Consider this scenario: A legislator from the Midwest targets Israel with a passion and vitriol that smacks of anti-Semitism. The legislator alleges that Israel’s supporters in Washington are bought off with Jewish money and that they have too much influence over our politics. When many Americans express their outrage at such comments, the legislator invokes the right to free speech and insists that the sentiments expressed were all for the just cause of getting American policy on a more reasonable and moral path.
This has been the dynamic surrounding Democratic Representative Ilhan Omar’s disturbing comments about Israel and America’s relationship with the Jewish state. But Omar’s false accusations and the outrage they’ve generated are not without precedent. She is not the first U.S. representative to give public voice to vicious anti-Israel (and anti-American) bigotry and claim the mantle of righteousness. Before Omar, there was the Republican congressman Paul Findley, who died August 9 at the age of 98.
Findley represented Illinois’s 20th district from 1961 to 1983. For many years of his congressional career, his foreign-policy ideas were relatively anodyne. As he put it, “I just plain had no interest in the Middle East.” This made sense, as his constituents were not much interested in the Middle East, either. But in the late 1970s, after a trip to South Yemen to secure the release of a detained constituent, he had a chance interaction with representatives of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). He soon claimed to have gotten PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat to “put down on paper” an agreement to “establish peace [and] avoid controversy with Israel, if an independent Palestine were established on the West Bank and Gaza, with a connecting corridor.” (In an interview Findley granted in 2013, he admitted that Arafat “approved, but declined to sign” this piece of paper.)
The following year, Findley took his ties with Arafat a step further and invited the infamous PLO terror leader for talks in New York City. Findley even called himself “Arafat’s best friend in Congress.”
At the time, Findley may not have understood why his diplomatic freelancing and his legitimizing of the PLO prompted alarm. He claimed he was merely eminently diplomatic. A former Hill staffer says that Findley “saw himself as a kind of secretary of state for Congress.” The staffer recalls that concerned professionals from the pro-Israel community paid several personal visits to Findley’s Capitol Hill offices to address the congressman’s PLO outreach. But the more they engaged, the more Findley strengthened his pro-PLO positions.
Findley was clearly chafed by them, and was also angry at his congressional colleagues for not following his lead. Looking back, he wrote, “scores of times over the years, I have sat in committee and in the chamber of the House of Representatives as my colleagues behaved, as an undersecretary of state once described them, like ‘trained poodles’ jumping through hoops held for them.” The “them” referred to pro-Israel organizations.
By 1980, the pro-Israel community in Washington had clearly identified Findley as a problem. In 1982, he lost his seat to Richard Durbin and was, not surprisingly, convinced that his defeat came at the hands of the Israel lobby. But it’s actually hard to credit pro-Israel activists with Findley’s ouster because their spat with him didn’t make the headlines very often. Findley rarely took public shots at his critics. And his critics pulled their punches as well. This was how most business was conducted on Capitol Hill back then. The relative calm was also likely the result of staffers in Findley’s office who sought to carefully steer their boss away from controversy. Both Findley’s office and the pro-Israel community believed that their time was best spent developing friends rather than deepening public animosity in Washington.
After Findley left office, however, things got far uglier. The seeming gentleman from Illinois dropped all pretense. In 1985, he authored They Dare to Speak Out: People and Institutions Confront Israel’s Lobby. In the book, updated and republished twice, Findley unleashed a torrent of venom toward Israel and its supporters, and lionized Israel’s detractors. He spoke disapprovingly of Jewish money, Jewish groups in Washington, Jewish groups on campus, Jewish congressmen, and Jewish influence. Findley claimed that the pro-Israel community had a stranglehold on congressional politics and American foreign policy. He took a shot at Christian groups too, but expressed more empathy for them because their “religious convictions…made them susceptible to the appeals of the Israel lobby.” Findley even lamented how former President Jimmy Carter, no fan of Zionism, was “yielding to the lobby on relations with Israel.” All of these claims were not only false—they also veered into the realm of anti-Semitism.
Findley continued to hammer Israel and its supporters long after his book stopped selling. For him, it became the very basis for his post-congressional career. In 1987, he asserted that American legislators believed that their electoral fates were controlled singularly by the Israel lobby. They are convinced, he noted, “that Israel’s lobby has the power, by channeling election-year political donations either to them or to their political opponents, to determine whether or not they will be re-elected.” Two years later, he went on to found the Council for the National Interest, a nonprofit organization that even now frames outrage against obsessive anti-Israel legislators as an “anti-Semitism scam.”
There were few realms of public life behind which Findley couldn’t detect the purported presence of Zionist manipulators. In 1990, amid the lead-up to the first war with Iraq, he asserted that Israel’s “zealous supporters occupy influential positions throughout U.S. society—not just in the media—and are employed by the U.S. government in every office that has any important relationship to the making of U.S. policy in the Middle East.” He went on: “Relentlessly, step by step, they have assiduously developed over the years a tight grip on America’s Middle East policy.”
