Opinion: This Jew stands with Ilhan

Ilhan Omar speaking at a worker protest against Amazon on Dec. 12, 2018. (Fibonacci Blue/Flickr)

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The recent CUI opinion piece about Rep. Ilhan Omar’s tweets and everything that followed was correct on one very important count: anti-Semitism is real. Jews haven’t just been mistreated throughout history, but they are still marginalized today. Rates of anti-Semitism have actually been growing in the United States over the last several years. Anti-Semitism is real, and it’s important that we combat it.

That said, I strongly disagree with most of what my colleague had to say. While it is only Jews who experience anti-Semitism, it doesn’t mean that only Jews can identify anti-Semitism. The same goes for sexism, racism, etc. I do agree that when in doubt or disagreement, we should defer to members of the relevant marginalized group in question, as they are more likely to be in tune with the breadth and depth of such biases. We should give more weight to their claims, as they are the ones experiencing such unjust harms. But, that alone doesn’t mean they are the only ones who can identify the relevant harmful actions.

Saying that only Jews can identify anti-Semitism, or only women can identify sexism, not only is intellectually problematic, but it also lets everyone else off the hook from holding others accountable when they see injustice. If true, it would make it impossible for men to call out sexist comments by their peers, or for white folks to call out racism, or for Christians or atheists to call out anti-Semitism. This is a consequence no one should accept.

But even if you reject all of the above, maybe you’ll listen to this Jew about why he stands with Ilhan.

An aside: Being Jewish is weird, in that it is both a religion and an ethnicity/culture. While I rejected the religious views for atheism early in life, I lived the cultural American Jewish life. My family observed the holidays, sometimes even including the weekly Shabbos. I went to religious school through my bar mitzvah year, followed by youth group through the end of high school. I also traveled twice to Israel to compete in the Maccabiah Games, their quadrennial celebration of Judaism through sport — I actually turned down a third trip due to my disgust with how Israel treats the Palestinian people. Hopefully, these characteristics are sufficient to give me the right to speak about these issues.

First, let’s remind ourselves of the tweet in question. Rep. Omar’s response to why U.S. politicians spend so much time defending Israel, even at the expense of American free speech rights, is that “It’s all about the Benjamins baby” (referencing $100 bills, for my fellow poor college students who are happy when we have a $20). The anti-Semitic connection is that Jews are stereotyped as money hungry and use their wealth to control the world.

Despite obviously being false, these stereotypes are certainly harmful and widespread. While this is an incredibly small example, when I was in high school I’d always make sure to pay more than my fair share of split checks and leave larger tips so that my friends wouldn’t make fun of me for being a “stingy Jew.” The few times I failed to do so were remembered. It’s a small thing, but small things can add up. (They didn’t really in my case, but do for many other Jews.) Love or hate his politics, George Soros spends his life trying to do what he can to make the world a better place. Yet he is constantly attacked, very often by connecting the stereotype to his use of money to help the world. The anti-Semitic trope of Jews, world influence and money is real.

But does that make Ilhan’s tweet problematic? Look at the context. She is trying to explain why American politicians work so hard to defend a foreign government and is appealing to the fact that significant money is spent towards that end, which it is!

While AIPAC — the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee — cannot legally directly fund candidates, they do spend significantly on U.S. politics. In addition to the few millions they directly spend per year, they are a key player that helps facilitate and direct other spending on behalf of Israeli interests, to the tune of over $20 million in 2018. But this isn’t any special sort of Jewish conspiracy, it’s the norm for American politics. Powerful interest groups spend money in a variety of ways to shape this country to their interests. As a former AIPAC employee recently said, “that’s American politics; the only difference between all the domestic lobbies that essentially buy support for their agenda is that AIPAC is working for a foreign government.”

If pretty much everyone — including the Times of Israel in their recent article explaining how AIPAC works — realizes that Israeli interests, largely though not exclusively through AIPAC, spend money to help shape American policy, why is it anti-Semitic to point that out?

