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I’m Jewish, and I’m ashamed of how we’re treating Ilhan Omar

Congresswoman Ilhan Omar is being accused of anti-Semitism not because criticizing Israel is anti-Semitic, but because the pro-Israel lobby has done a great job of making the American public and Congress believe that story.

By Scott Brown

U.S. Congresswoman Ilhan Omar. (Leopaltik1242/CC BY-SA 4.0)

U.S. Congresswoman Ilhan Omar. (Leopaltik1242/CC BY-SA 4.0)

The House of Representatives is set to bring a resolution to the floor on Thursday to confront Ilhan Omar’s comments on the influence of Israel and the Israel lobby in American politics, a controversy that has escalated rapidly since her Tweets about AIPAC’s influence on certain Congress members on February 10.

At the same time, most Democratic leaders have been deafeningly silent about a poster connecting Ilhan Omar to the 9/11 attacks that was posted at a Republican celebration in West Virginia last weekend.

But just as silent have been mainstream Jewish institutions. In response to Omar’s comments, organizations claiming to stand against hate and defend Jewish people, including the Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Weisenthal Center, have written assertive public letters addressed to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi calling for another condemnation of Omar’s comments, and even for her to be stripped of her role on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Meanwhile, their response to the Islamophobic poster? Silence. Or a singular tweet.

I am deeply angered and ashamed at the response of Jewish institutions to Ilhan Omar. As a white American Jew who has simultaneously experienced hate and enjoyed white privilege, I believe I cannot claim to stand for things like safety and justice for all without both understanding and showing up in solidarity with the struggles of others. To my fellow Jews, I say if that feels true for you too, then ask yourself: what does it say that the mainstream Jewish community is attacking people like the first black Muslim woman in Congress for criticizing Israel?

Have we taken the time to learn her story of escaping the Somali civil war and surviving refugee camps as a child? Have we looked at her impressive record as a state legislator, human rights activist, and advocate for women and children? Have we taken into consideration how all of these experiences may have actually given her a deep understanding of what oppression and injustice looks like, including for Jewish people?

Or have we reactionarily condemned black leaders as Jew-haters because we’re unable to differentiate between critique of Israel and anti-Semitism?

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A few weeks ago, I was at a dialogue group I’ve been participating in for the past six months that brings together black and Jewish DC residents to increase understanding and confront tensions between our communities. After one discussion about the lack of trust between our communities, one friend approached me and asked: “Are there any prominent Jewish leaders at all that speak out against Israel?” I’m a white Jew; he’s black and not Jewish.

His question hit me in the gut because it shed light for me on how some people outside the Jewish community perceive Jews: unapologetic supporters of a state with a record of egregious human rights abuses and violations of international law. This is a perception that we as a Jewish community have enabled by accepting and advocating the idea that being Jewish means embracing and defending Israel, and conversely, that criticism of Israel is the same as anti-Semitism.

That same misunderstanding is at the root of the ongoing controversy around Ilhan Omar’s statements, the public attacks on Professor Marc Lamont Hill after speaking on Palestinian liberation at the UN, and Angela Davis having a human rights award revoked due to her support of Palestine.

Jewish people do not become safer when we divide ourselves from people like Ilhan Omar, Marc Lamont Hill and Angela Davis. All we do is further endanger these leaders, who are already putting their livelihoods — and lives — at risk for taking controversial political stances as black public figures. Condemning those who criticize Israel in the name of safety for Jews, as many white Jewish leaders do, while failing to say a thing about Islamophobic attacks like those on Omar, is shameful and deeply hypocritical.

I, too, once thought that part of being Jewish was loyally supporting Israel. In the hall where we worshipped at my synagogue, there was an American flag on one side of the stage and an Israeli flag on the other. We sang Hatikva, the Israeli national anthem, as part of our Hebrew school singing lessons.

That experience is not uncommon in American Jewish communities. And much of that Israel-centric education is facilitated by institutions with similar aims as the political lobbies like AIPAC that Ilhan Omar is criticizing. Their goal is to build strong relationships between Americans and Israel, not just on a political level, but also within our communities. In Jewish communities, that means creating a deep, unquestioned sense of loyalty to Israel as a part of Jewish identity.

One example is the educational programs that organizations like the Jewish National Fund (JNF) bring into American Jewish communities. As a the self-declared largest provider of Israel education in America, the JNF states it believes “investing in education is critical to creating the next generation of Israel supporters.” At the same time, large portions of the millions the JNF raises in donations in the United States are directed to projects in illegal Israeli settlements in occupied Palestine.

