Representative Ilhan Omar is facing censure in the House, brought in part by her own party leaders. She is also facing shockingly Islamophobic attacks calling her a terrorist, simply because she is a Muslim. And all the while, other congressional leaders are tweeting out unabashedly anti-Semitic messages with abandon.
The hypocrisy is breathtaking enough at its own right, but it is also an indicator of the fight between an emerging progressive coalition that seems different than Congressional generations of old, and which increasingly integrates Palestinian rights into its agenda, based on universal rights and the need for equality and freedom for all people.
Representative Ilhan Omar is also part of a class of newly elected Congresspeople who don’t look much like Congresspeople of generations past: dynamic women of color from communities (Black and Muslim in Ilhan Omar’s case,) who face some of the fiercest racism and xenophobia in this country.
Not coincidentally, it is young people, women, and people of color who make up the emerging coalition of progressive people that support Palestinian rights as a natural part of an agenda based on fairness, dignity and freedom. This is the context around the accusations of anti-Semitism and islamophobia in the last weeks centering on Representative Omar. While some critics of Representative Omar’s tweets made them in good faith, too often they were part of a cynical strategy to paint this emerging progressive coalition as anti-Semitic.
As one of two of the first Muslim-American women in Congress, Ilhan Omar is facing a specific set of demands and attacks. Accusations of anti-Semitism are being used to silence her criticisms of Israel. An obvious form of Islamophobia coming from the right is attacking her directly for her identity. A soft form of Islamophobia is evident in the lesser degree of concern expressed for the far more outrageous attacks on her personally. And many more liberal elected officials and others are making a false claim of equivalence between calling out of Omar’s tweets (which were about Israel) and calling out Islamophobia against Omar herself.
Rep. Omar has engaged with critics who brought up good faith critiques of her language and has shown true commitment to live up to her values—unlike other members of Congress who continue to promote anti-Semitic messages
Even before the West Virginia GOP posted a heinous Islamophobic poster linking Representative Ilhan Omar to the attacks of 9/11 because she is Muslim, the Islamophobia at play in the attacks on Omar was blatantly clear. As Omar tweeted: “My Americanness is questioned by the President and the @GOP on a daily basis, yet my colleagues remain silent.” At the same time, Congressional leaders are making actual anti-Semitic statements—like the tweet posted over the weekend by Rep. Jim Jordan, spelling Tom Steyer’s name with a dollar sign instead of an S, or then-Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s tweet about Jewish donors which are going all but unnoticed, and certainly unpunished.
anti-Semitism—specifically as an expression of right-wing white supremacy—has never been in such proximity to power, at least in my lifetime, and Jewish people from across the political spectrum are rightfully frightened. Charlottesville, what feels like a cascade of graffiti and physical attacks on Jewish people—and above all else, the murderous attack in Pittsburgh—are making many of us revise our belief of our safety in this country, especially those of us who are white and who have not been singled out as directly for abuse, in recent lived experience.
That makes it confusing when critiques of Israel, support of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), or even anti-Zionism are presented as part of the continuum of anti-Semitism that Jews in the U.S. are facing in this era.
It has never been more important to be able to distinguish between the critique—even the harshest critique—of a state’s policies (Israel,) and discrimination against a people (Jews.) Israel does not represent all Jews. Not all Jews support Israel. Speaking out for Palestinian human rights and their yearning for freedom is in no way related to anti-Semitism, though the Israeli government does its best to obscure that. And yes, there are anti-Semites who support Palestinian rights. They have no place in any movement for justice, which Palestinian leaders of the movement have made very clear.
We also know that in the last several months, leading Black scholars and activists, from Angela Davis to Marc Lamont Hill to Michelle Alexander have spoken out strongly on behalf of Palestinians—and found themselves targeted in return. The policing of people of color, including Ilhan Omar, who speak out on Palestine—the higher standards to which they are held, and the assumptions of bad faith by which their words are judged make their leadership on this issue all the more remarkable, but it means they are also paying an almost unbearable cost.
The exhaustion and rage that so many people—Muslims, Palestinians, Black people, Jews of color, and Jews who support Palestinian rights—are feeling as these battles continue to play out does have one silver lining. The only antidote to the pro-Israel lobby is building a strong, grassroots movement of people willing to stand up for Palestinian rights. That’s what ended U.S. support for apartheid in South Africa, its what won limited civil rights victories for Black Americans, and it’s what shifted American views on gay marriage over the course of ten short years. And that’s what we’re seeing today.
It is no surprise that the first elected officials defending Palestinian human rights are facing such fierce opposition from defenders of the status quo. Omar herself is not backing down, firing back at her critics: “Being opposed to Netanyahu and the occupation is not the same as being anti-Semitic. I am grateful to the many Jewish allies who have spoken out and said the same... We must be willing to combat hate of all kinds while also calling out oppression of all kinds.”
Omar will be joined by many more, but only if we’re willing and able to fight to defend them—by speaking about anti-Semitism with precision, by challenging racism and islamophobia, and by holding our institutions and elected officials accountable.