Why Is It So Hard To Talk About Israel? Support for Israel has long been the rare bipartisan position among lawmakers in Washington. But recently, several younger, brown members of Congress have vocally questioned the U.S.'s relationship with Israel — and were met with fierce condemnation, including charges that their criticism was anti-Semitic. On this episode: We're talking about why it remains so hard to have nuanced conversations about Israel.
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Why Is It So Hard To Talk About Israel?

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Why Is It So Hard To Talk About Israel?

Why Is It So Hard To Talk About Israel?

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GENE DEMBY, HOST:

Thank you so much for listening to CODE SWITCH. But we need a favor, though. So we're trying to get a better sense of who is listening and how you're using podcasts. So do us a solid, all right? Please help us by completing a short, anonymous survey at npr.org/podcastsurvey. That's all one word. It takes less than 10 minutes to do, and it really helps support the show. That's npr.org/podcastsurvey. Be easy. You're listening to CODE SWITCH. I'm Gene Demby.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:

And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji. And today we're asking this question. Why is it so hard to talk about Israel?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

AUDIE CORNISH, BYLINE: The Democrats are grappling with tensions within the party over how the U.S. should treat Israel.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Israeli forces have shot and killed at least 140 Palestinians during those protests.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: When someone says that being Jewish and supporting Israel means you're not loyal to America, we must call it out.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: ...Jewish homeland. Now that is effectively part of Israel's constitution. And Israel's Arab minority, which makes up 20 percent of the population, is not pleased.

MERAJI: The U.S. and Israel have had a tight relationship since Israel's founding. And besides Afghanistan, Israel's received the most foreign aid money from the U.S. since World War II. Its sovereignty has long been a bipartisan position.

DEMBY: And that tight relationship is coming under much more scrutiny these days. A slew of public opinion polls show a consistent trend line. A growing number of Americans, especially young people, express skepticism towards Israel's treatment of Palestinians.

MERAJI: And tension between those younger critics of Israel and the political establishment came to a head around statements Representative Ilhan Omar made clear. She's a Democratic freshman member of the House from Minnesota, and she's a critic of Israel and the pro-Israel lobby in the U.S. In her critiques, Omar used language that many people say is anti-Semitic.

DEMBY: In 2012, for example, she tweeted that, quote, "Israel has hypnotized the world. May Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel," unquote. Kevin McCarthy, a Republican leader in the House, recently called for Omar to be reprimanded over that old tweet from a few years ago. And Omar tweeted about that criticism, it's all about the Benjamins, baby.

MERAJI: And that tweet did not help things.

DEMBY: It did not.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDINGS)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: First-term Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar is facing backlash for two tweets.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Omar's apology late today came after a flurry of bipartisan criticism.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: The impact that it has is devastating. It's inflammatory.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Congressman Omar is terrible, what she said.

MERAJI: Gene, you know, when I was a freshman in college at San Francisco State, I took a class called Blacks and Jews in the Media.

DEMBY: Uh-oh.

MERAJI: And (laughter) it was the most contentious class I have ever taken. And I was in undergrad for a very long time.

(LAUGHTER)

MERAJI: But that's a whole 'nother story. But students would get into screaming matches over Israel in this class, which I ended up dropping, by the way, because I was not ready. I did not understand this topic at the time. I was fresh out of high school, and I was like, what the hell is going on here?

DEMBY: I mean, I guess none of us ever reaches an age when we're ready to have this conversation (laughter).

MERAJI: (Laughter). I know. Are we ready right now?

DEMBY: I don't know. I don't know.

MERAJI: Let's get ready.

DEMBY: Another complicating factor here that many people cite is the influence of the aforementioned Israel lobby. It's an assortment of groups who press lawmakers in Washington to adopt pro-Israel policies.

MERAJI: And in late March, D.C. hosted one of the most important and increasingly controversial events on the political calendar, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee convention, or AIPAC conference. And this question, how Americans talk about Israel, was front and center. Our colleague Leah Donnella was there at the AIPAC conference.

Hey, Leah.

LEAH DONNELLA, BYLINE: Hey, guys.

DEMBY: Hey, Leah.

