson to draw from Ilhan Omar’s anti-Semitic tweets is, hurrah, “It’s Finally Okay to Criticize Israel.” Sure, the stodgy Democratic leadership condemned Omar, but “most of the party’s progressive base rallied behind” her. Ding dong. AIPAC’s capacity to “shut down criticism of Israel” is dead.
But the claim that criticism of Israel has until now been suppressed in the United States is itself a preposterous and obscene lie. No matter how much a Michelle Alexander might pretend one isn’t allowed to criticize Israel, her status as New York Times opinion columnist makes the pretense ridiculous. In fact, Alexander’s suggestion that criticizing Israel would be a terrific way to celebrate Martin Luther King Day, had already been exceeded by Michelle Goldberg, who, in December, had stamped the New York Times columnist seal of approval not only on criticism of Israel but also on attacks on Zionism altogether. Goldberg and Alexander are new to the Times, but before them, Thomas Friedman and Roger Cohen were not the least bit shy about criticizing Israel.
Outside of the newspapers, Israel’s supporters in the United States didn’t stop President Carter from selling F-15 jets to the Saudis, or President Reagan from selling them advanced reconnaissance planes, or President George H.W. Bush from putting economic pressure on Israel over its policy on settlements, or President Obama from doing the Iran deal.
Just as Representative Omar draws on anti-Semitic fantasies about Jewish money and power, so also do her defenders on the left.
Of course, Omar wasn’t the Minnesota Congressman whose ad depicted George Soros sitting atop a pile of money. That was Jim Hagedorn who, unlike Omar never apologized. Nor, as far as I know, did Republican leaders say a word. That would have been awkward since, after all, the National Republican Congressional Committee had produced the ad. Like Omar’s defenders, Hagedorn’s shrugged and, in effect, said “What? It’s high time we criticized the influence of money in politics.”
As Moynihan also said in his speech, those who commit outrageous acts can be counted on to “profess themselves outraged by those who have the temerity to point it out.” So it’s no surprise that critics of anti-Semitism are being cast as speech-suppressing villains. But what’s new in America isn’t that one can finally criticize Israel or—don’t make us laugh—the influence of donors. What’s new is our high tolerance for anti-Semitism.