So it’s not much of a surprise that when someone like Ilhan Omar pushes back against the pressure for American politicians to support Israel, that so many, Jews and non-Jews, would condemn this as anti-Semitism. But how do these condemnations look when we investigate and see that Eliot Engel, who publicly demanded Omar apologize for her statements, was the 5th highest recipient of donations from the pro-Israel lobby in 2018? Or when we look closer at the Democratic House members who signed the last statement condemning Omar, and find that every single one of them except Nancy Pelosi received money from pro-Israel lobbies in 2018 too?

AIPAC is not the only one doing this lobbying; Evangelical Zionist groups like Christians United for Israel and the U.S. defense industry that makes untold amounts off of Israel military contracts do the same. AIPAC is just doing it really well. The fact that so many Congress members came running to defend them when they were called out by Omar shows just how effective they’ve been at their work. Whether or not these politicians truly believe that criticizing Israel is anti-Semitic, it is in their interest and their donors’ interest to buy into that narrative.

Omar, Hill, and Davis were attacked with accusations of anti-Semitism not because criticizing Israel is inherently anti-Semitic, but because the pro-Israel lobby has done a great job of making both the public and Congress believe that story.

So as I stood there, looking into my friend’s eyes as he asked me if any prominent Jewish leaders speak out against the actions of Israel, the only honest answer I could give is “not enough.”

Scott Brown is a queer, Jewish organizer in Washington, DC passionate about justice, community-building and glitter. He organizes with Jewish Voice for Peace-DC Metro and Occupation Free DC. Find him on Twitter: @scottbrown545.

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    COMMENTS

    1. Ray

      All pales before the holy mission of protecting the destiny of Greater Israel from the unkind words of liberals and human rights activists.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Lewis from Afula

      Who cares what this Somalian immigrant says or does not say ?
      America can look at Britain, France and other European countries to see this Mass Islamic migration will lead inj an other 20 years………………….
      Muslim Rape Gangs
      Bombings
      Shootings
      Stabbings
      Truck-ramming attacks.
      “Allah Akhbar” is the future !

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Thanks for this Kahanist Jewish Jihadi report on Europe from the Russian Fake News Disinformatsiya Network. You’re quite a multicultural guy.

        Reply to Comment
    3. Ben

      AIPAC is not pro-Israel, it is pro-Likud. The pro-Israel lobby has done a great job of making the American public and Congress believe that being pro-Israel means being pro-Likud. So now, criticizing Likudism is being drawn by Republican as being “unacceptable.” Meanwhile, no one said a word when Trump stayed silent about Steve King, when Trump used a Jewish Star of David to call Hillary Clinton corrupt, when Trump mocked Jews as greedy business people, when Trump hesitated to denounce white supremacy in Charlottesville. The hypocrisy of this weaponized anti-Semitizing while turning a simultaneous blind eye to real anti-Semitism is mind-boggling.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Bruce Gould

      On the whole Ilhan Omar issue, New York Magazine has a piece titled “Ilhan Omar Has a Less Bigoted Position On Israel Than Almost All of Her Colleagues”. The problem is not the fact that AIPAC advocates for Israel, the problem is…

      http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2019/03/ilhan-omar-alleggiance-resolution-democrats-anti-semitism-israel-palestine.html

      It should be “okay” for Americans who want their country to have a close alliance with a foreign power to form political organizations that advance their views. The problem with AIPAC is not that it pushes American lawmakers to show deference to the interests of another country. The problem is that it pushes them to show deference to a country that practices de facto apartheid rule in much of the territory it controls…The problem isn’t Congress’s “allegiance to a foreign country,” but its complicity in Jewish supremacy in the West Bank, an inhuman blockade in Gaza, and discrimination against Arab-Israelis in Israel proper.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Firentis

      Well at least you didn’t put Louis Farrakhan and Tamika Mallory in there.

      She made two statements. One pushed forward the narrative of Jews buying US politicians which is also popular among antisemites. The other pushed forward the Jewish dual loyalty narrative popular among antisemites. She did this over the course of several weeks after conversations with various relevant parties and even after apologizing for the first statement.

      If Trump made the same statements you would be on him like a fly on shit.

      I am confused. Are we grading antisemitism on a scale now? The fact that she is a black Muslim woman gives her a pass for her antisemitism?

      The absence of the condemnation of the threat against her is a reason to give her a pass on her antisemitism?

      What solidarity are you pursuing exactly? With antisemites?

      Reply to Comment
      • Ray

        Facts don’t care about “anti-semitism.” Clean uo your country, Bucko.

        Reply to Comment
      • Sheldon Ranz

        ‘One pushed forward the narrative of Jews buying US politicians which is also popular among anti-Semites>” No, Omar mentioned AIPAC buying US politicians, not Jews. AIPAC does not consider itself to be a Jewish organization. In fact, many of its members are anti-Semitic Christian evangelicals. Is there an anti-Semitic trope out there that consists of anti-Semites buying off US politicians for Israel?

