Ilhan Omar’s punishment doesn’t fit the crime
When House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy blasted critics of Israel, Ilhan Omar tweeted back, “It’s all about the Benjamins baby,” presumably in reference to the Puff Daddy song of the same name. She would later say it was meant to draw attention to the unscrupulous influence of American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) lobbyists over American politics. The following day, Omar apologized for the tweet.
But allegations of anti-Semitism reached a boiling point last week at a panel with fellow congresswoman Rashida Tlaib.
“What I’m fearful of – because Rashida and I are Muslim – [is] that a lot of our Jewish colleagues [think] everything we say about Israel [is] anti-Semitic because we are Muslim,” she said. “Every single time we say something, regardless of what it is we say that is supposed to be about foreign policy or engagement or advocacy about ending oppression or the freeing of every human life and wanting dignity, we get to be labeled something and that ends the discussion. Because we end up defending that and nobody ever gets to have the broader debate of what is happening with Palestine. So for me, I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country.”
Some speculate this was a calculated attack against Jewish people. New York Times columnist Bret Stephens argued as much in his piece, “Ilhan Omar Knows Exactly What She Is Doing,” likening her comments to the far-left anti-Semitism seen in Britain’s Labour Party.
I disagree – despite her multiple offenses, I think her apology showed an altruistic interest in building bridges with the Jewish community. I also reject the idea that criticizing Israel is inherently anti-Semitic.
On the other hand, some suggest it wasn’t an anti-Semitic slight at all. Take House Majority Whip James Clyburn, for example, who said, “There are people who tell me, ‘Well, my parents are Holocaust survivors,’ ‘My parents did this.’ It’s more personal with her. I’ve talked to her, and I can tell you she is living through a lot of pain.”
But non-Jews are in no position to minimize Jewish suffering. While there are plenty of valid claims in defense of Omar, “The Holocaust was a long time ago” is not one of them.
Also troubling was the congressional resolution passed on Thursday, which was backed by party elites like Nancy Pelosi (though she denied the resolution was a direct response to Omar’s comments). The resolution began as a way to condemn anti-Semitism. Following backlash, it was expanded to include Islamophobia and other forms of intolerance.
At best, it was an empty document which did little to tangibly help vulnerable minorities. At worst, it was a way to antagonize Omar, whose missteps have been met with a level of animus of backlash far disproportionate to the transgressions she perpetuated.
Where was such a resolution after the Tree of Life Synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh? Or after Rep. Matt Gaetz brought a Holocaust denier to the State of the Union? Or after Nazis rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia, killing an innocent woman, and Trump said there were “fine people on both sides?”
Earlier this week, a poster linking Omar to the 9/11 attacks was displayed in the West Virginia State Capitol. Some have called for her to be removed from the Foreign Relations Committee.
In actuality, I believe much of the backlash she faces, especially and specifically from self-proclaimed “Jewish allies” is not rooted in concern for Jewish people at all. Rather, it is a manifestation of racism and xenophobia. They have warped legitimate concerns into a needless crusade against Omar.
The existence of greater evils should not be used to trivialize claims of anti-Semitism – only to put the reaction into perspective. Accountability is important. Omar’s comments were problematic, and non-Jews are in no position to trivialize the centuries-old tropes her comments perpetuated. We need to ask ourselves if the hate she received is warranted by the mistakes she made, or if it’s fueled by more nefarious forces.