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Ilhan Omar Is Not Antisemitic

The rush to condemn Ilhan Omar says more about the vacuousness of our political discourse than the supposed bigotry of her comments.

Notes of support are posted on the name plate outside the office of Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) in the Longworth House Office Building on February 11, 2019 in Washington, DC. Mark Wilson / Getty

Arguments for Israel have a way of reflecting the preoccupations of their times.

In the 1940s support for Zionism was sold as a way to drive a final nail in the coffin of Nazism. In the early years of decolonization, Israel was touted as a fledgling nation fending off the massed armies of British-aligned Arab monarchies. In the 1970s and 1980s, pro-Israel politics captured a mood of post-1968 anti-utopianism, with leftist Third Worldism standing in as the new god that failed. And by the 1990s — after Likud’s Thatcherite reorganization of Israel’s economy and the country’s emergence as a globalized tech juggernaut — support for Israel became a sign of judicious alignment with the new liberal, post–Cold War Davos dispensation.

So it’s not surprising that today, serious criticism of the Jewish state is condemned, above all, as a breach of multicultural etiquette. It goes with the spirit of the age. If it was sexist for Bernie Sanders’s campaign to chide Hillary Clinton for her Goldman Sachs speeches, and if it was borderline racist to want to break up the banks, it stands to reason that Rep. Ilhan Omar’s comments about the pro-Israel lobby would be singled out for being — as the staunchly pro-Israel Rep. Eliot Engel put it — “deeply offensive,” “deeply hurtful,” and a “vile anti-Semitic slur.”

Except they weren’t antisemitic at all. As Washington Post blogger Paul Waldman pointed out in a definitive forensic dismantling of the smear campaign against Omar, the comments for which the Minnesota congresswoman was attacked never referred to Jews in the first place. “I should not be expected to have allegiance/pledge support to a foreign country in order to serve my country in Congress or serve on [the foreign affairs] committee,” she wrote in one tweet. “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is okay for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country,” she remarked at a town hall meeting. “I want to ask, why is it OK for me to talk about the influence of the NRA, of fossil-fuel industries, or Big Pharma, and not talk about a powerful lobby that is influencing [Middle East] policy.”

There’s no point in arguing over what those comments did or didn’t say about Jews. They didn’t mention Jews. The words referred to a set of individuals and organizations that insist on unconditional allegiance to Israel and its policies — a constellation of forces in which Christian evangelicals like Texas governor Greg Abbott (who recently declared that “anti-Israel policies are anti-Texas policies,” as Waldman points out) feature at least as prominently as Jews.

But to judge Omar on the basis of the plain meaning of her words is to miss the point, as anyone who tried to challenge the “antisemitic” characterization quickly discovered. For a chorus of online voices immediately popped up to insinuate that because they, as Jews, personally found Omar’s words to be offensive, their verdict was final and it was bigoted for anyone to question it.

“Dismissing a minority community’s concerns as a ‘smear’ is not a great look,” Zack Beauchamp of Vox wrote on Twitter. “We Jews have centuries of hard experience in spotting this stuff and are not making up what we see,” added Yair Rosenberg of Tablet. Yascha Mounk cited his family’s history with Poland’s antisemitic purges following the Six Day War in support of his view that “[Omar’s] comments were anti-Semitic. And we just cannot let that pass.”

I have been Jewish for roughly as many years as any of these writers, and I could cite equally harrowing family stories. But I didn’t view Omar’s comments as antisemitic; neither did Waldman, who noted in his analysis that he was “raised in an intensely Zionist family with a long history of devotion and sacrifice for Israel.” Waldman and I could be wrong about Omar’s comments, but then so could her Jewish critics. The mere fact of being Jewish evidently can’t decide the issue.

If it seems vaguely scandalous to make that point — well, that, too, is a sign of the times. The theory that members of a minority group are infallible arbiters of bigotry is conventional wisdom in many quarters, but it presents some uncomfortable puzzles. A recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, for example, found that 57 percent of white evangelicals (and 40 percent of nonwhite evangelicals) believe there is “a lot of discrimination against Christians” in America today. I doubt that Beauchamp, Rosenberg, or Mounk would be willing to credit that view. But if American Christians aren’t, in fact, victims of pervasive discrimination, why do so many of them believe that they are?

