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The Ilhan Omar anti-Semitism controversy, explained

Why her comments about “allegiance” to Israel created such a firestorm — and why it all matters.

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN).
Stephen Maturen/AFP/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

The long-simmering controversy over Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN)’s heated language on Israel has reached a boiling point — with House Democrats weighing a plan to vote on a resolution clearly designed to punish one of their own rising stars.

Omar had already stirred controversy with comments last month attributing pro-Israel sentiment to the financial clout of the pro-Israel lobby. Then last week, she spoke about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on a panel with Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), who, like Omar, is a first-term member of Congress and a Muslim.

“I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is okay to push for allegiance to a foreign country,” Omar said as part of a discussion about past anti-Semitism allegations lobbed at her.

In full context, Omar doesn’t explicitly identify who or what this “political influence” is coming from other than the pro-Israel lobbying community in general. But given her previous comments, the latest remarks struck many observers as playing into well-worn anti-Semitic tropes about Jewish attachments to Israel making them disloyal to the United States. Some were no longer inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt. On Monday, House Democrats unveiled plans to vote on a resolution condemning anti-Semitism that reads as a clear rebuke of Omar personally, criticizing the “insidious, bigoted history” of “accusations of dual loyalty.”

Yet Omar also has vocal defenders in both the Democratic Party and the broader left-progressive community, including some prominent Jewish leftists. Her defenders argue she is being attacked in bad faith as a Muslim woman of color who dares to criticize Israel, pointing out that anti-Semitism on the right doesn’t get nearly this much attention.

Nor, they argue, does Islamophobia get taken as seriously: Just this week, Republicans in the West Virginia Legislature put up a viciously Islamophobic poster connecting Omar to the 9/11 hijackers, without nearly as much fanfare as Omar’s comparatively tame comments. This backlash, particularly from progressive members of Congress, appears to have caused Democrats to delay the vote on the anti-Semitism resolution — and potentially rewrite its text entirely.

It’s true that Omar’s comments on Israel keep falling into well-worn anti-Semitic tropes — and her defenders often prove too willing to paper this over and dismiss criticism from even progressive Jews as “smears.”

It’s also the case that Republican officials frequently call on anti-Semitic tropes and say worse about other minority groups without nearly so much bipartisan condemnation. Pushing for a House vote on anti-Semitism really did feel like unfairly singling out Omar — and whitewashing the GOP’s record in the process. That’s why progressives rallied to Omar’s defense, and why the Democratic leadership has been forced to reconsider its initial resolution.

In short, the entire situation is a mess — and an example of how difficult it is for Democrats to carry on an important conversation about anti-Semitism on the left without downplaying the far more pressing problem of anti-Semitism on the right.

Ilhan Omar’s Israel track record

Ilhan Omar is widely seen as one of the rising stars in the 2018 legislative class. She has an inspiring story — a refugee from Somalia who rose to become the first black Muslim woman in Congress — and has demonstrated a talent for giving voice to perspectives often excluded from mainstream American politics.

Her grilling of Venezuela envoy Elliott Abrams last month shined a spotlight on American complicity in grave human rights abuses in America, a kind of critique of the foreign policy elite rarely heard from members of Congress.

Her stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — unapologetically pro-Palestinian — fits with this profile, broadly speaking. It has helped make her into a darling of the insurgent left, which is highly critical of the Democratic establishment’s generically pro-Israel view. Yet when Omar talks about Israel, she has a bad habit of saying things that feed into anti-Semitic stereotypes.

In 2012, she tweeted that “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.” The tweet implied that Israel and its supporters were secretly tricking the world into supporting it, a longtime anti-Semitic trope for which Omar apologized after taking office in January.

“I heard from Jewish orgs. that my use of the word ‘hypnotize’ and the ugly sentiment it holds was offensive,” she tweeted. “I spent ... little energy [in] disavowing the anti-Semitic trope I unknowingly used, which is unfortunate and offensive.”

In mid-February, Omar created another stir when she tweeted that support for Israel in the US Congress was “all about the Benjamins,” suggesting that the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC was buying off American politicians. This smacked of the well-worn conspiracy theory that Jewish financiers buy off American politicians, and led to Democratic leadership publicly condemning Omar’s comments.

