Omar Continues To Court Controversy

Rep. Ilhan Omar is out of the frying pan and into the fire for another statement perceived by many to be anti-Semitic, less than a month after implying on Twitter that Jewish money had bought off members of Congress to support Israel.

“I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is okay for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country,” Omar said at a D.C. panel on Wednesday. “I want to ask, ‘why is it okay for me to talk about the influence of the [National Rifle Association], or fossil fuel industries, or big pharma, and not talk about a powerful lobbying group that is influencing policy?’”

She then doubled-down on the comment in a Twitter back-and-forth with fellow Democrat Nita Lowey of New York over the weekend.

Omar, who represents Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District, which includes Minneapolis and parts of nearby suburbs like St. Louis Park and Golden Valley, was speaking with Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a fellow Muslim congresswoman, at a “Progressive Issues Town Hall” hosted by Busboys and Poets, a bookstore cafe in Washington, D.C.

The comment was part of a much larger answer to a leading question; the moderator had asked Omar and Tlaib to speak about anti-Semitism being “used oftentimes to quiet people, to disparage them.” Since being sworn into Congress in January, both Omar and Tlaib have faced regular accusations of anti-Semitism for comments relating to Israel.

Our Jewish community across Minnesota and America is getting more and more split over nitpicking incidents like those involving Omar. So before we rip one another apart – again – in the public sphere, let’s lay out the full picture of what is, and isn’t, relevant.

Critics say that Omar’s latest statement implies American Jews have a dual loyalty – one to the country in which they live, and another to Jews elsewhere in the world, or, more specifically, to Israel. Dual loyalty is a common anti-Semitic idea that was often employed by the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, meant to undermine trust in Jews or Jewish patriotism.

In a statement from the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, executive director Steve Hunegs said: “The Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas (JCRC) is dispirited and appalled that Rep. Omar would traffic in yet another anti-Semitic trope.” Rep. Omar “continues the unacceptable pattern of…deploying anti-Semitic rhetoric when speaking about Jewish Americans’ involvement in our nation’s democratic process.

“Our community is exasperated by Rep. Omar’s unfulfilled promises to listen and learn from Jewish constituents while seemingly simultaneously finding another opportunity to make an anti-Semitic remark and insult our community.”

In a statement to the Star Tribune, Jewish Rep. Dean Phillips of Minnesota’s 3rd Congressional District clarified the line between acceptable discourse and anti-Semitism.

“There is a legitimate and important conversation to be had about human suffering throughout the world, about [Israeli Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu and his policies, and the influence of money and lobbyists on members of Congress,” Phillips said. “Unfortunately, Rep. Omar’s choice to continue speaking in this divisive manner, with broad statements about one group and one nation, undermines the opportunity to begin that conversation.”

Let’s be very, very clear: the issue here is not pro-Israel lobbying in America. The issue is how a sitting Congresswoman is talking about the pro-Israel lobby; by continuing to use anti-Semitic ideas even after apologizing for having done so.

Dual loyalty is an anti-Semitic trope. Implying that Jewish money is bribing political power is an anti-Semitic trope. There is, in fact, a way to have a nuanced discussion about pro-Israel lobbying without resorting to saying “it’s all about the Benjamins.” The issue is that Rep. Omar seems not to understand this.

But we also can’t delude ourselves. Rep. Omar is an immigrant Muslim woman from Somalia who makes for an easy punching bag. It is both true that she says anti-Semitic things, and that she faces an incredible amount of bigotry and hate online and offline.

Recently, a bathroom stall in a Rogers, Minnesota, gas station was defaced with the phrase “Assassinate Ilhan Omar,” and a poster in the West Virginia state capitol for “GOP Day” linked her to the attacks on 9/11. She and her supporters will see Jews posting about anti-Semitism, but saying little about the death threat. It won’t make her more receptive to criticism.

And unfortunately, we have to be aware that it’s hard to have nuanced public outcry on anti-Semitism when public outcry in the digital age has no nuance. Any legitimate criticism becomes a wall of hate when amplified online. Without understanding this, the Jewish community’s message will be corrupted by others.

But what is the Jewish community here? For every statement, from any group, there is at least one Jew who says “you don’t represent me.” Politics are irrelevant – if a majority of the mainstream Jewish community across Minnesota and America consider something anti-Semitic, then that’s what it is. That’s how it works for other communities, and that’s how it works for us.

That’s how it is with Rep. Omar’s statements: they are indeed anti-Semitic. It doesn’t matter what Trump or anyone else says – their statements might add to a culture of toxic discourse, but it is irrelevant to the fact that Rep. Omar keeps bringing up anti-Semitic ideas when she talks about Israel.

And that – not “talking about AIPAC” – is the problem with no light at the end of the tunnel. What comes next: another false apology, another anti-Semitic comment, and more public statements from Jewish organizations?