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Ilhan Omar, tweets, and anti-Semitism

Herzl and Rep. Ilhan Omar

I’m Jewish. Ethnically, on my father’s side of the family, the line goes back to Minsk, Belarus. That’s as far as I’ve been able to trace it, because the neighborhood my great grandparents lived in, as well as any record of their pre-American existence, was obliterated by the Nazis. I was raised Catholic – my mother’s side of the family is Irish – but I converted to Judaism officially. I went through more than a year of study, was questioned by a beit din, and followed all the rituals that a gerut takes.

While my father didn’t practice the Jewish faith, he was proud of being Jewish – and he was proud of the State of Israel. I remember him telling me about how there was a tree planted there in his name. I remember him speaking with pride about Israel’s victory in the Six Day War, which he thought of as a David and Goliath style battle: little Israel – not yet fully backed or armed by the U.S. – was able to defeat the armies of three different states that hoped to start a war, get rid of Israel, and ensure that, in the words of then PLO leader Ahmed Shukeiry, “[t]here will be practically no Jewish survivors.”


With all of that background, I wouldn’t hesitate to call myself a Zionist, defined simply as the support of the Jewish state. However, my Zionism doesn’t align me with anyone like Benjamin Netanyahu and his Ha Likud party; instead, it’s more in line with the progressive Zionism of Meretz, the left-wing social-democratic party in Israel that wants to end the occupation, find a two-state solution, and fights to ensure equality for Israeli Arabs. (For context, it’s Meretz is aligned with the U.S.-based Partners for a Progressive Israel.)

The tweet and its fallout

Given my love for the Jewish people, commitment to Judaism, and support for the State of Israel, I was not happy with the now-famous tweet that Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., sent out in response to Glenn Greenwald’s question as to why American politicians always support Likud policies: “It’s all about the benjamins, baby!” she wrote, later following up that what she meant was that U.S. politicians support Israeli policy because of money donated to them by AIPAC, the America Israel Public Affairs Committee.

AIPAC and the politicians

What Rep. Omar said was correct. While AIPAC denies that it raises money for political campaign contributions, it does. And that money does influence politicians into supporting “pro-Israel” policies. The term, by the way, is in quotes because these policies, even though they are in accord with the Likud coalition’s own, are very often decidedly anti-Israel, if one looks at their outcomes. Supporting Netanyahu, who makes alliances with right-wing anti-Semites across Europe and the United States is pro-Israel? How so? To my mind, pro-Israel means supporting policies that contribute to the long-term success of the Jewish state, to ensuring that Israel’s vibrant Jewish democracy survives the trouble it finds itself in. But certainly, indeed, money is a reason why many of these politicians “support Israel.” Do we really think that GOP politicians voting with AIPAC care about the Jewish people one bit? This is the party of white nationalism and right-wing evangelical Christianity; the party whose leader said that there were “very good people” on both sides of the pro-/anti-white nationalism schism. To deny this is to deny the palpable anti-Semitism that is on the rise in America and around the world.

Where the tweet went wrong

So why were Jews across America (with some notable exceptions, like the Israeli citizen/Jewish hero Ady Bharkan), the rest of the diaspora, and in Israel, upset with the tweet? Why did it touch off a debate about whether Rep. Omar is an anti-Semite to such an extent that she had to issue a formal apology? For most people, the answer is obvious: there is a long tradition, borne out of white, Christian Europe, of stereotyping Jews as a shady cabal who control the world through our wealth (despite the shockingly high rate of poverty amongst Hasidic communities in NYC and elsewhere).

Rising anti-Semitism

Jews are right to be worried: anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic incidents are on the rise, especially since the ascendancy of Donald Trump. In 2017, the number of anti-Semitic incidents rose by more over a year than ever recorded, to the second highest on record since the ADL began tracking them in 1979. Similar trends have been seen elsewhere, including in Germany and the United Kingdom. 90 percent of Jews in Europe think anti-Semitism is increasing, and we keep hearing stories of synagogues being burnt, Jewish cemeteries being vandalized, and, of course, there was the horrible carnage at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, where Jews – may God avenge their blood – were murdered specifically for being Jews.

Who’s the real enemy?

Still, while Jews are absolutely right to be worried about the rise in anti-Semitism, Rep. Omar is exactly the wrong target. Clearly, she doesn’t understand enough about anti-Semitism, and the Jewish community needs to work with her. But she’s a leftist (full disclosure: as am I), and money in politics is something that we leftists talk about all the time. It’s second nature to point out, on a whole variety of issues, how money and lobbies influence politics: Citizens United, the NRA (which Rep. Omar mentioned in her apology), and other groups are routinely called out. Here, it seems, she took a typical, and usually correct, progressive left axiom, and applied it in a way that seemed anti-Semitic.

Despite the tweet, it’s hard to imagine that Rep. Omar hates Jews. Does she harbor some anti-Semitic ideas or attitudes? I have no idea. Maybe she does, and maybe she doesn’t. We live in a society permeated by anti-Semitism, so there are enough of those attitudes to go around. But also permeating the air is racism, sexism, anti-Muslim sentiment, xenophobia – the list goes on. We’ve seen time and again people who call themselves progressives say stupid, very racist things. Bernie Sanders, for example, seemed to differentiate African-Americans and Latinos from “ordinary Americans.”