Omar deleted the original tweet and said she “unequivocally” apologized. And for a few weeks, that seemed to settle the matter. But then, at the panel with Tlaib last Wednesday, Omar tried to address her anti-Semitism problem again. And that’s when things went south.

What Omar actually said — and why it’s problematic

House Freshman Call On Senate To Re-Open Federal Government
Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN).
Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

Omar’s remarks at the panel did acknowledge, to be clear, that it’s important to be sensitive when Jews take offense at her comments. But she also suggests that being Muslim leads to the assumption of anti-Semitism, and that the accusation is used as a label to shut down debate.

Then she concludes with the instantly infamous comments about “allegiance” to Israel. Here’s the full quote:

What I’m fearful of — because Rashida [Tlaib] and I are Muslim — that a lot of our Jewish colleagues, a lot of our 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’s something that becomes designed to end the debate because you get in this space of — yes, I know what intolerance looks like and I’m sensitive when someone says, “The words you used, Ilhan, are resemblance [sic] of intolerance.” And I am cautious of that and I feel pained by that.

But it’s almost as if, every single time we say something regardless of what it is we say that is supposed to be about foreign policy or engagement or advocacy about ending oppression or the freeing of every human life and wanting dignity, we get to be labeled something, and that ends the discussion. Because we end up defending that and nobody ever gets to have the broader debate of what is happening with Palestine. So for me, I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is okay for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country. And I want to ask, why is it okay for me to talk about the influence of the NRA, of fossil fuel industries, or Big Pharma, and not talk about a powerful lobby?

It’s an extremely fraught answer.

It is true that pro-Israel lobbying groups like AIPAC push American policy in a pro-Israel direction. But they are not all-important — US-Israel ties run a lot deeper from lobbying money — but the evidence suggests they clearly have clout, particularly on Capitol Hill.

Moreover, the charge of anti-Semitism really is used to immunize Israel from any criticism at times: As someone who is both Jewish and a critic of the Israeli government’s occupation of Palestinian land, I can’t count the number of times I’ve been called an anti-Semite or a self-hating Jew. A Muslim member of Congress is far more likely to be targeted by unfair accusations like this.

And Omar’s most fundamental point — that it would be better to talk about the underlying issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than nitpicking her language — is reasonable. The irony is that her own word choice is what causes this problem: By using charged language on a tremendously sensitive topic, she ends up distracting from the conversation she really wants to start.

The use of the word “allegiance” in reference to Israel — particularly in context of the activities of the heavily Jewish pro-Israel lobbying world — is a touchy subject for good reason: It touches on age-old anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an infamous early-20th-century Russian forgery, describes a plot by Jewish moneyed interests to subvert and destroy Christian societies through their finances. This in turn draws on a deeper European anti-Semitic tradition that portrays Jews as not just greedy but fundamentally disloyal — working to subvert Western societies from the inside for their own nefarious ends. It’s a line you heard not only from Nazis but also World War II-era American anti-Semites like Charles Lindbergh.

After the war and the creation of the state of Israel, anti-Semites started using Jewish activism in favor of the Jewish state as proof that they were right all along about diaspora Jews being disloyal to their home countries. David Duke, the former Louisiana state representative and Ku Klux Klan grand wizard, released a YouTube video in 2014 titled “The Illustrated Protocols of Zion.” The video’s core thesis is that the forgery was essentially true — that today, the work of Zionist groups like AIPAC is proof that there really is a disloyal Jewish conspiracy.

“The Protocols of Zion could have just as easily been titled The Protocols of Zionism,” Duke says. “The modern elders are leaders of Zionism ... hundreds of Zionist organizations across the world, that are funded with tens of billions of dollars, are used to promote the interests of Zionist Israel and what they see as the collective interests of the Jewish people.”

Omar is, of course, not coming from the same hateful place as Duke, and equating them would be absurd. I can’t emphasize that point enough: They are not at all the same, or even in the same ballpark. In a statement emailed to me, her spokesperson Jeremy Slevin emphasized that she did not mean to imply anything about the Jewish community writ large.