MERAJI: All right. I've never been to AIPAC. I've heard a lot about AIPAC. I would love for you to set the scene for us.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD AMBIENCE)

DONNELLA: OK. So the conference was in the Washington Convention Center, which is basically a full block long. The streets outside were all blocked off, and there were police officers and security guards at every entrance. There were metal detectors. Inside, it was full of bigwigs. So people like Mike Pence, Mitch McConnell, Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, Cory Booker. There were big groups from schools and hundreds of synagogues. And according to the AIPAC website, more than 2/3 of Congress actually goes to AIPAC and more than 18,000 people total.

MERAJI: Wow. I knew it was big, but I didn't realize it was that big.

DEMBY: Yeah.

DONNELLA: It is huge.

DEMBY: OK. So what was everyone actually doing at the conference?

DONNELLA: So mostly, they were attending speeches. There were these huge general sessions. Those were the ones with speakers like Mike Pence and Nancy Pelosi. And then there were smaller breakout sessions to talk about all kinds of different things. So Israel and Africa, or negotiating peace, depictions of Israel in the U.S. media. I went to a session called How to Respond to Criticism of Israel.

MERAJI: How to Respond to Criticism of Israel. I am very interested in this. Tell us about that one.

DONNELLA: It was in a giant room. I would guess a few-hundred people were there. And there were three panelists, including the person leading the session, who was a man named Jonathan Kessler. Kessler is AIPAC's director of strategic initiatives. He's worked with AIPAC for 20 years. And he said that there seems to be a lot of confusion in distinguishing between legitimate criticism of Israel and Israel bashing.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIPAC CONFERENCE)

JONATHAN KESSLER: Now, I'm not terribly confused. I make the distinction effortlessly. But a whole lot of people on Capitol Hill, in the media, on campus, in this audience are looking for some guidance.

DONNELLA: So at the panel, there were some introductions. And then after that, the panelists spent about an hour taking questions from the audience.

DEMBY: Ok. So what kind of questions were the people in the audience asking?

DONNELLA: There was a whole range. So there were some about partisan politics.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIPAC CONFERENCE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: It seems like it's impossible to be a Zionist and a Democrat. Even the president has said that the Democratic Party is anti-Israel. So what's your advice to Democrats today, especially young ones like me, who feel like they might have to vote outside of their party in the next election or who feel like we're kind of lost?

DONNELLA: Questions about land and territory.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIPAC CONFERENCE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: A criticism of Israel that I see often is that they're occupying the West Bank. But I thought they won that land in the Six-Day War. So can you just explain to me what the criticism really is and how to defend against it?

DONNELLA: One was about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his embrace of the far-right.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIPAC CONFERENCE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: And then the same government embraces Otzma, which is a party that says any good Arab is a dead Arab. And how can I support an Israel that I love but that is not going to be able to be what it is supposed to be?

KESSLER: OK. So this could be...

MERAJI: How would you characterize the answers to all these questions?

DONNELLA: Well, AIPAC works to push forward pro-Israel legislation. So they're definitely coming with a point of view.

DEMBY: Right.

DONNELLA: For Jonathan Kessler, a lot of his responses boil down to ignore the haters and the trolls. Some of it involved explaining some of the country's history to people who might not know it. But the thing that really stood out to me that people kept coming back to was to remember that Jews have been victims of very serious oppression and genocide and that criticism of Israel needed to be understood within that context.

So no one asked this, but Kessler gave an example of a question about Israel that people might be asked, which was, why did the Jews steal land from the Palestinians? One of the panelists took kind of a legal approach to answering that question. One brought up the history of Jews in the region. And Kessler - he responded that this was all about survival.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIPAC CONFERENCE)

KESSLER: Jews, for 2,000 years, knew that they weren't at home anywhere except the land of Israel. And it's built into the faith tradition in every single way. But I don't have to remind the people in this room that after World War II, a whole lot of Jews were just looking to live. And they turned to the United States and to Canada and to the enlightened countries. And the enlightened countries said, none of you is too many of you. Go home. And there were no homes.

