The Good Fight

Ilhan Omar Shouldn’t Get a Pass

The left should condemn Islamophobia, Trumpism, the Israeli government’s policies, and the congresswoman’s anti-Semitic comments.

Ilhan Omar affixes a political button to her coat on Election Day in Minnesota.
Eric Miller/Reuters

On June 19, 1967, less than two weeks after the conclusion of the Six-Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbors, the great and (supposedly) good of communist Poland assembled for the Sixth Trade Union Congress. In a keynote speech, Władysław Gomułka, the country’s de facto leader, addressed the tiny minority of Polish Jews—many of them ardent socialists—who remained in the country:

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Since the Israeli aggression on the Arab countries was met with applause in Zionist circles of Jews, Polish citizens, I wish to announce the following: We have made no difficulties for Polish citizens of Jewish descent when they wished to move to Israel. We maintain that every Polish citizen should have only one fatherland: People’s Poland. … Let those who feel these words are addressed to them, irrespective of their nationality, draw the proper conclusions. We do not want a fifth column to be created in our country.

At the time, my grandparents, who considered themselves Poles and had joined the Communist movement as teenagers in the hope of overcoming the racism they had faced in their ancestral shtetls, were living in the heart of Warsaw. My mother, who was only 20 years old, was a student at the local music conservatory. My uncle was still in high school.

In the months that followed Gomulka’s speech, my grandfather was expelled from the Communist Party and fired from his job. When my mother went to class one day, she discovered a placard telling her and two of her Jewish classmates to leave for Israel. My uncle was threatened and bullied. A police car took up its position outside my family’s building, projecting a bright spotlight at their apartment. Most of the remaining Jews in Poland experienced similar acts of state-sponsored harassment.

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Heartbroken, my grandfather applied for an exit visa. The Polish government stipulated only two conditions for his family’s departure: He had to leave his passport and possessions behind. And he had to sign a declaration that he was voluntarily leaving Poland due to his supposed Zionist leanings.

Before the Holocaust, there had been over 3 million Jews in Poland. By 1967, there were 50,000. By the end of the 1960s, less than 500 remained.

Because it has shaped the lives of three generations of my family, I have often told this story to friends. But until a few days ago, I could never have imagined retelling it with the knowledge that many readers would see it as a commentary on contemporary American politics. And yet, it is difficult to recall Gomułka’s accusations about the supposed dual loyalties of Polish Jews without thinking of the more recent smears that Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar has levied against Jews here in America.

Why, according to Omar, does Israel have strong supporters in the United States? “It’s all about the Benjamins,” she tweeted last month. What are supporters of Israel doing? They are “push[ing] for allegiance to a foreign country,” she followed up at an event in D.C. last week.

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The worst aspect of call-out culture is a tendency to interpret imperfect statements in the least flattering—and most offensive—possible light. In a spirit of charity, it is tempting to hope that Omar could have misspoken in the heat of the moment, especially since she did apologize after receiving considerable pushback to her earlier tweets. In this spirit, New York Rep. Nita Lowey, a fellow Democrat, condemned Islamophobic attacks on Omar and then politely called on her to reciprocate by engaging “in further dialogue with the Jewish community on why these comments are so hurtful.” In response, Omar doubled down on the charge of dual loyalty, affirming (as though anybody disagreed) that she “should not be expected to have allegiance/pledge support to a foreign country.”

Jews who have experienced political violence in just about every generation of their existence on this earth can, frankly, survive one freshman congresswoman. But what has made the past few days deeply depressing is just how many people, in both politics and media, have been willing to give Omar a pass.

I can fully understand what motivates Omar’s defenders. For one, it is indeed important to be able to criticize Israeli policies. As I said on Tuesday in an interview with the Times of Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is an authoritarian populist in the mold of Donald Trump and Hungary’s Viktor Orban. The Israeli government’s settlement policy is cruel and inhumane. It is important for the Democratic Party to be a principled advocate for human rights not just in the United States, but all around the world.

For another, there can be no doubt that Omar has been the subject of vicious Islamophobic attacks and that some of America’s very worst people have amplified her remarks for the very worst reasons. Many Trumpists would have attacked Omar even if she hadn’t provided them with so much ammunition. A disgusting poster in West Virginia’s State Capitol accused her of secret sympathies for the 9/11 attackers. It is sadly beyond doubt that a deep and persistent strain of Islamophobia has infected much of the American right.

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So, yes, I can understand the people who come to Omar’s defense or are reluctant to criticize her. But, no, I cannot excuse them for their complicity in anti-Semitism.

For one, it is they, not critics like Lowey, who are deliberately obfuscating the difference between robust criticism of Israel and anti-Semitic bigotry. Plenty of Democrats have long been loudly and publicly critical of the Israeli government. And while far-right provocateurs, and even a few Jewish organizations, did levy unfair attacks against them at times, neither the mainstream media nor moderate Democrats have called them anti-Semitic. The reason for the difference is simple: They stuck to criticizing the Israeli government. Omar, who should know all too well how dehumanizing it feels to be unfairly suspected of lacking loyalty to your own country, repeatedly insinuated that her political opponents secretly have greater allegiance to Israel than to the United States.

For another, those who refuse to criticize Omar on the grounds that Trump and his outriders are attacking her are allowing the president to set the terms of the debate. It is undoubtedly discomfiting to be on the same side as racists and Islamophobes. But the right answer cannot be to forgive anyone’s faults if the wrong people so happen to point them out; after all, a standard we are willing to abandon as soon as someone we dislike invokes it is no standard at all. Instead, we must stick to our own standard—one that condemns Islamophobia and anti-Semitism with equal vigor—in a consistent way.

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Obviously, I do not mean to suggest that Jews are about to be thrown out of the United States the way my parents and grandparents were booted out of Poland. But I do see a real risk that a failure to stand up to anti-Semitism can split the left, and make it much easier for authoritarian populists like Trump to stay in power. To see evidence for this possibility, you don’t have to harken back to events that took place a half-century ago.

Over the past few years, British leftists have again and again explained away rising anti-Semitism in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. People who shared anti-Semitic memes, they claimed, were just being punished for voicing legitimate criticism of Israel. Politicians who spoke out about the inaction of the party’s leader, they said, are weaponizing anti-Semitism to pursue their Zionist agenda. As a result, Jews have been driven out of the Labour Party en masse. While a clear majority of British Jews once supported Labour, over 85 percent of them now believe its leader to be anti-Semitic. And while Labour once had many prominent Jewish leaders, including Corbyn’s predecessor, MP Ed Miliband, those few Jews who remain in the party are facing daily onslaughts of anti-Semitic hate.

Of three Jewish Labour MPs who were elected in 2015, one, MP Alex Sobel, has clearly stated that it is the “the anti-Semitism within the party” that is making it unelectable among the country’s Jews. Another, MP Ruth Smeeth, has reluctantly come to the conclusion that the party is, according to the legal definition, “institutionally anti-Semitic.” The third, MP Luciana Berger, has quit the party after she faced daily hate mail and needed the protection of bodyguards to attend the latest party conference.

This doesn’t have to be the future of the Democratic Party. I hope it won’t be. But if we are going to excuse obvious wrongs just because the wrong people criticize them for the wrong reasons, we will soon have no more independent standard of good or ill. And that is the exact climate of moral relativism in which anti-Semitism on the left and the right, from Poland to the United Kingdom, has flourished for centuries.