“At the event last week, Rep. Omar reiterated the remorse she feels for her comments last month—and the pain she knows they caused. As she said in her apology, we must distinguish between criticism of a particular faith and fair critiques of lobbying groups,” Slevin said. “She has consistently spoken out about the undue influence of lobbying groups for foreign interests of all kinds and her comments were about just that. To suggest otherwise is an inaccurate reading of her remarks.”

But intent aside, her language is unintentionally providing mainstream cover for Duke’s brand of conspiracy theorizing — as he was quick to point out. “Omar is right ... about Israel,” he tweeted after the news of her panel remarks broke.

If you’re not careful when talking about pro-Israel lobbying, you can provide ammunition to some awful people. By suggesting that pro-Israel lobbying constitutes a push for “allegiance” to a foreign country, Omar was suggesting that an activity disproportionately conducted by Jews is essentially disloyal, making a fundamentally anti-Semitic idea more acceptable to voice on the left.

“She may think she is only criticizing Israel and its policies,” Deborah Lipstadt, an Emory University professor and leading scholar of anti-Semitism, told Jewish Insider. “But one cannot ignore the fact that she is relying on traditional anti-Semitic tropes to do so.”

Israel, left-wing anti-Semitism, and the need to tread carefully

There’s a real dilemma here. Pro-Palestinian activists, writers, and politicians have every right to point out what they see as the pernicious influence of groups like AIPAC. Pro-Israel lobbying groups are undeniably powerful, and it’s worth mentioning in our conversations about both Israel policy and money in politics. You can and should be able to say that “lobbying pushes America’s Israel policy in a hawkish pro-Israel direction” without implying that heavily Jewish groups are literally trying to make American politicians pledge allegiance to a foreign entity.

At the same time, there is a special need on the left — where most pro-Palestinian sentiment resides — to be careful about just how you discuss those things. If references to Jews’ baleful influence on Israel policy become too flip, too easy, things can go really wrong.

To see a real example, one need only to look at Britain.

In British left-wing and pro-Palestinian circles, derogatory comments about the political clout of Israel and “Zionists” have become quite common. When left-wing insurgent Jeremy Corbyn won the center-left Labour Party’s leadership in 2015, the people who inhabited these spaces seized control of the party power centers.

Corbyn, who had once referred to members of Hamas and Hezbollah as his “friends,” opened the floodgates for the language of Labour’s left flank to go mainstream. The result is a three-year roiling scandal surrounding anti-Semitism in the party.

Dozens of Labour elected officials, candidates, and party members have been caught giving voice to anti-Semitic comments. One municipal Labour official called Hitler “the greatest man in history” and added that “it’s disgusting how much power the Jews have in the US.” Another Labour candidate for office said “it’s the super rich families of the Zionist lobby that control the world.”

The party received 673 complaints about anti-Semitism between April 2018 and January 2019 alone, an average of more than two complaints per day. Ninety-six Labour members were suspended for anti-Semitism during that time period, and 12 were outright expelled.

Today, about 85 percent of British Jews believe there are “high” levels of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party and that Corbyn himself is anti-Semitic. Almost 40 percent of Jews say they would “seriously consider” leaving the country if Labour wins the next parliamentary election. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of Britain, recently warned that British Jews feel “an existential threat” from Corbyn’s Labour Party.

This is why Omar’s tweet was so troubling. If the line doesn’t get drawn somewhere, the results for Jews — who still remain a tiny, vulnerable minority — can be devastating.

The asymmetry of anti-Semitism, and the problem with the House resolution

Last weekend, as the outrage surrounding Omar’s comments grew, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) tweeted something equally, if not more, offensive. He blasted Jewish Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) for jumping “to Tom $teyer’s conclusion” — a reference to major Democratic donor Tom Steyer, who has a Jewish father. In essence, he implied that a Jewish rep is doing the bidding of Jewish money — a suggestion that Nadler blasted as “inane and anti-Semitic.”

