After the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh last year, it really shouldn’t be a struggle to condemn anti-Semitism. In fact, after the Holocaust, there shouldn’t be any heavy moral lifting at all. It’s a self-evident principle that hatred of Jews is anathema and strikes at the heart of everything civilized.
But last week, Nancy Pelosi had a problem getting her caucus to vote on a resolution condemning anti-Semitism. The problem is that the trigger for this resolution was Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, a freshman congresswoman whose comments about Israel have some Americans of all faiths crying foul.
Omar has repeatedly made controversial statements about the United States’ relationship with Israel. She is an avowed foe of AIPAC, the influential lobby that encourages politicians to support policies that favor Israel. Omar opposes Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, and tweeted in 2012 that “Israel has hypnotized the world” and criticized its “evil doings.”
Omar made some feeble apologies that in tone and substance lacked sincerity in the ears of those used to hearing “it’s not about Jews, it’s about Israel.” To this writer, and to many others, the apologies were worthless, and the implications of her comments unambiguous. For example, she invoked the old anti-Semitic trope about Jews and money when, in response to a question about the relationship between Israel and the United States, she tweeted it was “all about the Benjamins, baby.” And she has implied that Jewish Americans have a “dual allegiance” to a foreign country. As a Catholic whose grandparents had a picture of JFK in their living room, I remember how my people had to prove that our religion didn’t dilute our patriotism.
Allies have rallied to the defense of Rep. Omar, who is a rock star in some circles. They argue that criticizing Israel is different from being anti-Semitic, and that attempts to paint her as such were signs of Islamaphobia.
So back went the Democrats to the drawing board, and eventually reframed the initial resolution against anti-Semitism to include a condemnation of racism in general and Islamophobia.
There is nothing wrong with specifically condemning Islamophobia. In a post-9/11 climate, it is necessary because of the insidious ways some people on the right have mistakenly conflated Islam with extremist violence. I’m a conservative who works in the immigration field, so perhaps my “bias” antenna is a bit more highly tuned to the confusion, but a number of my philosophical fellow travelers are tone-deaf to rhetoric that presumes “Muslim” means “terrorist.”
I ran into this the other day when I told someone about my Muslim client from Pakistan who was filing for asylum because he ran a Western-style school that was targeted by the Taliban. Her response was, “I’m surprised Muslims even go to school.” That’s bigotry and ignorance, and it angered me, considering that my client almost lost his life trying to educate girls in Pakistan like Malala Yousafzai, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who was shot in the head for doing the same thing.
But while it is always good to recognize bigotry whenever it assaults our eyes and ears, this refusal to issue a clear and stand-alone condemnation of anti-Semitism is extremely troubling. The fact that congressional Democrats felt it necessary to include a condemnation of Islamophobia is a perfect example of “whataboutism” - getting distracted by another form of prejudice that, while real, is not relevant in this case to the substance of Omar’s offending comments.
Omar is a refugee from Somalia who spent years in a Kenyan refugee camp, so you can understand her sympathy for other refugees, including Palestinians. But her language is not the language of a human rights advocate. It’s peppered with the dog whistles of bigotry, recalling old Protocols of the Elders of Zion stereotypes that, expressed in this climate, are dangerous.
We should not be in the business of placating a freshman congresswoman and her allies by refusing to call anti-Semitism by its true name. Criticizing Israeli policy is fine. Resorting to ancient slurs with a wink and a tweet is not.
The congressional Democrats should condemn that prejudice with full-throated, righteous force.
Flowers is an attorney and a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.