Of Ilhan Omar, Antisemitism, and American Politics

Image: Jerusalem Post

Image: Jerusalem Post

The long-simmering controversy over Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN)’s heated language against Israel has reached a boiling point among top House Democrats such as House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey (D-NY) and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-NY). 

Despite evident party fractionalization, Omar has stewed dissension from all rows of the political aisle in regards to her tweet in February chiding American political leaders’ support for attributing financial benefits to the pro-Israel lobby for being “all about the Benjamins baby.” Some were quick to condemn this tweet and its Puff Daddy reference as invoking the sensitive anti-Semitic stereotype of Jewish people buying influence. In addition, she spoke plainly about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on a panel with Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), who, like Omar, is a practicing Muslim and a member of the“notorious” conglomeration of progressive freshmen Congresswomen. 

The town-hall meeting at Washington’s Busboys and Poets restaurant, where Omar remarked that she wanted “to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country,” was riddled with justifiable accusations of leftist hypocrisy. Opponents proceeded to slam the Somalian woman for reinforcing bygone, vitriolic, and anti-Semitic tropes, therefore being no different from far-right soapbox orators.

In context, Omar did not explicitly identify who or what this “political influence” is coming from other than the pro-Israel lobbying community in general. But, given her previous scathing comments, the latest remarks struck many observers as playing into bromide anti-Semitic narratives about Jewish attachments to Israel making them disloyal to the United States (otherwise known as “dual loyalty”). Given this trend, in which criticism directed towards Jewish-Americans compounded until it became unbearable, many were less inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt.

Critics including Steve Hunegs, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, said Omar was insinuating that Jewish people have an iniquitous “dual-loyalty” that fogs their “gratitude” for American principles because of their strengthened emotional attachments towards Israel. 

"Accusing Jews of harboring dual loyalty has a long, violent, sordid history," Hunegs said on NPR News' Morning Edition on Tuesday, March 5th. "It's the standard fare of [former Ku Klux Klan leader] David Duke. It's difficult and dangerous because it evokes the Jews as the malevolent other, conspiring against society.”

The dual-allegiance charge against Jewish-American citizens was enshrined in the notorious anti-Semitic document, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which emphatically claimed that Jewish people would consistently place the interests of their ancestral homeland and heritage over that of their host country, the one that they have “assimilated” into. After the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, Jewish people were occasionally accused of putting Israel’s interests before America’s, such as when some critics of the Iraq War suggested that Jewish neoconservatives were goading the nation into a foolish conflict to advance Israel’s foreign-policy goals. In lieu of contemporary history and heavily anti-theistic values that have placed Islam in an undeservingly precarious light, Muslim-Americans have been those most subject to the dual-loyalty charge, something that Omar, as a trailblazing Muslim woman, should consider when confronting her accusers. 

However, dual-allegiance charges go much further than a polite disagreement on policy or an exceedingly-precautionary remark. Drenched in nativism, these allegations imply not only that a group is un-American, but that its adherents have no agency; marginalized peoples cannot be patriotic because they are, unequivocally, under a theological form of mesmerism that can seldom be undone. When Omar focused on AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) as the example of money in politics, or linked Jewish influence to gold-lined pockets, her string of comments became a problem. As Jewish Telegraph Agency Editor-in-Chief Andrew Silow-Carroll pointed out, “Invoking ‘AIPAC!’ as a metonym for the influence of money in politics was a minefield, and the idea that she doesn’t know that by now — coming only a week after she apologized for her 7-year-old ‘hypnotized’ tweet — is implausible.”

For many Jewish-Americans, it feels as if they have to choose between what manifestation of anti-Semitism is the most lethal. Is it the newly empowered “alt-right,” the emboldened white supremacy movement, and the mushrooming statistics of religiously-motivated hate crimes? Or, is it the growing divisions within the left regarding Israeli-Palestinian relations, legitimacy, and sovereignty? Partisan politics cause many Jewish-Americans to feel as if they must make a decision in the face of an ultimatum, when, in reality, Jewish-Americans can—and do—feel impacted by both.

The growing volatility of the internal politics of being a Jewish-American, otherwise known as the widening split within the liberal Jewish-American community regarding Israel, remains unresolved due to the dubious nature of one central dilemma: Is being supportive of Israel still a central tenet of the Jewish-American identity? Or, is being “pro-Israel”—however one would choose to define that—becoming a less important part of voting as a Jewish American?

While the answer remains distorted by the reader’s preferentiality, there is one takeaway to be made: ancient trivializations of Jewish suffering have no seat at our sociopolitical culture’s table of discussion, nor are they permitted to bring a folding chair.