Ousting Ilhan Omar cause for reflection, not celebration - opinion

Reluctance to favor expelling Ilhan Omar highlights the challenges associated with celebrating the political rise of American Jewry.

 US REP. Ilhan Omar (right) walks through the corridors of Capitol Hill after her removal from the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week, as fellow ‘Squad’ member Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (left) looks on. (photo credit: TOM BRENNER/REUTERS)
US REP. Ilhan Omar (right) walks through the corridors of Capitol Hill after her removal from the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week, as fellow ‘Squad’ member Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (left) looks on.
(photo credit: TOM BRENNER/REUTERS)

Last month, the Pew Research Center released its report on the religious composition of the 118th Congress. Among its findings is that despite the share of Americans identifying as Jewish remaining steady at 2%, Jews represent approximately 6% of congressional lawmakers. Among the over two dozen Jewish House members, only two, Ohio’s Max Miller and Jared Kutsoff from Tennessee, are Republicans.

These numbers represent a marked increase from the early 1960s, when Jewish participation in Congress was less than 2%. I’m always struck by the chatter in synagogue sanctuaries and at life-cycle events extolling pride at the overwhelming representation of Jews in government circles. While some pause for fulfillment is warranted, the rush to prioritize religious identity over legislative policy discounts the shifting political winds.

On Thursday, in a party-line vote of 218-211, the Republican-led House approved a resolution introduced by Rep. Miller calling for the removal of antisemitic congresswoman Ilhan Omar (D-MN) from the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC). The delegation of Jewish Democrats, all of whom voted to preserve Omar’s seat on the HFAC, missed a crucial opportunity to stem the authority of a dangerous political figure and blunt the spread of antisemitism within the Democrat party. 

The challenges celebrating the political rise of American Jewry

Moreover, their reluctance to favor expelling Omar, whose Jew-hating diatribes consist of repeatedly libeling Israel and invoking dual-loyalty tropes, highlights the challenges associated with celebrating the political rise of American Jewry.

In her piece “A Tale of Five Blinkens” in Commentary magazine (February 2021), author Ruth Wisse delineates the Jewish generational phenomenon undermining issues critical to Jewish identity. Wisse writes about Maurice Blinken, grandfather to current US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Maurice came to New York from Russia as a child and founded the American Palestine Institute.

U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN), December 13, 2019. (credit: REUTERS/ELIZABETH FRANTZ)U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN), December 13, 2019. (credit: REUTERS/ELIZABETH FRANTZ)

Following World War II, the organization was instrumental in encouraging the US to back the establishment of a Jewish homeland. Wisse notes that his excitement over years spent advocating for the Jewish people was tinged with a realization that his three sons, having achieved academic and professional success, did not share in reveling over his devotion to Jewish peoplehood. 

She writes, “His sons inherited their father’s talent for politics but did not share his singular investment in Israel’s security. His grandson was a senior official in an administration that was hostile to Israel and will be our most senior foreign-policy official in a new administration whose view of Israel is far from clear.”

The Blinkens’ story symbolizes the political journey of many Jewish Americans. Wrapped in the pursuit of education and power is an acknowledgment that with prestige come pitfalls. Increasingly, expressions of Jewish identity are revealed only when comporting with the ideological whims of the Democratic party. The choice made by Jewish representatives to protect Omar is reflective of the slow march away from Jewish particularism that has been brewing for years and is illustrative of the Jewish “success” story often found in highly educated third- and fourth-generation Eastern European Jewish homes.

THURSDAY’S ACTIONS by Omar’s Jewish colleagues did not occur in a vacuum. Since the 2018 election of the four original controversial “Squad” members, liberal Jewish lawmakers began to soften their stance against antisemitism. As Senate minority leader in 2017, New York Democrat Charles Schumer delivered a moving floor statement equating anti-Zionism with antisemitism. It was a critical moment, given that Israel-hatred is the conduit from which contemporary antisemitism is manifesting.

To date, Senate Majority Leader Schumer is largely silent as Jewish constituents endure a 41% spike in antisemitic attacks. Schumer’s endorsement of far-Left NY congressman Jamaal Bowman for his 2022 reelection bid was additional evidence of his undercutting past protection of Jewish security interests. Bowman, who, along with accusing Israel of medical apartheid, was a co-sponsor of a resolution introduced by Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) during the last congress calling for the US to recognize the establishment of Israel as a “catastrophe.” 

Other Jewish lawmakers, including New Jersey Rep. Joshua Gottheimer, who have previously postulated against antisemitism, may have felt compelled to vote in favor of keeping Omar on the HFAC following a report by The Jewish Insider detailing her agreement to co-sponsor a Gottheimer-led resolution hours before the vote recognizing “Israel as a legitimate and democratic ally.”

Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who has been critical of Omar in the past, told Politico before Thursday’s decision that “there’s no reason to remove Congresswoman Omar from her committees except revenge,” referring to House Democrats’ 2021 success in stripping Representatives Paul Gosar (R-AZ) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) from their committee assignments.

That Schultz’s refusal to characterize the antisemitism spewed by Omar as ample justification for her exit is not only troubling, her comments ignore that while Greene and Gosar were prohibited from serving on any of their committees, Thursday’s vote referencing Omar prevents her from only serving on the HFAC.

As Israel was mired in a string of bombings, targeting buses and cafes during the 1990s, congressional resolutions expressing bonds of friendship between the US and Israel would pass with unanimous support. Yet during Israel’s 2021 war with Hamas, Jewish congressman Jamie Raskin (D-MD) spearheaded the charge in garnering over 140 signatures on a letter pressing for the Senate to release its hold on millions of dollars in Palestinian aid.

At that time, only eight Jewish House members called out Hamas for its attacks against Israel. Former Representatives Ted Deutch (FL) and Elaine Luria (VA), two of the representatives who defended Israel that May, are no longer in Congress. 

Those who marvel at US Jewish political achievement should have the intellectual honesty to admit that, for the foreseeable future, dependable congressional stewardship in combating antisemitism may rely on politicians beyond our community. 

Thankfully, Omar is now steps farther from steering US foreign policy. Yet, for many Jewish Americans, Thursday was not a time for celebration but rather a disappointing acknowledgment of the flawed American Jewish experience. 

The writer lives in New York.