DONNELLA: So quick explanatory comment. In the wake of the Holocaust, there was the giant question of what would happen to survivors. Many of them wound up in refugee centers and displaced person camps in Europe. And there were quotas and restrictions on how many and what type of refugees could enter certain countries, including the U.S. and the U.K. Thousands of Jews actually tried to immigrate to Palestine, which, at the time, was controlled by the British. But the British intercepted many of those people and put them in detention camps in Cyprus.

But in the years immediately following World War II, there were tens of thousands of Jewish refugees who did resettle in the United States, Canada, Europe, South America and Palestine. So for Kessler, the question of where Jews wound up boiled down to what was fair.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIPAC CONFERENCE)

KESSLER: I think that fairness is something that we all understand. But the fact is the Jews never said, I'm starving. I want the whole loaf of bread. Never. They said, I'm starving. And my children are dying. And I want a slice of bread. And I can share this loaf. And the population there at the time said it's time for Jews to die, the end of history. And the Jews said no.

DONNELLA: So there, he's referring to the people who were living in Palestine at the time. I'm playing the statement for you, which is very provocative, because Jonathan Kessler's position is not fringe at AIPAC. A theme in that session was that Jews have faced discrimination and persecution everywhere they've lived throughout just about their entire history. So when people are critical of either Israel's policies or the idea of a Jewish state, that is the reaction a lot of people have. We have been victims of so much. We are still under threat. And we are entitled to a homeland.

DEMBY: All right, Leah, so that's what was going on inside the convention center. What was happening outside?

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: Free, free Palestine.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Free, free Palestine.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: Long live Palestine.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Long live Palestine.

DONNELLA: OK, so outside, just beyond the police at the entrances, there was a whole group of protesters and a lot of very impassioned rhetoric there, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Not another nickel. Not another dime.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: No more money for Israel's crime.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: No more money for Israel's crime.

DONNELLA: People were carrying Palestinian flags, chanting slogans. The protesters filled up about half a block. There were people holding signs that said things like free Palestine, end AIPAC, end all aid money to racist Israel. One said, why do Palestinians have to pay for the Holocaust?

ABBAS HAMIDEH: Either you are anti-occupation of Palestine, or you're not. You can't be on both sides of the fence. You cannot...

DONNELLA: That's Abbas Hamideh, the man who organized the protest. He describes himself as a Palestinian right-of-return activist. And just for some context, he's been called out in the past for comments that people describe as anti-Semitic. He went on to say that you can't talk about progress when people are continuing to suffer. And like the panel inside, a big focus of the protest was highlighting oppression. This time, it was the oppression that Palestinians and Arab Israelis face at the hands of the Israeli government.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HAMIDEH: ...That we are here to stand up for the voiceless Palestinians being gunned down every single day.

(CHEERING)

DONNELLA: He and some of the other protesters made the point that Nazi Germany committed genocide of the Jewish people, and yet, in the aftermath, it was the Palestinian people whose land was taken to create a Jewish state.

HAMIDEH: We are paying for Hitler's crime. We are paying for that price. While our people continue to be massacred and to be slaughtered, they throw it in our faces. We did not partake in the Jewish Holocaust. We stand against it, obviously.

DONNELLA: One of the things I found really interesting was the way people both inside and outside seemed to anticipate the pushback they were going to get. For example, the protesters were super aware of the fact that they were going to be portrayed as anti-Semitic. Hamideh brought that up in his speech. And they had some pretty clear messaging about that.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Judaism, yes. Zionism, no. Judaism, yes. Zionism, no.

DONNELLA: Judaism, yes. Zionism, no. It's a response to the fact that people who criticize Israel and people who are anti-Zionists are frequently painted as anti-Semites.

MERAJI: And for those who may not know, anti-Zionism is being against the Jewish state. So they're saying anti-Zionism is anti-Semitic.

DONNELLA: Yeah. A lot of people, including some folks inside AIPAC, make the argument that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism. And it's complicated, as we always say. Many people have talked and written about how the charge of anti-Semitism has been used in bad faith as a way to shut down certain discussions. And people have argued that there are sometimes ways in which Jewish history or the status of Jews as an oppressed group can get used to sidestep the idea that Israel, the Jewish state, could be an oppressor in any way. At the protest, which time and time again emphasized that it was not a protest against Jews - and in fact, many of the protesters were themselves Jewish - there were still a few moments that would have likely raised some alarms for people on the lookout for anti-Semitism. For example, one of the chants that kept springing up was Palestine will be free...