Anti-Semitism, BDS, and anti-Zionism

On anti-Semitism, we have to be absolutely clear about what it is: hatred for Jews. People can take positions that we hate, and still not be anti-Semitic. I absolutely oppose the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, and think the idea of targeting, among other things, cultural performances and academia in the world’s only majority Jewish state is downright and fundamentally wrong. And the BDS movement is definitely the home of many anti-Semities. But, as I’ve said for years, simply supporting the movement does not automatically mean that someone is his- or herself an anti-Semite.

Anti-Zionism is also not anti-Semitism. Again, I think it’s fundamentally wrong, and this is a position I’ve always held. I’ve held it based on family conversations for pretty much ever, and now feel in a religious way about it. In my old organization, I was won to the position by a member of the Jewish Affairs Commission that being anti-Israel was a fundamental violation of the Leninist principal of the self-determination of nations, and that the only correct solution to the tensions there was two-states. But anti-Zionism has a long history. Anyone who’s read the Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank, knows that anti-Zionism, before the Holocaust, was an intellectual stream in Jewish life. On page 15 of the Bantam Books “Definitive Edition,” Frank quotes a boy who was interested in her. According to the text, he said, “…You see, my grandparents signed me up for a wood-carving class, but actually I go to a club organized by the Zionists. My grandparents don’t want me to go, because they’re anti-Zionists.” Most likely, everyone in that conversation died in the Holocaust, and quite obviously, none of them were anti-Semites.

Zionist anti-Semitism

As alluded above, there are different schools of Zionism.  Early on in the formation of Israel, socialist (or labor) Zionism, along with a liberal variant, were dominant, and a revisionist – violent – strain of Zionism was in the minority. The revisionist supporters formed a military organization, and that formed the basis for what eventually became the Likud. Early Revisionist Zionists were, like Netanyahu now, friendly toward the extreme right across Europe.

And certainly anti-Semitism has found a home in some Zionist circles. Already noted is Netanyahu’s cozying up to right-wing authoritarians in much of the world. They persecute Jews at home, but support some form of Zionism and Israel, because they hope Jews will leave their countries. Also worth noting is the highly troubling rise of Christian Zionism, adherents of which ostensibly supports Israel and the Jewish people, but also hope for an “Ingathering” of all Jews to Israel, so that the End Times will be ushered in, Jesus will come back, and, among other things, give Jews the ultimatum of converting to Christianity or being punished.

I hope that neither anti-Zionism nor BDS gains much of a foothold in America – I think there are better ways to struggle for an end to the occupation and for the two-state solution – but I’m not going to hold Rep. Omar’s support for BDS against her.

The way forward

Ilhan Omar is not the enemy of the Jews. Instead, given the embrace of most Jews in America of tikkun olam – social justice and repairing the world – and Rep. Omar’s fight for the rights of regular people, she and the Jewish community are natural allies. Instead of demonizing her, we need to understand what she says the way she means it, work with her to help her to understand why so many in the Jewish community took offense (and she seems to be more open than most people to learning), and we need to be there to defend her from the racist, sexist, anti-Islamic vitriol that is being poured upon her. It is, after all, Muslim refugees who are being turned away by the Trump administration in the same way that the U.S. turned away Jews fleeing Nazi violence, also for “national security” reasons.

It’s worth noting that much of the hatred being drummed up for Rep. Omar comes not from Jews, but from the GOP. This is grotesquely ironic, being that it’s Trump and his party who are the enablers of the growing white nationalist trend, which has anti-Semitism embedded along with racism in its very DNA. It’s the evil rhetoric of Trump and his GOP that motivated the person who killed 11 Jews הי״ד at the shul in Pittsburgh.

Whatever rhetorical mistakes, or even potential anti-Semitic ideas Rep. Omar might have, she’s not the main enemy, or even an enemy at all, of the Jewish people. She should be our ally, but if we demonize her, we’ll push her and her may supporters and allies in the Justice Democrats away. The left, it is said by the right, has an anti-Semitism problem. They’re not wrong, but as of now, it’s still a small and solvable problem, dwarfed by the anti-Semitism coming out of allies of the White House. We’re nowhere near the level, for example, that can be found in Britain’s Labour Party. We can eliminate it by acting strategically, and by not making potential friends into enemies.

Historically, Black and Jewish (not that these groups don’t overlap; there are many Jews of color, a blessing to the community) alliances have brought progress (despite tensions that cropped up in organizing) for both groups, as well as the country overall, especially in the labor movement in the 1940s, and the civil rights movement through the mid-1960s. This potential for power hasn’t gone unnoticed; Spike Lee recently artistically urged Black people and Jews to work together against a common enemy. It certainly hasn’t gone unnoticed by the GOP and the white nationalists, who are doing all they can to split the Black and Jewish communities.

The imperative now is the same as it was then: unite and fight.

Image: Rep. Ilhan Omar, photographed by Lorie Shaull, and Theodore Herzl, founder of political Zionism.

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