Recent Islamophobic hate speech targeting Rep. Ilhan Omar, of Minnesota’s 5th Congressional district, has generated widespread outrage while the Congresswoman is simultaneously under criticism for new anti-Semitic comments.
Over the past week, the phrase “Assassinate Ilhan Omar” was found graffitied onto the bathroom stall of a gas station in Rogers, Minnesota. On Friday, a poster at the West Virginia legislature for “GOP Day” had “‘Never forget’ – You said,” written over an image of the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers, with “I am the proof you have forgotten,” written over an image of Omar.
Omar, a Muslim Somali woman and former refugee, stunned many in the Jewish community on Wednesday by saying, “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,” in response to a question about anti-Semitism and Israel at a forum in Washington, D.C.
Critics say Omar implied that American Jews have dual loyalties, a classic anti-Semitic trope used in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.
Later, on Sunday, Omar doubled down on her comment, tweeting: “I should not be expected to have allegiance/pledge support to a foreign country in order to serve my country in Congress…I am told everyday that I am anti-American if I am not pro-Israel. I find that to be problematic…I just happen to be willing to speak up on it.”
Many condemned the Islamophobic images targeting Omar as they went viral on social media but criticized her anti-Semitic statements at the same time.
“While I strongly object to some of Rep. @ilhan Omar’s recent comments, the disgusting display in the WV Capitol and threats on her life are antithetical to our values,” Rep. Dean Phillips, of Minnesota’s 3rd Congressional District, said on Twitter.
The duality of the moment, caught between two bigotries, has reignited a conversation about whether Omar is unnecessarily singled out by Jews for criticism in the current political climate. Twitter is the platform of choice for the debate, which – sometimes by accident, and sometimes on purpose – borders on the absurd.
“I see none of the people who condemned @IlhanMN for her tweet a few weeks back [about AIPAC] saying anything about the poster by a state Republican Party that portrays her as a terrorist,” said Zerlina Maxwell, a political analyst for MSNBC, on Saturday morning. Maxwell seemed to be implying that many Jews were not speaking up in defense of Omar.
But Maxwell’s comment may have been badly timed. “Shabbat just ended in NYC,” said Rabbi Jonah Geffen of Congregation Shaare Zedek in New York, replying to Maxwell on Saturday evening. “That’s 25 hours when observant Jews are offline. Maybe bring a little cultural competency to the conversation? I’ve been back 20 minutes and have seen a helluva lot of noise about this horrific display of anti-Muslim activity.”
The Shabbat effect also hit Minnesota Jewish organizations. Both the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas and Jewish Community Action condemned the Islamophobic incidents targeting Omar once Shabbat was over.
Of course, though many people have thrown their opinions in online, the debate over Omar has also been furiously Jew-on-Jew.
“One last note on @IlhanMN. All of you who relentlessly attacked her for her AIPAC tweet should take some accountability for the attacks she’s now facing,” said @Esor_Fasa, a young Jewish leftist organizer and student. “You hung her out to dry & made her susceptible to so much hatred & harassment. You played right into the hands of the right.”
Well-known progressive Orthodox Jewish writer Elad Nehorai responded, shedding light on the complex line that many Jews on the political left have to toe.
“Claiming that anyone on the left who dares speak out against anti-Semitism is complicit in the Islamophobia and racism of the right is a sickening twisting of morality,” Nehorai said. “Jews should not have to feel they must silence themselves due to the hate of others.”
While this conversation will die down as another news cycle rolls around, it’s worth not losing sight of the core issues here: yes, Omar is an easy target for hate. And yes, many in the Minnesota Jewish community are disappointed and tired of Omar’s real and continued use of anti-Semitic tropes, even after apologies on her part and countless meetings with Jewish leaders.
But how we manage the online outrage may be an impossible question in and of itself. Both Omar and many Jews see themselves as victims in the highest sense: deliberately targeted by the other. Ironically, it only takes a surface-level glance at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to see how ineffective it is when people who mutually distrust each other, and see themselves as victims, try to have a conversation.
So the Jewish community will continue on this merry-go-round with Omar. Somehow, though, we still have to try and work past that distrust. Omar has many Jewish constituents, and she is an elected representative. These things are also true…even if my pragmatism is mostly cynical.