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It’s time for Ilhan Omar’s critics to stand with her against Trump’s attacks

A Jewish critic of Omar’s Israel comments on why it’s vital to defend her against Islamophobia.

Students Walk Out Of School As Part Of Worldwide Youth Climate Strike
Rep. Ilhan Omar.
Tom Brenner/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.

Regardless of what you think about Rep Ilhan Omar (D-MN), it’s time to stand with her against the spate of Islamophobic attacks emanating from President Donald Trump, the Republican party, and their allies in the conservative press. The attacks on her have been brutal, relentless, and blatantly bigoted — qualitatively different and far worse than any of Omar’s controversial comments in the past about Israel and its supporters in America.

I’ve been fairly critical of those comments, having written that she has repeatedly used language that plays into anti-Semitic stereotypes about Jewish money and dual loyalty, and that she needs to be far more careful in the way she speaks at a time of rising anti-Semitism in America. I’ve argued that the defenses of her language on the left, even from some Jewish leftists, bear a worrying similarity to the rationalizations used to hide the cancerous growth of anti-Semitism in the British Labour Party under leader Jeremy Corbyn.

But perhaps the simplest moral axiom of modern politics should be this: If we are concerned about bigotry, we should be concerned about it regardless of which group is targeted or affected or which side our political allies are on. By that standard, Omar’s critics are particularly obligated to stand with her now.

This weekend, for example, President Trump tweeted a video that contrasted an out-of-context line from an Omar speech about Islamophobia with footage from 9/11 — asserting that Omar was indifferent to the tragedy.

Trump’s tweet, which got nearly 100,000 retweets, directly led to a surge in threats on Omar’s life. “Since the President’s tweet Friday evening, I have experienced an increase in direct threats on my life — many directly referencing or replying to the President’s video,” Omar said in a statement.

A reporter confronted Trump about this on Tuesday, asking him if he’d had second thoughts about tweeting the video. Trump replied “not at all” — and went on to cast Omar as somehow disloyal to the country she serves.

“She’s got a way about her that’s very, very bad, I think, for our country,” Trump said. “She’s extremely unpatriotic, and extremely disrespectful to our country.”

The essence of Islamophobia in America today is the belief that Muslims are inherently disloyal or un-American: that their religion is incompatible with “American values,” and that Islamic theology necessarily pushes individual Muslims to support terrorism or commit terrorist acts themselves. Trump is directly playing into that, in a way that’s literally producing threats on Omar’s life, and has no regrets about his actions. One could not ask for a clearer example of dangerous anti-Muslim bigotry, the kind of thing we all can and should stand up against.

This is especially true for those of us who have criticized Omar’s comments about Israel and its supporters in the past. Concern about Omar’s comments was entirely justified, but now those comments are not the issue — another group is being targeted, and legitimate criticism of Omar being twisted into a cover for bigotry. Trump and his allies have used the anti-Semitism debate as a launching point for their current campaign, evidence in their broader case that Omar is somehow dangerous and outside the American mainstream.

If those of us who criticized those comments stay silent, we risk complicity in the current bigoted campaign against her.

How the anti-Semitism charge is supporting an Islamophobic campaign against Omar

In March, Omar gave a two-minute speech at a banquet for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Muslim civil rights group, outlining her inspiring story (she’s a Somali immigrant), her commitment to American values, and the importance of standing up against Islamophobia.

“As an American member of Congress, I have to make sure I live up to the ideals of fighting for liberty and justice — those are very much rooted in the reason why my family came here,” she says near the speech’s end.

This is a story most of us should celebrate. Yet since video of this speech was uploaded a week ago, Republicans have taken a single line about the 9/11 attacks out of context to paint her as at best indifferent to the loss of life during the attack and at worst a terrorist sympathizer. The offending line is this: “CAIR was founded after 9/11 because they recognized that some people did something and that all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties.”

There’s a factual error in there (CAIR was founded in 1994), but the meaning is plain. After 9/11, “all of us” Muslims were being blamed, writ large, for the actions of “some people,” the hijackers, and it’s important to fight against that conflation. The line before “some people” in her speech makes the point even clearer (“far too long we have lived with the discomfort of being a second-class citizen, and frankly, I’m tired of it, and every single Muslim in this country should be tired of it”).

Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-TX), one of the first Republicans to attack Omar over this, tweeted the “some people did something” line absent any of the context explained, labeling it “unbelievable.” The Rupert Murdoch-owned New York Post published a cover, helpfully tweeted by Fox host Sean Hannity, juxtaposing the out-of-context quote with an image of the 9/11 attack:

In a segment on Omar this week, Hannity built his case against her in part based on the comments on Israel, bringing up Omar’s previous “anti-Semitic comments” to tee up his guest, former NYPD Commissioner Bernard Kerik, to outright accuse Omar of loving terrorists. “[Omar is] infatuated with al-Qaeda, with Hamas, with Hezbollah,” Kerik said.

The evidence for Kerik’s claim is embarrassingly thin — a video where she laughs about a college professor’s pronunciation of the words “al-Qaeda” and “Hezbollah,” not anything the groups have done. But by proceeding the baseless attack on Omar with a reference to “anti-Semitic comments,” Hannity makes this absurd claim seem more legitimate. If this Muslim woman is anti-Semitic, the implied logic goes, she shares some core values with terrorists like al-Qaeda and Hezbollah. Why wouldn’t she be sympathetic to them?

