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American Scapegoat

The furor over Ilhan Omar’s remarks is not about anti-Semitism
Ilhan Omar

Last week, at a Washington, D.C., bookstore and community space, my congresswoman, Ilhan Omar, joined three other members of Congress for a town hall discussion. In response to a question from the moderator about anti-Semitism and criticism of Israel, Omar expressed empathy for her Jewish constituents who have an emotional connection to Israel. She then noted her concern that, because she and her Palestinian-American colleague Rashida Tlaib (also in attendance that evening) are Muslim, anything they say about Israel gets misunderstood—or willfully misinterpreted—as anti-Semitic. She went on to articulate the way this stifles the conversation about Palestinian liberation that she and Tlaib want Americans to be able to have:

It’s almost as if every single time we say something, regardless of what it is we say—that it’s supposed to be about foreign policy or engagement, our advocacy about ending oppression, or the freeing of every human life and wanting dignity—we get to be labeled in something, and that ends the discussion, because we end up defending that, and nobody gets to have the broader debate of: What is happening with Palestine?

This was met with a raucous round of applause. In retrospect, Omar’s astute analysis of the past reads as an ominous portent of things to come. Here’s what Omar said next: “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is O.K. for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country.”

This is the sentence that set the cycle Omar had just described back into motion. The next day, Jewish Insider’s Laura Kelly reported on the event and wrote that Omar was “seeming to suggest . . .  dual loyalty among a particular group of Americans.” New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait picked up the story and, adding his own insipid analysis to Kelly’s, claimed that “Omar is directly invoking the hoary myth of dual loyalty, in which the Americanness of Jews is inherently suspect.” Next began the congressional condemnations. Democratic congressman Eliot Engel—chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, on which Omar sits, and from which President Trump recently said she should resign—demanded that Omar retract her comments and apologize. Others followed suit. By Monday afternoon, it was announced that top House Democrats, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, would be putting forth a resolution on anti-Semitism on Wednesday in response to Omar’s words.

If concern with rising anti-Semitism was the true impetus for this House resolution, why wasn’t it introduced much earlier?

The text of the resolution, which was first circulated on Monday evening, does not explicitly name Omar, but it’s clearly meant to condemn her. Amid the resolution’s rambling enumeration of some of the features and consequences of anti-Semitism, it highlights the charge leveled against her: that she insinuated American Jews have a dual loyalty to the United States and Israel, evoking, knowingly or not, an old anti-Semitic canard. It cites the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s “working definition” of anti-Semitism as including “accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.” The resolution is peppered with mentions of other forms of bigotry as well, such as “the post-9/11 conditions faced by Muslim-Americans in the United States, including unfounded, vicious attacks on and threats to Muslim-American Members of Congress.” This non sequitur was presumably included to create the sense that, even as they obliquely censure Omar, the Democrats do care about the death threats she herself has faced.

It’s unsurprising that the resolution doesn’t actually mention Omar’s words, because linking them to the dual loyalty canard requires untenable logical leaps. The claim that the statement was anti-Semitic rests upon the word “allegiance,” which pundits have spent the past week torturing with dim-witted hermeneutics. Chait wrote, “To believe in a strong American alliance with Israel . . . is not the same thing as giving one’s allegiance to that country.” Yet nothing in the sentence Omar actually said speaks to the question of Jews’ loyalty or Americanness. It didn’t mention Jews at all, but only political actors who “push for allegiance” to Israel. This is an entirely fair-minded description of, for instance, attempts to curtail Americans’ right to protest other nations with legislation that criminalizes participation in the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement. “Allegiance” is also a reasonable label for the unquestioning devotion to an American-Israeli alliance demanded across the spectrum of the political mainstream. Democratic congressman Juan Vargas admitted as much in a tweet condemning Omar on Monday, in which he wrote that “questioning support for the U.S.-Israel relationship is unacceptable.”

It is this questioning—not anti-Semitism—that has been Omar’s crime all along. A few weeks ago, when Omar was roundly reprimanded for tweeting “It’s all about the Benjamins baby,” pithily suggesting that lobbying money influences politicians’ views on Israel, the House Democratic leadership released a statement that pivoted rather quickly from its rebuke of anti-Semitism to this claim: “We are and will always be strong supporters of Israel in Congress because we understand that our support is based on shared values and strategic interests.” But just what are those values and interests, and why are they inviolable? What has allowed for a political culture in which none but the mildest criticism of Israel or the most tepid expression of solidarity with Palestinians is permitted to enter the discourse? This is exactly what Omar wants Americans to finally confront, and it’s exactly what Democratic leaders hope to obscure.

The Democratic leaders’ choice to champion the fight against anti-Semitism only now confirms that’s it not American Jews they care about protecting.

After all, if concern with rising anti-Semitism was the true impetus for this House resolution, why wasn’t it introduced much earlier? The resolution’s brief history of American anti-Semitism culminates with the October 2018 attack at the Tree of Life Synagogue that left eleven Jews dead by the hand of a white supremacist. But why was the moment of this tragedy, which the text admits was “the deadliest attack on Jewish people in the United States,” not the time to unite against anti-Semitism? It’s particularly craven to allow this incident to sit side-by-side with an analysis of the dual loyalty canard in a condemnation of Omar, as if her words have anything to do with the rising white supremacy that actually endangers Jews.

Omar’s statement has nothing to do with the increasing threat to American Jews’ safety, but other people’s words do. The Tree of Life shooting occurred in the midst of public musings by Republican congressman Matt Gaetz and others that George Soros might have been funding the sensationally televised migrant caravan then making its way from Central America. Two hours before the attack, the shooter posted a message on the far-right social media hotbed Gab that HIAS, a Jewish organization that aids refugees, “likes to bring invaders in that kill our people.” The shooter wrote, “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.” The conspiratorial thinking that spurred a man to take eleven Jewish lives was echoed in the days following the shooting by Trump, who commented to reporters that he “wouldn’t be surprised” if Soros was funding the caravan: “A lot of people say yes.” Perhaps this would have been the time for a resolution on anti-Semitism in the wake of a politician’s dangerous use of language.

But this resolution—and the uproar over Omar’s comments more generally—is not about anti-Semitism. It’s about exactly what Omar was discussing when she spoke the sentence that’s now being so senselessly scrutinized: confining the conversation about Israel and Palestine to the right-of-center mainstream and ensuring that Palestinian liberation is never allowed to be taken seriously. Unsubstantiated accusations of anti-Semitism are, as Omar herself observed, a favorite tool for accomplishing this task. It’s a convenient way to shut down a black Muslim woman’s advocacy for an oppressed people under the banner of a commitment to help the marginalized. The tactic is proving helpful for those who, in the wake of Omar’s clear commitment to anti-imperialism—shown, for instance, in her courageous, candid confrontation with Elliott Abrams—hope to halt her rise and stymy the ascendance of her way of thinking in the American political mainstream. The Democratic leaders’ choice to supposedly champion the fight against anti-Semitism only now, in the context of an attempt to discredit Omar, confirms that it’s not American Jews they care about protecting. It’s American empire.