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: From the river to the sea.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: Palestine will be free.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Palestine will be free.

From the river to the sea.

DONNELLA: From the river to the sea is an old phrase. And people have used it in different ways. But some people connect it to the fact that Hamas, which is considered a terrorist group by the U.S., used that phrase in their rejection of the state of Israel.

MERAJI: And for those of you who've been following the news, this may sound familiar. Marc Lamont Hill was fired from his job as a CNN commentator in part for using that phrase.

DEMBY: All right, Leah, so you've got people inside this conference talking about being oppressed and how they're victims of anti-Semitism. You've got people outside talking about how they're oppressed and how they're the victims of Israel's racist policies.

DONNELLA: Yep, and there was one person who kept coming up in both spaces. And I think this person is another example of how different groups understand the same thing really differently. And that person was Ilhan Omar.

MERAJI: And we're going to talk more about Ilhan Omar after the break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: Shereen.

DEMBY: Gene.

MERAJI: CODE SWITCH. All right, Leah, you just took us to the AIPAC conference as a way to illustrate why it's so hard for Americans to talk about Israel. And you said one of the people who both the protesters and the conference attendees seemed fixated on was Ilhan Omar, the first-term Democratic Representative from Minnesota.

DONNELLA: That's right. The protesters outside were looking at Omar as someone who had been drowned out and scapegoated when she tried to bring up some very valid concerns about the influence of the Israel lobby on American politics. Meanwhile, inside at AIPAC, Benjamin Netanyahu made a speech that referenced Omar.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: Take it from this Benjamin. It's not about the Benjamins.

DONNELLA: And one of the AIPAC panelists referred to her as someone who believes in, quote, "the destruction of Israel," and was trying to normalize hate speech.

JILL JACOBS: There are some people who say any criticism of Israel is anti-Semitism or virtually any criticism of Israel is anti-Semitism.

DONNELLA: That's Jill Jacobs, a rabbi and the executive director of an organization called T'ruah.

JACOBS: And in the other side, people say no criticism of Israel is anti-Semitism. And the fact that some criticism of Israel is definitely not anti-Semitism doesn't mean that no criticism of Israel can be anti-Semitism.

DONNELLA: Jacobs wrote a piece in The Washington Post about a year ago called "How To Tell When Criticism Of Israel Is Actually Anti-Semitism." And she told me one good question to begin with is, why do Americans want to talk about Israel so much?

JACOBS: And my response to that is that there are a lot of reasons that people single out Israel.

DONNELLA: Anti-Semitism is one of those reasons.

JACOBS: And also, Israel is the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, not counting the places that the U.S. has invaded.

DONNELLA: Lots of different religious groups have ties to that region.

JACOBS: It's a holy place for Jews, Christians and Muslims. So people have always been obsessed with Israel.

DONNELLA: And unlike a lot of places with big human rights issues, Israel is easy for many Americans to get to.

JACOBS: Meaning that you can get in a plane. You can go there. You can take photos. You can tweet from there - whereas there are other places in the world with horrible human rights records that are basically inaccessible.

DONNELLA: By the way, in the past few years, there have been about as many U.N. resolutions condemning Israel as the rest of the world combined.

MERAJI: Wow. I had no idea about that.

DONNELLA: And people argue about why that is. Another reason, she says - there's a very strong, prominent U.S.-based pro-Israel lobby, which includes AIPAC.

JACOBS: Whereas there's not a visible, necessarily, pro-Syria or a pro-China lobby. Though, of course, those places do invest a lot in trying to direct U.S. foreign policy. But they're not visible.

DONNELLA: OK, here's another major reason Israel gets talked about so much.

JACOBS: The Palestinians themselves, over the last 70 years, have built up a liberation movement that has also been dependent on there being a very large Palestinian diaspora around the world, which has also contributed to building up support for the Palestinian movement both in the U.S. and abroad.