President Trump made a similar sort of argument in a Monday tweet targeting both Omar and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Once again, charges of anti-Semitism are used as part of a broader bill of goods, serving to establish that Omar is somehow foreign or anti-American.

The irony of Trump calling Omar anti-Semitic is rich.

This is a man who, in 2015, 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. Just this month, Trump told an American Jewish audience that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was “their” prime minister, implying that American Jews have a dual loyalty to Israel — a worse version of Omar’s controversial comments about the pro-Israel lobby.

Republicans aren’t genuinely concerned with anti-Semitism, or with Omar’s largely innocent comments about 9/11. Rather, a major political party is weaponizing the charge of anti-Semitism, using it to cast a member of another vulnerable minority group as an anti-American terrorist sympathizer.

Omar’s good-faith critics — and especially her good-faith Jewish critics — should not allow this to go unchallenged.

The need for Jewish-Muslim solidarity over Omar

Talking about Omar and anti-Semitism is extremely tricky.

It’s vitally important that anti-Semitic tropes not sneak into mainstream discourse, and Omar deserved to be challenged for comments that verged in that direction. However, it’s equally important that legitimate concerns about anti-Semitism not be used to smuggle in Islamophobic attacks on one of two Muslim women in Congress. The hard part about this conversation has been balancing these two issues, criticizing Omar without providing cover for a separate kind of bigotry.

Not only are Trump and the Republicans engaging in a dangerously bigoted attack on Omar, but they risk creating a backlash on the Democratic left in which any concerns about Omar’s comments on Israel can be pigeonholed as part of Trump’s cruel crusade. Given the cynical way arguments about Omar and Israel are being deployed by conservatives, why should anyone on the broader left take those objections seriously anymore?

This is one reason it’s absolutely vital that people who have criticized Omar before stand up and defend her from Islamophobic attacks. If you really care about bigotry, not just when it’s convenient, you need to ensure that you’re not being used as a pawn in a bigoted campaign.

So I’m putting my money where my mouth is. I don’t want to run the risk that my past criticisms of Omar are used as a fig leaf by her bigoted critics, and so I’m going to be crystal clear: I don’t think Omar is an anti-Semite, despite her handful of troubling comments. The charge of anti-Semitism is being exploited by bad actors in service of Islamophobia, cheapening genuine concerns about rising anti-Semitism in America today.

But even if I had never written anything about Ilhan Omar before, I’d feel like I should be writing something about the current controversy. And that’s for the simplest reason of all: Islamophobia is an evil, one that deserves to be fought. I feel that both as an American and as a Jew.

Jewish Activists Demonstrate Against Islamophobia And Racism In Front Of White House
A protest outside the White House in December 2016.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Contrary to popular stereotypes, Jewish-Muslim communal relations in the United States are actually pretty strong. A 2018 survey found that majorities of American Jews and Muslims agreed that their faiths were “more similar to each other than they are different”; more than 60 percent of respondents in both groups said that it was “very important” for “Muslims and Jews to work together on strengthening the laws to prevent discrimination.”

This reflects, in part, a deep sense of shared threat and intertwined destiny. A recent Guardian op-ed by two British writers, Jonathan Freedland (who’s Jewish) and Mehdi Hasan (who’s Muslim), captured this point movingly:

A Gallup study in 2010 found people “who say they feel ‘a great deal’ of prejudice … toward Jews are about 32 times as likely to report feeling ‘a great deal’ of prejudice toward Muslims”. Put simply, the kind of people who hate one of us are more likely to hate the other too.. ..

This is the climate in which we are both worried about the safety of our children. We share each other’s fears. And we both welcome signs that others are beginning to do the same. It’s heartening that Muslim groups raised more than $200,000 for bereaved families at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, and heartening too that the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh is now raising money for the victims of the New Zealand mosque attacks.

The ideological structure of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are quite similar. Both center on an idea that adherents to a particular religion cannot be truly loyal to a majority-Christian polity, that there is something about their faith and ethnic identity that makes them want to subvert and work against their fellow citizens. It’s no accident that these prejudices seem to co-travel and are particularly prevalent today on the fringe right.

And this is what makes me so angry about the weaponization of anti-Semitism against Omar.

Ilhan Omar didn’t shoot up a synagogue in Pittsburgh; a far-right ideologue did that. Ilhan Omar hasn’t been behind a relentless campaign blaming wealthy Jews for mass Latino migration, the ideas that the Pittsburgh shooter said inspired him; President Trump and his allies did that. Ilhan Omar didn’t threaten to attack my wedding, which happened on the same day as the Pittsburgh attack; alt-right anti-Semites did that.

It’s the right, not Omar and others on the left, that poses the greatest threat to Jewish life and safety in America today. For people like Trump to attack her as anti-Semitic, based on a handful comments, while as they stoke the flames of hatred against Jews and Muslims alike — it’s too much.

I cannot and will not sit by while American Jews and Muslims are pitted against each other by the people who bear a significant responsibility for both of their plights. And neither should anyone else who had objected to Omar’s Israel comments in good faith.