Rep. Omar’s Words and the Backlash

Those who condemn Rep. Ilhan Omar and those who defend her are both wrong. The issues are far more complicated than that. I do not believe that her comments were intentionally anti-Semitic. Had they been said about pretty much any other group or lobby they would have been taken as relatively innocuous political analysis. Yes, money does buy politicians. Yes, Israel does receive special treatment and blind loyalty by many of its supporters (just as it receives special treatment and blind hatred from many of its detractors). And clearly it is not anti-Semitic to criticize the contemptible government of Israel. Moreover, it is unconscionable to deny its historic oppression of the Palestinian people. It is, or at least once was, in the spirit of the Jewish people to identify with the persecuted and dispossessed and to shun the blinders with which the world has looked upon they themselves.

But Representative Omar’s words struck a nerve, and it’s a real one. And I’m not referring to the reactions of many on the Right who are hypocritically exploiting her remarks for political purposes or answering her alleged anti-Semitism with Islamophobia. Nor am I referring to the reactions of many on the Left whose doctrinaire, black and white perspectives on Zionism and often Jews themselves more closely resemble National Socialism than Socialism. I am referring to the raw nerves of the descendants of genocide, who are still the victims of hate crimes and hate speech. We cannot ignore their legitimacy. Too many people seem to understand the power of words when directed at themselves but are easily dismissive of the offense taken by others to what they perceive as slurs or stereotypes. And if we are to be truly honest and even-handed, we must also understand the counter-reaction by people whose families have also been massacred, displaced and ignored, and who themselves also still deal every day with hate crimes and hate speech. Shouldn’t the parallels of the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre and the New Zealand mosques massacre tell us anything? Shouldn’t they tell Jews and Muslims that mutual understanding is a means to their survival?

When Rep. Omar talked about “the Benjamins,” she was using an expression, popularized in a rap song, that I believe she at least mostly meant to refer to the influence of money in politics. Again, if the reference was to lobbying by the N.R.A. or the Fossil Fuel industry or Big Pharma, it wouldn’t have stirred much reaction other than typical Left-Right sparring. More to the point, had it been directed at Saudi Arabian influence on our government, it not only wouldn’t have set off much controversy, there might not have been much sparring over it at all. But the hateful historic stereotypes about Jews and money are too deeply rooted and felt to be ignored. They’re still with us. The code word on the Right these days is “Soros.” The code word on the Left is “Rothschild.” The verb “to Jew” is still in the lexicon.

Trump’s campaign speech to the Republican Jewish Coalition was filled with such stereotypes. He once said that he didn’t want Blacks handling his money, he wanted people with yarmulkes. His campaign several times used tweets from neo-Nazi groups, replete with Stars of David and dollar signs. Whenever there’s a demonstration, the Right is quick to claim that the protestors were paid for by “Soros.” Meanwhile, on the Left we see lots of willful confusion over what Zionism really is and sometimes even what Judaism really is. We find too many so-called “progressives” who have somehow bought into the Nazis’ big lie about an international conspiracy of Jewish bankers, one which controls American politics, seeing it as cutting-edge Marxism without any sense of its cutting edge. And despite all fact and reason, some reading this might still believe there’s some truth to the myth that was used to slaughter much of our ancestry, and it would be very tempting by now to tell them to go to Hell if Jews believed in one.

There’s also a long and painful history of questioning the loyalties of Jewish Americans. Catholics should be able to relate to that, were it not for the “special otherness” of Jews. Japanese Americans, whose parents may have been locked up in “internment camps” during World War Two should also be able to attest to the toxicity of such charges. And now, and not surprisingly given so many parallels between Jews and Muslims, American Muslims including Rep. Omar are being questioned about their allegiance to “Sharia Law” instead of the American Constitution. Sure, Jews have the right to immigrate to Israel and request citizenship, under “The Law of Return” drafted after two thousand years of wandering. But that’s quite different. European non-Jews with actual dual citizenship aren’t subjected to the same suspicions. And although it is fair and right to point out that this provision allows American Jews preferential status in Israel over its native Palestinian population, one simply has to take an objective and sensitive look at history.

Why would Jews want a Jewish state? Why do Palestinians? After two thousand years plus of persecution, uprooting and genocide, the safety and unity provided by a homeland should be easy to understand. Thus, Zionism should be easy to understand. One can certainly argue that the homeland should not have been in Palestine. Personally, I believe that instead of dividing Germany between the imperialist powers a Jewish refuge should have been created there. But there were those who believed that their God decreed that it be in their Biblical holy land, essentially the same thing that most Palestinian Muslims believe. Did some imperialists exploit the religious argument and lead desperate refugees there to gain a foothold in the region, sure. Can one make the argument that nationalism, whatever the legitimacy of its initial motive, is divisive and chauvinistic, yes. Can Zionism also be compared to the “Manifest Destiny” of the European conquerors of the Indigenous population of the Americas, of course. Could those desperate Jewish refugees, once arriving and seeing that Palestine/Israel was not a “land without a people for a people without a land” still have made a different moral choice, probably so. All of that is fair argument. What is not fair argument is tying Zionism to some singular, sinister international plot, and calling out Israel alone as a central source of evil in a world full of racism and oppression and terror and corruption. And it is equally unfair for some to believe that they can get away with bigoted innuendos about Jews that would not be permitted against almost any other group.

While Jews were fleeing from place to place, persecution to pogrom, for millennia, Palestinians were being ruled by one occupier after another after another after another. The Palestinian struggle for human rights and a homeland is a just one. But, unfortunately, just as some of the Zionist leadership was corrupted by imperialists, some of the Palestinian and Arab leadership were corrupted by Nazis. They conspired in the persecution of Jews, just as some Jews have persecuted the Palestinians. It’s understandable that a population occupied and abused in the name of a particular group of people will, without any further frame of reference, grow to embrace hate-filled views of that people. But young Palestinians are still being indoctrinated with the likes of the fake “Elders of Zion” alleged manifesto, answering bigotry with bigotry, stereotypes with stereotypes, and ignorance with ignorance, leaving no higher moral ground for anyone to stand on.

I am glad Rep. Omar listened to those who were hurt by her words, and am heartened that she volunteered an apology. I am also glad that the Democrats chose a resolution that condemned all forms of bigotry and stereotyping and did not escalate what is better to understand as misunderstanding. But I condemn those who, despite rabid anti-Semitism in their own backyards, wanted to (or did) beat her up to advance their own agendas, just as I condemn those who tried to undermine this potential learning experience by turning her into the victim. The efforts going on currently for Muslims and Jews to listen to and communicate with one another has been uncomfortable, sometimes painful. But it has to happen. There are many Jews who have shown support and solidarity with Palestinians and Muslim Americans, just as there are many Muslims who have themselves decried hatred of all kinds, including anti-Semitism. We are used and hated by the same people and institutions. If we don’t find understanding and common ground, who will be there when they come for us?