DONNELLA: This last point is something that often gets overlooked. But there are really high stakes here for Palestinians. When Israel was created in 1948, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were displaced from their homes. Saree Makdisi, a professor I spoke to from UCLA, talked about the everyday violence that happens today in Israel and the Palestinian territories - people being stopped at checkpoints, unable to get doctors or to schools or to their families. Given all that, Jacobs said she wants to make it easier for people to talk about Israel and specifically to criticize Israel in a way that doesn't wade into anti-Semitism.

DEMBY: All right. So what does she say we shouldn't do?

DONNELLA: Well, she says we shouldn't depict Jews or Zionists as insidious influencers who are behind the scenes of world events.

JACOBS: This is a classic anti-Semitic trope. It's used both by the right and by the left. So on the right, we have, for example - famously - the ad of Donald Trump's campaign in 2016 in which he flashed pictures of George Soros, Lloyd Blankfein and Janet Yellen, who are prominent and visible Jews, and warned of a global power structure and of people pulling the levers of power.

MERAJI: Huh. Let's just wait one second here because I know that Israel's leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, has said publicly that Israel has never had a better friend than Donald Trump. So I'm - this is confusing me.

DONNELLA: Yeah, it's confusing. Rabbi Jacobs says the global Jewish conspiracy theory comes from a book called "The Protocols Of The Elders Of Zion."

DEMBY: I've actually heard of that book - infamous. Right? It's...

MERAJI: I haven't.

DEMBY: Really? It's, like, one of the principal texts of anti-Semitism. It goes - it was supposedly the words of a Jewish conspiracy that secretly runs the world. It's all made up. It's all fake. It's completely bogus. But over the years, it's been translated into all these languages. And it's become, like - it has, like, a - cycles of popularity with bigots like Henry Ford and the KKK and Adolf Hitler.

DONNELLA: And Jacobs says that logic in that book is the same logic that was behind the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, where a man killed 11 people at a bris. The accused gunman talked about Jews as being the ones responsible for bringing refugees into the U.S.

Another way she sees anti-Semitism crop up is when people use the term Zionist as a code for either Jew or Israeli.

JACOBS: The idea is to take this away from being a criticism of a country and instead have it be a criticism of these kind of shadowy Zionists, whoever those people are.

DONNELLA: Jacobs says one example is people suggesting that Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam was coming up against Zionist pressure when he was criticized for making comments like - referring to the synagogue of Satan.

JACOBS: So we have to ask there - well, what do you mean by Zionist pressure? Do you mean this is pressure from people who believe that there should be a state for the Jews? Do you mean Jews? Do you actually mean that the state of Israel is doing these things?

DONNELLA: Another marker is denying Jewish history, like, for example, denying that Jewish people have a legit connection to the land of Israel.

JACOBS: This is our heritage, and this is the core narrative of the Jewish people. And for other people to come in and say - oh, sorry - that place that you've been praying for 2,000 years that's deep in your liturgy and in every single one of your holidays that you're mourning for, you don't actually have any connection to that.

DONNELLA: She says you can argue about what it means to have a modern Jewish nation-state in the ancient land of Israel.

JACOBS: But the minute that you say, sorry, you don't have any history in this place, that crosses into a denial of our very identity.

DONNELLA: Jacobs says there's also a tendency to dismiss the humanity of Israelis, like downplaying the significance of Israelis being killed.

JACOBS: Like, just denying how bad it is or saying, yes, well, more Palestinians have been killed - which is true. It is - Palestinians' human rights are violated every single day that the occupation continues. And more Palestinians have died; more Palestinians have been injured. And that doesn't mean that it's OK when an Israeli is injured or killed.

DONNELLA: She said we don't have to talk about the violence as being equivalent.

JACOBS: But we can't just excuse rocket fire. And we certainly can't excuse blowing up Israeli civilians in a bus or in a restaurant or a coffee shop.

DONNELLA: OK. The last marker on Jacobs' list is assuming that the Israeli government speaks for all Jews.

JACOBS: I can say I'm a patriotic American, and virtually nobody will assume that that means that I support the current administration. In fact, my patriotism moves me to try to resist the policies of the current administration, which I think are destructive to America.

DONNELLA: But Jacobs says what often happens to prominent American Jews is that they'll go to speak at a rally about immigration or some other issue. And..