In 1995, even after Israel and the Palestinians entered into the Oslo peace process, Findley published another book attacking Israel. His new screed was Deliberate Deceptions: Facing the Facts about the U.S.–Israeli Relationship. It was Findley’s attempt to further cast the complexities of the Middle East as matters of right and wrong, with Israel always on the side of the latter.
Findley’s obsession with Israel’s alleged wrongdoing continued to deepen, a characteristic feature of anti-Semitism. In 2002, he blamed the 9/11 attacks on Israel. “Nine-eleven would not have occurred if the U.S. government had refused to help Israel humiliate and destroy Palestinian society,” he wrote on a website called If Americans Knew. “Few express this conclusion publicly, but many believe it is the truth. I believe the catastrophe could have been prevented if any U.S. president during the past 35 years had had the courage and wisdom to suspend all U.S. aid until Israel withdrew from the Arab land seized in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.”
Findley’s preoccupation with the supposed silencing of Israel’s critics is another distinctive feature of pathological opposition to Israel. He asserted: “On Capitol Hill, criticism of Israel, even in private conversation, is all but forbidden, treated as downright unpatriotic, if not anti-Semitic. The continued absence of free speech was assured when those few who spoke out…were defeated at the polls by candidates heavily financed by pro-Israel forces.”
In 2005, Findley asserted that Israel was behind the second Iraq war, which was by then mired in the insurgency and deeply unpopular across America. “Our forces invaded because Israel wanted us to topple Saddam,” he wrote in the Huffington Post. Of particular interest was this line: “Two religious communities—one consisting of a combination of secular and ultra-Orthodox Jews and the other of misguided Christian fundamentalists—control U.S. Middle East policies.” The implication here is that Jews are simply being Jews, while Christian supporters of Israel are merely misguided. “Both believe their messiahs will come only when present-day Israel is strong and united,” he went on. “Until our government is liberated from those lobbies, we face big trouble.”
Findley would later be even more explicit about his views on the Iraq war. “Israel—and only Israel—urged the United States to invade Iraq,” he wrote in 2007. The assertion that the United States commits itself to war solely to advance Israel’s interests is a classic anti-Semitic canard.
The former congressman did not mellow with age. In 2014, the nonagenarian Findley asserted, “The influence of Israel, as of today, is so great on Capitol Hill that [U.S. representatives] see dangers of not surviving the next election if they challenge what Israel is doing.” The Anti-Defamation League noted this as an outward sign of anti-Semitism. But Findley only doubled down. In 2015, he spokeat the National Press Club in Washington where he lashed out at the “suffocating influence of the lobby for Israel across America.” He continued: “It’s as if a blanket, a suffocating blanket, had been spread across the entire nation.”
Findley’s example shows how the vitriol exhibited today by Ilhan Omar or her co-freshman congresswoman Rashida Tlaib is nothing new. These controversial legislators are Findley’s progeny. Of course, there are significant differences between then and now—differences that make plain why Findley, malign as his anti-Israel animus was, didn’t have the effect on public discourse that Omar and Tlaib now enjoy.
Today, the toxic and polarized political atmosphere in Washington grants the most outrageous political flamethrowers (even ones with no experience) an outsize megaphone. This stands in stark contrast to the political norms of the 1960s and 1970s, which called for more decorum among our politicians, even if American politics had become more unwieldly relative to the generations prior.
Then there is the impact of social media, a phenomenon that was hardly conceivable during Findley’s days in office. Twitter and Facebook have transformed the way politicians engage on issues and relate to their constituents. Rather than seeking to avoid conflict, legislators now run toward political feuds on these and other platforms.
Finally, there’s the difference in American attitudes toward Israel, both in our leading political parties and among the public. When Findley turned against the Jewish state in the late 1970s, the Republican Party was split: Its old guard saw no compelling reason to upset our oil-producing Arab allies by adopting an especially close alliance with Israel. A younger wave of Republicans, animated by an appreciation of shared values and moved by the plight of Soviet Jewry, saw an important natural ally in Israel. That wave came to dominate the GOP and left voices like Findley’s in the wilderness. Additionally, Israel enjoyed broad and unapologetic public support among the American electorate.
Ilhan Omar is riding the crest of a very different political wave. Democratic support for Israel has been dropping steadily in recent years. A Gallup poll in March found that only 43 percent of Democrats sympathize more with the Israelis than the Palestinians in the Middle East conflict. And while there were some positive findings, the poll found that overall American support for Israel has fallen. As a result of the changes in American culture and attitudes, what used to be considered beyond the pale is slowly becoming mainstream. For Omar and her fellow travelers, this means that displaying overt animosity toward Israel comes at little to no cost. I never asked him personally, but Paul Findley would almost certainly have approved.
Jonathan Schanzer is senior vice president for research at Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C.