Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images
Ilhan Omar at a House of Representatives member-elect welcome briefing on Capitol Hill, Nov. 15, 2018, in Washington, D.C.Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images
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Rep. Ilhan Omar Deserves Dialogue, Not Just Denunciation

The Minnesota congresswoman has repeatedly voiced classical anti-Semitic tropes, and this is deserving of strong condemnation. But she has also voiced an exceedingly rare willingness to reconsider her presumptions and put herself in the shoes of Jews, and they should take her up on it.

Yair Rosenberg
February 12, 2019
Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images
Ilhan Omar at a House of Representatives member-elect welcome briefing on Capitol Hill, Nov. 15, 2018, in Washington, D.C.Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Last night, Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar blew an anti-Semitic dog whistle on Twitter. Responding to a Republican effort to censure her for alleged anti-Semitism, she instead handed them further ammunition. It began when journalist Glenn Greenwald characterized the anti-Semitism charge against Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaib as really being “over their criticisms of Israel.” Omar agreed, and added her own postscript:

As was quickly pointed out by both progressive and conservative commentators, this claim that American politicians are only pro-Israel thanks to piles of cash from behind-the-scenes actors reflects a classical anti-Semitic trope and also misunderstands how lobbies like AIPAC actually work. It’s worth unpacking how wrongheaded Omar’s claim was.

To begin with, the initial tweet evoked the image of moneyed Jews paying off gentiles to subvert the national interest and control American politics for their own ends. Sometimes the villain in this delusion is George Soros, sometimes the Rothschilds, and other times “the Israel lobby.” In this particular case, Omar suggested that the reason America supports the Jewish state is because (((powerful interests))) have taken control of our democracy, seemingly against the will of its people. In reality, as decades of polling shows, American politicians are pro-Israel because American voters are pro-Israel and elect leaders who reflect their views. There is no conspiracy at work, only democracy. Policy on Israel is set by the 98 percent of Americans who are not Jewish, not the 2 percent who are, which is probably why that policy is more hawkish than many American Jews would like. (Interested readers can learn more about this history and data here.)

As one prominent Muslim commentator on Twitter explained, “No, criticism of Israel isn’t anti-Semitism, just like criticism of a Muslim majority state isn’t Islamophobia, by default. However racist or bigoted tropes can be intentionally or unintentionally triggered in making those critiques and yes that matters—it always matters.” As if to illustrate this point about the impact of dog whistles, an array of bigots quickly flocked to Omar’s defense, including former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke.

Simply put, Omar—a sitting member of Congress and its Foreign Affairs Committee—had mainstreamed a bigoted and ignorant canard about why America conducts its foreign affairs the way it does. And this wasn’t the first time. Back in 2012, Omar tweeted:

Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel. #Gaza #Palestine #Israel

— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) November 16, 2012

One might wonder why Israel or its sympathizers would need to pay off politicians they’d already hypnotized, but of course, this facetious query would miss the point of these tweets. They are not a rational theory of politics, but rather different expressions of the same fundamental conspiracy theory: that powerful groups of Jews control our affairs.

If this was all there was to the story, there would be nothing more to do here other than denounce Omar’s pronouncements, as the Democratic leadership did this afternoon. But there is more, and Omar, for all her faults, deserves more than only condemnation. She deserves a dialogue.

That’s because, unlike most people who have voiced anti-Semitic tropes, Omar has actually expressed genuine self-awareness about doing so, and a desire to unlearn these toxic ideas. Last month, she finally apologized for the 2012 tweet about Israel suborning the world with its mystical powers. When asked by The Daily Show‘s Trevor Noah about the reversal, which came after several false starts, Omar said something exceedingly unusual. As TheWashington Post reported:

On Thursday, when [Trevor] Noah broached the subject, Omar compared her defensiveness about her tweet—denying that she was anti-Semitic—to the way poor white people react when some say they still possess “white privilege.”

“With that tweet, what I finally realized is the realization that I hope that people come to when we’re having a conversation about white privilege,” she told Noah. “You know, people would be like, ‘I grew up in a poor neighborhood. I can’t be privileged. Can you stop saying that? I haven’t benefited from my whiteness!’ And it’s like, ‘No, we’re talking about systematic, right?’ And so for me, that happened for me.

“I was like, ‘Do not call me that [anti-Semitic]. … And it was like, ‘Oh, I see what you’re saying now.’ And so I had to take a deep breath and understand where people were coming from and what point they were trying to make, which is what I expect people to do when I’m talking to them, right, about things that impact me or offend me.”

I’ve covered anti-Semitism for years on multiple continents, and this level of self-reflection among those who have expressed anti-Semitism is increasingly rare. Not only did Omar apologize for the specific sentiment, but she put herself in the shoes of her Jewish interlocutors and realized that she ought to extend to them the same sensitivity to anti-Semitism as she would want others to extend to racism.

At its essence, much of anti-Semitism can be boiled down to a deeply held double standard through which the anti-Semite makes moral allowances for themselves and their friends that they do not make for Jews. This is why the member states of the United Nations condemn the Jewish state more than all other non-Jewish states combined every year, while the misconduct of countries like China and Saudi Arabia goes entirely unremarked. It’s why activists like Linda Sarsour call to boycott all Zionist Jews yet simultaneously refuse to break ties with Louis Farrakhan. Their moral rules apply only to Jews. Omar challenged this double standard and rejected it. Jews, she said, deserved the same treatment as she would want for herself.

Clearly, as her tweet last night demonstrated, Omar has a lot more work to do in applying this insight. Unfortunately, our entire political discourse, especially on social media, is designed to foreclose the possibility of such growth. Online, people who are branded bigots are written off as lost causes or “canceled,” forever banished in their benightedness. Because the label is so devastating, debates over it immediately become absolutist, with one side seeking eternal damnation while the other argues for total exoneration. Likewise, those accused of bigotry are loath to apologize and seek to better themselves, because they fear that they will never be given a second chance after they admit their perfidy. This goes doubly for a Muslim woman of color like Omar, who is forever facing heightened scrutiny as well as bigotry.

But if our society is to move beyond simply labeling bigotry to actually uprooting it, we will need to pave pathways for people to rehabilitate themselves. Not every person is worth the effort, and at a certain point, we must recognize when certain individuals are not interested in changing. But Omar has just begun her congressional career, and she has expressed a genuine willingness to reexamine her prior beliefs. She deserves all the denunciation today, yes, but tomorrow, she deserves a chance to move beyond it.


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Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.