Ilhan Omar, Anti-Semitism, & The Political Left

Dad, what’s AIPAC?”

That was the question my son asked me on Sunday night as he was looking down at his phone. I knew right away that my peaceful Sunday evening was about to turn ugly. That’s because my son has recently become very aware of the world around him and particularly of the anti-Semitism that has been steadily rising in our society, and I was pretty sure I knew why he was asking me the question. More on that in a moment. As he asked me that question, however, we were just sitting down to relax after Sunday night dinner. I was feeling a rare (for me, recently, anyway) moment of peace and optimism.

Earlier in the day, we had attended the snowy rally on Boom Island in downtown Minneapolis for Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s announcement that she was going to be running for president. My hopes had been somewhat lifted by the event. I like Klobuchar, admire her moderation and honesty and intelligence, and I have come to see her as a potential bulwark (especially if she wins the presidency) against both the often quite-bigoted Trumpian Right and the increasingly-hostile-to-Israel (and sometimes just plain anti-Semitic) Far Left.

For those unaware, AIPAC is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and the reason my son was asking me about it was that our recently-elected Congresswoman Ilhan Omar had tweeted something about it. I am a supporter of Israel, but I do not support everything that the Israeli government has ever done. That said, I tend to believe that since the people of Israel are surrounded by mortal enemies intent on destroying it. Some of its security decisions that, we here in relatively safe Middle America might view as draconian are, in fact, often necessitated by the dire circumstances Israel finds itself in. I also believe that the Jewish people have a continuous, several-thousand-year connection to their ancestral homeland, and that they have a legitimate, historical claim to the land known as Israel. I also think that one of the key lessons of the Holocaust is that anti-Semitism is an ongoing problem in human relations, with no easy answer in sight, and in order to defend themselves (I guess I should say “ourselves”) against annihilation, the Jewish people need a homeland that can be a refuge for worldwide Jewry whenever anti-Semitism inevitably spikes. I think Israel has to exist if there is to be a future safeguard against another Holocaust. There are many other reasons Israel has a right to exist too, not the least of which is that the United Nations granted Israel nationhood in 1948, and Israel has fought numerous defensive wars (all of which it has won, and won decisively) to preserve its own existence. As for the conflict with the Palestinians, I believe in a two-state solution, ultimately, and I do have sympathy for the Palestinians, who have suffered greatly as well.

I also know that AIPAC is a lobbying group, much like any other lobbying group, and it seeks to bolster American support for Israel. It does not pay politicians to support Israel. It raises money in order to lobby and encourage American politicians to support Israel, yes, but poll after poll shows that the vast majority of Americans support Israel anyway – not because they are paid to do so, but because they share Israel’s values and see it as a beacon of democracy in a region with very little actual democracy.

When I was growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, support for Israel was basically bipartisan and rock solid, particularly in America. But something has changed, and it needs to be said – the Left has turned on Israel. Sure, many mainstream Democrats continue to affirm their strong support for Israel, but as one looked slightly further left on the political spectrum, one could not help but notice something sinister occurring in more recent years, and that is that many on the Left started to view Israel as a colonizer and a bully, rather than as a beacon for oppressed Jews suffering from worldwide anti-Semitism.

There are many reasons for this, but probably the primary one is simply a false narrative, often aided and abetted by many in the media, the United Nations, and so on, that views the Palestinians only as an “oppressed” people and the Israelis as their oppressors. Never mind that the Arab nations have hardly done anything for the Palestinians other than keeping them in refugee camps indefinitely in order to create the appearance that Israel is to blame for their misery. Never mind that Israel has done what any sovereign nation would do, defend itself and its citizens from terrorism and endless hatred and war. Never mind that many Arabs living in Israel have higher standards of living, with voting rights (and some even serve in Israel’s Knesset). Never mind that women and gay people are treated far better in Israel than they are treated in the Palestinian lands or other Arab nations. None of that seems to matter to some on the Left. And this has become a curious and troubling for many Jewish supporters of Israel – why does the Left, which used to “have our back,” now seem intent on stabbing us (Jews) in that very same back?

I am not sure I can easily answer that at the moment, which is part of what is so troubling. In recent years, Jews have continued to be stalwart supporters of the Democratic Party, voting for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in the 2016 by roughly a 60 percent margin (80 percent to 20 percent), an overwhelmingly strong Jewish turnout in support of the Democratic candidate (which mirrors the results of previous presidential elections as well). And yet, Jews have also seen the left wing of the Democratic Party become increasingly hostile to Israel, with hints of anti-Semitism thrown in at every turn.

In 2018, Keith Ellison announced he was going to run for the Attorney General position in Minnesota, creating an open seat in the 5th District. Several highly qualified candidates announced that they were going to run for the seat, and soon the frontrunners among the Democrats emerged among the five filed candidates: former Speaker of the Minnesota House of Representatives Margaret Anderson Kelliher, longtime Minnesota State Senator Patricia Torres Ray, and one-term Minnesota State Rep. Ilhan Omar, who had received the DFL’s endorsement in June 2018.

At an Aug. 6 forum at Beth El Synagogue, moderator Mary Lahammer pressed Omar on her views on the Middle East. Omar affirmed her support for a two-state solution in the Middle East, and she insisted that the BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) movement (a worldwide effort to isolate Israel with boycotts, sanctions, and divestment) was “not helpful in getting that two-state solution” and that the pressure that would be applied by a BDS movement would be “counteractive” to the goal of achieving a two-state solution. She added that “in order for us to have a process of getting to a two-state solution, people have to be willing to come to the table and have a conversation about how that’s going to be possible, and that [BDS] stops the dialogue.”