JACOBS: Somebody will scream at the stage - what about Palestine? - or criticize them for not speaking about Palestine. But actually, American Jews have the right to speak about any issue we want. We don't always have to be responsible for speaking about Israel just as we would never hold, let's say, a Syrian-American responsible for talking about Assad every time they get up to speak about any issue.

DONNELLA: Related to that, by the way, is assuming that the Israeli government speaks for all Israelis, which is also very much not true.

MERAJI: OK. Given all these points, I do want to go back to Congresswoman Ilhan Omar. What did Jacobs have to say about her controversial comments?

DONNELLA: Well, Rabbi Jacobs said that to her, some of those phrases did have anti-Semitic resonances. Like in the all about the Benjamins tweet, she said the stereotype was of a Jew using money to buy influence.

DEMBY: But the thing that makes it so messy, Leah, is that we are talking about people - not Jews necessarily - but we are talking about lobbyists, people who are spending money to buy influence.

DONNELLA: Right. And I think that's why it's really important to be specific about who and what we're talking about when we're referring to money buying some sort of influence.

Another thing Rabbi Jacobs said was that hearing anti-Semitic phrases is not a good enough reason to shut down important conversations. That means there's a need to educate people about stereotypes. But it also means there's a need for people, especially Jews in this case, to stay invested in conversations about social justice, even if it means dealing with some uncomfortable moments.

DEMBY: OK.

DONNELLA: And of course, everyone can decide for themselves when a space feels truly unsafe.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: We must never ignore the vile poison of anti-Semitism or those who spread its venomous creed.

DONNELLA: Jacobs also brought up the State of the Union address, where she said President Trump made statements that were both acknowledging anti-Semitism and dripping with xenophobia.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: Year after year, countless Americans are murdered by criminal, illegal aliens.

DONNELLA: And in response to Ilhan Omar's comments, President Trump said that the Democratic Party has become an anti-Israel party and an anti-Jewish party.

JACOBS: It's extremely dangerous for progressive movements if anti-Semitism is weaponized as it's being weaponized by the right in such a way that it's going to drive a wedge between Jewish communities and minority communities because, ultimately, what we have to do is we have to fight white nationalism, which is trying to force a vision of America that excludes anybody who's not white and Christian.

DONNELLA: So I want to introduce you to Phyllis Bennis. She says that much of the uproar over Ilhan Omar's comments wasn't about actual anti-Semitism.

PHYLLIS BENNIS: It's fundamentally far more about who she is in making these criticisms of Israeli policy and U.S. support for Israeli policy than she is being criticized for what she said by itself.

DONNELLA: Bennis is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and the author of "Understanding The Palestinian-Israeli Conflict." She points out that Omar is one of just three Muslim members of Congress.

BENNIS: She's also an African immigrant. She's a Somali immigrant. She is a former refugee. She wears a hijab proudly in the halls of Congress. There are tons of people in Congress, in the White House, in the media and all over this country who think that someone like that does not belong in this Congress.

DONNELLA: Bennis has worked on issues of Palestinian rights for decades. She's also on the national board of Jewish Voice for Peace, which advocates for Palestinian rights. Recently, Omar was at a restaurant in Washington, D.C., where she got in trouble for these comments.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ILHAN OMAR: I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country.

DONNELLA: Critics said she was again trafficking in anti-Semitic tropes. She used the phrase allegiance to a foreign country, which some saw as raising the stereotype of Jews having dual loyalty or not really being American.

Bennis was actually at the restaurant when Omar made those comments.

BENNIS: A lot of the commentary has been based on what people thought she must have said, what they thought she meant - and not looking at what she actually said.

DONNELLA: Bennis says Omar, at the time, was talking about the Israel lobby and how they exert pressure on members of Congress. And she pointed out that the Israel lobby is made up of lots of groups, both Jewish and non-Jewish.

BENNIS: But in the same context, she talked about other lobbies who do the same thing. She referenced the NRA.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OMAR: The NRA, of...

BENNIS: She referenced big pharma.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OMAR: ...Or big pharma.

BENNIS: She referenced the fossil fuels lobbies and said these lobbies use money and other means to pressure Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OMAR: ...That is influencing policies.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: That's right.

