Antisemitism in Congress

This is the first time in recent memory that Congress has been so publicly divided on issues relating to American Jews and Israel.

Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C (photo credit: FLICKR)
Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C
(photo credit: FLICKR)
The US Congress failed to agree on an antisemitism resolution on Wednesday in a debate that has now become fraught with controversy and has Israel at the center of it. The argument focuses on whether condemnations of antisemitism should be a broader condemnation of racism in general.
This is the first time in recent memory that Congress has been so publicly divided on issues relating to American Jews and Israel. The inability to agree on a resolution on antisemitism is symbolic of a larger debate taking place in America in which politics and communities are increasingly divided on both Jewish- and Israel-related issues.
It is important now to take a step back and look at the larger picture. US-Israel relations are important and must not be eroded due to partisan politics. Every time that a discussion about Israel starts to become a bandwagon issue with members of one party, it inevitably pushes away allies across the aisle. This could be seen in Congress as what began as a consensus issue quickly eroded.
Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s election to Congress was an inspiring story of what makes the United States a unique country. An immigrant from Somalia, she reached the highest levels of power in her 30s and is sure to remain an important face in Washington for some time. However, she is also very critical of Israel. She is one of several younger and progressive members of Congress – including Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – who have entered the House of Representatives and tend to agree on a variety of issues. Tlaib is also deeply critical of Israel and is of Palestinian background, while Ocasio-Cortez tends to be less critical and has made efforts to reach out to progressive Jewish voices.
The questions surrounding these freshmen lawmakers is whether their stances and recent comments are antisemitic or merely harsh criticism of Israel.
Omar’s tweet in February, which appeared to connect support for AIPAC to financial influence, was seen as an antisemitic dog whistle. Later, she said last week that there is “political influence in this country that says it is okay to push for allegiance to a foreign country,” referring to Israel. The question of “allegiance” to Israel appeared to speak to dual loyalty.
Omar sought to shield herself and Tlaib from pushback by arguing that because they are Muslim they are unfairly targeted with false allegations of antisemitism.
Many of her colleagues were outraged about the “foreign allegiance” statement.
“No member of Congress is asked to swear allegiance to another country. Throughout history, Jews have been accused of dual loyalty, leading to discrimination and violence, which is why these accusations are so hurtful,” Congresswoman Nita Lowey tweeted in response.
Eliot Engel, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee of which Omar is a member, also criticized her comments. It is “unacceptable and deeply offensive to call into question the loyalty of fellow American citizens,” he said.
But there was pushback to these voices from left-leaning Jewish activists, and organizations such as J Street, IfNotNow and Open Hillel. Senators Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris also disagreed with efforts to condemn Omar while Speaker Nancy Pelosi did not provide a clear stance. Omar was painted as a victim by many progressives, who have pushed for a wider condemnation of all forms of hate.
Now critics of Israel are cheering. Not only was Omar vindicated, but it appears that accusing supporters of Israel of having “foreign allegiance” is considered more acceptable in Washington. This is a very disturbing development, not unlike what occurred in the UK’s Labour Party, where toxic antisemitism controversies have become all too normal.
The notion that antisemitism must always be lumped in with other forms of racism is a wrongheaded decision. Antisemitism is not only unique, but it is worthy of having clear redlines in order to highlight the code words and tropes that underpin it. This is especially true in light of the unprecedented rise in hate crimes directed at Jews.
Omar should have been an ally in fighting antisemitism, especially because many Jewish activists have fought against Islamophobia. Instead, she sadly has turned into a spreader of antisemitism.
She and the other Israel critics in Congress must learn to differentiate between genuine criticism about Israel’s policies and veiled or blatant antisemitism.