Rep. Ilhan Omar on AIPAC

(Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

What Happened?

Democratic representative from Minnesota, Ilhan Omarcreated a stir with her tweets. She insinuated that AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) pays American politicians to support Israel, invoking the age-old anti-Semitic trope that Jews control the world with money. Responding to a tweet about the U.S.’s support for Israel, Omar wrote: “It’s all about the Benjamins baby” (a Sean Combs, AKA P. Diddy, line referencing 100-dollar bills).

Omar apologized after facing intense backlash, including from President Trump, Vice President Pence, and leaders of the Democratic party. In her apology, she stated that she is “listening and learning, but still standing strong.” President Trump called Omar’s statement “terrible” and her apology inadequate, and he called on her to resign from Congress or, at a minimum, the House Foreign Affairs Committee. 

Why Does This Matter?

Criticizing Israel vs. blatant anti-Zionism/anti-Semitism – where’s the line? Far be it from us to whitewash Israel. No country is perfect, and we believe that educated citizens are the best agents of change. But there is a difference between criticizing Israeli policies and making anti-Zionist or anti-Semitic statements. What makes things interesting, and divisive, is that that line is not always clear. In New York Times opinion columnist Michelle Goldberg’s take, “it’s particularly incumbent on Israel’s legitimate critics to avoid anything that smacks of anti-Jewish bigotry. And the idea of Jews as global puppet masters, using their financial savvy to make the gentiles do their bidding, clearly does.”

Is it possible to be anti-Zionist without being anti-Semitic? A peripheral question here, this query is a popular one these days. Are anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism one and the same? Is the former a modern-day version of the latter? Bret Stephens believes it is, writing that “Hatred of Jews is a shape-shifting phenomenon that historically has melded with the prejudices of the time in order to gain greater political currency… The arguments for hating Jews vary; the target of the hatred tragically remains the same.”

An unlikely “friendship” – Although she faced severe backlash, Omar did receive support from an unexpected source: notorious white supremacist and anti-Semite David Duke. While on most any issue it’s difficult to imagine the two agreeing, when it came to anti-Semitic sentiment the two were on the same page. Duke tweeted: “It is ‘Anti-Semitism’ to point out that the most powerful political moneybags in American politics are Zionists who put another nation’s interest (israel’s) over that of America??????” Haaretz columnist Anshel Pfeffer noted that the far-right and far-left are not all that different when it comes to being anti-Semitic (though on the left it’s called anti-Zionist), and how this trend of polarization of the right and left is sweeping through many countries. 

Zack Beauchamp of Vox.com noted the strange manifestations of anti-Semitism in the United States, which emanate from both the extreme right and extreme left. From the left, anti-Semitism rears its disturbing head when it “twists legitimate criticisms of Israel into anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.” And, on the right, anti-Semitism reveals itself when leaders “blame a cabal of wealthy Jews for mass immigration.”

Diversity of Perspectives

Professor Gil Troy wrote an op-ed calling for Omar (and two other new members of Congress, Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) to reconsider her position on Israel. He notes that they see their own, and other minorities’, suffering and asks “why are ours invisible to you?” Troy calls them out on “echoing traditional Jew-hatred” and asks them to learn more about Israel’s complexities rather than relying on caricatures.

Tablet writer Yair Rosenberg noted that while Omar’s anti-Semitic comments (both now and in the past) are deserving of condemnation, Omar has “voiced an exceedingly rare willingness to reconsider her presumptions and put herself in the shoes of Jews.” He recommends that Jews respond to her offer.

Professor Peter Beinart, a frequent critic of  Israeli policies, also condemned Omar’s words as “wrong” and “inaccurate.” However, he pointed to what he considers a “sick double standard,” arguing that her critics are “guiltier of bigotry” than she is.