        “The other pushed forward the Jewish dual loyalty narrative popular among anti-Semites” No, she talked about influential Americans having an allegiance to a foreign country. Democrats talk all the time about Trump having an allegiance to Russia, for example.

        Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Firentis, you are blurring the difference between Jews and Likudist Israel and I think Sheldon Ranz perfectly exposes this.

        “I am confused. Are we grading antisemitism on a scale now?”

        I find it funny that we never hear a peep out of you, Firentis, when Trump does what he does, vulgarly (see my post above) or Bibi cavorts with Polish and Hungarian anti-Semites. Yes, you grade anti-Semitism on a scale alright.

        This talented, courageous American politician, Ilhan Omar, this new kid on the block, standing her ground, listening and accepting feedback but refusing to be intimidated, is a sign of the times, of a shifting American political landscape, and it is very refreshing and encouraging. Brett Stephens, in a broadside against Omar today that pushed all the cliches about anti-Semitism, inadvertently revealed what upsets people like him so much about Ilhan Omar. Stephens said:

        “Yet merely by refusing to fold, Omar stands to shift the range of acceptable discussion — the so-called Overton window — sharply in her direction. Ideas once thought of as intellectually uncouth and morally repulsive have suddenly become merely controversial. It’s how anti-Zionism has abruptly become an acceptable point of view in reputable circles.”

        Indeed. Stephens is scandalized and clearly worried by the fact that a US Congresswoman dares to question the standard shibboleths and received wisdom, the standard “bipartisan” party line, the heretofore third rail, on the US-Israel relationship. Ilhan Omar is “uppity” in the best sense.

        Reply to Comment
    6. Neunuebel

      Israel’s Apartheid is being found out by more and more people. It should be noted, however, that Israel is not evil because it’s Jewish. Israel is evil because its evil.

      Reply to Comment
      • Nathanael

        I would argue that the apartheid state of Israel isn’t really Jewish — it certainly violates Torah law all the time; it ignores all of the lessons of the rabbis for the last 2000 years; as well as ignoring all morality and ignoring all ethics.

        If it is Jewish in any way, it is the Judaism of the Zealots, who were quite rightly crushed and dispersed for their evil acts — the rabbis have taught about why the Zealots were wrong for 2000 years. Israel’s government ignores this.

        Netenyahu is an anti-Semite who is trying to destroy *real* Judaism, the Judaism of the rabbis.

        Reply to Comment
    7. Ben

      I suggest to everyone that they pay particular attention to the several comments of Jan Bauman in the Facebook Comments section. She knowledgeably recounts some historical and present realities and she makes a lot of sense.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        What Ilhan Omar is doing, however imperfectly, is Breaking the Silence. Daring to say things, and to keep saying them, not backing down and not being intimidated. Could she say things more artfully? Sure. But keep in mind that she and one or two other Congresspersons (new, female, non-white, as it happens) are the only ones willing to say *anything*. The only ones not quaking in their boots at drawing the attention of a too-powerful, ruthless AIPAC. The only ones not willing to be silenced.

        This is what Bret Stephens finds alarming about her.

        This is what Jan Bauman is speaking to.

        Reply to Comment
    8. itshak Gordine

      I am Jewish and I am ashamed this Illhan Omar is the head covered on this Day of the Woman

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        This rings false. And of hypocrisy. What you hate and fear about Ilhan Omar is that she is an independent, strong, articulate woman who is speaking truth to power and will not back down when the usual attempts to intimidate and silence are trotted out. The rabbis you revere generally prefer women be silent and subservient to men. And Orthodox married women cover their heads too. So it won’t wash, this feeble attempt of your to smear Ilhan Omar.

        Reply to Comment
        • itshak Gordine

          Being covered, this woman shows that she is not only subject to men, but is also manipulated by anti-Semitic / anti-Zionist circles. We would have liked to hear more about the treatment of women by men in Muslim countries (and more and more unfortunately in Western countries). We would have liked her to publicly denounce female circumcision in Somalia, the country of which she is a native. No, all his attacks on AIPAC and the famous double allegiance proves what she is: a Muslim anti-Semite that should be treated as such. In some European democratic countries, she would be forced to resign.
          Millions of Christian Americans identify with Israel, and they are not accused of double allegiance. Millions of Muslims and left-wingers in the USA vibrate for the pseudo “Palestinian” cause and this Ilham does not accuse them of double allegiance. This is primary anti-Semitism and nothing else ..

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Halevy, this is a quite amazing but typical Fake News concoction, allowing us to illustrate a prime example of the stock in trade. Thank you. You are quite shameless, passing on here snide Fake News insinuations about Representative Ilhan Omar, eagerly participating in the Fake News, anti-Muslim campaign being waged against her (not all that different from the Fake News campaign people like you wage against Breaking the Silence, but I digress.) Thank you for affording an opportunity to show yet again how dishonest and deluded you are. And how eagerly you participate in slander.

