Spinning Away Antisemitism

Yesterday, the House of Representatives finally passed a resolution criticizing statements by Rep. Ilhan Omar saying that American Jews who advocate for America to support Israel have dual loyalties, implying that her fellow Jewish members of Congress act against the best interests of the United States in order to support Israel. This follows on the heels of statements implying that support for Israel among members of Congress is primarily due to bribery by rich Jews. These both join together with her statement that “Israel has hypnotized the world,” made a few years ago, in forming a pretty strong picture of her attitude toward Israel and Jews.

This latest incident began when Rep. Omar, speaking at a night for Progressives at a DC Bookstore, said, “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country.” Following on the heels of Omar’s “unequivocal apology” for referring to Jews bribing and extorting members of Congress to support Israel with wealth and political influence, this statement was not taken kindly by Jewish members of Congress.

Rep. Nita Lowey, a Jewish Democrat from New York, responded:

Gross Islamophobic stereotypes – like those about @IlhanMN recently featured on posters in WVA – are offensive and have no place in political discourse. Anti-Semitic tropes that accuse Jews of dual loyalty are equally painful and must also be roundly condemned.

Lawmakers must be able to debate without prejudice or bigotry. I am saddened that Rep. Omar continues to mischaracterize support for Israel. I urge her to retract this statement and engage in further dialogue with the Jewish community on why these comments are so hurtful.

Rep. Omar then doubled down on her accusation. Remember, this is responding to a fellow Democratic Representative in Congress who is Jewish:

Our democracy is built on debate, Congresswoman! I should not be expected to have allegiance/pledge support to a foreign country in order to serve my country in Congress or serve on committee. The people of the 5th elected me to serve their interest. I am sure we agree on that!

I have not mischaracterized our relationship with Israel, I have questioned it and that has been clear from my end.

I am told every day that I am anti-American if I am not pro-Israel. I find that to be problematic and I am not alone. I just happen to be willing to speak up on it and open myself to attacks…

Being opposed to Netanyahu and the occupation is not the same as being anti-Semitic. I am grateful to the many Jewish allies who have spoken out and said the same.

We must be willing to combat hate of all kinds while also calling out oppression of all kinds. I will do my best to live up to that. I hope my colleagues will join me in doing the same.

So first here, we have the doubling down that she is being forced to swear allegiance to Israel, which clearly no one is doing. There is certainly concern over her bias against and hatred for Israel, a close ally of the United States, and how that hostility will impact America’s policy. There is no one asking Omar to swear allegiance to Israel and no one expects that she will ever vote for Israel. That is a falsehood, as noted by no few people, seemingly intended for her to make herself out to appear to be a victim of the Jews. It is actually yet another Antisemitic statement. Essentially, “The Jews have manipulated the situation such that I cannot criticize Israel without being attacked as un-American.”

As a number of people have asked. Please cite an instance. I know that many will assume that it has been done. “Surely,” they will say. “Surely, someone has made this charge.” Please name one. There are no public charges from a single member of Congress or from any Jewish Organization even from those on the far right. None. The statement is a misrepresentation intended to assert victimhood.

Then she argued that she was being accused of Antisemitism because she criticized Netanyahu and the Occupation. She did no such thing. She criticized American Jews and her fellow Democratic Representatives in Congress for having dual loyalties. There is a massive difference in those two things. Omar criticized American Jews for urging support of Israel.

“But,” she argues, “But, look at my Jewish supporters!” Supporters who are entirely unrepresentative of the Jewish community. Rep. Rashida Tlaib criticized Rep. Mark Meadows use of a token African American woman to combat a charge of racism. Omar used the limited number of Jews who support her statements to do the same.

This situation became so offensive that that an appropriate response was required and along with it both an apology and further consequences, possibly including being removed from her committee assignments just as Rep. Steve King was. We all assumed that an appropriate if perhaps lenient response would be forthcoming.

My rabbinical colleagues were discussing whether or not she should be removed from her committee assignments at least temporarily, just to demonstrate real concern. “Surely, it would be easy for the Democratic Party to condemn those statements, issue a statement opposing Antisemitism, have Omar issue and apology to Nita Lowey and her other Jewish Congressional colleagues, and move on.”

We also were appalled the poster in West Virginia connecting her image to the attacks of September 11, 2001. Something for which the Republican Party in West Virginia apologized and took action and which was roundly condemned by virtually every national Jewish organization including the Republican Jewish Coalition.

As the days progressed, it became clear that the Democratic Party could not figure out a clear path forward. No few people argued that Rep. Omar, in spite of the fact that anyone with any understanding of Antisemitism at all would argue otherwise, was being attacked solely because she was black and a Muslim. When the Democratic Party seemed to respond favorably to that argument, jaws dropped in the Jewish community. If these statements were made by any white person, there would be no question about condemnation. David Duke even cheered them, calling Omar a hero for standing up to the Zionist Occupational Government, the belief that Jews exert malign control of the government.

One of my colleagues, a strong liberal Democrat, called it a “Watershed moment for American Jews.” The Democratic Party no longer will stand against Antisemitism provided that the speaker can tick off other boxes on the identity politics priority list. The party was afraid to bring forth a vote that would be opposed by a substantial minority in the party including its Progress Caucus and the Black Caucus.

We were now in crisis. This was Wednesday afternoon. Would there be a resolution at all?

