First, let’s deal with the matter of the remarks themselves. Some progressives, including Jews, defended Rep. Omar by arguing that she really hadn’t engaged in anti-Semitic rhetoric for any number of reasons, including that she wasn’t actually talking about Jews and instead about Christian Zionists, or that she was only criticizing the effects of lobbying, or that there’s nothing anti-Semitic about the charge of dual loyalty in the first place. Those defenders are incorrect. So that there’s no confusion, let’s look at what she actually said, in full context:
I know that I have a huge Jewish constituency, and you know, every time I meet with them they share stories of [the] safety and sanctuary that they would love for the people of Israel, and most of the time when we’re having the conversation, there is no actual relative that they speak of, and there still is lots of emotion that comes through because it’s family, right? Like my children still speak of Somalia with passion and compassion even though they don’t have a family member there.
But we never really allow space for the stories of Palestinians seeking safety and sanctuary to be uplifted. And to me, it is the dehumanization and the silencing of a particular pain and suffering of people, should not be ok and normal. And you can’t be in the practice of humanizing and uplifting the suffering of one, if you’re not willing to do that for everyone. And so for me I know that when I hear my Jewish constituents or friends or colleagues speak about Palestinians who don’t want safety, or Palestinians who aren’t deserving I stay focused on the actual debate about what that process should look like. I never go to the dark place of saying “here’s a Jewish person, they’re talking about Palestinians, Palestinians are Muslim, maybe they’re Islamophobic.” I never allow myself to go there because I don’t have to.
I’ve got no problem at all with any of this. Anyone who says Palestinians aren’t deserving of safety or sanctuary can go to hell, as far as I’m concerned. I believe that most (not all, but most) progressive Zionists and Jews feel the same. Back to Omar’s remarks:
And what I am fearful of is that because Rashida (Rep. Rashida Tlaib) and I are Muslim, that a lot of Jewish colleagues, a lot of our Jewish constituents, a lot of our allies, go to thinking that everything we say about Israel, to be anti-Semitic, because we are Muslim. And so to me, it is something that becomes designed to end the debate. Because you get in this space, of like, I know what intolerance looks like and I’m sensitive when someone says that the words you use Ilhan, are resemblance of intolerance. And I am cautious of that and I feel pained by that.
Yes, Rep. Omar is right. It is unfair to label any and all criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic, no question. Although she phrases it as a fear rather than a reality, I would push back at her notion that “a lot” of her Jewish colleagues (in Congress, presumably) and “a lot” of allies “go to thinking that everything we say about Israel to be anti-Semitic because we are Muslim.” Does that ever happen? Sure. Do “a lot” do that, and do they do it because she is Muslim? Not by any reasonable definition. Such a suggestion—although not anti-Semitic, of course—is just as unfair and just as inaccurate, as is the labeling of all criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic. More from Rep. Omar:
But it’s almost as if every single time we say something, regardless of what it is we say, that it’s supposed to about foreign policy or engagement, that our advocacy about ending oppression, or the freeing of every human life and wanting dignity, we get to be labeled in something, and that’s the end of the discussion, because we end up defending that, and nobody gets to have the broader debate of “what is happening with Palestine?” [applause]
So for me, 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. And I want to ask, why is it ok for me to talk about the influence of the NRA, of fossil fuel industries, or Big Pharma, and not talk about a powerful lobby that is influencing policy? [emphasis added]
To those defending Omar’s remarks, please don’t gaslight us by pretending she isn’t talking about Jewish Americans or Israel. The “lobbying group” is, without question, the American Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC), which is run and staffed overwhelmingly by Jews, and whose members are mostly Jewish. This isn’t about Christian Zionists, and if that’s to whom Rep. Omar was referring, she should have said so.
