The Slandering of Ilhan Omar
Even though there is an actual member of Congress who has called himself “David Duke without the baggage” and the president peddles racist bigotry of all stripes, The Washington Post somehow found it journalistically appropriate on Monday to compare Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan leader, to Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar. Omar, a Democrat who has criticized the relationship between Israel and the United States, spoke out recently about “ending oppression, or the freeing of every human life and wanting dignity” in light of Israel’s human rights abuses against Palestinians.
The piece was written by Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the far-right, Koch-funded Ethics and Public Policy Center, a think tank once led by Elliott Abrams, Donald Trump’s Venezuela envoy. Omar questioned Abrams last month over his role in human rights abuses and his conviction for lying to Congress. As House Democrats prepare to take floor action Wednesday, supposedly to condemn anti-Semitism, it seems worth revisiting the details of the statement in question.
The guy who wrote this, Henry Olsen, is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy, whose former president is Elliott Abrams. Can't make this shit up https://t.co/HUKVZBQ0bW
— Naomi LaChance (@lachancenaomi) March 4, 2019
Last week, in a talk at a Washington, D.C., bookstore, Omar discussed her concern about Palestinians’ human rights as well as the close U.S.-Israel relationship:
“I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is okay for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country. I want to ask why is it OK for me to talk about the influence of the NRA, of the fossil fuel industries, of big pharma, and not talk about a powerful lobbying group that is influencing policy?”
Her statement was condemned by many to her right. Nathan Goldman wrote at The Baffler that “The claim that the statement was anti-Semitic rests upon the word ‘allegiance,’ which pundits have spent the past week torturing with dim-witted hermeneutics.”
The other key word in Omar’s phrase is “people.” Those who are outraged seem confident that Omar was discussing Jews. Given the second sentence, though, it seems likely that she was discussing pro-Israel lobbyists and politicians, who often are not Jewish: none of the top five recipients of pro-Israel money during the 2018 election cycle are. New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez is Catholic; Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is a Baptist; Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown is Lutheran; South Dakota Sen. Tammy Baldwin does not have a religious affiliation and Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke is Catholic. Juan Vargas, a Democratic congressman from California who tweeted that “questioning support for the U.S.-Israel relationship is unacceptable,” is Catholic. There is a strong faction of evangelical Christians who believe that they, not Jews, hold claim to Jerusalem because of a religious prophecy about the apocalypse.
At the bookstore, Omar also discussed her experience as one of the first two Muslim members of Congress, along with Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib. “We get to be called names and we get to be labeled as hateful? No, we know what hate looks like. We experience it every single day.”
No one can deny that Omar has endured a great deal of hateful Islamophobia. The FBI is investigating an event where someone wrote “Assassinate Ilhan Omar” in a gas station bathroom in Minnesota. A poster at the State Capitol in West Virginia falsely associated Omar with the 9/11 attacks.
At the same time, no one should deny the very palpable anti-Semitism that exists in the U.S. As Mehdi Hassan points out at The Intercept, Trump and members of the Republican Party have pushed conspiracy theories that Jews are power hungry and money obsessed. One man who bought into Trump’s “globalist” hoax shot and killed 11 people at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and other House Democrats’ resolution condemning anti-Semitism—offered in response to Omar’s comments—mentions the massacre, which begs a question of intention that Goldman articulates at The Baffler:
After all, if concern with rising anti-Semitism was the true impetus for this House resolution, why wasn’t it introduced much earlier? The resolution’s brief history of American anti-Semitism culminates with the October 2018 attack at the Tree of Life Synagogue that left eleven Jews dead by the hand of a white supremacist. But why was the moment of this tragedy, which the text admits was “the deadliest attack on Jewish people in the United States,” not the time to unite against anti-Semitism? It’s particularly craven to allow this incident to sit side-by-side with an analysis of the dual loyalty canard in a condemnation of Omar, as if her words have anything to do with the rising white supremacy that actually endangers Jews.