The problematic responses to Ilhan Omar’s antisemitic comments

Jews are an ancient people who have survived centuries of persecution. We know that Jew hatred doesn’t start at genocide, it starts with antisemitic tropes.

U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN) participates in a news conference to call on Congress to cut funding for ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S. February 7, 2019 (photo credit: JONATHAN ERNST / REUTERS)
U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN) participates in a news conference to call on Congress to cut funding for ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S. February 7, 2019
(photo credit: JONATHAN ERNST / REUTERS)
House Representative Ilhan Omar has been in the news quite a bit recently as she has had to issue not one, but two apologies in a mere three weeks for using antisemitic tropes. Three weeks ago, Omar was asked about a 2012 comment she made accusing Israel of “hypnotizing the world.” She insisted she was confused as to why American Jews were offended by this comment, implying she was unaware that accusing Jews of hypnotizing others to do their dirty work is an antisemitic trope that has been used since the Romans killed Jesus.
I applauded her original apology in which she claimed she did not know such a statement is a dog-whistle for antisemitism and implied she needed to take a deeper look at antisemitic tropes and was apologetic for offending so many. That apology flew right out the window with her comments this week of “it’s all about the Benjamin’s baby” and incorrectly calling AIPAC a lobbying organization in the same way the NRA is; both comments are blatant antisemitic tropes directly referring to the ancient conspiracy theory that Jews control the world with our supposedly bottomless pockets. There is absolutely no doubt or room for debate here, those are deeply and undoubtedly antisemitic tropes, which is why Omar received the angry backlash that she did.
Omar’s comments are deeply offensive and unfitting for someone on the Foreign Affairs Committee, and yet, the response by non-Jewish or Israeli media and commentators has been both sickening and pathetic. I have heard a number of journalists and pundits accuse the Jews of over-reacting and criticizing the elected Democrats who joined in the moral outcry. I have read numerous accounts whining about a double standard in that the Right is supposedly allowed to constantly get away with Islamophobia with no repercussions, and I’ve even had the joy of listening to anchors I generally like and agree with devolve into Jew jokes by the end of their segment. When not dismissing the Jews, the articles responding to this scandal have overwhelmingly focused on Israel rather than exploring the actual antisemitism behind Omar’s comments.
There are multiple problems with these reactions. The first being those accusing the Jews of being dramatic or over-reacting are the same people who constantly tell us that we’re exaggerating and then suddenly want to display their solidarity with us only once the antisemitism has risen to a level where Jews get murdered.
Jews are an ancient people who have survived centuries of persecution. Part of that survival is our ability to notice patterns and we know that Jew hatred doesn’t start at genocide, it starts with antisemitic tropes and rhetoric that demonize and paint Jews as “the other” so we can more easily be blamed for the world’s ills.
If you’re a media outlet claiming the Jews are over-reacting and don’t understand why it was a big enough deal that the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, demanded Representative Omar apologize, you’re outright dismissing a minority group’s fears. These same outlets fly into a flurry of (accurate) accusations of racism when someone on the right says something about people of color like it’s still 1956, and yet, when someone repeatedly makes comments that include well-known antisemitic tropes, we are expected to ignore it and give it a pass because it’s only a little bit antisemitic and “could be worse” (yes I actually heard a host on a well-known news podcast say this.)
If Jews are telling you a comment is antisemitic, a non-Jew does not get to tell them it is not. That is not how it works. When a politician says something anti-black, these outlets do not turn around and tell black people they’re wrong and exaggerating when they are understandably offended. That is the true double standard here, while most minorities are gaining more of a voice, Jewish voices and concerns are being not only dismissed but outright mocked.
ANOTHER ISSUE I have seen, not only with Omar’s semi-apologies themselves, is the frequency in which outlets are deflecting on her behalf. Somehow they’re not discussing or focusing on her comments and the sentiment behind them, but are obsessively talking about how people like Ben Shapiro or others on the Right get a pass on their Islamophobia (except these people are criticized often and loudly) or some other made up double standard, such as no one being allowed to criticize Israel. They claim that we are silent and don’t have such a forceful reaction when someone speaks hatefully against non-Jewish minority groups, a claim that is so far from the truth I don’t know how these people call themselves journalists. Why can these outlets not bring themselves to simply condemn Omar’s obviously antisemitic comments?
Lastly, the response many journalists have had is outright nonsensical. Their articles focus on Israel, the Netanyahu government’s policies, Omar’s views on Israel, the war in 2012 when she made her “hypnotize the world” comment, and applaud her deflecting semi-apologies while outright ignoring that the outcry is not because of her stance on Israel, but that her comments are classic antisemitic tropes that have been used for thousands of years. Outside of Jewish media outlets, I have seen no articles bothering to breakdown and explain why her words were unacceptable. Instead, they all foam at the mouth defending her right to criticize Israel. Yes, her words were said in regards to Israel, however, the blowback has been because the words she chose to use were antisemitic, not because they were anti-Israel.
Jews constantly find themselves having to explain where the line is and this is a perfect example. No one in the pro-Israel crowd has been complaining about her misled stance on Israel showcased in these comments because we’ve known for years that she hates Israel. The complaints are because of the Jew-hatred laced into the comments she has now made repeatedly. By ignoring that reality and refusing to explain to non-Jews, who may be confused why such words are so hurtful, these outlets are implying such rhetoric is acceptable and therefore contributing to the growing levels of outspoken antisemitism we’ve been witnessing.
Responsible outlets should be explaining why Jews were so offended by Representative Omar’s words and discussing the line between Israel hatred and Jew hatred. Instead, they have chosen to dismiss us, mock us, deflect and re-direct the conversation all in order to bend over backwards to avoid condemning the Jew hate deeply embedded in the words Omar chose, even after she supposedly planned to learn more about antisemitic tropes to not repeat the same mistake. The fact she did it twice more within weeks of such an “apology” is not only telling of her true feelings, but should be deeply concerning to anyone concerned about minority groups. Not only were Ilhan Omar’s words offensive in the first place, but the fact that this is how the media has largely chosen to respond not only adds to the offense but further raises alarm bells for the many Jews who are concerned with the current state of the world.
The writer is a Seattle native who made aliyah in 2013 and resides in Tel Aviv. She holds a master’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies while writing on a variety of topics in relation to her experiences in Israel.