A Brief Reflection on Ilam Omar, Antisemitism, and Criticism of Israel

My Facebook feed has been overflowing with articles and posts for and against Ilhan Omar and her multiple tweets and comments about Jews and Israel. In the Jewish community, there have been letters signed by dozens of rabbis condemning her, and letters signed by dozens of rabbis supporting her. There is much arguing and finger-pointing about whether Omar is or is not an anti-Semite, or if she is legitimately criticizing Israel, Jewish loyalty to Israel, and the power of lobbying money in American politics.

I personally find several of her comments to be anti-Semitic; they traffic in dangerous anti-Semitic tropes that were similar to those used by Russian and Nazi anti-Semites. I don’t believe they are accidental, but I am not at all sure she is fully aware of just how much her words reflect long-standing dangerous tropes of anti-Semite, as these tropes are widespread in many communities. I also know she has met repeatedly in the past with the Jewish community in her home area, and they have told her why these sorts of comments are offensive, so she is not completely unaware. She has apologized for one statement, but needs to apologize for others and learn why they are so upsetting and dangerous.

At the same time, it is clear that the level of attacks on her, the singling out of her, is a political tactic to rile up that portion of the American electorate for whom a Muslim Woman of Color who wears a hijab and who was a refugee is a ‘posterchild’ for everything they fear. Many Republicans public figures have made comments that are equally if not more anti-Semitic, and those are often just ignored, while every word Omar says is attacked and turned into a viral meme on social media. Some of the politicians attacking her most have said heinous anti-Semitic things in the recent past. This is cynical hypocritical politics aimed to split the left and rile up the conservative base. It is, sadly, an effective tactic. It will continue.

I think the truth here is more complicated than ‘pro or con’. Omar is a victim of outsized outrage and political attacks because she is a Muslim woman of color. At the same time, what she said is dangerously anti-Semitic. Underneath the anti-Semitism of her comments, there is also truth about the role lobbying money plays in American politics, but again, that has little if anything to do with Jews or Israel.

I, for one, feel it is great to see young women in elected office, and especially young women of color. I want their voices even when I strongly disagree with them, because women’s voices have been so tragically underrepresented in the halls of power, and because democracy works best when we have a wide range of voices included. I can recognize that the attacks on these new young women, whether it is Omar or Ocasio-Cortez, are out of proportion to their words or their power. It is scapegoating. It is opportunism. It is silencing.

Yet, I also find it particularly sad when young people as smart and capable as they are are either oblivious to systemic anti-Semitism, or ok with using it to appeal to their own base. As Hillel said, ‘that which is hateful to you, do not do to others.” As Jews, it is understandably unnerving when people in power can appeal to the base on both sides of our political divide by using anti-Semitic dog-whistles.

As humans, there is something deep within that seems to want a clear right and wrong, an ‘us’ and a ‘them’, a ‘with us’ or ‘against us’. We like teams—we are by nature groupish—but as we know, the truth is usually more complex than teams allow. Our community, our nation and our world are better served by engaging the complexity of life and of truth than by dividing the world into “us” and “them.” In so many ways, our future depends on it.