To be clear, there is nothing wrong with criticizing AIPAC and its activities. The problem here is that Omar used anti-Semitic language when she evoked the hoary old stereotype of Jews and their supposed allegiance to Israel above the countries in which they live and the national communities to which diaspora Jews belong. Now, it’s doubtful Rep. Omar knew the full meaning of the words she used, or that she sought to stir up hate in making these remarks. But this is an anti-Semitic trope. Here’s a very short primer:
A canard found in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, but dating to before that document, is that Jews are more loyal to world Jewry than to their own country. Since the establishment of the state of Israel, this canard has taken the form of accusations that Jewish citizens of countries such as the United States are more loyal to Israel than to their country of residence.
Pushing back against this rhetoric is absolutely necessary because anti-Semitism is real, and it’s not just coming from white supremacists on the right. In New York City—as true blue a place as it gets in America, one whose population is more than 55 percent people of color—hate crimes are up across the board, according to NYPD data, up 6 percent overall in 2018. Virtually all of that increase comes from a 22 percent rise from 2017 (up 38 percent from 2016) in hate crimes against Jews. More than half of all hate crimes in New York City target Jews, who are only one-eighth of the city’s population. Let that disparity sink in for a minute.
According to the Anti-Defamation League, anti-Semitic assaults were up 60 percent in 2018. The trend has continued into 2019 as well, with anti-Semitic hate crimes making up just under two-thirds of all hate crime incidents in the year’s first month-and-a-half, accounting for virtually all the increase in overall hate crimes compared to the same period in 2018. Just last week, in a widely-used community athletic center, someone took a magic marker and drew swastikas all over a locker room where families, caregivers, and their kids change before swimming. That incident happened at a place where I took my kids more times than I can count.
Jewish Americans not only feel vulnerable, we are vulnerable, and any kind of anti-Semitic rhetoric—especially coming from elected leaders—hurts us directly, no matter which side of the political spectrum it comes from.
“We carry some responsibility on the left for not acknowledging that anti-Semitism just exists in American society,” says Eric Ward, the executive director of the Western States Center, which trains Jewish and Muslim leaders on anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. “It is not simply a phenomenon of the right, nor a phenomenon of the left. It is in the air we breathe. If we aren’t conscious of it, we will sometimes act out anti-Semitism, in the same way that we may act out sexism or homophobia or racism.”
“We live in a society that is based off of the binary race definition of black and white. Most Jews are not people of color,” Ward says. “For the left, it has become very difficult to understand that there are people in the United States who aren’t people of color, yet still face a form of racialized bigotry.”
Here’s another reason why Rep. Omar’s remarks touch such a nerve for Jews: If the Democratic Party becomes a place where anti-Semitic rhetoric becomes an acceptable part of political discourse, then progressive Jews will really have no place to call home, politically speaking. Look at Labour in the U.K., where that party is truly and perhaps permanently stained by its leader’s tolerance of anti-Semitic rhetoric. It is vital for Democrats to make clear what is and is not allowed, because otherwise, we may well end up with a Corbyn-style dilemma on our hands.
I shouldn’t have to bring up the politics of this, but this is a political website, so I’m going to do so. We’ve heard a lot recently from Democrats about the need to center the concerns of those who make up the party’s base. That makes a lot of sense. That base includes Jews. In the 2018 midterms, Jews voted for the Democratic candidates by a margin of 79-17, consistent with their votes in midterm and presidential elections in recent decades. Other than African Americans, no other ethnic, racial, cultural, or religious group of numerical significance votes for Democrats in higher percentages.
Additionally, bear in mind that almost all Jews are, in terms of appearance, white. The majority of whites vote Republican, but not white Jews. Without going into numbers, also bear in mind that Jewish households are above the U.S. average in economic terms. A majority of voters in those upper-income households vote Republican, but not upper-income Jews.
So when Jews vote overwhelmingly Democratic they are voting, in a sense, against their white privilege and, for those in the upper-income brackets at least, against their direct, short-term economic interests (I would argue that Democratic policies benefit just about everyone in the long run anyway, but that’s another topic). They are voting their progressive values—values represented by the Democratic Party. One of those core values is the Democratic Party’s unwavering commitment to fighting hatred and bigotry. For most progressive Jews, that’s what the pushback against Rep. Omar’s use of an anti-Semitic trope is about.
