The controversy surrounding freshman U.S. Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) is, or ought to be, a lesson in the way power functions. On February 11, Omar apologized for the second time in three weeks for comments labeled by others as anti-Semitic.
“Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.”
The first instance came on January 22, when a 2012 tweet resurfaced in which Omar had written: “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.” While she initially defended the comment, Omar later acknowledged that her words reinforced anti-Semitic stereotypes. In her apology, she claimed that her comments referred only to the way in which the Israeli military had conducted itself during the war in Gaza and not to Jews in general.
On February 11, Omar landed herself in hot water again. In reference to her treatment by Republican officials, Omar tweeted: “It’s all about the Benjamins baby.” She later suggested that the pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC was behind their desire to punish her. In response, some two dozen House Democrats, including senior figures such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, labeled Omar’s comments anti-Semitic and asked for an apology.
Omar duly issued an apology: “Anti-Semitism is real and I am grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of anti-Semitic tropes,” tweeted Omar.
But she included a significant caveat: “At the same time, I reaffirm the problematic role of lobbyists in our politics, whether it be AIPAC, the NRA or the fossil fuel industry,” Omar concluded.
Her apology was simply not good enough for many, including President Trump (not a man known for either apologies or standing up against bigotry). Trump called the apology “lame” and called for Omar to resign from Congress or at least to give up her seat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
While Omar’s comments, particularly her 2012 tweet, reflected — however inadvertently — classic anti-Semitic theories about a shadowy Jewish conspiracy using money and mind control to manipulate political leaders, her words also carry more than a hint of religious fundamentalism. Nevertheless, her supposed fanaticism pales in comparison with that of her accusers.
Responding to Omar’s comments, Rep Mike Conway (R-Tex), told the Washington Post: “God says: ‘I will bless those who bless Israel. I will curse those who curse Israel.’ I’m sticking with God on that one.” One imagines that if Omar had responded to Conway with an equivalent statement — something to the effect that Allah promised the land of Israel to the descendants of Ishmael — there may have been a bigger uproar.
The hypocrisy of the Republican Party in accusing Omar of bigotry is staggering. President Trump has relied heavily on extreme anti-Muslim sentiment, culminating in his travel ban for citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries, which evolved out of his 2015 campaign promise of “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”
Trump’s well-known history of association with bigotry is too extensive to summarize here.
Trump’s well-known history of association with bigotry is too extensive to summarize here. Even on the specific question of anti-Semitism, Trump’s personal record is far worse than Omar’s. In August 2017, he famously refused to fully condemn right-wing protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, who marched alongside the Ku Klux Klan chanting “Jews will not replace us.” Yet, on March 7, the President tweeted: “It is shameful that House Democrats won’t take a stronger stand against Anti-Semitism in their conference.”
This disconnect is illuminating. It is often said that false charges of anti-Semitism are used to demonize critics of Israel, but the current Republican Party is taking this one step further. Republicans are castigating Ilhan Omar for criticizing the actions of the Israeli state while ignoring or actively supporting actual anti-Semitism.
Omar’s Democratic colleagues have acted little better. Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.) accused Omar of a “vile anti-Semitic slur.” His remarks came in response to Omar’s assertion that pro-Israel lobbying groups, such as AIPAC, strongly influence American politics (an influence that is extremely well documented). It remains to be seen whether AIPAC and others will demand an apology from Mr. Engel for presumably suggesting that their lobbying is ineffective and that the millions of dollars they spend each election cycle is wasted money.
Representative Engel’s words reveal that he, like many others, seeks not merely to combat anti-Semitism but also to delegitimize criticism of Israeli state policy. It is a stark reminder of the current political climate in the U.S. that senior politicians can describe the self-evident fact that lobbies engage in lobbying as a racist “slur.”
In the United Kingdom, a similar story is unfolding. The Labour Party (whose policies roughly mirror those of Bernie Sanders) is frequently accused of anti-Semitism by a media and a political class largely opposed to the party’s current direction under leader Jeremy Corbyn. Perhaps the most outrageous case of many was MP Dame Margaret Hodge’s comparison of the experience of receiving a disciplinary letter from Labour to that of being “a Jew in Germany in the 30’s.” Hodge went on to say: “There is a very fine line between being pro-Palestinian, which [Jeremy Corbyn] has always believed in, and being anti-Semitic.”
The deliberate blurring of lines between anti-Semitism and criticism of Israeli policy is an old story in itself, but the “weaponization” of this conflation has taken on a new intensity in recent months, condemned by both Jews and non-Jews alike. It appears that the idea that the Left is anti-Semitic is becoming an increasingly important aspect of the right-wing narrative on both sides of the Atlantic. While the debate about whether there can be debate on Israeli policy heats up, the results of future elections will reveal whether the tactic is working.