The Slatest

The Ilhan Omar Controversy Is a Turning Point for the Jewish Left

Rep. Ilhan Omar talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi on the east steps of the U.S. Capitol. Both women are holding small American flags.
Ilhan Omar has repeatedly clashed with Democratic leaders on Israel. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The tide seems to be turning for Rep. Ilhan Omar. Last week, she made critical comments about American supporters of Israel that were interpreted by some as a reference to the anti-Semitic trope of “dual loyalty.” This sparked swift and widespread condemnation, including from the leaders of the Democratic Party who put forward a planned resolution condemning anti-Semitism as a rebuke of the congresswoman.

But an increasing number of progressives, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, have come to Omar’s defense in recent days. Many see a double standard at play. They argue that Omar, a black Muslim woman, is being unfairly singled out for a misstatement while the party’s leaders stay silent on offensive remarks by other politicians. (After dissent from the progressive wing of the party, the Democratic resolution was amended to denounce all forms of hate. It passed in the House 407 to 23 on Thursday, with all Democrats ultimately voting for it.)

Alongside the intraparty squabble, Jewish American leftists have emerged as a key source of support for Omar, writing a flurry of op-eds, petitions, and social media posts with the hashtag #IStandWithIlhan. Progressive Jewish organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace, IfNotNow, and Jews for Racial & Economic Justice are responding to the Omar flap by emphasizing the difference between anti-Semitism and legitimate critiques of Israel and pivoting to discuss the threat of white supremacy to all minority groups. (Disclosure: I was a summer intern at Jewish Voice for Peace in college and am still a member.) This source of full-throated support of the congresswoman has the potential to shift the national conversation over anti-Semitism and how it operates. It’s also a sign of the growing rift within the American Jewish community over Israel-Palestine, as leftist Jewish movements gain momentum.

Leo Ferguson, the movement building organizer at Jews for Racial & Economic Justice, expressed hope that this controversy could serve as a valuable learning experience for the Jewish community and the American public more broadly. “The opportunity here, if we take it, is for all of us to become much sharper in our understanding of anti-Semitism,” Ferguson told me. “There is an incredibly powerful opening for white Jews to understand their deep mutual interest and potential solidarity with black people, because white supremacy is coming for all of us.”

Rebecca Pierce, a member of the Jews of Color and Sephardi/Mizrahi Caucus, which organizes in partnership with Jewish Voice for Peace, agrees. (“Sephardi” refers to Jewish communities whose ancestors were expelled from Spain and Portugal in 1492. “Mizrahi” refers to Jewish communities from the Middle East, west Asia, and North Africa.) Pierce said the most important way to respond to this controversy is to develop a robust definition of anti-Semitism that goes beyond the context of Israel.

“Anti-Semitism is hatred, animus, bias toward Jewish people as a whole, and this is a historical thing … that predates the existence of the state of Israel,” Pierce explained. Therefore, “to have a definition of anti-Semitism that is totally wrapped up in how we’re allowed to talk about this modern ethno-state—it really is a disservice to the history of anti-Semitism and also to understanding how it operates in our society.”

Pierce continued: “If our definition of anti-Semitism is reduced to ‘Are you criticizing Israel?’ you have no ability to grapple with someone like Richard Spencer.” The prominent American white supremacist activist is also an avowed supporter of Israel.

“It’s completely understandable that Jews are on edge and are concerned and are looking around, trying to figure out who their allies are and who they can trust,” Ferguson said. At the same time, he cautioned that Jewish Americans’ legitimate fears have at times been exploited by figures on the right as a way to pit Jews against other marginalized communities.

“There is definitely a pattern of … [hyperpolicing] the language of black activists and leaders when it comes to showing solidarity with Palestine,” Pierce said. “The pattern that I’ve noticed is that someone will say something, and then critics … will twist their words in such a way that they’re really changing the fundamental point that was being made and trying to make it a generalization about Jews when someone is talking about Israel. And we’ve seen this over and over again.”

This scenario has played out numerous times over the past few months. Since December, black activists including Marc Lamont Hill, Angela Davis, Michelle Alexander, and Ilhan Omar have all faced substantial blowback for their support of Palestinian rights.

“A lot of this is backlash to progress that’s happening, and we need to refuse to cede that ground,” Pierce said. “Our struggles are connected, and we’re going to continue to … [acknowledge] that our common enemy is white supremacy, so we need to be working together to fight it.”

Imogen Page, an IfNotNow member who is active in the Twin Cities branch, explained why she felt it was significant for Jewish activists to express support for Omar: “What we’re doing right now is standing up and saying no, you cannot use … our history and our pain and our trauma to drive a wedge between [Jews] and the other people you are marginalizing and putting in danger.”

Activists like Ferguson, Pierce, and Page acknowledge that their strategy is more challenging than condemnation and rejection, and requires far more patience and soul-searching, but they also hope that it will strengthen their movement.

The campaigns to defend Omar could be seen as a detour from these organizations’ primary advocacy work around Israel-Palestine, but some activists see defending Omar as part of a broader push to shift conversations within the Jewish community.

“There’s really an attempt to paint the people supporting Ilhan Omar as totally outside the norm, totally outside the Jewish community. We’re actually all very involved in the Jewish community,” Pierce said. Pierce explained that advocating for Omar is inherently “connected to this issue of more recognition for diverse voices … in the Jewish community, and not letting the same [several] organizations—that are incredibly out of touch a lot of the time with what our needs and experiences are—speak for us.”

Progressive Jewish activists have secured numerous victories in recent years: Public opinion on Israel-Palestine is moving to the left, especially among young people, and Jewish Americans are increasingly critical of Israeli government policies and the occupation. Vocal politicians like Omar are bringing these once-fringe positions further into the mainstream, and American Jewish leftists see this as a moment to amplify their message and pitch their position to a national audience.

“I’ve been in Palestine solidarity for a long time—since I was in college—and I’ve seen huge changes. Leaps and bounds,” Pierce said. “On Palestine, so many things that were taboo are now mainstream, and I don’t think there’s a way to shut it down.”