By Bari Weiss
Jan. 21, 2019
In 2012, during one of Israel’s periodic wars with Hamas in Gaza, Ilhan Omar, at the time a 32-year-old nutrition coordinator with the Minnesota Department of Education, tweeted the following: “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel. #Gaza #Palestine #Israel”
The sentence has dogged Ms. Omar, a refugee from Somalia who last year became one of the first Muslim women elected to Congress and was just seated on the influential House Foreign Affairs Committee. On Thursday, CNN’s Poppy Harlow pressed her again: “I wonder just what your message is this morning as the first on our Game Changer series to Jewish-Americans who find that deeply offensive.”
“That’s a really regrettable way of expressing that,” Ms. Omar said of the anchor’s question. “I don’t know how my comments would be offensive to Jewish Americans. My comments precisely are addressing what was happening during the Gaza War and I’m clearly speaking about the way the Israeli regime was conducting itself in that war.”
Perhaps Ms. Omar is sincerely befuddled and not simply deflecting. Because sentiments like these, once beyond the pale of our public discourse, are being heard with greater frequency and volume these days, allow me to explain why this Jewish American, and almost every Jewish American I know, found her words so offensive.
The conspiracy theory of the Jew as the hypnotic conspirator, the duplicitous manipulator, the sinister puppeteer is one with ancient roots and a bloody history. In the New Testament, it is a small band of Jews who get Rome — then the greatest power in the world — to do their bidding by killing Christ. Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, speaks to the Jews about Jesus in the book of John: “Take him yourselves and judge him according to your own law.” But the Jews punt the decision back to Pilate: “We are not permitted to put anyone to death.” And so Pilate does the deed on their behalf. In the book of Matthew, the implications of this manipulation are spelled out: “His blood is on us and our children,” the Jews say — a line that has been so historically destructive that even Mel Gibson cut it from his “Passion of the Christ.”
In the two millenniums that followed, even after 1965, when the Catholic Church formally disavowed the belief that the Jews killed Jesus, this was the template for the anti-Semitic conspiracy: the ability of this tiny minority to use its wiles and its proximity to power to con others into accomplishing their evil ends. It has led to countless expulsions, murders, massacres and pogroms throughout Europe and elsewhere.
The Jewish power to hypnotize the world, as Ms. Omar put it, is the plot of Jud Süss — the most successful Nazi film ever made. In the film, produced by Joseph Goebbels himself, Josef Süss Oppenheimer, an 18th-century religious Jew, emerges from the ghetto, makes himself over as an assimilated man, and rises to become the treasurer to the Duke of Württemberg. Silly duke: Allowing a single Jew into his city leads to death and destruction.
After seeing the final cut of the film, in August 1940, Goebbels wrote in his diary: “An anti-Semitic film of the kind we could only wish for. I am happy about it.” And no wonder: It premiered at the Venice Film Festival, where it received the Golden Lion Award. By some estimates, more than 20 million people saw it.
Since then, the myth of the wily Jewish manipulator of those in power continues to persist in various forms. During the Iraq War, it became common to blame Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz and Doug Feith — Bush administration figures who happened to be Jewish — for a military campaign that had been ordered by George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. In the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump blamed “globalists” with names like Lloyd Blankfein and George Soros for America’s economic woes.
But the biggest “Jew” today in the demonology of modern anti-Semitism is the Jewish state, Israel. While there are perfectly legitimate criticisms that one can make of Israel or the actions of its government — and I have never been shy about making them — those criticisms cross the line into anti-Semitism when they ascribe evil, almost supernatural powers to Israel in a manner that replicates classic anti-Semitic slanders.
During the weeklong November 2012 war, which began when Hamas fired roughly 100 rockets at civilian targets, Israel “hypnotized” nobody. It was subject to the usual barrage of intense criticism in the news media and at the United Nations, and from the leaders of other nations, not to mention protesters across the world. That Israel continues to retain support in the United States among mainstream Democrats and Republicans is because — contrary to Ms. Omar’s tweet — the Jewish state is not engaged in “evil doings,” but defending itself against the enemies pressing on all of its borders, including Hamas, which has genocide of the Jews, and a belief in Jewish manipulative power, at the heart of its ideology. The original Hamas charter from 1988, only recently revised, claimed that the Jews orchestrated the French and Russian revolutions and both world wars.
Those who call themselves anti-Zionists usually insist they are not anti-Semites. But I struggle to see what else to call an ideology that seeks to eradicate only one state in the world — the one that happens to be the Jewish one — while empathetically insisting on the rights of self-determination for every other minority. Israeli Jews, descended in equal parts from people displaced from Europe and the Islamic world, are barely 6.5 million of the world’s 7.7 billion people. What is it about them, exactly, that puts them beyond the pale?
During that interview with CNN, Ms. Omar also tried to defend another of her controversial tweets, this one from last Tuesday, suggesting that Senator Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican, was being blackmailed. Many people read this as an insinuation that he is gay and closeted, and someone was threatening to out him. Her evidence? She had none. But it was in keeping with her predilection for making accusations based on nothing more than prejudiced stereotypes.
Democrats may want to believe that such conspiracy thinking is the domain of the Republican Party. But Ms. Omar’s comments are proof that no party has a monopoly on speciousness.
The particular challenge in the case of Ms. Omar is that she is exactly the kind of politician a vast majority of American Jews, who overwhelmingly vote Democratic and who have long aligned themselves with liberal causes, want to celebrate: Here is a refugee, a mother, a Muslim and a woman of colour — the first woman of colour to represent Minnesota in Congress. It’s no wonder she has already landed on the cover of Time magazine and in front of Annie Leibowitz’s camera. Who wouldn’t want to cheer her on?
Indeed, her identity seems to have fogged the minds of some Jewish commentators, who have insisted that we ought not to criticize Ms. Omar and other people of color who have recently exposed their anti-Semitism (Tamika Mallory, Marc Lamont Hill) because, well, it’s just not a good look to be criticizing leaders of the black community right now.
This is an untenable position, especially in a moment when the F.B.I. is sounding the alarm about the spike in hate crimes against Jews. Ms. Omar now sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, where she’ll represent a growing intellectual climate that sees Jews as bearers both of monstrous moral guilt and of the secret power to conceal it. It may be more difficult to call out those who ought to be our friends and political allies, but alas for the Jews, not all anti-Semites carry tiki torches.