March 4, 2019 — New York
This piece originally appeared in Times of Israel.
My organization, American Jewish Committee (AJC), criticized Representative Ilhan Omar for stating that Israel’s advocates “push for allegiance to a foreign country.” Less than 24 hours later, we condemned an anti-Muslim display at the West Virginia State Capitol that compared Omar to the terrorists who carried out the 9/11 attacks.
Neither decision was difficult. We criticized Rep. Omar because we will always denounce anti-Semitism. We denounced the West Virginia poster because we oppose all forms of bigotry, and anti-Muslim animus must always be condemned.
So, it’s puzzling to hear Omar’s claim that the only reason people have labeled comments by her and fellow freshman Rep. Rashida Tlaib anti-Semitic is because of their faith. “What I’m fearful of — because Rashida and I are Muslim — that a lot of our Jewish colleagues, a lot of our constituents, a lot of our allies, go to thinking that everything we say about Israel to be anti-Semitic because we are Muslim,” Omar said. She also attacked Congresswoman Nita Lowey for having the temerity to ask to her to use more temperate language.
Undoubtedly, some of Omar’s critics are motivated, at least in part, by her faith. But her recent attacks on her Jewish colleagues, Jewish voters in Minnesota and Michigan, and Jewish supporters of her and Representatives Tlaib, say a lot more about how Omar has interpreted criticism of her.
Congresswoman Omar sits on the influential House Foreign Affairs Committee. She is charismatic and photogenic, a media darling with a huge Twitter following who has appeared on the covers of Time and Rolling Stone. This is not a person that any advocacy organization would jump to alienate or antagonize.
Additionally, Omar’s personal story, her journey from the Somali refugee camps to the halls of Congress, is an inspiration to anyone who believes in the American dream. Jews are the descendants of immigrants. We pride ourselves on welcoming arrivals to this country and want to cheer their successes.
Yet despite these considerations, Rep. Omar’s statements cannot go unchallenged. When she said that Jews literally buy off members of Congress to get them to support Israel, we called her comments anti-Semitic. When she implied that Jews are more loyal to Israel than America, we also called her out.
We responded because words matter. We responded because history has taught us that we must. We responded because there is a persuadable constituency that needs to understand the danger in such stereotypes. We responded because there is really nothing else we could have done and still been true to our mission.
Ironically, those who have sought to defend Omar or attacked us for responding seem to be relying on their own form of prejudice. Repeatedly, we have heard that she did not understand the meaning of her words. We heard that a woman conversant enough in 90s pop culture to use the phrase “It’s all about the Benjamins,” was too unsophisticated – perhaps too foreign? – to recognize the anti-Semitic dogwhistles inherent in accusing Jews of controlling America through money.
We have also been criticized by those who say that our words are used by racists to attack Omar. The logic of this argument is that we should be quiet about anti-Semitism because our response might be used to create anti-Muslim sentiment. Would this argument be used against any other minority speaking out against bigotry?
We continue to hope that Rep. Omar chooses to cease trafficking in anti-Semitic stereotypes. Our door is certainly open to her if she wishes to talk and learn. We are sure that we have a great deal to learn from her as well.
But we will not be silent. Jews don’t have the luxury of letting bigotry slide. We will continue to hold Rep. Omar and all other elected officials accountable for their words, regardless of their religious, ethnic, or gender identities. Our history demands no less.
Daniel Elbaum is the American Jewish Committee’s Chief Advocacy Officer.