Politics

Ilhan Omar Has a Point

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 26: Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) listens as lawmakers speak about the Voting Rights Enhancement Act, H.R. 4, on Capitol Hill on February 26, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Joshua Roberts/Getty Images)
Rep. Ilhan Omar.
Joshua Roberts/Getty Images

In early 2015, as the Obama administration was deep into negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, Republican House Speaker John Boehner invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who stridently opposed the deal, to address a joint session of Congress. The speech itself, which was intended to convince Congress to scuttle the agreement, turned out to be a dud. Instead of shaming Democrats into opposing the deal, Bibi seemed to unify them in support of it. But the public spectacle of a foreign leader attempting to undermine the American president on U.S. soil at the request of his political adversaries was symbolically striking. Later, polling would show that GOP voters generally felt more warmly about Netanyahu than their actual commander in chief. “Republicans haven’t just rejected Obama. They have adopted Netanyahu as their leader,” Slate’s Will Saletan wrote at the time.

“Does a majority of the Republican Party identify more with Israeli interests than with American interests?” he continued. “When Israel’s prime minister speaks on the floor of Congress, do Republicans feel more allegiance to him than to their president? If so, will the feeling subside once Obama leaves office? Or does it signify an enduring rift in the fabric of this country?”

I’ve found myself thinking about Netanyahu’s speech, and its troubling optics, again this week in light of the most recent fury over Rep. Ilhan Omar, who for the second time in a month has stumbled into a controversy over anti-Semitism and Israel.

Back in February, the freshman from Minnesota, who is one of the first two Muslim women ever elected to Congress, issued a public apology after being widely criticized for tweeting that U.S. support for the Jewish state was “all about the Benjamins baby”—a comment that, even if unintentionally, pretty bluntly evoked well-worn stereotypes about Jewish influence and money in politics. “Anti-Semitism is real and I am grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of anti-Semitic tropes,” Omar wrote amid the backlash. But at a bookstore event in Washington last week, she managed to kick the outrage cycle back into gear. After telling the crowd that critics were accusing her of anti-Semitism in order to snuff out debate about Israel’s human rights record, she said, “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.”

The problem, in this case, was the word allegiance, which went off like a skronky shofar once her comments hit the internet. To some, the phrase “allegiance to a foreign country” alluded to the old anti-Semitic image of Jews as scheming subversives working on behalf of foreign powers—a trope often referred to as the “dual loyalty” smear. Conservative supporters of Israel pounced on Omar’s comment—New York Times columnist Bret Stephens called it “blatantly anti-Semitic”—as did some liberals, such as New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait. “There should be more space in American politics to advocate criticism of Israel and support for Palestinian rights,” Chait wrote. “But Omar is using that cause to smuggle in ugly stereotypes. And whatever presumption of good faith she deserved last time should be gone now.” Democratic politicians eventually joined in. It is “unacceptable and deeply offensive to call into question the loyalty of fellow American citizens because of their political views, including support for the US-Israel relationship,” Rep. Eliot Engel, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement Friday. “We all take the same oath. Worse, Representative Omar’s comments leveled that charge by invoking a vile anti-Semitic slur.” And on Monday, Nancy Pelosi prepped a resolution for the House to vote on later this week condemning the “myth of dual loyalty,” which is clearly intended as a rebuke to Omar. (Donald Trump has, of course, tweeted.)

Omar’s left-leaning supporters have fired back that she’s being excessively demonized and attacked, both because she is a Muslim woman and a forceful critic of American support for the Israeli government. And this time, the congresswoman doesn’t seem to be in a mood to apologize. This weekend, she leaned right back into the A-word as she responded to criticism from another Democratic colleague.

I find Omar’s rhetoric tone-deaf, but haven’t seen compelling evidence that she has any real animus toward Jews. The more likely explanation for these statements is that she’s an inexperienced politician who arrived at the U.S. as a refugee from Somalia at age 12 and probably came of age in left-wing circles where vocal opposition to Israel was the norm, and there wasn’t a lot of thought given to words that Jews consider anti-Semitic dog whistles. Once the outrage crested last week, she could have shown a little sensitivity to people’s concerns and backed down. But I have trouble blaming her for not doing so.

First, this week arguably demonstrated her broader point. She gave a talk about how accusations of anti-Semitism tend to silence critics of Israel. In response, she was swiftly called a “Jew hater.”

