To Rep. Ilhan Omar (D., Minn.), American support for Israel is based on Jewish money. Seriously, she actually said that on Twitter. On Sunday, the first-term Democrat accused American politicians of supporting the Jewish state because of the "Benjamins"—that is, money. When a journalist followed up by asking Omar who is paying American leaders to be pro-Israel, the lawmaker simply responded, "AIPAC."
— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) February 11, 2019
If those tweets seem anti-Semitic, it is because they are. The notion that Jews use their wealth to acquire and wield their nefarious, outsized influence is one of the oldest anti-Semitic canards. Also implicit in Omar's tweets is the charge of dual loyalty—the idea, in this context, that Jewish Americans put Israel's interests above America's.
Even in Omar's apology for her tweets, which followed heavy pressure from Democratic leadership, she still called the role of AIPAC, America's main pro-Israel lobbying organization, "problematic." And just hours later, Omar praised a Democratic activist on Twitter while retweeting a thread in which he said AIPAC's lobbying is "about the Benjamins." A lesson unlearned, it seems.
Omar's tweets are not only anti-Semitic, but also factually inaccurate. AIPAC does not even donate money to political candidates! The organization is not a political action committee—AIPAC stands for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Moreover, if money were the main factor, then American leaders would have pushed aside the Israelis long ago in the hope of becoming closer to the Arab world and its oil wealth. Omar's charge is simply absurd.
So why do American leaders support Israel, then, if not for Jewish money? Most non-anti-Semitic commentators will immediately point to issues of morality—shared democratic values between the U.S. and Israel; sympathy, if not admiration, for the Jewish people's historical perseverance through adversity; the United Nations's insane anti-Israel bias; and more.
David French, a senior writer for National Review, makes this moral argument in a new piece published Monday. "America's long support for Israel—often in the face of fierce criticism from key allies and painful economic reprisal from the Arab world—represents an enduring, bipartisan commitment to moral clarity in the Middle East," French writes. He then describes the "repeated, genocidal threats to [Israel's] existence"; the "terror campaigns" against and "international hostility" toward Israel; and, despite all of this, the individual liberties that Israelis still enjoy.
French is exactly right. Israel is the only real democracy in the Middle East, a beacon of light in a region of fire. In a part of the world that may seem so foreign, Americans can see themselves—a scrappy, practical, hard-working, and innovative people. Yes, Israelis live in a Middle Eastern culture, but one based on Western values. Moreover, Americans see how the media and so many international forums apply outrageous, restrictive double standards to Israel regarding diplomacy and the use of military force that would be practical suicide if Jerusalem adhered to them.
Still, there is a danger in defining American support for Israel solely in terms of morality. It opens up the alliance to misguided criticism from, first, realists in academia and populist or isolationist-leaning voices, both on the political left and right, who say that moral arguments are insufficient to justify Washington's backing, and, second, from progressives like Omar who believe that Israel is fundamentally an immoral country.
Too bad for these critics, there is more to the picture. The missing piece in the public discussion over Omar's tweets is that important strategic interests underpin America's support for Israel. The United States and Israel share security and economic interests, not just values, and pro-Israel voices need to highlight this point because they too often ignore it.
First, the big picture: the Middle East is still very important to American national security, and Israel is the only Middle Eastern country where both the government and the people are pro-American. Whatever happens in the region, Israel will always be there, with its robust economy and military might, ready to help the United States. Moreover, Israel is on the front lines—literally—fighting America's enemies—Iran, Sunni jihadist groups, and others. Does a nuclear-armed Iraq or Syria sound like a frightening prospect? Fortunately, it is still just a prospect rather than reality, because of Israeli military actions in 1981 and 2007.
Unlike other U.S. allies, Israel has never asked for a single American soldier to deploy to Israel and give their life for the Jewish state. Israel has always been committed to defending itself. That is an invaluable strategic asset.
More specifically, the United States benefits from its alliance with Israel in very practical ways. In 2012, Michael Eisenstadt and David Pollock, both fellows at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, produced a great report that details these benefits—from intelligence sharing and counterterrorism cooperation to cyber and water security. Israel's remarkable technological innovation is critical for American businesses, and its expertise in homeland security and military tactics are critical for keeping Americans—both in and out of uniform—safe.
The number of benefits is too long to list here, but it is extensive. Even Richard Nixon, who peddled his share of anti-Semitic canards, recognized Israel's strategic importance and ordered an essential arms airlift during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The former president also recognized the remarkable character of the Israeli people, and became the first commander in chief to visit the Jewish state on the job. Critics may say the alliance is just a relic of the Cold War, but this is a dangerously myopic view. In such an interconnected world, where security is ever more difficult to guarantee and technology is the economy of the future, Israel is a necessary ally.
In sum, Americans support Israel for both moral and strategic reasons. The two cannot be separated. And together, they create a foundation for an alliance that can resist Omar's corrosive, anti-Semitic charges, which are part of an effort to break apart an essential, mutually beneficial relationship. In defending Israel against the likes of Omar, Americans should remember that they not only have the moral high ground, but also the strategic high ground.