The drive to condemn US Congresswoman Ilhan Omar over antisemitism backfired disastrously on Wednesday in Washington.
It illustrates the importance of going into something with all the facts and making sure that one’s allies are on side before potentially overplaying one’s hand.
Instead of a good debate on antisemitism in the US, what came out of the discussion was an attempt to water down and downplay antisemitism, and cement Omar’s criticism as on the kosher side of the line when it comes to what may constitute antisemitism.
The controversy began on February 28, when Omar attended an event at Busboys and Poets in Washington.
She was coming off months of controversy about anti-Israel comments and other comments perceived as antisemitic.
For instance, she had backtracked on an old tweet, where she claimed Israel “hypnotized” the world and she had sought to apologize again after a more recent tweet in February, where she claimed support for Israel was “all about the Benjamins.”
Then they gave remarks at the Busboys and Poets event that claimed “political influence in this country that says it is okay to push for allegiance to a foreign country.”
She had already prepped for these comments in an interview with the Intercept days before, but for some reason the event in Washington, near the beating heart of American democracy, was seen as more offensive. It also struck a nerve because the Jewish Insider covered it.
Omar, and her colleague Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, were smart in how they framed their discussion leading to the foreign allegiance accusation.
“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 antisemitic because we are Muslim,” she said.
This was a brilliant tactic because it meant anything she subsequently said had already been shielded by the “we are Muslim” caveat, such that she had disarmed potential critique.
A lot of antisemites shield themselves from critique by claiming that they are merely anti-Israel and then systematically labelling any opponents “Zionists,” and then claiming that pro-Israel agendas use claims of antisemitism to shut down debate. In Omar’s defense, she isn’t rabidly anti-Israel, but she has sought to push the envelope on insinuations that money and foreign allegiance drive support for Israel in Congress and the US.
Her statements conjured up antisemitic tropes of dual loyalty. Condemnation was quick to follow.
“No member of Congress is asked to swear allegiance to another country,” Congresswoman Nita Lowey tweeted. “Throughout history, Jews have been accused of dual loyalty, leading to discrimination and violence, which is why these accusations are so hurtful.”
Eliot Engel, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, also criticized her comments. It is “unacceptable and deeply offensive to call into question the loyalty of fellow American citizens,” Engel said.
Representative Dan Crenshaw wrote that at some point Democrats “just need to accept that Omar has deeply held prejudice about the Jewish people.” Bret Stephens, columnist at The New York Times
, noted that Omar “seems to calculate that if she makes only one blatantly antisemitic remark per week, progressives will forgive her.”
Omar also fought back against her accusers.
“Our democracy is built on debate Congresswoman,” she tweeted to Lowey on March 3. “I should not be expected to have allegiance/pledge support for a foreign country to serve in my country in Congress or serve on committee.”
The turning of the tide began as two other incidents waded in to muddy the waters.
First, just after she had made the comments, an offensive poster appeared at the West Virginia State House that sought to tie Omar to 9/11.
Tlaib highlighted it, calling it “another day of racism,” and demanding political outrage to condemn it.
Jonathan Greenblatt at the ADL wrote that he was appalled by Omar’s comments, “but that does not diminish my revulsion at this poster.” He had also sent a note to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi asking for a Congressional resolution rejecting antisemitic statements.
Next, on March 4, US President Donald Trump weighed in.
“Representative Ilhan Omar is again under fire for her terrible comments concerning Israel. Jewish groups have sent a petition to Speaker Pelosi asking her to remove Omar from Foreign Relations Committee. A dark day for Israel,” he said.
The two incidents began to make the issue appear more of a Right-Left issue, even a Trump issue, than about antisemitism. Instead of condemning antisemitism, as some Democrats had pushed for, there was pushback to discuss all forms of bigotry.
Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez noted on March 5 that “one of the things that is hurtful about the extent to which reprimand is sought of Ilhan is that no one seeks this level of reprimand when members made statements about Latinx, other communities.”
Many Jewish voices began to stand with Omar as well. Peter Beinart called it a “sick double standard.”
Mairav Zonszein claimed at The Independent that “this is weaponization of antisemitism that we are seeing play out in American domestic policies, and that the Democratic leadership is conceding to.”
In addition, a concerted campaign of “#IStandWithIlhan” made its rounds on social media. Some of the memes with it showed Omar in a headscarf and a Palestinian flag on her hijab. Linda Sarsour had helped frame the stance that would underpin the battle on behalf of Omar.
“Nancy is a typical white feminist upholding the patriarchy doing the dirty work of powerful white men,” she wrote on Facebook. “For years, when members of Congress have spewed blatent anti-Muslim racism, islamophobia, propaganda against Muslims and even held racist hearings with our taxpayers’ dollars, Democratic leadership were never swift to condemn.”
