This was an exhausting few days to be a progressive Jew.
This is a frequent mood, but the present moment's been especially trying.
I am a progressive Jew in Ilhan Omar’s district, who voted for her, and generally supports her.
But thanks to Omar, there are several things going on at the moment, all of them infuriating. First, there is Omar herself, who continues to be maddeningly tone-deaf on the subject of Israel.
This is not something I should have to concern myself with, as I am an American with no real connection to the state of Israel. In general, I am sure Omar and I agree on a lot regarding Israel. I think Israel deserves abundant criticism for its treatment of its Palestinian minority, and I think AIPAC, like all lobbying firms, should be subject to scrutiny and criticism.
So, I wouldn’t take a lot of issue with her comments regarding Israel... except that Omar repeatedly brushes up against anti-Semitic tropes.
Her short, tweeted messages managed to conjure up an old anti-Semitic bugaboo: a shadowy cabal of international Jews with no loyalty to this country, who wield outsized and sinister influence.
It's all about the Benjamins baby �� https://t.co/KatcXJnZLV— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) February 10, 2019
Another tweet just said “AIPAC!,” a reference to an Israeli interest lobbying firm. The first came in response to Glenn Greenwald puzzling about U.S. political leaders spending an inordinate amount of time on Israel. The second was a reply to Forward Opinions Editor Batya Ungar-Sargon, who'd asked Omar for clarification about the original missive.
It’s so few words from Omar. I think a lot of progressive Jews might have said, “Oh, she probably could have phrased that better” and given her a pass, but the tweet came less than a month after Omar apologized for a similarly tone-deaf tweet from 2012 when she'd declared Israel had “hypnotized the world." This also brushes against classic anti-Semitic tropes.
Omar apologized with a statement which she posted, fittingly, on her Twitter account.
Listening and learning, but standing strong ���� pic.twitter.com/7TSroSf8h1— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) February 11, 2019
I don’t want to pile on Omar overmuch. She has apologized and I think she is sincere. More than that, as a freshman congresswoman, she's been the subject of outsized attention. That has a lot more to do with Islamophobia, anti-blackness, right-wing obsessives, and Israel supporters finding her comments useful as a cudgel against Omar and her political allies. I am far more concerned with the rise of the anti-Semitic right -- which has commited actual violence -- than whether Omar is capable of having a nuanced discussion of a foreign nation without accidentally impugning me and other Jews.
But I do want to invite Omar to consider how much clean-up work Jews had to do because she wasn't careful with her public statements. The flap over Omar's tweets means Jews have found themselves in the middle of a tremendous game of political football -- one few of us asked for, and aren’t enjoying.
Think of the conservative politicos, politicians and commentators who've never been real friends to the Jews who are seizing this moment, jumping at the chance to castigate Omar for anti-Semitism.
I can’t really concern myself with the behavior of those on the right, though it’s troubling that Omar would give them such a golden opportunity to get in some cheap shots. Keith Ellison gave the right even less to work with, and yet he's been dogged by accusations of anti-Semitism his entire political career.
My concern is with my own community, the progressive one. They don’t like to have this conversation, but the progressive community really does have an anti-Semitism problem. Usually this takes the form of dismissing Jewish concerns about anti-Semitism -- especially when those concerns are directed at a fellow progressive.
There's a popular talking point, one progressives never should have allowed to even get a foothold, but did. It's pernicious, and has made discussions of anti-Semitism fraught, frustrating, and hard to resolve in progressive communities. This talking point ties into the latest series of Omar tweets. It goes as follows:
Jews use charges of anti-Semitism to shut down criticism of Israel.
I hate to even have to respond to this, but since so many non-Jews instantly shut down the moment the subject's broached, I have to say it: Some of us are guilty of this very thing. There are a few unscrupulous Jews who claim "anti-Semitism" whenever Israel gets criticized, credibly or not.
That doesn't justify dismissing or refusing the discussion. But thanks to the insistence that anti-Semitism is actually just an Israeli dodge, it happens often enough.
There are also a lot of progressives who are comfortable with any charge, any slander at all lobbed at Jews -- no matter how much it rhymes with historically anti-Semitic plotlines -- as long as it's couched as a criticism of Israel. If any Jew balks in response, even just at the language used to express the thought, they're accused of being disloyal propagandists for Israel. This happens regardless of how they feel about Israel.
The problem doesn't resolve easily. Gentiles, by and large, are woefully ignorant about Jews, and our religion, and history, and tend not to recognize anti-Semitic tropes. People don’t want to be confronted about anti-Semitism, and already respond badly when the subject comes up. And now, thanks to the idea that Jews use charges of anti-Semitism to silence legitimate criticisms of Israel, gentiles don't even feel the need to engage in the discussion. Any Jew raising any concern is written off as an agent of a foreign country.
This is the most frustrating and often heartbreaking thing about these past few days. Ilhan Omar couldn’t take the time to phrase her tweets in a way that was unambiguously free of historic slanders against the Jews. So now progressive Jews get to do the work in their political circles to convince people it matters.
The response to this, from all sides, is too often silence, dismissal, or worse. On social media, both right-wingers and progressives will swarm people who are publicly Jewish and progressive and accuse them of some very familiar things: of being dishonest, of being unscrupulous, of being agents of a foreign government, of welding hidden and sinister influence.
That’s what we get to reckon with this week, because Omar couldn’t vet a handful of words.
I don’t think it is too much to expect her to do better. I didn't vote for Ilhan Omar so that I could be press-ganged into mopping up after an ill-worded tweet.