Ilhan Omar’s Critics Are Not Your Friends
In a way, I have more sympathy than many on the left for the condemnations of Minnesota Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar’s relatively anodyne criticisms of American political support for the State of Israel, even though I think most of them are delivered in calculated bad faith. I understand the impulse toward prophylactic anti-anti-Semitism, the desire to wrap the slightest anti-Semitic trope—a word suddenly rescued from the oblivion of high-school honors English—in an impenetrable layer of opprobrium, tie it off and toss it in the trash.
Of course, these condemnations seem only ever to appear when it is necessary to discipline leftist speech, in particular leftist speech that is critical of Israel. In the case of Omar, it carries even more troubling overtones, strong whiffs of racist, well, tropes about anti-Semitism as “the disease of the Arab mind,” and incredible, oblivious statements from Omar’s own colleagues seeming to underline the very point that she was trying to make, that “questioning support for the U.S.-Israel alliance is unacceptable.”
The irony here runs deep. Allegations of conspiratorial internationalism and transnational loyalties have followed Jews since the earliest period of the Jewish diaspora. But in a strange twist, allegiance to Israel by contemporary American Jews, often euphemized with phrases like “unwavering support,” is deemed good. To be accused of such loyalty is to suffer a rhetorical anti-Semitic attack, while to personally exhibit it is commendable.
Omar did not actually accuse any Jewish person of dual loyalty. She asked why she herself, as an American legislator, should be unable to criticize the violent and discriminatory policies of the Israeli state. She did this without the careful distancing that so many Americans—especially within the liberal Jewish milieu—engage in any time Israel does something particularly egregious, which is lay it at the feet of the notoriously corrupt and politically right-wing Benjamin Netanyahu, as though he represents some kind of radical break from the country’s policies of the past 60 years.
I am frankly not certain what “allegiance” or “loyalty” are supposed to mean in these contexts in any event. When I was a boy, we gave money to plant trees in the Israeli desert. Every synagogue and temple where I have ever prayed has an Israeli flag beside the American one on the bimah (raised platform). Our prayer books contain a prayer for the State of Israel. It is absurd to pretend that Jewish-American life has not organized itself for many decades around a conception of Israel and America as something like twinned homelands. But for most of my grandparents’ and parents’ generations, the connection was too careless and too assumed to qualify as anything so deliberate as loyalty.
More recently, as the repeated failures of a negotiated settlement have revealed what we were taught to think of as an abstract tragedy to be a deliberate policy of oppression, younger generations—and younger generations of Jews in particular—have grown increasingly disillusioned with Israeli politics and culture, as well as the policing of any discourse that draws attention to the country’s dependence on American military and financial support.
Because Israel’s staunchest political allies in America are not even American Jews, but rather right-wing Evangelical Christians who view the Jewish State through the prism of religious prophecy, the egregious and now deadly growth of a genuinely terrifying anti-Semitism on the political right has been soft-pedaled, while hysterical over-reactions to leftist criticisms of Israel become weeks-long national scandals requiring Congressional action.
I wrote last year that I was “exhausted by Israel.” Its outsize place in American politics has a deranging effect on Jewish life here, including and especially on our ability to build a communal identity in the face of a very real and growing threat to our safety and prosperity in our own home. The fact that AIPAC, the most powerful Jewish lobby in the United States, does not really lobby for Jews in the United States is a perfect example of the failures of our own most prominent institutions, a failure that I and many younger American Jews find acutely embarrassing in this time of threat.
The criticisms of Omar show the triumph of a meaningless opportunism over the far more difficult work of building solidarity with other minorities in the United States against a wave of intolerance and violence that is explicitly and inarguably a product of the political right. The man who killed eleven of my Pittsburgh neighbors did so in large part because he perceived that they were helping refugees like Ilhan Omar come to America. Will we, then, reply to this danger by turning our back on a real ally so that we might try fruitlessly to appease a political movement that views us at best as an instrument, at worse with murderous contempt?