Here’s a possibility. Perhaps evangelicals watch a lot of Fox News, where they’re subjected to cherrypicked, scaremongering anecdotes — an over-the-top anti-Christian Facebook comment by a campus radical; the latest dispatch from the front-lines of the War on Christmas — replayed over and over again, echoed and amplified by politicians and religious leaders, until it actually starts to seem plausible to them that a Kristallnacht against believers is on its way. It isn’t that hard to get frightened people all worked up.

A similar observation could be made about a parallel conflict playing out across the Atlantic: the antisemitism controversy in the UK Labour Party. Beauchamp invoked it as a cautionary tale: “The vital Democratic debate over Israel can’t be allowed to smuggle in anti-Semitism. That’s what happened to the UK Labour party, which 85 percent of British Jews now believe to be anti-Semitic precisely because of the way its left discusses Israel.”

Now, if 85 percent of British Jews view Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party as antisemitic, that is surely a tragedy. But is the tragedy due mainly to the way Israel is discussed by the British left, as Beauchamp claims? Or is it due mainly to the way the British left is discussed by supporters of Israel?

Britain’s media, which are monolithically anti-Corbyn, engage in a round-the-clock recycling of hair-raising antisemitism accusations. These are emitted at regular intervals by the Labour leader’s intra-party foes, whose overriding objective is to prevent Corbyn from becoming prime minister, due to policy disagreements. The same can be said of his opponents within the leadership of Britain’s pro-Israel Jewish communal organizations, such as the Board of Deputies of British Jews, which serves as the UK counterpart to AIPAC. British Jews are treated to a constant televised loop of panel discussions and punditry devoted to rehashing, say, the latest over-the-top tweet from a local anti-Zionist Labour activist in Barnsley. Under such circumstances, one can only expect a “Fox News effect” to take hold.

Let’s not forget that UK Jews weren’t very favorably disposed toward Labour before Corbyn; a 2015 pre-election poll commissioned by the Jewish Chronicle found that only 22 percent of UK Jews planned to vote for Labour under its previous leader, Ed Milliband, who is himself Jewish, versus 69 percent who planned to vote Tory. (Two years later, with Corbyn leading the party, Labour’s numbers in the Jewish Chronicle poll dropped to 13 percent.) So when an MP from Jeremy Corbyn’s own party accuses him of posing an “existential threat to British Jews,” as Joan Ryan did last month — yes, that is a real quote  — British Jews can be forgiven for concluding that where there’s smoke there must be fire.

The fact that Ryan, the former head of Labour Friends of Israel, was pursuing a political vendetta against Jeremy Corbyn — that she was in near-daily contact with an Israeli embassy operative whose mission was, in his own words, to “take down” British politicians too friendly to Palestine — might not get fully factored into perceptions. (The Israeli foreign ministry quicky withdrew the operative from the UK after he was exposed.)

The point is that there are real, material political stakes involved in such disputes. They are not mere spontaneous outpourings of feeling. And that means we can’t indulge the pretense that every wounded cry is sincere. When a new member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee openly calls out  Washington’s most powerful foreign policy lobby, AIPAC, it is only logical to expect AIPAC’s friends in Congress to seek a way to hit back. And in 2019, the way to hit back against uncomfortable criticism is to call it “deeply offensive” “deeply hurtful,” a “slur.”

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, in a tweet on the Omar controversy, complained that “no one seeks this level of reprimand when members make statements about Latinx + other communities” and praised Omar for “demonstrat[ing] a willingness to listen+work w/impacted communities.” It was an unfortunate defense: besides implicitly accepting the premise that Omar had somehow denigrated Jews, her comment inadvertently conjured the dismal image of a zero-sum, Jews-versus-Latinos tussle over some fixed quantum of “respect.” This shouldn’t be a competition.

It is, however, a political fight. The attack on Ilhan Omar is a glimpse into the future. This is how the game will be played from now on, and the more unstable American politics becomes, the more unpredictably its tectonic plates shift, the greater the temptation will be for parties on all sides to “Corbynize” their enemies, in one way or another. The surprisingly broad pushback in recent days against Nancy Pelosi’s plans to censure Omar is a sign that the Left is finally starting to wake up. Now no one can say they weren’t warned.