The Elephant in the Room for Progressives: It’s Time to Talk About Congresswoman Ilhan Omar

Ilhan Omar BeLatina
In this Feb. 5, 2019 photo, Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., left, joined by Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., listen to President Donald Trump's State of the Union speech.

Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar is yet again in the headlines for what critics contend was another anti-Semitic trope that she used in criticizing U.S. Israeli policy last week in a conversation with her supporters. “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is okay to push for allegiance to a foreign country,” she said. It was a seemingly innocuous statement if you’re not well-versed in anti-Semitic tropes, but her fellow party members immediately took her to task for her rhetoric.

Representative Eliot Engel described the concept of “allegiance” as a “vile anti-Semitic slur,” while Representative Nita Lowey expressed profound disappointment in the way that “Rep. Omar continues to mischaracterize support for Israel. I urge her to retract this statement and engage in further dialogue with the Jewish community on why these comments are so hurtful.”

Unlike earlier in the month when Omar “unequivocally” apologized for saying that U.S.-Israeli policy was “All about the Benjamins,” she has yet refused to back down for her latest remarks, responding, “Being opposed to Netanyahu and the occupation is not the same as being anti-Semitic. I am grateful to the many Jewish allies who have spoken out and said the same.”

It’s true that congressional dialogue about Israeli-Palestinian relations and policies has routinely been characterized as anti-Semitic, especially by pro-Israel politicians and lobbying groups like AIPAC. Avishai Margalit of Peace Now, a citizen-led organization that supports peaceful relations between Israelis and Palestinians through a two-state solution, recently criticized the way that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has led the country through divisive rhetoric. “The only emotion that connects him with his people is resentment, and the need for revenge,” Margalit told the New York Times in a piece that discussed allegations of corruption leveled against the prime minister. “He’s poisoning the well of public discourse.”

However, Omar’s pursuit of open dialogue is not what her more generous critics say they are taking issue with. Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine, who has in the past described Israeli air strikes in Gaza as a “horrifying indictment” of the nation’s policies against Palestinians, was unwilling to give her a pass for her most recent comments, characterizing her specific word choice as anti-Semitic. To believe in a strong American alliance with Israel (or Canada, or the United Kingdom, or any other country) is not the same thing as giving one’s allegiance to that country,” he wrote. “Omar is directly invoking the hoary myth of dual loyalty, in which the Americanness of Jews is inherently suspect, and their political participation must be contingent upon proving their patriotism.”

Omar Getting a Disproportionate Amount of Heat as a Muslim Woman

On the other hand, Omar is undoubtedly being singled out in part because of her faith. On Friday, a Islamophobic sign was displayed at a booth set up for Republican Day in Charleston, West Virginia, blatantly juxtaposing the picture of Omar with a photo of the twin towers burning on 9/11. “No wonder why I am on the ‘Hitlist’ of a domestic terrorist and ‘Assassinate Ilhan Omar’ is written on my local gas stations,” she responded on Twitter.

It’s also worth comparing the broad media coverage and outrage that she receives when she utilizes anti-Semitic tropes to critique U.S. foreign policy to the coverage that her conservative, male peers receive in making anti-Semitic remarks. Take for instance Representative Jim Jordan’s anti-Semitic tweet from last week: Did you even know about it? Unhappy with Congressman Jerry Nadler’s announcement of a new Trump investigation following the Cohen hearing, Jordan tweeted out, “C’mon @RepJerryNadler—at least pretend to be serious about fact finding. Nadler feeling the heat big time. Jumps to Tom $teyer’s conclusion—impeaching our President—before first document request. What a Kangaroo court.” Jordan blatantly peddled the anti-Semitic politically influential Jewish billionaire trope, suggesting that this is why Nadler, who is also Jewish, would be pursuing the impeachment of President Trump. Nadler tweeted back, “To be clear, this tweet counts both as inane AND anti-Semitic.”

The Burden of Anti-Semitism

Omar may have legitimate criticism of U.S. foreign policy when it comes to Israel, and clearly she’s working hard to be an advocate for Palestinians who are harmed by the settlements on the West Bank, air strikes, and bigotry. But, as Jeremy Ben-Ami for The Atlantic wrote last month, “While money plays a significant and detrimental role in many areas of our politics, including pro-Israel politics, Omar’s comments evoked disturbing anti-Semitic tropes about Jews, money, and power.” This, Ben-Ami explained, plays right into the hands of her GOP opponents who seek to further their hawkish agenda in the Middle East. As a nation, we all unfortunately carry the burden of anti-Semitism; this requires public figures to take extreme care when discussing U.S.-Israel policy, and to be able express humility when members of the Jewish community voice their lived perspectives.