By Michelle Goldberg
March 8, 2019
The identity politics fiasco surrounding Democratic Congresswoman Ilhan Omar has been excruciating. Half of me is angry at her. The other half is furious for her.
Among the most basic anti-Semitic tropes are these: Jews employ semi-occult powers to control world events; they manipulate hapless gentiles with their money; and Jews in the diaspora are disloyal to the countries in which they live. Omar, in the course of making perfectly valid criticisms of Israel and its most powerful American lobby, has invoked each of these tropes.
Twice now, she has publicly expressed regret for saying things that many Jews — including some who are quite far to the left on Israel — see as freighted with anti-Semitism, only to reignite public controversy with new insensitive comments. Most recently, while speaking on a panel last week, she said, “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is O.K. for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country.”
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Writers I respect, including Paul Waldman at The Washington Post, have argued that there was nothing wrong with what Omar said, because she was criticizing those who demand that she show more fealty to Israel, rather than accusing Jews of dual loyalties. But even if you interpret her words that way, she’s committed what might be called, in another context, a series of microaggressions — inadvertent slights that are painful because they echo whole histories of trauma. I assume Omar has been reckless rather than malicious, but it is incumbent on her, as on any public person who wades into fraught sectarian debates, to speak with care. This doesn’t mean she should temper her criticism of Israel, just that she needs to stop giving ammunition to those who want to conflate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism.
So I think Omar deserves criticism. Criticism, however, is not the right word for what she’s faced. As one of the first two Muslim women in Congress — and the first to wear a hijab — Omar has been subject to a terrifying campaign of racist vilification, including a poster in the rotunda of the West Virginia Capitol linking her to 9/11. She is treated as a dangerous foreign interloper in American politics and the embodiment of anti-Semitism, even though her Republican colleagues routinely demonstrate far worse anti-Jewish bigotry.
Earlier this week, Representative Jim Jordan, Republican of Ohio, accused Representative Jerry Nadler of doing the bidding of the wealthy liberal donor “Tom $teyer,” whose father was Jewish. (“To be clear, this tweet counts both as inane AND anti-Semitic,” Nadler responded.) Representative Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican who is one of Trump’s fiercest defenders, once brought an internet troll who’d denied the Holocaust to the State of the Union. Omar gestured at the idea of dual loyalty, but Donald Trump, speaking to American Jews last December, referred to Israel as “your country.” Indeed, no president has done more to mainstream classically anti-Semitic ideas about an authentic volk at war with parasitical globalists. It’s maddening to watch men who’ve flirted with outright fascism — like former Trump aide Sebastian Gorka, who wore the medal of a Nazi-aligned Hungarian group to one of Trump’s inaugural balls — act like sanctimonious defenders of the Jews.
The point is not to excuse Omar by comparison. It’s to say that Omar said things that are offensive and that she’s the victim of a double standard. She’s been held up for unique opprobrium because, breaking with America’s foreign policy consensus, she empathizes with Palestinians more than Israelis. Representative Juan Vargas, a Democrat of California, gave the game away earlier this week when he tweeted, “It is disturbing that Rep. Omar continues to perpetuate hurtful anti-Semitic stereotypes that misrepresent our Jewish community. Additionally, questioning support for the U.S.-Israel relationship is unacceptable.”
House Democratic leaders have been widely panned for their handling of the Omar affair, but its contradictions put them in a near-impossible bind. To ignore her words would be to tolerate mild anti-Semitism, an unsavoury proposition at any time, but especially now, when many Jews feel newly vulnerable in a country that’s long been a haven. To publicly rebuke her would mean joining in the over-the-top demonization of a Black Muslim woman facing death threats. Ultimately, Democrats on Thursday settled on a resolution condemning anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim discrimination, and “bigotry against minorities,” a blandly inoffensive document that didn’t seem to satisfy anyone.
As that resolution was being hashed out, The Hill published an interview with House Majority Whip James Clyburn that poured gasoline on a trash fire. Defending Omar, who spent four years of her childhood in a Kenyan refugee camp, he seemed to describe her suffering as more visceral than that of Jews. “There are people who tell me, ‘Well, my parents are Holocaust survivors.’ ‘My parents did this.’” Clyburn said. “It’s more personal with her. I’ve talked to her, and I can tell you she is living through a lot of pain.”
I don’t doubt that Omar is living through a lot of pain, but minimizing the legacy of the Holocaust is never a good idea, particularly when your party is managing an internal crisis over anti-Semitism. For a moment I was frightened: with the country in the hands of a repugnant white nationalist, this is not the moment for Democrats to tear themselves apart over race and religion.
Then the voting on the anti-bigotry resolution started. Every Democrat present backed the resolution, but 23 Republicans voted against it. It was a reminder that while Democrats sometimes fail to live up to the ideals of multiethnic democracy, Republicans don’t seem to recognize those ideas at all. Omar needs to do better, but right now there’s still only one political party in America that is a safe place for hate.