Omar went on to win the primary election, and, not surprisingly handily won the general election in November. However, after winning the general election, she directly contradicted the anti-BDS stand she had taken at that forum in front of a mostly Jewish audience at Beth El Synagogue, with her campaign now telling the Muslim Girl website: “Ilhan believes in and supports the BDS movement, and has fought to make sure people’s right to support it isn’t criminalized.”

Asked to clarify her clearly contradictory statements on the BDS issue, Omar refused to respond to local Jewish leaders and publications. Then, in January 2019, New York Times writer Bari Weiss wrote a rather scathing piece about Omar, particularly criticizing her for her offensive 2012 tweet, which read “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel. #Gaza #Palestine #Israel”. As Weiss pointed out, that tweet seemed to be repeating ancient anti-Semitic tropes about Jewish power and control, and the use of the word “hypnotized” was particularly offensive, as it called to mind such anti-Semitic forgeries as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which alleged that shadowy Jewish conspiracies were working behind the scenes to “hypnotize” the Gentiles of the world into doing the evil bidding of the nefarious Jews.

Although many local Jews had complained repeatedly about the very same tweet for months, if not years, sometimes directly to Omar, the criticism by the New York Times apparently stung enough that Omar felt she had to respond. Did she respond directly to the Jews in her own district who were most offended by the tweet? No, she offered up a half-hearted “apology” only directly to Ms. Weiss on Twitter. In that half-hearted “apology”, Omar claimed she “did not know” that the words were offensive. Never mind that Jews in her district had been saying this for months, if not years. She claims she was unaware until the New York Times article brought it to her attention. That definitely strained credulity a bit.

So back to that moment this past Sunday night when my son asked me what “AIPAC” was. I soon found out why he was asking. It was, of course, because Omar was tweeting about it. It was actually one of two offensive tweets she posted on Sunday night: Omar implied that AIPAC is paying American politicians to take pro-Israel stances, and she used the phrase “It’s all about the Benjamins” (“Benjamins” being $100 bills) to insinuate, once again, ancient anti-Semitic tropes about Jews and money and power. The implication was that American politicians do not support Israel based on their own principles, but rather because they are being paid off by wealthy Jews in order to do so.

This was too much even for her own party, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the entire Democratic leadership condemned Omar’s obvious anti-Semitic implications in her tweets. As if right on cue, Omar again “apologized” and claimed she was being “educated” on the “painful history of anti-Semitic tropes.” This, despite the fact that a mere three weeks earlier, she had also dubiously claimed that she was “unaware” of the anti-Semitic tropes she was trafficking in on Twitter. At this point, I think I will reserve my personal “acceptance” of her latest “apology” until I actually see a distinct change in her behavior going forward – and given her track record, I will not be holding my breath.

I have now essentially spent the last 36 hours online on Facebook and Twitter, trying to explain to people (mostly on the Left) why her comments were offensive. I really should not have had to explain, but I did anyway. To the point of utter exhaustion. I am exhausted now. Apparently, many of my “friends” cannot see the obvious anti-Semitism at the root of Omar’s comments. They tell me and other Jews that we are “overreacting” and that “it is not anti-Semitic to criticize Israel” or to criticize AIPAC and its influence on American politicians, as if that were even the issue at hand. It is NOT the issue at hand. If Omar had simply been honest about her position on BDS in August at Beth El Synagogue, or if she had simply said on Twitter recently that she would like to further a discussion about AIPAC and the influence that it has on U.S. policies towards Israel, I might not have been happy, but I hardly think there would have been this kind of outcry from myself, other Jews, and prominent members of both parties in Congress. She is not being “censored”. She is free to speak her mind, and if the voters decide they don’t like her words, hopefully, she will be voted out.

Nobody is muzzling Omar for her political views or telling her she cannot criticize Israel or even American policy towards Israel and how that policy is implemented or influenced. She has First Amendment rights, and nobody is telling her that she cannot exercise them. That said, it would be really nice if my Congresswoman spent less time tweeting anti-Semitic tropes on Twitter and more time working on making life better for the residents of her district, which I thought was supposed to be the reason she ran for Congress in the first place.

I see Omar’s tweets as reflecting some of the worst anti-Semitic tendencies in human history. They seem to be setting up Jews to be blamed for whatever goes wrong in society, and they seem to be implying that Jews unfairly wield money and power to serve only their own interests and not those of the society at large. These same sentiments most definitely provided fuel for Nazism and other murderous anti-Semitic movements throughout history. Omar should know better.

When it comes down to it, the saddest part of all is lack of solidarity from the Left for Jews who rightly feel they have been insulted and ostracized. I remain hopeful that some will choose to be educated and not side with the ignorant masses who keep proclaiming, over and over, as if the thought never occurred to anyone else, that “anti-Israel does not equal anti-Semitic.” Yeah, we know that, and that is not even what we are arguing. That is a strawman. Most Jews believe that Israel should not be immune to criticism in the first place.

But when you engage in rhetoric that echoes some of the worst anti-Semitic rhetoric in history – language that has indeed been used to justify the murder of Jews – well, you are going to get some blowback. And rightfully so.