Rep. Ilhan Omar’s (D-Minn.) campaign recently sent out a mail piece ripping her primary opponent, attorney Antone Melton-Meaux, for the large donations he’s gotten from wealthy and moderate donors. The only donors to her opponent identified by name in the mailer are Jewish.
The mailer, received by voters in the district last week and obtained by VICE News, leads with the headline “Can We Trust Antone Melton-Meaux’s Money?” It accuses him of being “in the pocket of the GOP,” “in the pocket of Wall Street,” and “in the pocket of the medical industry,” and pulls various quotes from a MinnPost article and a BuzzFeed article about his donors attacking Omar.
The only names cited in the mailer are Stanley Weinstein, a retired real estate executive from Miami Beach who was the only on-record BuzzFeed quote; billionaire Jonathan Gray, the head of Blackstone Group private equity firm; and Seth Klarman, a billionaire hedge fund owner who has donated in the past to the GOP. All three men are Jewish (both MinnPost and the mailer inaccurately refer to Gray as “John”).
None of Melton-Meaux’s other donors are mentioned by name in the mailer. The only other quote with identifying information attached to it is from “Michael, a donor from Scarsdale, New York” — one of the wealthiest and most heavily Jewish towns in the country.
Melton-Meaux has raised an eye-popping amount for a little-known House challenger — $3.2 million in the last quarter — and much of that money has come from pro-Israel organizations as well as Jewish donors, some of whom have donated in the past to Republicans or work on Wall Street. It’s a common campaign tactic for progressives to attack their moderate foes for taking big corporate money. But by solely mentioning Jewish donors by name while painting Melton-Meaux as being in their “pocket” to do their bidding on financial issues, her campaign’s mailer makes an argument that critics see as an anti-Semitic trope — especially in light of her string of previous controversial remarks about Israel.
The mail piece has triggered a heated debate within Minneapolis’ Jewish community.
“My immediate thought when I saw the mailer was ‘Here we go again.’ This had both implicit and explicit anti-Semitic tropes,” said Rabbi Avi Olitzky of the Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, the center of Greater Minneapolis’ Jewish community.
Olitzky, who publicly endorsed Melton-Meaux on Wednesday, said he was especially frustrated because he’d personally discussed with Omar why her earlier remarks bothered him so much.
“Most disappointing were the presence of tropes that we’d personally discussed as hurtful, as offensive, and that I received a commitment not only would it not happen again but education would take place to learn more as to why it’s a problem,” he told VICE News. “I am beyond dismayed that especially in the heat of the primary season, such nuanced hate still rises to campaign literature.”
Olitzky has criticized Omar for some of her past statements, backed another candidate in her 2018 primary, and plans to vote for Melton-Meaux. But he’s also publicly defended Omar in the past against racist attacks.
Omar’s defenders within the Jewish community bristled at questions about the mailer.
“Ilhan’s opponents have sought to paint her as anti-Semitic at every turn, even before she was elected to Congress. This is just the latest step in that, where the campaign is just speaking truthfully and honestly about opposition to its agenda and the counter-movement against progressive change in this country,” said Evan Stern, a progressive activist in the district who is Jewish and supports Omar. “The people who don’t want to see that are going back to this old attack on anti-Semitism, and it’s tired. The Jews in this district are tired. It’s bullshit.”
Stern’s exhaustion is shared by many members of the local Jewish community, who make up only about 3% of Omar’s constituents. Both her supporters and critics are wary of the intense attention her comments and their subsequent fallout have drawn to their small community, worried that it could fuel anti-Semitic sentiment. Many declined to discuss the mailer on-the-record because of how charged any talk of anti-Semitism is in the district.
But even some of Omar’s Jewish supporters privately expressed frustration that the mail piece went out, saying that given Omar’s past controversies she and her team should have shown more sensitivity and known the mailer was problematic.
“It was sloppy work that staff allowed this to go out without any type of critical review,” said one progressive Jewish activist in the district who’s voting for Omar. “I don’t know if it’s intentional. But it’s like, ‘Hey you guys, you need to be double extra careful about this; there's a magnifying glass on this issue.”
That Omar supporter said that the mail piece had become the latest all-consuming conversation about the freshman member of Congress, saying they had fielded “millions of calls” about it in the days since the piece landed in mailboxes.
Joel Rubin, who served as Bernie Sanders’ Jewish outreach director and previously served in the State Department under President Obama, said the kerfuffle was much ado about nothing.
“I’ve never met a Democratic candidate in the progressive space who hasn’t railed against Wall Street, the GOP and pharma,” he said, pointing out that the quotes were all from news stories and that it used every named quote from Buzzfeed.
Rubin said Omar would have faced even harsher condemnation if she’d attacked the donors for coming after her over Israel — and said he was much more bothered by Melton-Meaux’s recent campaign communications.
“Antone puts out emails equating Jewish donations to questions about Israel. Apparently that’s OK. ‘You Jews love Israel; that’s what you care about.’ That’s kosher? It feeds into this issue of dual loyalty that is deeply problematic,” he said.
Melton-Meaux has recently conflated support for Israel with support for the Jewish community. In a tin-eared email his campaign sent out earlier this week, Melton-Meaux acknowledged the influx of major contributions this way. After asking rhetorically, “Will the money you’ve received from the Jewish community influence your policy decisions?” he replied negatively, outlining his disagreements with Israel’s policies.