Of course Republicans have engaged in far worse anti-Semitic rhetoric, and of course they have, for the most part, failed to condemn their own people when they’ve done so. We hold ourselves to our own standard. Engaging in whataboutism doesn’t change the fact that Rep. Omar hurled a dangerous, anti-Semitic slur.
Seriously questioning the U.S.-Israel relationship—especially under Trump, but not only now—is not only acceptable, it is perfectly consistent with being progressive and even with being a loyal American. The same goes for criticizing unfair and unjust Israeli government policies—all progressives should do it. But we cannot tolerate the use of anti-Semitic tropes when doing so. And they aren’t hard to avoid. Let me show you how:
The Netanyahu-led government’s policy sucks, in particular on settlements but not only on that issue. Furthermore, Netanyahu engaged in racist, anti-Arab rhetoric on the eve of the most recent elections in 2015. And, in the current campaign, he has officially allied himself with an openly racist, right-wing Jewish party—a move roundly criticized by AIPAC along with numerous other Jewish organizations. That’s just a brief list of Israel’s transgressions (and yes, the Palestinian and broader Arab leadership both now and across the decades also bears responsibility for the lack of peace), but the point is clear. One can criticize Israel without spreading hate.
Rep. Omar needs to be educated about anti-Semitic rhetoric, and needs to stop using it—now. That would be, at least, one positive, concrete outcome of this week’s back and forth. After a previous, similar incident in February, she apologized “unequivocally”—which was terrific. She also apologized earlier this year for using anti-Semitic language in a 2012 tweet. This past week’s incident suggests she still has more to learn, although I take heart from Rep. Jan Schakowsky’s recent conversation with Rep. Omar:
Schakowsky revealed that Omar apologized to her, “not only for the words that she has used, but she apologized personally to me as a Jew.”
“I want to tell you, part of being a Jew is to be welcoming to the stranger. And I want to tell you, Ilhan Omar is a refugee from Somalia. She comes from a different culture. She has things to learn,” she continued.
As for the question of whether Omar is an anti-Semite, i.e., she hates Jews and/or wishes to either do them harm, oppress them, or directly damage their interests, I sincerely doubt it, and certainly haven’t yet seen enough evidence to convince me that she is. I take Rep. Schakowsky’s words seriously on this matter. But I’m less interested in whether Omar “is” an anti-Semite than in whether she is interested in learning that spreading anti-Semitic slurs is wrong, harmful, and unacceptable, and whether she is willing to change. We’re now at two strikes on that front, just since she was sworn into Congress, and that’s on top of the 2012 tweet. Any more suggests a serious problem. But I remain optimistic.
The conversation about Rep. Omar’s remarks is not about anti-Semitic rhetoric in Congress, in politics, or in the U.S. It’s about whether our side of the aisle allows for anti-Semitic rhetoric from our elected officials and our leaders. It’s a specific question that requires specific exploration, separate from other important questions. Seeking to expand the focus reminds me of when those who don’t want to deal directly with the issues raised by the Black Lives Matter movement respond by bringing up broader issues of crime, or of the dangers faced by police. We cannot “All Lives Matter” the issue of anti-Semitic rhetoric coming from the left, and specifically from elected Democrats.
Yes, the broader issues of structural racism, misogyny, and Islamophobia are incredibly important. Additionally, Rep. Omar herself has been subjected to Islamophobic hate, including hate coming directly from Republicans in an incident that took place only a week ago. Nevertheless, they do not bear on the question of whether this remark is problematic, and what the Democratic response should be. In her criticisms of Israel and AIPAC, Omar has not identified anything thousands of other people haven’t also identified publicly—and most have of them managed to do so without also hurling anti-Semitic language.
The Democratic Party cannot allow the use of anti-Semitic tropes to become a matter of debate. We wouldn’t allow that for any other form of bigotry. For me, and many Jews, what matters is that progressive leaders don’t use anti-Semitic rhetoric. Ever. After all, there’s more than enough of it coming from Donald Trump, David Duke, and the rest of the anti-Semitic right.
Ian Reifowitz is the author of The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh’s Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump (forthcoming in May 2019).