Yet Jordan’s comments haven’t driven the national news cycle, or caused the House majority to write up resolutions condemning him. He just sort of skated by, part of a broader problem of Republican impunity for using anti-Semitic stereotypes. Indeed, one of the key differences between the United States and Britain is that in the US, anti-Semitic tropes are far more common on the right than the left.

Take House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who attacked Omar and Tlaib even before the latest rounds of controversy began. Last summer, McCarthy posted a tweet accusing three Steyer and two other Democratic billionaires of Jewish descent — George Soros and Michael Bloomberg — of trying to buy the midterm election:

In 2015, then-candidate Donald Trump once told a room full of Jewish Republicans that “you’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money,” adding that “you want to control your politicians, that’s fine.” In 2016, Trump released a campaign ad that played a quote from one of his speeches over footage of George Soros and former Fed Chair Janet Yellen (also Jewish) that comes across as an anti-Semitic dog whistle.

“For those who control the levers of power in Washington and for the global special interests, they partner with these people that don’t have your good in mind,” Trump said.

Just this past week, Trump called Jewish Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) “shifty,” a comment playing on his last name but also on the history of Jews being described as crafty and sneaky manipulators. This all creates a stunning contrast, as the progressive Jewish writer Peter Beinart points out:

Indeed, observers of anti-Semitism in the US generally believe that right-wing demonization of Jews is the much bigger problem. Republicans have gone after Soros in particular for years, with politicians and GOP-aligned media creating a narrative in which he and other left-wing Jews are puppet masters, using their money to undermine America from within. And they are engaging in the same normalization of Protocols-style anti-Semitic tropes as Omar.

The most dangerous kind of rising anti-Semitism in America is associated with the online alt-right, not the pro-Palestinian left. These people, Trump fans whom the president has done little to distance himself from, harass and threaten Jewish journalists and public figures. This is where David Duke — who served in the Louisiana Legislature as a Republican — feels comfortable. This is the milieu from which the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter emerged.

Yet Republicans are attacking Omar and demanding Democrats punish her. Trump, for instance, has repeatedly attacked Omar — even calling on her to resign from Congress. It is exceptionally hard to see these critiques as good-faith concern about the mainstreaming of anti-Semitic tropes. In fact, it’s hard to see them as anything but a cynical attempt to marginalize a left-wing Muslim and woman of color and foster internal division in the Democratic caucus.

And this is the problem with the anti-Semitism resolution Democrats initially planned to introduce.

The draft text, as reported by Politico on Monday, did not mention Omar by name. It condemns anti-Semitism in the abstract and touches on other forms of bigotry, including even “unfounded, vicious attacks on and threats to Muslim-American Members of Congress.”

But despite that line, the context of the past week of political conversation makes it clear that the resolution is targeting Omar, a way of distancing the Democratic leadership from her and publicly chastising her.

This resolution would have played right into GOP hands. It would allow them to say that Democrats are going after Omar, and to vote in favor of a resolution condemning anti-Semitism without seriously policing their own on the problem. The fact that some Democrats may have voted against the resolution as a gesture of solidarity with Omar could give them further ammunition to paint Democrats as the party with the anti-Semitism problem, when in fact its leadership has been quick to criticize Omar’s comments.

There’s a fine line between legitimate self-policing, militating against a UK-style disaster, and helping Republicans smear a Muslim member of Congress they don’t like. The House resolution, however well-intentioned, initially put Democrats on the wrong side of it.

But things changed. The Democratic leadership, under pressure from progressive groups and officials like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), appears to be postponing the vote till at least Thursday. They’re currently planning to revise the resolution to make it less of an implicit condemnation of Omar, or even rewrite it entirely.

“A draft resolution would be updated to include additional language rejecting anti-Muslim bias, although some Democratic sources believe that an entirely new document might be crafted,” Politico reports.

This is a victory for Omar. It’s a sign that she has significant support in the party, and that leadership isn’t willing to throw her under the bus entirely. A lot, however, still depends on the fate of the resolution: what it ends up looking like, or if it gets introduced at all.

Whether Democrats can land on a balance that respects two vital but competing imperatives — addressing real issues of anti-Semitism and defusing a malicious GOP campaign against Omar — remains to be seen.

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