The identity politics fiasco surrounding Democratic congresswoman Ilhan Omar has been excruciating. Half of me is angry at her. The other half is furious for her.
The most basic anti-Semitic tropes include: Jews employ semi-occult powers to control world events. They manipulate hapless gentiles with their money. Jews in the diaspora are disloyal to the countries in which they live. Omar, in making perfectly valid criticisms of Israel and its most powerful American lobby, has invoked each of these.
Twice now, she has publicly expressed regret for saying things that many Jews — including some who are quite far to the left on Israel — see as freighted with anti-Semitism, only to reignite public controversy with new insensitive comments. Most recently, she said, “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country.”
Some have argued there was nothing wrong with that, because she was criticizing those who demand that she show more fealty to Israel, rather than accusing Jews of dual loyalties. But even if you interpret her words that way, she’s committed what might be called, in another context, a series of microaggressions — inadvertent slights that are painful because they echo whole histories of trauma. I assume Omar has been reckless rather than malicious, but it is incumbent on her, as on any public person who wades into fraught sectarian debates, to speak with care.
So I think Omar deserves criticism. Criticism, however, is not the right word for what she’s faced. As one of the first two Muslim women in Congress — and the first to wear a hijab — Omar has been subject to a terrifying campaign of racist vilification, including a poster in the rotunda of the West Virginia Capitol linking her to 9/11. She is treated as a dangerous foreign interloper in U.S. politics and the embodiment of anti-Semitism, even though her Republican colleagues routinely demonstrate far worse anti-Jewish bigotry.
Earlier this week, GOP Rep. Jim Jordan accused Democratic Rep. Jerry Nadler of doing the bidding of the wealthy liberal donor “Tom $teyer,” whose father was Jewish. (To be clear, this tweet counts both as “inane AND anti-Semitic,” Nadler responded.) Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz, one of President Donald Trump’s fiercest defenders, once brought an internet troll who’d denied the Holocaust to the State of the Union. Omar gestured at the idea of dual loyalty, but Trump, speaking to American Jews in December, referred to Israel as “your country.” Indeed, no president has done more to mainstream classically anti-Semitic ideas about an authentic volk at war with parasitical globalists. It’s maddening to watch men who’ve flirted with outright fascism — like former Trump aide Sebastian Gorka, who wore the medal of a Nazi-aligned Hungarian group to one of Trump’s inaugural balls — act like sanctimonious defenders of the Jews.
The point is not to excuse Omar by comparison. It’s to say that Omar said things that are offensive and that she’s the victim of a double standard. She’s been held up for unique opprobrium because she empathizes with Palestinians more than Israelis.
House Majority Whip James Clyburn also poured gasoline on the trash fire. Defending Omar, who spent four years of her childhood in a Kenyan refugee camp, he seemed to describe her suffering as more visceral than that of Jews. “There are people who tell me, ‘Well, my parents are Holocaust survivors.’ ‘My parents did this.’” he said. “It’s more personal with her. I’ve talked to her, and I can tell you she is living through a lot of pain.”
I don’t doubt that Omar is living through a lot of pain, but minimizing the legacy of the Holocaust is never a good idea, particularly when your party is managing an internal crisis over anti-Semitism. For a moment I was frightened: This is not the moment for Democrats to tear themselves apart over race and religion.
Then the voting on Thursday’s anti-bigotry House resolution started. Every Democrat present backed it, but 23 Republicans voted against it. It was a reminder that while Democrats sometimes fail to live up to the ideals of multiethnic democracy, Republicans don’t seem to recognize those ideas at all. Omar needs to do better, but right now there’s still only one political party in America that is a safe place for hate.