Thoughts on Ilhan Omar

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I addressed this on Twitter. Let me try to address it here. Yesterday, freshman member of Congress Ilhan Omar riffed on a tweet by Glenn Greenwald about Kevin McCarthy and pro-Israel politics in Congress.

She responded and here was my response to hers …

For me, my response captures what I see as the totality of this. US politics is filled with people, largely on the right today, trying to weaponize pro-Israel sentiment against political enemies. Part of this is trying to equate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. That is McCarthy’s racket. The situation is made more vexing or ironic by the fact that the folks on the right who are most likely to weaponize pro-Israel sentiment happen to be those who at least turn a blind eye to supporters who are clearly anti-Semites. In the case of McCarthy himself, he blithely passes on anti-Semitic memes about George Soros. President Trump is of course the example of this par excellence.

With all that being said, Omar’s response was at best unfortunate, playing into centuries of stereotypes about Jews controlling gentile politics with surreptitious pay offs, money and gold.

For what it’s worth, we should recognize that the power of AIPAC is not principally about money, though of course money has a huge amount to do with its activities. AIPAC is so powerful because it mobilizes the political power of American Jews and far more in recent decades because it focuses the political power of white evangelicals – a truly potent mass political constituency. Much the same applies to the NRA. It’s not mainly about NRA money. It’s that the NRA can mobilize a core constituency which is so focused on its single issue that it can often destroy a politician who crosses them.

But let’s go back to the money. Of course money plays a big role in pro-Israeli, or rather pro-Likud, pro-right-wing-Israeli politics in the US. But language never exists in a vacuum. Let me give you an example. It goes without saying that there are African-Americans who are lazy, just as there are in every community. But it’s just as obvious that we should be extremely careful and wary about using language and stereotyped constructs that are built on generations of denigration and dehumanization, ones that have been used to justify oppression and violence. The same applies here. We should expect people in the public sphere not to casually toss around words that fit so easily into centuries old stereotypes and libels against Jews. This isn’t complicated. We need to expect more from people in public life. McCarthy is a clown. Criticism of Israel does not equal anti-Semitism, as much as many see the political value of equating the two. But this was a deeply unfortunate tweet from Rep. Omar and it remains so regardless of how she meant it.

‘Education’ is often used as a soft or uncourageous way of addressing these blowups. Here I think that’s not true. Omar is a 37 year old with a refugee background who grew up in a Somali immigrant community. She’s a member of Congress and an adult. She is responsible for the things she says. But if we’re interested in fighting anti-Semitism and building bridges in the US, it behooves us to realize that someone from that background may not be entirely aware of the history and the uses of language that certainly most Jews are aware of and many non-Jews who are versed in US politics are too. So I think it behooves people like Omar and American Jews to sit down together, metaphorically or otherwise, and try to come to some common understanding of why many Jews who aren’t trying to play political games find this kind of language threatening and unacceptable. I think something similar applies to Rashida Tlaib, who has gotten into similar blow ups.

Now, I don’t know either person. Maybe there’s a more malevolent indifference to the historical experience of Jewish Americans. It’s certainly not lost on me that Muslim immigrant communities, where the Israel-Palestine issue often looms so large, can be breeding grounds of negative attitudes toward Jews. I don’t know in their cases. But I’d like to find out before going further down that path. It does American Jews no good to get into a situation where they’re at war politically with the only Muslim members of Congress, if it can be avoided. At the same time, with Rep. Omar, she’s a member of Congress. We should expect more. If this is ignorance or mainly ignorance, let’s educate. But we should expect more.


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