            FACT CHECK: DID ILHAN OMAR VOTE AGAINST A BILL MAKING FEMALE GENITAL MUTILATION A FELONY?
            12:45 PM 11/29/2018 Emily Larsen | Fact Check Reporterhttps://checkyourfact.com/2018/11/29/fact-check-ilhan-omar-vote-female-genital-mutilation-felony/

            And then we have this gem of conspiracy illogic and rank anti-Muslim prejudice (hatred):

            “Being covered, this woman shows that she is not only subject to men, but is also manipulated by anti-Semitic / anti-Zionist circles.”

            Wow. This is hardly different than some European in the Middle Ages or in 1930 saying “Being covered, this married Jewish woman shows that she is not only subject to men, but is also manipulated by anti-Christian Elders of Zion circles.”

            Halevy, what grade in school did you complete? I thought Swiss schools were pretty good.

            Reply to Comment
    9. Carmen

      Ilhan Omar is a blessing. She’s speaking the absolute truth and there are people going batshit crazy – half of them because its the first time hearing the truth, and the other half because they know its the truth. Then there are the rest of us who cheer her courage and pray for her safety. #IStandWithIlhan

      Reply to Comment
    10. Bruce Gould

      http://jewswithilhan.org/

      (the url says it all)

      We are Jews who stand with Representative Ilhan Omar…She has been falsely accused of anti-Semitism since tweeting that GOP threats against her and Representative Rashida Tlaib for criticizing Israel were “all about the Benjamins baby.” When asked to clarify who is paying members of Congress “to be pro-Israel,” Omar replied, “AIPAC!”

      Reply to Comment
    11. Guy

      You could not be more wrong. First of all, as a white person, you have experienced no white privilege in this country, as there is none. Never have you received any unearned benefit simply because of your skin color, for there are none. You might have experienced some anti-Semitism, though, but most likely not from a white person, although it’s certainly possible. More likely, if you were in New York, it came from a “person of color” and hence dared not be mentioned in public discourse. Those things aside, what Omar said was plainly anti-Semitic, and I’m sure she’ll blurt out something else anti-Semitic again in a week or two. Why shouldn’t she? Her constituents will adore her for it, and her peers will let her get away with it. Worse, some portion of the Jewish community will excuse her for it, probably in the hopes that being open-minded about rabid hatred towards themselves will somehow mitigate it. It won’t. Anti-Semitism is part and parcel of the Muslim faith. Some Muslims manage to not absorb or internalize it, but a lot do, the results of which can be seen in the Muslim world’s relentless attacks against Israel and Jews elsewhere. Please wake up to reality. Abandon any delusions of white privilege that you have, and learn to recognize anti-Semitism when you see it. Being tolerant of it and the people who spew it only fertilizes it and makes it grow deeper and stronger.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        “learn to recognize anti-Semitism when you see it”

        The simple-mindedness of this is apparent from the rest of your text but also intrinsically. And this phrase of yours telegraphs the mentality and the motivations behind it.

        It’s as if “recognizing anti-Semitism” is a skill, that one “learns” and practices. Like an intelligence agent learning standard tricks of a trade to apply to take advantage of opportunities to manipulate the other side.

        It could not be more apparent how this reflex anti-Semitism shaming is weaponized, is applied indiscriminately and aggressively and without any benefit of the doubt or attention to any nuance or intelligent distinction or larger context.

        Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        “Maybe, for the first time in history, someone will dare tell the truth to the American people, absorbing scathing accusations of anti-Semitism, without bowing her head. The chances of this happening aren’t great; the savage engine of the Jewish lobby and of Israel’s “friends” is already doing everything it can to trample her….
        When will Americans and Europeans stop running scared every time someone screams “anti-Semitism”? Until when will Israel and the Jewish establishment succeed in exploiting (the existing) anti-Semitism as a shield against criticism? When will the world dare to distinguish between legitimate criticism of an illegitimate reality and anti-Semitism?
        The gap between these two is great. There is anti-Semitism one must fight, and there is criticism of Israel and the Jewish establishment it is imperative to support. Manipulations exercised by the Israeli propaganda machine and the Jewish establishment have managed to make the two issues identical.
        This is the greatest success of the Israeli government’s hasbara: Say one critical word about Israel and you’re labeled an anti-Semite. And labeled an anti-Semite, your fate is obvious. Omar has to break this cursed cycle. Is the young representative from Minnesota up for it? Can she withstand the power centers that have already mobilized against her in full force?”
        https://www.haaretz.com/us-news/.premium-keep-it-up-ilhan-omar-1.6999623

        Reply to Comment
    12. AniMaamin

      So because you claim to be Jewish that is supposed to give you some rare sagacious insight into issue that the rest of the non Jewish world could not possibly have? How Insulting.

      Reply to Comment
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