Frankly, what I find anti-Semitic is the conflation of Israel with Judaism.

Obviously, there is a tight connection between Israel and Judaism; it is the “Jewish State” after all. But to say that criticisms of Israel are the same as criticisms of Jews, or vice versa, is a warped view of both Israel and the Jewish people.

Israel is officially a state that gives preference to Jews over all others. It is engaging in a horrific occupation of Palestine, forcing Palestinians to live a second-class existence, if they aren’t killed outright. (If it’s not clear, this Jew supports the human rights of Palestinians.) Israel, under the leadership of Prime Minister Netanyahu, in the words of the “New Israel Fund” in a recent op-ed in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, is “barreling quickly toward autocracy.”

Israel is doing horrific things, and it is not anti-Semitic to call this out. Similarly, it should not be anti-Semitic to correctly point to how American political groups which just so happen to be connected to Israel use money to influence American politics. What is problematic is when we can’t differentiate the terrible things done by Israel with the Jewish people at large.

Of course, this isn’t to say that statements can’t be both critical of Israel, or Israeli-led lobbying in America, while also being anti-Semitic. I’m even open to the idea that Rep. Omar’s tweet was slightly anti-Semitic. For what it’s worth, she did publicly apologize for it; it certainly upset plenty of Jews, and yes, could add to the gross misconception that Jews control the world through money.

But in contrast with my CUI colleague, I did notice the significant public admonishment of Rep. Omar and stated support of Jews. While I and others think that criticizing Israel is not necessarily anti-Semitic, that is far from the only voice that was heard. Members of Congress took official action to speak out against Rep. Omar and anti-Semitism, and to support Israel. Speaker Nancy Pelosi made an official public statement of condemnation. There were many other statements by Democrats, from Rep. Engel to Rep. Shalala to former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro. Even former first daughter Chelsea Clinton weighed in.

However, as my colleague wrote, “it was not enough. It is never enough.” Honestly, I don’t know how to interpret that comment. Does that mean nothing but complete loyalty to Israel is acceptable? Does it mean that any discussion that might be critical of Israel or anyone associated with it is unacceptable? Does it mean that every public statement that can be construed as anti-Semitic cannot appropriately be dealt with unless everyone speaks out unequivocally against the statement and the speaker, regardless of the content and context of the statement? All of these are horrible views, and while I don’t mean to imply that my colleague holds any of these, it does seem like this is the view of many powerful Americans, on both sides of the aisle.

If anything about the response to Rep. Omar should worry Jews — or anyone for that matter — it’s how strong the responses against her were. Far from progressives mobilizing with Omar, some leftists, rightly so in my view, think that “what is perhaps more surprising — and disappointing — is the failure of some on the left to recognize this attack on Omar for what it is: a cynical, racist weaponization of anti[-S]emitism to discredit a progressive politician.” 

Jews should be very in tune when biased mistreatment is heaped on members of other marginalized groups. Jews have a history of being grossly mistreated while other groups stood aside and watched. We must be better and stand up against injustice, whoever is targeted.

There is a lot going on here, and the Jewish people are far from a homogeneous group. While many Jews did denounce the statement by Rep. Omar, many did not. IfNotNow, a movement led by young Jews to oppose the occupation of Palestine and fight for the freedom of all Jews and Palestinians, released a public statement in support of Rep. Omar. By selling this as a clear case where all Jews denounce Rep. Omar’s statement and the insufficient pro-Israeli responses, we do a gross disservice to the many Jews who don’t fall in line with the State of Israel.

When it comes to opposition to an oppressive right-wing Israeli government, when it comes to opposition to gross mistreatment of the Palestinian people, when it comes to opposition towards the influence of a foreign nation on our politics, this Jew stands with Ilhan.

Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Alex Wolf-Root at Alexander.wolfroot@colorado.edu.

Alex Wolf-Root

Alex is a graduate student and part-time instructor in philosophy, as well as an organizer for CU's graduate labor union, the Committee on Rights and Compensation (bouldercrc.org).

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