Then we were told that there would be statement condemning Antisemitism along with racism and Islamophobia. All good things to condemn, of course. But no criticism, much less condemnation of Omar personally. No requirement of an apology much less removal from her committee assignments as was demanded of Rep. Steve King. And what became very clear as the text of the resolution developed, the resolution was an exercise in equivocation about Antisemitism, not only avoiding naming Omar, but avoiding inclusion of the International Holocaust Remembrance Association’s definition of Antisemitism’s paragraphs about when criticism of Israel crosses the line into Antisemitism, clearly appropriate to include. Those paragraphs were removed from the draft, not just not included. We have seen the earlier draft, so that much we know for certain.

The draft eventually read like someone literally made a check list as they wrote, mumbling:

Something for the Jews, check. Something for the African American community, check. Something for the Muslims, check. Something for the Jews, check. Something for the African Americans, check. Something for the Muslims, check.

But then at the end, they had forgotten other constituencies, so they added statements and a list opposing hatred of Catholics, African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and other people of color, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, the LGBTQ community, immigrants, and others.

Republicans wondered openly why Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Wiccans along with people with physical and other challenges weren’t specifically mentioned. Why not add Police Officers? Others asked why this wasn’t simply a resolution declaring hatred to be bad.

Following all of this, 23 Republicans voted against the resolution. Shock! People say. Shocking! They voted to oppose a resolution against bigotry! Jennifer Rubin declared that they revealed their true nature and the sickness of bigotry.

But no, in their words they voted against a resolution that was not strong enough and will now embolden haters to act with impunity. All of them issued statements to this effect including Lee Zeldin, the only Jewish Republican in Congress and a Reform Jew.

Rep. Steve King, who abstained from this vote, is now legitimately wondering why he needed to step down from committees. If his hateful statements, for which he has apologized, by the way, were made now, there is no chance that the Republicans would remove him from committees. None. They would simply tell the Democrats, “You didn’t remove your Rep, we’re not removing ours.” And what will it now take for the Democrats to remove a future Representative from a committee? Certainly not an Antisemitic statement or two or three along with insults directly aimed at Jewish colleagues in Congress.

Worse for us, there is now no ability for the Jewish community to argue that the Democratic Party will stand up against Antisemitism when it occurs within their own ranks. Many of those who voted for this resolution simply made the decision that supporting a resolution against hatred that gave them something was better than nothing, or being accused of not opposing bigotry. Rep. McCarthy was angry that the no votes gave the opportunity for the Democrats to spin the issue against Republicans.

But I guarantee you that virtually none of the Jews in Congress really feel good about that resolution and all of them are going to face a firestorm of criticism about the utter failure of the party to specifically condemn hatred against Jews within its ranks, even while appropriately slamming every hint of racism and bigotry coming from the Republican side and that which emanates from the mouth of the President specifically. If you think we’ll see any resolutions about hatred on the right now, don’t hold your breath.

There is absolutely no question whatsoever that there should have been separate resolutions presented in Congress. One naming Omar and criticizing her statements while demanding an apology. Her committee assignments should have been dependent upon issuing a public apology to her colleagues at a minimum. Then there should have been a second resolution decrying the anti-Muslim hatred in West Virginia and the anti-Muslim sentiments aimed at both Representatives Omar and Tlaib. It should have been made very, very clear that one does not in any way excuse the other.

Last night, I taught about Modern Antisemitism. A local Somali Muslim leader asked to attend my class. I was thrilled to have him do so.  This man is a leader in both the Black Lives Matter movement and of the local Council of American Islamic Relations. I wasn’t sure how he would respond to what I was going to teach about intersectionality and Antisemitism or about the situation with Ilhan Omar. He said that he wanted to express his support for the Jewish community and to learn about Antisemitism. “Awesome,” I replied.

I taught what I normally would have taught. My Somali friend kept nodding in agreement. When we got to the discussion about Ilhan Omar and the resolution, he said he wasn’t surprised she would make such comments which were obviously Antisemitic tropes in his mind. By the way, those arguing that Ilhan didn’t know better because she was from a different culture may not realize that she is 37 years old and has been in the United States for 24 years, politically active for much of that time. It is clearly not a valid excuse. My Somali friend laughed at that argument.

This week Congress did a good thing in condemning hatred of Muslims and white supremacy. I am very happy that it did, for the first time ever. I just wished that in doing so it had really stood up against Antisemitism instead of giving it lip-service along with giving the same to each form of hatred.

The joke is that an unnamed candidate could easily defeat the incumbent, but that any of the ones named would lose. That happened with this resolution. Unnamed, or in this case, generally named, opposition to hatred won the day, but naming one hatred alone would have failed. Many of my very much left leaning Democratic die-hard voting colleagues said that the Democratic Party “All lives mattered” the Jews. We’re angry and disheartened.

Opposing hatred is absolutely essential. Every hatred named in that resolution was worthy of being condemned individually. In this case, they should not have been condemned collectively instead. And the fact that they needed to be condemned collectively is what made yesterday a watershed day for American Jews. Antisemitism is apparently no longer worthy of being condemned by itself by the party that is the political home of a substantial majority of American Jews.

A decade ago such a resolution would have passed with 99% of the votes in the House. Yesterday, that resolution would have been opposed by a significant percentage of the Democratic Party.

Antisemitism is battering our community from the left and the right and it is increasing from both sides.

We should all be concerned and intolerant of excuses, especially from our friends.

It is no longer acceptable to respond, “What about” and point fingers elsewhere.

That must end now.

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