(APPLAUSE)

BENNIS: In that context, she was talking about the Israel lobby, which of course includes groups like AIPAC and groups like CUFI, Christians United for Israel - not a Jewish organization. She was not talking about Jews at all. So the notion that she was somehow using an anti-Semitic trope about Jews having dual loyalties or Jewish allegiance to Israel being the problem simply isn't connected to reality.

DONNELLA: Bennis said the language Omar was using wasn't even particularly unusual.

BENNIS: I ran some comparisons and found out that The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune and the U.S. News & World Report all have used the language allegiance to Israel - to describe the president, the White House, members of Congress, Congress as a whole and a host of other institutions and individuals. Not quoting anyone but in the context of news articles describing how - the president, eager to prove his allegiance to Israel, said X; the member of Congress, eager to prove their allegiance to Israel, said Y. No one ever thinks anything of it.

DONNELLA: There's something else at play here, too. And that is shifting political attitudes around Israel. Bennis was one of several people I spoke to who said that a lot of what we've seen recently - the uproar around Omar's comments, Trump's unprecedented announcement about the Golan Heights, Senator Marco Rubio proposing a resolution to sanction organizations that boycott Israel - all this is happening because space is opening up to talk about the U.S.'s relationship with Israel in a more nuanced way.

BENNIS: When I was a young Jewish kid growing up in California, we didn't have a lot of choices politically. If you identified as Jewish, you identified with Israel. That's what it meant to be Jewish. There were no alternatives. Suddenly, what we see in the last decade or so, there are choices for young Jews growing up in this country. There's a left, a right and a center - the way there is in every other community.

DONNELLA: She says now there's an understanding that Israel doesn't necessarily reflect the values that she grew up with.

BENNIS: The Jewish community has always prided itself on standing for justice, being victims of a massive injustice with, particularly, the Holocaust and other injustices as well - my grandfather came from Russia escaping the pogroms at the turn of the 20th century. Those have been a reality of Jewish life. And the fight for civil rights, the fight for equality always involves significant numbers of Jews.

DONNELLA: But Bennis says that, for many years, that fight for equality didn't include taking a hard look at Israel.

BENNIS: So Jews who marched with Dr. King would come back and raise money for Israel at the time of the '67 war, when Israel was in the process of occupying other people's lands. I was part of that, too, as a kid. And we recognized that Israel was somehow different.

DONNELLA: But eventually, she said that stopped making sense to her and to many of the other people who were trying to fight racial injustice.

BENNIS: Our parents' and grandparents' generation fought against Jim Crow segregation. So how is it that we're prepared to accept an Israeli state that says, for example, as their new nation-state law that was just passed a few months ago, and says explicitly that, in the Land of Israel, only Jews have the right of self-determination. That's not the kind of Israel that I grew up wanting to support.

DONNELLA: Related to that nation-state law, by the way, was Netanyahu's statement a few weeks ago that Israel is, quote, "the national state, not of all its citizens but only of the Jewish people," unquote.

And so Bennett says there's a giant political shift underway, both among younger generations of American Jews and in the national conversation around Israel and in the media.

BENNIS: We have not been seeing that much of a change inside the Beltway. We have not been seeing a change in Congress. Right now we are seeing that change because we have this new crop of young, mainly women of color - Muslims, Native folks, Palestinians and others - who have been elected to Congress precisely because their base understands that they will be willing to speak out on things that were considered taboo. They have broken taboos.

DONNELLA: Breaking taboos is going to provoke a reaction.

SAREE MAKDISI: But the interesting thing wasn't the reaction because you can kind of script that.

DONNELLA: That's Saree Makdisi. He's a professor at UCLA and the author of "Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation."

MAKDISI: The interesting thing was, when she was being singled out for criticism, not by Republicans - because they seized on it first - but by the Democratic Party leadership who immediately tried to censor her and tried to - you know, rolled out this - what they thought was going to be a straightforward kind of piece of legislation to condemn her basically. And then they got this ferocious pushback from younger Democrats, from Democratic activists - some Palestinian and Jewish and all kinds of other activists connected to the Democratic Party - saying you can't do that.