Within 36 hours, Sarsour and others had organized growing support for the congresswoman and delivered a letter with signatures to Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
A whole cavalcade of folk turned up in Washington, including Miko Peled, Ariel Gold and Neturei Karta to stand with Omar. IfNotNow tweeted that they had a victory.
“Grassroots pressure from Jews, Muslims and our allies challenged the double standard applied to Omar, force Dem Leadership to delay the vote,” IfNotNow wrote on Twitter. “Now they must withdraw it and replace it with a resolution condemning white nationalism.”
Representative Pramila Jayapal said that Omar was subjected to “unfair scrutiny” and that “a lot of the noise out there is designed to prevent us from taking on the question of our foreign policy toward Israel.” Pelosi was also shifting her views on Wednesday, saying she did not think Omar’s statements had been “intentionally antisemitic.”
Trump was continuing to tweet about the issue, claiming it was shameful that Democrats had not taken a strong stand.
Eli Lake had argued that these anti-Israel statements will haunt Democrats. But for those who stood with Omar, this feels like a major victory.
IfNotNow says that it represents a “rising, progressive generation.” Open Hillel posted Bernie Sanders’ objection to the condemnation of Omar. He had claimed she was a target and it was aimed at stifling debate.
J Street had also put out a statement in the leadup to the battle. While they noted that harmful language echoed long-standing stereotypes and antisemitic tropes, they also said that “we are concerned that the timing of this resolution will be seen as singling out and focusing special condemnation on a Muslim woman of color.”
Senator Kamala Harris, who is running for president, argued that “we have a responsibility to speak out against antisemitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, racism and all forms of hatred.” She was also concerned that “the spotlight being put on Congresswoman Omar may put her at risk.” She called for a respectful discussion about policy.
“You can both support Israel and be loyal to our country,” Harris said.
So what went wrong in the period between February 28 and March 6? How did the apparent momentum to push for a resolution on antisemitism fall apart?
It appears that many of those who had condemned Omar overplayed their hand.
They felt that the usual alliance of Democratic leadership and high powerful commentators, along with the usual statements by important groups, such as the ADL, would put through a clear and concise resolution condemning antisemitism, which is ostensibly a consensus topic.
But what they found was, just as antisemitism controversies have split the Labour Party in the UK, that it isn’t so simple.
Strategists frequently note that in military affairs, no plan survives contact with the enemy. Sun Tzu similarly noted that the art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.
If the enemy is antisemitism, then the plan on how to confront it must involve taking account of how to subdue it before going into battle. In this case, it appears that a loose alliance of centrist Democrats and others underestimated the groundswell of support for Omar that would come to pushback.
They didn’t understand that the real battle was being fought over attempts to do two things simultaneously.
First, was to bring the discussion about pro-Israel influence into the open and to make sure it could never again be labelled antisemitism, even if antisemitic tropes about dual loyalty are made.
Second, they wanted to shield Omar from critique and use the fact that she is Muslim and a woman of color to construct that shield. Omar is part of a rising class of young, new members of Congress into which high hopes have been poured on the Left.
This was a battle partly for the soul of the Democratic Party, but also a battle that was framed in such a way that it became about Islam and not Judaism.
This is the classic bait and switch that has taken place in other contexts where antisemitism is lumped in with Islamophobia and racism, at precisely the same time in Western countries when Jews are being singled out not only for attacks, but in claims that they are “white Jews” and that antisemitism is not systematic.
In fact, this is part of the narrative that has grown up with some new progressive voices in the US, including Sarsour, who has argued that antisemitism is different than Islamophobia because it is not systemic, and by others who have sought to claim Jews “uphold white supremacy,” in the words of Tamika Mallory.
The decision to ask for a resolution to condemn all forms of racism therefore ignores specific issues of antisemitism as part of a general drive to reduce the focus on antisemitism.
Omar has emerged from this with a permanent shield now against subsequent claims of antisemitism.
Her initial decisions in January and February to walk-back tweets didn’t result in reduced critique of her, and she clearly chose to stand her ground this time.
She built up an impressive alliance among left-leaning Jewish activists, Israel critics, the extreme religious Neturei Karta, and others. Most impressive, she received support from presidential candidates.
The pro-Israel camp has also lost a round her because it has encouraged voices who otherwise were more reticent to make Israel an issue to suddenly define this kind of critique as part of the “Israel and US foreign policy” discussion.
It may rapidly turn out that Israel’s already eroding support on the Left will not become a bigger cleavage.
Because of the Trump administration’s support of Israel the discussion has become more partisan.
Forcing this battle over Omar’s comments accelerated an existing process, and likely will be seen as a watershed moment.
The harsh critics of Israel tend to portray themselves as being “silenced,” yet the louder they become, the more influence they get, the more they continue to pose as being silenced.
And yet, when the moment came, they were loud and influential enough that their views convinced many rising and influential Democrats.
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