I wouldn’t call it a happy ending, but Democrats are seemingly moving toward putting the controversy over Rep. Ilhan Omar and anti-Semitic language behind them. Earlier this month, the Democratic Party faced the possibility of a damaging split in its coalition after Omar used language that evoked the anti-Semitic trope of Jews having “allegiance to a foreign country” as part of her larger commentary about the broad issue of Israel/Palestine.
Ultimately, after some intense debate, Democrats in the House came together unanimously and supported a resolution that featured a strong, thorough condemnation of anti-Semitic rhetoric, including the specific language Omar used, but which also denounced Islamophobia and other forms of hate. To their everlasting shame, 23 House Republicans voted against the resolution, while open white supremacist Rep. Steve King bravely declared himself “present.”
In my post about the issue, I went into detail about why Omar’s language was problematic, but refused to classify her as an anti-Semite, as someone who hates Jews or wishes them harm. Going forward, I stated that my main concern was:
whether she is interested in learning that spreading anti-Semitic slurs is wrong, harmful, and unacceptable, and whether she is willing to change. We’re now at two strikes on that front, just since she was sworn into Congress, and that’s on top of the 2012 tweet. Any more suggests a serious problem. But I remain optimistic.
Ten days after the House passed the aforementioned resolution, Rep. Omar published a new op-ed piece in the Washington Post in which she laid out her views on U.S. foreign policy, including on the matter of Israel and the Palestinians. She did, in fact, criticize Israeli policy. Nevertheless, in this piece Omar confirmed my optimism about her going forward. And that’s what I want to talk about today.
In her article, Rep. Omar talked about more than just Israel. She also criticized the human rights abuses of a number of Israel’s neighbors in the region, including Iran, Egypt, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates. On Saudi Arabia specifically, here’s what Omar had to say:
And we cannot continue to turn a blind eye to repression in Saudi Arabia — a country that is consistently ranked among the worst of the worst human rights offenders. Whether it is the murder of dissenters such as Jamal Khashoggi or war crimes against civilian populations in Yemen, we must hold all of our allies to the same international standards as our enemies.
This matters because one of the most unfair criticisms of Omar is that she singles out Israel, and Israel alone, for criticism on human rights issues, and this is evidence of her supposed anti-Semitism. This is unfair because it is simply untrue. For another example, just two days before the Washington Post piece came out, Omar offered strong condemnation of the oppression inflicted by the Syrian government against its people.
Now let’s look at what she said about Israel specifically:
U.S. support for Israel has a long history. The founding of Israel 70 years ago was built on the Jewish people’s connection to their historical homeland, as well as the urgency of establishing a nation in the wake of the horror of the Holocaust and the centuries of anti-Semitic oppression leading up to it. Many of the founders of Israel were themselves refugees who survived indescribable horrors.
We must acknowledge that this is also the historical homeland of Palestinians. And without a state, the Palestinian people live in a state of permanent refugeehood and displacement. This, too, is a refugee crisis, and they, too, deserve freedom and dignity.
A balanced, inclusive approach to the conflict recognizes the shared desire for security and freedom of both peoples. I support a two-state solution, with internationally recognized borders, which allows for both Israelis and Palestinians to have their own sanctuaries and self-determination.
[snip] Working toward peace in the region also means holding everyone involved accountable for actions that undermine the path to peace — because without justice, there can never be a lasting peace. When I criticize certain Israeli government actions in Gaza or settlements in the West Bank, it is because I believe these actions not only threaten the possibility of peace in the region — they also threaten the United States’ own national security interests.
This is a textbook example of how to criticize Israeli policy without using anti-Semitic language. But it’s even more than that. Omar explicitly endorses a two-state solution, which means she acknowledges the right of Israel to exist as a state alongside a Palestinian state. She speaks of the need for “self-determination” and a “sanctuary” for each of the two peoples, and speaks of “the Jewish people’s connection to their historical homeland,” as well as recognizing their need for “security,” while noting that Palestinians have similar rights, needs, and interests, as well as their own connection to the land.
Omar also shows real empathy for Jews by highlighting the “urgency of establishing a nation” after the Holocaust and “centuries of anti-Semitic oppression leading up to it.” This is not the language of someone who hates Israel, or who denies the right of Jews to have a homeland in the land of their forefathers. One can, without question, call out Israel when it is wrong and advocate for the right of Palestinians to have their own state, yet still show respect for the rights of Jews as individuals and their collective rights as a self-identified national group. That’s exactly what Rep. Omar does here.
Equally important to the piece itself has been the reaction to it. From elected Democrats, and from Jewish leaders more broadly, the reaction has been telling: crickets. And that’s a good thing. There have been no condemnations from Democrats of Omar as an anti-Semite or an Israel-hater as a result of this article; nothing of the sort.
This is so important because, in the back and forth over Omar’s earlier language, one accusation hurled was that all those who pointed out that she was using anti-Semitic tropes—including progressives who did so—really just wanted to shut down any criticism of Israel whatsoever. People claimed that it was impossible, especially for a Muslim, to criticize Israel without being called anti-Semitic. The fact that Omar did just that almost a week ago now, and no progressives have made that charge in response demonstrates that the issue earlier this month was not her criticism of Israel, but the specific language she used.
From the right, however, the reaction to her Washington Post piece was a different story. Right-wing media published attacks (see here and here, for example) that, in sum, argued that Omar is a liar, and still an anti-Semite: “Omar has already shown us who she is.” Why do they make these claims? Because for much of the right wing, including, of course, Individual 1, the issue is not sincere concern about anti-Semitic rhetoric but rather fostering division among Democrats. The difference between the response from Democrats and Republicans to Rep. Omar’s Washington Post article speaks for itself.
March has been a month Rep. Ilhan Omar will likely never forget. But it looks like, at the month’s end, she and her fellow Democrats are finding their way on how to talk about Israel and the Palestinians. After a lot of anguish over Omar’s remarks and the content of the anti-bigotry resolution that followed, I am optimistic that Democrats can do so.
The Democratic coalition does not have a single stance on these issues, nor does it need to, as long as all sides take care to avoid dangerous, bigoted language that can, even unintentionally, provoke hatred, and as long as all sides respect the broad rights of all the region’s peoples. In this week’s op-ed piece, Rep. Omar showed how it’s done.
Ian Reifowitz is the author of The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh's Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump (forthcoming in May 2019).