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.
Does she know of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, that Russian-inspired hoax about a fabricated Jewish conspiracy to dominate the globe? Does she realize that the Nazis mobilized hatred of Jews by picturing them as conspiratorially rich and secretly powerful, harboring loyalties to their own people above the nation? Does she understand how, even now in some lands, Jews have been regarded as “others,” apart, suspect? Is she aware that overt hatred of Jews is on the rise in the United States, with a spike in anti-Semitic attacks, and that the ugliness is increasingly visible in France, England, Sweden, Hungary, and elsewhere?
Of course her comments do not rise to those levels. But mines are sensitive to the slightest touch. You need a clear map to avoid them. If you want to challenge Israeli policies and American support for Israel, there are plenty of ways without saying that American legislators are influenced by Jewish money: “It’s all about the Benjamins baby,” she tweeted in February, a reference to Benjamin Franklin’s portrait on hundred-dollar bills. After being condemned by the House Democratic leadership, she apologized.
If you want to criticize Aipac, which lobbies hard for Israel, there are plenty of ways without summoning up the specter of dual loyalty: “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it’s OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country,” she declared at a forum last week. As the Democratic caucus has tried to come up with a palatable resolution against anti-Semitism, anti-Islamism, or hatred in general, Omar has not apologized.
As the historian Deborah Lipstadt noted on NPR last week, all you have to do to find legitimate criticisms of Israeli policy clean of anti-Semitism is to go to haaretz.com, the website of the liberal Israeli newspaper, or read the arguments on the floor of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. Many Israelis are tougher on themselves than anybody else is. The right-wing government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is excoriated from the left for his new alignment with a party of anti-Arab bigots, for continued occupation of the West Bank, for violence against Palestinians there and in Gaza, for expanding Jewish settlements on West Bank land that might otherwise be available for a Palestinian state, and for failing to press ahead toward a two-state solution.
Palestinians share responsibility for the stalemate: terrorism, rockets from Gaza, rejection of past Israeli offers of compromise, and the like—all adding up to stubborn miscalculations and self-defeating dogmatism. What you don’t hear from Omar is any criticism of the Palestinian side. Nor has she demonstrated, at least so far, a grasp of the situation’s complexity that would inform her arguments and make them more persuasive.
Omar attributes the charges of anti-Semitism to her election as one of the first two Muslim women in Congress, along with Rashida Tlaib of Michigan. But Tlaib, of Palestinian background with a grandmother living on the West Bank, has avoided the anti-Semitic comments that have made Omar’s pro-Palestinian points easy to discredit.
Indeed, her compassionate remarks at last week’s forum have been rendered sharp and brittle by her one-sentence dual-loyalty inference. Omar said that while her Jewish constituents in Minnesota speak of Israeli security fears, “We never really allow the space for the stories of Palestinians seeking safety and sanctuary. . . The demonization and the silencing of the particular pain and suffering of people should not be OK and normal.”
Many older members of Congress, “there since before we were born,” she quipped, “were fighting for people to be free to live in dignity in South Africa. I know that many of them fight for people around the world to have dignity, to have self-determination. So I know, I know that they care about these things. But now that you have two Muslims that say, yeah, there’s a group of people that we want to have the dignity that you want everybody else to have, we get to be called names and we get to be labeled hateful? We know what hateful’s like. We experience it every single day.”
As a Muslim, she said, “When I hear my Jewish constituents or friends or colleagues to speak about Palestinians who don’t want safety or Palestinians who aren’t deserving . . . I never go in the dark place of saying, here’s a Jewish person, they’re talking about Palestinians, Palestinians are Muslim, maybe they’re Islamophobic. I never allow myself to go there.”
She has been vilified and threatened with death. “I know what intolerance looks like, so I’m sensitive when someone says, ‘The words you use, Ilhan, are examples of intolerance.’ And I am conscious of that, and I feel pained by that. . . . We get to be labeled, and that ends the discussion, and we end up defending that, and nobody ever gets to have the proper debate of, what is happening with Palestine?”
Omar is right that legitimate criticism of Israel has been too readily branded as anti-Semitic. The line has been blurred by zealous pro-Israel Americans who apparently don’t realize that when the distinction is not made by Israel’s supporters, the line is blurred for Israel’s opponents as well. This is a symbiotic relationship of sloppy thinking and hateful rhetoric that feeds both sides and makes impossible any serious focus on real issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
It would be healthy to have a cogent opposition in Congress to the reflexive US support for any and all Israeli policies. But it has to be precise and focused and fact-based, and not wander off course where it lets itself get blown apart by the mines of anti-Semitism.