When the Democratic congresswoman Ilhan Omar claimed pro-Israel lobby money influenced American politics, in the way other powerful lobbying groups do, she ignited allegations of antisemitism and sparked a furious debate in her own party. But a look at House Democrats and 2020 presidential candidates’ responses to the resulting row seems to validate her claim.
House Democratic leaders who drafted a resolution initially aimed at condemning Omar’s remarks received millions from the pro-Israel lobby throughout their congressional careers. Congressman Eliot Engel, who accused Omar of using “a vile antisemitic slur”, has taken about $1.07m throughout his career, or about $107,000 per election.
Meanwhile, some of her staunchest defenders took little or no money from the lobby. Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib received no pro-Israel lobby donations during her 2018 campaign, and tweeted that she was “honored” to serve with Omar, who was enduring “ugly attacks”.
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Similarly, federal election records available on the Center for Responsive Politics’ OpenSecrets website suggest a correlation between pro-Israel lobby campaign contributions and Democratic presidential candidates’ position on the controversy.
Those candidates who have taken little money from the lobby defended Omar, while those who received the most money criticized her, or were quiet on the issue.
“Money works both ways – donors give to those candidates they view as champions of their issues, but at the same time politicians know where their funding comes from and will likely take into account wishes of their donors when faced with a tough decision,” said Brendan Fischer, a campaign finance expert at the Campaign Legal Center.
While there may not be a “quid pro quo”, the American political system is “so reliant on money that there are always questions about the extent to which it influences politicians”, Fischer added.
Democratic presidential candidates and senators Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren have received relatively little from the pro-Israel lobby throughout their careers, and in recent days issued statements in support of Omar. Sanders has received about $16,000, or $1,450 per campaign, while Warren has received around $107,000, or $53,500 per campaign. Harris is a first-term senator who received $41,000 during the 2016 election cycle.
In a statement, Sanders wrote he fears “that what’s going on in the House now is an effort to target Congresswoman Omar as a way of stifling that debate [about Israel policy]”, while Warren said “branding criticism of Israel as automatically antisemitic has a chilling effect on our public discourse”. Harris stated she feared the “spotlight being put on Congresswoman Omar may put her at risk”.
Presidential candidates who received significantly more money from the pro-Israel lobby include Senator Cory Booker, who called Omar’s comments “disturbing”. He received $445,000 during his only Senate campaign, while Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who has received about $367,000, or $91,750 per campaign, said criticisms of Israel should be made “without employing antisemitic tropes about money or influence”.
Those who were quiet on the controversy include Joe Biden, who hasn’t yet announced his candidacy but is expected to run. He has received around $476,000, or about $95,200 per campaign. Amy Klobuchar has received $267,000, or $89,000 per campaign.
Though there are no federal records available for John Hickenlooper, the former Colorado governor has spoken at a conference for the pro-Israel lobbying group Aipac, and called Israel a “strong ally”.
Sanders, Harris and Warren issued their statements in the days leading up to the House’s Thursday vote on a Democratic resolution to condemn antisemitism, Islamophobia and other expressions of bigotry.
The Democratic House leadership initially wrote the resolution in response to several Omar comments on the pro-Israel lobby’s influence in American politics. A version drafted earlier this week condemned only antisemitism and appeared to target Omar without explicitly mentioning her.
Still, Omar stood by her comments, tweeting a response in line with the statements from Warren, Sanders and Harris.
“Being opposed to [Israeli prime minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and the occupation is not the same as being antisemitic. I am grateful to the many Jewish allies who have spoken out and said the same,” Omar wrote on Twitter.
The party’s younger, more progressive wing also came to Omar’s defense, exposing an ideological rift. They also argued that it isn’t antisemitic to question the pro-Israel lobby’s influence. Progressives and some members of the Black Caucus also contended that critics unfairly targeted Omar because she’s a black Muslim. They noted that the Democratic leadership did not draft a resolution condemning Donald Trump or other white male Republicans over their antisemitic remarks.
By Thursday, the resolution evolved and, ultimately, what the House passed appeared designed to quell the intensifying debate more than punish Omar. It broadly condemned bigotry, stating “whether from the political right, center, or left, bigotry, discrimination, oppression, racism, and imputations of dual loyalty threaten American democracy and have no place in American political discourse”.
Omar herself voted for it, while 23 Republicans did not.