By David K. Shipler
Israel is surrounded by a minefield that protects it from critics who step carelessly, such as the new congresswoman, Ilhan Omar. The explosives, planted by history, are the ancient anti-Semitic stereotypes that will blow up the argument of anyone who triggers them, no matter how cogent her position is otherwise. That is what Omar has experienced. She first detonated her case with the longstanding caricature of moneyed Jews buying undue influence, and then with the old calumny of Jews as disloyal to their own country. In among those lethal comments, her valid points and humane pleas were covered by debris.
You can’t truly appreciate the power of stereotypes without a sense of history. To understand the recent uproar and ugly resonance of the blackface worn years ago by Virginia’s Governor Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring, for example, you have to know about the demeaning minstrel shows of the past, which pictured blacks as stupid, lazy, and comically inept. To grasp the full implications of Omar’s statements, you have to recognize the nerves they touch in the collective memory of oppression.
It’s not enough to condemn someone who stumbles around in this landscape. Omar needs the kind of guidance that has been provided in the past by the Anti-Defamation League, which has engaged and taught, not just blamed, those guilty of anti-Semitic statements. In 1981, for example, after Rev. Bailey Smith, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, declared, “God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew,” the ADL invited him and a delegation on a nine-day visit to Israel. Officials who met him didn’t bring up the comment and portrayed him as well-meaning, probably unknowing. He confessed that he should not have singled out the Jews, when he meant that the way to God was only through Jesus Christ.
So one has to wonder whether Omar knew what she was saying, and whether she is educable. Born in Somalia, fleeing at age eight with her family to a refugee camp in Kenya, and finally making it to the United States, she has clearly absorbed—perhaps unconsciously—at least a couple of the most virulent images from which Jews have suffered through centuries.