Second, there’s the sheer hypocrisy factor. Many of the Republicans attacking Omar now have shown little if any concern about their own party’s use of anti-Semitic tropes. And as Omar points out, they also haven’t shown much concern about the Islamophobic attacks or death threats that have come her way.

Then there’s the substance of the matter. In recent years, Israel’s most conservative backers (the vast majority of whom are not Jewish) have taken steps that unfortunately blur the distinction between supporting a country and showing loyalty to it. Welcoming Netanyahu to Washington in 2015 was one example. Boehner made the unprecedented decision to invite the Israeli prime minister without first informing the White House, to ensure that “there was no interference” from the administration. Some suggested the move may have been unconstitutional. It is normal and healthy for Congress and the White House to clash over foreign policy. It is not normal, however, for opposition lawmakers and a foreign leader to publicly work hand in hand to undermine the diplomatic efforts of a sitting U.S. president. This does not mean Republicans were actively trying to undermine America’s interests on behalf of Israel; they saw them as one and the same. But given a choice between Netanyahu and Obama, as Saletan wrote, it was pretty clear whom Republicans felt more loyalty to.

The raging fight over the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement—or BDS—is a more recent and clear-cut example where Israel’s backers have placed its interests above those of their countrymen. Supporters of BDS—including Omar and her colleague Rep. Rashida Tlaib—are trying to borrow a page from the anti-apartheid playbook by economically isolating Israel so it will be forced to make a peace deal with the Palestinians. Israel’s backers see BDS as inherently anti-Semitic, in part because they believe it is an attempt to delegitimize the Jewish state’s existence and because other countries aren’t facing boycotts for their human rights abuses. (There aren’t a lot of campus activists protesting China’s decision to throw the Uighurs in re-education camps, for instance.*) It’s a complicated issue, but pushed by pro-Israel activists, at least 25 states have come down hard on it by passing laws aimed at barring businesses and individuals from government contract work if they take part in BDS. A speech pathologist is currently suing the state of Texas because she allegedly lost her job after refusing to sign a contract promising not to support a boycott of Israel.

What do you call a law that prioritizes the economic well-being of Israel over the free speech rights of individual Americans? Is it a “loyalty oath,” as Glenn Greenwald referred to it? Is it a pledge of allegiance? You can debate whether those phrases are appropriate. But to many observers, it clearly comes close enough. As Batya Ungar-Sargon, opinion editor at the Forward, wrote in December:

Texas’s anti-BDS bill doesn’t only impinge on the free speech rights of a U.S. citizen in a bizarre attempt to “stand with Israel;” it turns every potential contractor with the state of Texas into a literalization of the anti-Semitic canard of dual loyalty. Texas citizens are now literally more loyal to Israel than they are to the U.S., insofar as they may say and do things to their own country that they may not engage in vis-à-vis Israel.

Finally, some members of Congress who have bristled at Omar’s comments are busy tweeting out messages that seem to prove her point. Take this chestnut from a fellow Democrat:

I think Omar gets a lot of the dynamics of the U.S.-Israeli relationship very wrong. American politicians don’t only support Israel because of AIPAC’s donor network or Sheldon Adelson’s billions. The political muscle of Christian Zionists, geopolitical concerns, and, yes, the votes of a dwindling group of Israel-friendly Jews factor in too. Meanwhile, the Iran deal itself shows that even if some Democrats seem like they support Israel unconditionally, they will break with the country’s leaders on major issues (Pelosi called it a “diplomatic masterpiece” at the time). It’s clear that you can be a Democratic member of the House without “pledging allegiance” to any foreign country.

But Omar’s not wrong to highlight just how difficult it is to question the U.S.-Israel relationship, and to want that to change. “It’s almost as every single time we say something,” she said moments before her allegiance remark, “our advocacy about ending oppression, or the freeing of every human life and wanting dignity, we get [labeled] something and that ends the discussion. Because we end up defending that, and nobody ever gets to have the proper debate about what is happening with Palestine.” While her approach has been somewhat counterproductive for the Jewish American left-wing activists who are more emboldened than ever to speak out about what is happening with Palestine, her willingness to throw herself into a highly fraught political issue and not back down is admirable. If Israel’s most devoted U.S. backers are really so concerned over dual loyalty smears, maybe they should think more carefully about how they’re encouraging them.

Correction, March 5, 2019: This piece originally misspelled the name of an ethnic group being persecuted by China. The group is known as the Uighurs, not as the Uighers.