As Melton-Meaux acknowledges, it’s simply a fact that much if not most of his support is coming from national pro-Israel groups and Jewish donors.
NORPAC and Pro-Israel America, a pair of hawkish pro-Israel groups that back both Democrats and Republicans, have combined to bundle nearly a half-million dollars for Melton-Meaux.
The claim that wealthy Jews use their money to control public policy and society is an anti-Semitic trope that goes back centuries, as is the charge that Jews have dual loyalties to their own country and their people and so can’t be trusted as good patriots — an attack that’s grown in potency since Israel became a country.
Omar has made past comments that many read as playing into both tropes and stirred national controversy — a main reason her opponent is getting so much support from pro-Israel organizations as well as the reason this mailer has drawn such attention locally.
In 2012, she tweeted “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.” That old tweet resurfaced after she tweeted “It's all about the Benjamins baby” in reference to an article criticizing GOP leaders for attacking her over Israel, arguing that they went after her because of large donations from the pro-Israel lobby.
She eventually apologized for both remarks, but landed in hot water again when she said “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is okay to push for allegiance to a foreign country” as she talked about the pro-Israel lobby. She’s refused to apologize for those comments, saying they were misconstrued.
Those comments led to a widespread rebuke from Democrats and a House resolution that was initially written to decry anti-Semitism but eventually was watered down to condemn various forms of hate after many Democrats expressed anger that she was being unfairly singled out.
Her advisers declined to discuss on-record whether she had personally approved of the mail piece or whether the campaign realized that only Jewish donors were quoted in the piece before it was sent out.
“Our campaign is supported by a grassroots coalition of people of all faiths, background and ethnicities,” Omar spokesman Isaiah Breen said in a statement. "Rightwing donors are going on the record explicitly declaring their hate for Ilhan and desire to unseat her, using overtly xenophobic language. But we will continue to build an inclusive movement fighting for an America where everyone has their basic rights protected."
The Buzzfeed article didn’t quote any other donors by name, but the MinnPost article did — as did an extensive HuffPost piece about Melton-Meaux’s donors that Omar’s campaign didn’t use. All three pieces made it clear that many Jewish donors say they’re donating against Omar because of her past controversial remarks about Israel, but Omar’s mailer instead argues his big donations are about replacing her with a congressman who won’t threaten his donors’ bottom line.
Omar, one of Congress’s most staunchly progressive members and a member of “The Squad,” herself has made a similar pivot herself.
“There are people who are invested in keeping that status quo, people who don’t want these structural changes to take place and those are really the people who have the resources to allocate to oust someone like me,” she told a local CBS affiliate when asked about his donations.
When directly asked if she thought her opponent would have raised the money he had if not for her controversial comments on Israel, she responded that “A majority of the resources and the people that are invested in this election in the most progressive district in the United States are part of the people who fund people like Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump, people who have invested in a Muslim ban.”
Omar’s campaign recently released a letter from more than 100 Jewish supporters in the district. Two of Omar’s top campaign advisers are Jewish — Breen and communications director Jeremy Slevin. And she was a vocal surrogate for Bernie Sanders’ presidential run, as Sanders became the most successful Jewish presidential candidate in history.
Any discussion of anti-Semitism is inherently fraught — especially as it relates to Omar, who has had to apologize for cringeworthy past statements but also has faced bad-faith, racist attacks.
Her defenders on the left correctly point out that she gets a lot more attention as a Somali refugee and one of the first two Muslim women to serve in Congress for her remarks about Israel than many on the right do when they creep towards anti-Semitisim. Her earlier remarks created much more of a media firestorm, for instance, than when then-candidate Donald Trump told a group of wealthy Jewish Republicans that they wouldn't back him because “I don't want your money” and “You want to control your politicians.”
Omar has been the target of plenty of racist and Islamophobic attacks herself. Trump led a rally crowd in chanting “send her back.” Just earlier this week, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) retweeted a meme claiming to show her at an Al Qaeda training camp in Somalia — even though the photo was taken four years before she was born.
The Omar campaign mail piece may have simply been sloppy work. It even misspells “Muslim,” claiming that some of Melton-Meaux’s donors “support the same elected officials who support the Mulism Ban.”
Even some of Omar’s harsher critics didn’t see much wrong with the mailer.
Stanley Weinstein, the retired real estate executive whose quote to Buzzfeed was included in her mail piece, said he didn’t think the mail piece on its own was anti-Semitic — though he said her previous remarks and stances had made it clear to him that she was.
“This in itself? No. But I find her anti-Semitic,” he said when sent the mail piece. “She is trying to capitalize on people that hate her. She’s saying ‘look at these kind of people.’ I don’t think there’s anybody in the Jewish community that likes her, in business that likes her, Republicans that like her. Who’s she choosing? This is natural stuff that she would say.”
Krasner and Gray, the other Melton-Meaux donors mentioned in Omar’s mail piece, declined to comment, and Melton-Meaux’s campaign didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Cover: U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., speaks at a rally in Springfield, Mass. on Feb. 29, 2020. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh File)