MERAJI: Members of the Congressional Black Caucus also stepped in to complain about how quickly Democratic leadership was willing to condemn a black Muslim woman when they let offensive comments by white male politicians go by unchallenged all the time.

MAKDISI: The old process whereby somebody who dares criticize Israel or the influence of the Israeli lobby in Washington would get crushed, that's gone. In a way, there's more freedom now, strangely enough.

DONNELLA: That freedom includes room to talk about the ways in which Palestinians and non-Jewish Israelis face racism and discrimination.

MAKDISI: For example, somebody who's Jewish and somebody who's not Jewish cannot marry each other in the state. There is no mechanism for them to marry each other - or that Jewish and non-Jewish populations live almost entirely separately from each other. I'm talking about citizens of the state. Or that Jewish and non-Jewish children in the state of Israel who are all citizens go to separate schools and that, you know, the structures of separation and discrimination and disenfranchisement are built into the logic of the state.

DONNELLA: He says that's hard to hear for people who really believe in the idea of a Jewish state. There can be this cognitive dissonance.

MAKDISI: Because somebody who's liberal - somebody who, you know, espouses liberal values and tolerance and so on and so forth, of course they can't acknowledge that they're supporting a racist enterprise. It's very, very difficult.

DONNELLA: He says Israel is a Jewish state that has always had a substantial Palestinian minority.

MAKDISI: And so if you say OK; well, so we want to have this Jewish state theoretically. But what do we do with this non-Jewish population in the Jewish state? Like, at what point does this - the existence of this non-Jewish population within the territory of the state - at what point does it become a problem? Is 20 percent OK? Well, what about 25 or 30 percent, 40 percent? At what percentage does it suddenly become an issue? So what you have kind of built into this idea is this notion that somehow this minority has to always be kept under control because if there's too many of them, if they speak too loudly, if they start making too many demands that are multicultural, multilinguistic, multireligious, multiconfessional rather than simply only Jewish in nature, you're going to have an issue because then it's not really a Jewish state at that point - right? - because it's got this other population inside it.

And so the - for me, the fundamental question is - if one wants to have a Jewish state, who pays the price for the existence of the state, and what kind of cost is anybody willing to pay for this monocultural state to exist?

DONNELLA: Makdisi said all of this is especially difficult given the circumstances under which Israel was founded - in the aftermath of the Holocaust.

MAKDISI: This is one of the terrible ironies of the situation is that a people that have suffered so much at the hands of racist and institutionalized forms of exclusion and ghettoization and racism and violence and so forth for all of this time, now they are the ones - now - mind you, not as a people, but as a state project - they are the ones that are carrying this out on another people who are basically paying the price, if you want, for centuries of European anti-Semitism.

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DONNELLA: So why is it so hard for Americans to talk about Israel? Jill Jacobs pointed out that many of us struggle to even specify who and what we're talking about. Phyllis Bennis made the case that how we interpret these conversations is about how we feel about the people engaging in them. And then, as Saree Makdisi just brought up, there's this tension over the question of who has been oppressed, who can be an oppressor, what are the victims of oppression owed and who is obligated to make things right.

But all three of them brought up one very important idea. Racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism - these things are all related, and fighting against any of them requires recognizing all of them.

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MERAJI: That's CODE SWITCH team member and our assistant editor Leah Donnella. And that's our show.

DEMBY: Please follow us on Twitter. We're @nprcodeswitch. We want hear from you as always. Our email is codeswitch@npr.org. You can always send us your burning questions about race with the subject line Ask CODE SWITCH. Sign up for our newsletter at npr.org/newsletter/code-switch. And subscribe to the podcast on NPR One or wherever you get your podcasts.

MERAJI: This episode was produced by Sami Yenigun and Leah Donnella with help from Tiara Jenkins. This piece was edited by Sami Yenigun, Steve Drummond, Mark Memmott and Larry Kaplow.

DEMBY: And shout-out to the rest of the CODE SWITCH fam - Karen Grigsby Bates, Adrian Florido, Kat Chow, Kumari Devarajan and Maria Paz Gutierrez. I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: Be easy, y'all.

MERAJI: Peace.

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