Congresswoman Omar and the Anti-Semitism Controversy Explained
By: Liran Braude
The Congresswoman Omar tweet controversy really got under my skin. It really unsettled and upset me.
It’s not because of her criticizing Israel. For Jews and Israelis, listening to criticism of Israel has become a daily fact of life. We’re very used to the criticism, however much we disagree with and are frustrated by much of it.
This isn’t even about disagreeing with the fact that AIPAC - an American-Jewish organization that advocates for stronger U.S. ties with Israel - indeed mobilizes its supporters to financially and politically further that cause. That’s literally what they do; it’s open knowledge. For me, this is about the anti-Semitism that framed Congresswoman Omar’s tweets and the even more upsetting fact that so many people 1) could not see the anti-Semitic context, and 2) did not consider the criticism from the mainstream Jewish community as valid.
I will attempt to break this down so that perhaps others will understand what was so upsetting to most mainstream Jews:
1) Congresswoman Omar made some critical comments of Israel in an interview with Yahoo News. “It’s laughable to consider Israel a democracy when it has a state religion...Israel is more of a theocracy like Iran,” were some of the comments. Many Western nations have state religions and Israel most certainly is a democracy for its citizens; flawed, but a democracy no less. We can disagree on these points - no claim here of anti-Semitism. It’s (wrongful, in my opinion) criticism.
2) Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy then went on record to say that the two freshmen Congresswomen, Tlaib and Omar, should be “taken action against” by the Democratic Party for their comments, which he said were equal to the ‘white supremacist’ comments by Congressman Steve King who was relieved of all committee posts by Republicans as a result of those comments.
(Congresswoman Omar had just publicly apologized for a 2012 tweet that said “Israel has hypnotized the world...may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel” and Tlaib’s comments alleged ‘dual loyalty’ of American Congresspeople that support Israel - another anti-Semitic canard when applied directly to Jews, but dubious and perhaps more excusable in this context as it was applied to all Congresspeople).
3) Congresswoman Omar then retweeted Journalist Glen Greenwald:
“GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy threatens punishment for @IlhanMN and @RashidaTlaib over their criticisms of Israel. It's stunning how much time US political leaders spend defending a foreign nation even if it means attacking free speech rights of Americans.”
She captioned this with: “It’s all about the Benjamins baby”
Yes, this is a song reference, but it also has a deeper implication that U.S. political leaders defend and support Israel out of monetary considerations. To suggest that Congresspeople are swayed to vote against the interests of the American people because of money enters into the realm of coercion, corruption, and bribery.
It’s worth recalling that a majority of the American people have historically, and still today, generally view Israel favorably and as an American ally; that the U.S. and Israel have enjoyed strong bilateral ties for decades; and that many Congresspeople support Israel for a variety of reasons, ranging from political and geostrategic to moral, religious and more.
4) Sensing what Congresswoman Omar seemed to be implying, Batya Ungar-Sargon, an opinion editor of a Jewish publication, asked Omar:
“Would love to know who @IlhanMN thinks is paying American politicians to be pro-Israel, though I think I can guess. Bad form, Congresswoman. That's the second anti-Semitic trope you've tweeted.”
5) To which, removing any doubt about what was meant, Congresswoman Omar responded with, “AIPAC!”
It’s important to add that “the Israel Lobby” - i.e. the term that some have used as a catch-all for those groups and organizations that advocate for pro-Israel congressional and executive branch support and legislation - is comprised of many groups, Jewish and non-Jewish, liberal and conservative, with an array of perspectives and positions.
The left-leaning JStreet is one such liberal group, while Christians United for Israel (CUFI) is one such non-Jewish group. Jewish people constitute just 2% of the American population and around 75% of them vote Democrat. Evangelical Christians comprise over 26% of the American population. AIPAC has over 100,000 members. CUFI has over 4 million members. There are also many other groups and individuals beyond those two that constitute “the Israel Lobby.”
When you put it all together:
1. Greenwald’s allegation that U.S. Congresspeople put Israeli interests before American interests
2. Congresswoman Omar’s insinuation that this phenomenon happens because U.S. Congresspeople are paid to put another country’s interests before their own country’s
3. Congresswoman Omar declaring that it is AIPAC - a Jewish-American group chosen from the entire “Israel Lobby” umbrella - that facilitates this betrayal of U.S. interests
What you end up with is a malicious, age-old, anti-Semitic trope that Jews are using financial coercion to control American politicians and make them betray U.S. interests for Israel.
This is a classic, anti-Semitic canard that Nazi propagandists and others have historically employed to devastating effect to blame, demonize, and malign Jews for sinisterly-controlling state affairs, world affairs, global economies, world media, and more.
Sometimes, it seems that people are looking for a perceived demagogue that spouts hateful things in order to be able to recognize the maliciousness of their words. Case in point, the American people had no problem denouncing the anti-Semitism displayed in the image of Hilary Clinton against a backdrop of cash and a Jewish star that presidential candidate Trump retweeted during his election campaign.
Looking at the recent controversies surrounding politicians in blackface, these are further examples of incidents that have a historical context behind them that evoke painful memories of a racism that is still alive today. So, too, with these anti-Semitic tropes.
Anti-Semitism is at the worst levels seen since the Nazi era and it’s only getting worse. It’s not just coming from anti-Semites like former KKK leader David Duke. Anti-Semitism seeps into our societies in unconscious ways, manifesting in beliefs and language of every-day people. When left unchecked, yes, it leads to tragedies like the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, but it also leads to the assaults, synagogue arsons, swastika vandalisms, cemetery desecrations and so on that are becoming a daily experience for Jewish communities in America around the world.
It is therefore of paramount importance to us as Jews, and to anyone that cares about combating anti-Semitism and all forms of bigotry, to call out instances of bigotry whenever they find their way into the public sphere. The point here is not to brand Congresswoman Omar or anyone else as an anti-Semite. It is to call out anti-Semitism so that it does not continue to proliferate freely in our society; so that we may all learn from this event; and so that we can convey our messages more mindfully without invoking language that is deemed harmful, demonizing, and dangerous by historically-persecuted communities.
The Jewish community and leaders from across the political spectrum have risen to this occasion and rightly called out the anti-Semitism of Congresswoman Omar’s words. She has since apologized for once again trading in anti-Semitism. I don’t believe that it is reasonable to expect everyone to know the historical nuances of everything that is anti-Semitic or racist or anything else. But I do think it should be expected that when mainstream people of the targeted community call things out, that they be listened to, apologized to, and given an opportunity to educate the guilty party on why that language is harmful.
It is my sincerest hope that Congresswoman Omar will learn from these two incidents and be a better friend and leader for the Jewish community and for everyone.