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Rep. Ilhan Omar's (D-Minn.) criticisms surrounding Israel and AIPAC were labeled as anti-Semitic. (Photo by Lorie Shaull | CC BY-SA 2.0)

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which has existed as a pro-Israel lobbying institution for more than 50 years, hosts an annual conference in Washington D.C. that is attended by a wide range of people, including Penn students.

This year, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) threw AIPAC under increased scrutiny when her criticisms surrounding Israel and AIPAC were labeled as anti-Semitic. Despite this controversy, the Penn Israel Public Affairs Committee, which is also known as PIPAC, is attending the AIPAC Conference, held from March 24 to March 26.

The controversy erupted in February when in a response to journalist Glenn Greenwald’s tweet stating “[i]t’s stunning how much time US political leaders spend defending a foreign nation even if it means attacking free speech right of Americans,” Omar wrote, “It’s all about the Benjamins baby.”

The Congresswoman has also come under fire for a 2012 tweet that stated Israel had “hypnotized” the world. This has prompted Omar to apologize for both her recent and past tweets alluding to anti-Semitic tropes, while still affirming her previous criticisms of AIPAC. 

In addition to Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) condemnation of Omar’s comments, College 1997 graduate and Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ) also denounced Omar. 

PIPAC Co-President and College junior Jacob Cohen said he took issue with Omar's comments.

“If [criticism is] wrapped in anti-Semitic language that’s been used for years, even if the intention was a legitimate criticism of Israel, it comes across to Jews who have faced anti-Semitism as extremely anti-Semitic," Cohen said. "As it’s the same language that’s been used against the Jewish people going back since the beginning of time.”

Cohen said while he was “very encouraged” by Pelosi’s response, he was disappointed with the resolution the House passed earlier this month condemning intolerance.

“This discussion started about anti-Semitic tweets, and the fact that the bill itself couldn’t be directed at anti-Semitism was disappointing to me because I know that Jews still face the most hate crimes of any minority group in this country,” Cohen said.

In the face of the controversy, PIPAC is continuing their annual tradition of going to the AIPAC Policy Conference.

“This year, we’re sending 40 students to the conference, which is really exciting,” Cohen said. “It’s been a goal of ours to always send more students because it’s just a great opportunity to learn and to hear about the pro-Israel movement.”

A group of Penn students from PIPAC at the 2019 AIPAC Conference. (Photo from Jacob Cohen)

While PIPAC is not officially affiliated with AIPAC, Cohen cited the two groups' bipartisan nature as a similarity. AIPAC has speakers on different ends of the political spectrum, ranging from Vice President Mike Pence to Pelosi, and Cohen said PIPAC is composed of students from across the political spectrum.

Penn Association for Gender Equity Chair and College junior Tanya Jain disagreed with the uproar over Omar's tweets. Jain, who is a member of Penn Students for Justice in Palestine but emphasized that she was not speaking on behalf of the group, said she believes Omar was accurate about pro-Israel lobbying and her comments had no anti-Semitic undertones.

“A lot of what AIPAC does is, obviously as Omar says, increase the lobbying of politicians and kind of creates a misrepresentation of the issue in the U.S.,” Jain said.

Representatives for Penn Students for Justice in Palestine did not respond to requests for comment.

Amid the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, contenders such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) announced they would not be attending AIPAC this week.

Penn Dems Communications Director Tamara Wurman said Penn Dems does not have a firm stance on the Israel-Palestine situation.

“We tend to support a strong alliance between the U.S. and Israel but recognize that there’s definitely room to criticize [Benjamin] Netanyahu and other actions taken by the Israeli government,” said College freshman Wurman, who is also a Daily Pennsylvanian staff member.

Wurman added that while Omar's tweets were anti-Semitic, politicians such as President Donald Trump are not held to the standard Omar was.

“We recognize that she didn’t necessarily take that action with as much care as one would expect from a politician,” Wurman said. “But she also was treated with a lot higher scrutiny than other politicians.” 

Wurman said she did not know of any Dems members attending AIPAC. Penn College Republicans declined to comment.